Discover more from The Sword and the Sandwich
Notable Sandwiches #18: The Irish Breakfast Roll
How to write about a sandwich when war intrudes upon every thought?
Welcome to the latest installment of Notable Sandwiches, the feature where I, with the help of my editor David Swanson, nibble through the absolutely bonkers document that is Wikipedia’s List of Notable Sandwiches in alphabetical order. This week: the breakfast roll.
The breakfast roll is an iconic Irish sandwich—so much so that not only is it a gas station standard throughout the Emerald Isle, it was also an emblem of nation’s “Celtic Tiger” economic renaissance, as Perry Share of the Sligo Institute of Technology argued in a 2011 paper. The sandwich is such an integral part of the national consciousness that it became the subject of a No. 1 hit song. “Jumbo Breakfast Roll” by Pat Shortt spent six weeks at the top of the Irish charts in 2006, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the chorus is simply a literal description of the sandwich’s contents: “Two eggs two rasher two sausage two/Bacon Two puddins one Black and white/All placed like a tower on top of each/other and then rolled up good and tight.” Comprised of a buttered baguette stuffed with the wild concatenation of fried pork products and dubious vegetal accompaniments that constitutes a “full Irish,” the breakfast roll is both delicious and a symbol of plenty in a land that’s known both war and hunger.
————— 5:35pm, 3/10/2022: as I write this, the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol is surrounded by Russian forces, and for several days have lacked heat, food and electricity, reduced to melting snow for water; promised humanitarian corridors to allow for the evacuation of civilians have come under Russian fire, killing civilians on foot and in cars as they attempt to escape the besieged city —————
The “Full English” and “Full Irish” breakfasts, despite the long history of violence between the two nations, are more or less identical, at least in terms of the sheer amount of meat involved. The principal difference, as far as my investigation (which did include ordering a full Irish at 2am at some point last week) goes, is that in the Irish version black and white puddings—which, despite the name, American diners would call “sausages”—are essential. Black pudding is a mix of blood, suet and grain that dates back thousands of years.
—————”What is a child? A silence between two bombardments.” - Ilya Kaminsky —————
Also known as blood sausage, boudin noir, morcilla, zhū xuě gāo, gyurma, etc., black pudding has been present in many cultures and varieties for so long in part because blood is the most instantaneous, and purest, byproduct of the slaughter of livestock. Rather than waste it or let it coagulate beyond the point consumption, blood sausages (or blood soup, or blood jelly, depending on where you are) are made on the very day the animal is slain. In Ireland, it’s also known as drisheen, and mixed with grain, spices, and pork fat; textual sources attest to its presence in Irish cuisine as early as the 11th century, a humble byproduct of housewifely thrift and agrarian life, and a staple of Irish cuisine centuries before the arrival of the potato.
————— Text message posted to Twitter from a resident of Hostomel, roughly 30 miles northwest of Kyiv: “In Hostomel they are creating hell. There is no light, no water, they turned off the gas today. They're jamming communications. Many people can't leave their homes or leave by car, because they're being shot at. We're running out of food and there's nowhere to buy it." —————
But black pudding reaches back even further into the past: Book 18 of The Odyssey, from around 1000 B.C., features Odysseus’ stealthy return to Ithaca, his strategic assessment of Penelope’s suitors, and an Athena-assisted duel with a beggar. At some point, one of Penelope’s more arrogant suitors offers proto-blood sausages to the victor of the duel: “And Antinous, son of Eupeithes, spoke among them, and said: ‘...Here at the fire are goats' paunches lying, which we set there for supper, when we had filled them with fat and blood. Now whichever of the two wins and proves himself the better man, let him rise and choose for himself which one of these he will...’ So spoke Antinous, and his word was pleasing to them.”
The Sword and the Sandwich is a newsletter about serious extremism and equally serious sandwiches. Please consider supporting this work with a paid subscription:
The first proper recipe for blood sausage arrived over a millenium later, in “On Cookery” by the mysterious 4th Century Roman scribe, Apicius; it goes heavy on the hard-boiled egg yolks. Irish black pudding features cereal grains—oatmeal or barley—along with fat, spices, and pigs’ blood, and is stuffed in an intestine casing rather than a goat’s stomach, but otherwise the recipe has changed surprisingly little since the days of the great poet of Ionia.
————— March 8: Russians bomb the central hospital in Izyum, in Kharkiv Oblast, destroying the building. March 10: Russians bomb a maternity hospital in Mariupol, destroying it completely. “Children are trapped under the wreckage,” says Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. —————
The other great poet of this epic tale is, of course, the aforementioned Pat Shortt, whose anthem “Jumbo Breakfast Roll” perhaps signified the peak of Irish infatuation with the sandwich. “In the morning I'd sell my soul/Just to sit outside Annie Mac's/on Emo, Statoil, Shell forecourt/And ate a jumbo breakfast roll,” Shortt sings, celebrating both the ubiquity of the sandwich, and lamenting its effect on the arteries. The peppy tune is accompanied by an accordion and seems to have no subtext at all, and the people of Ireland fulsomely embraced it in concert halls and on the radio:
————— Text message from a friend who fled to Lviv: “There are too many refugees here, there are crowds of people, the city cannot afford to feed them all… there are kilometers of people hanging out in lines at the railway station, they are waiting for the train.” —————
The breakfast roll is also a salubrious answer to that perennial Irish complaint: the hangover. “Known throughout the land as the ultimate hangover cure, the laborer’s essential start to the day, and the best breakfast available to those who may not be having lunch, the breakfast roll reminds us that we all suffer, that we are all human, and that we are all Irish—even those of us who are not,” wrote Dan Bergin-Holly in 2018. “The cherubic crunch of the crust is a chorus of chubby seraphim, each winged angel proclaiming the glory of the empyrean pork that is being transported into your mouth. Your frail mortal body cries out in gratitude for this sacred and healing ambrosia.”
————— The Odessa Opera House, in whose majestic red-and-gold interior I saw ballet after ballet for four dollars a ticket, is barricaded by sandbags, anti-tank “hedgehogs,” and soldiers with guns, just as it was under Nazi-allied Romanian siege in 1941, when Red Army soldiers staged anti-aircraft gunners on surrounding roofs. The city’s musicians—trombonists, accordionists, guitarists—converge outside and play: before the attack let there still be music. The head of Odessa’s historical-cultural society tells El Pais: “There are many cities in the world. But no city is more beautiful than Odessa. I am willing to give my life for her. And if not, let them hang me.” —————
Crammed into a baguette, all that crisp richness, bacon, beans, blood, and yolk, makes both a staggeringly filling morning meal and a monument to abundance. Alongside a strong milky cup of Irish breakfast tea, it’s a start to a day that almost demands joy will follow, on light feet and a full stomach.