Voluntary Butler Breakfast


“If I had a barge, would you come and be in charge of how often the kettle gets boiled? For just like coffee and tea, I need you regularly…”

The best thing about food is making it for someone else; the best bit of food is sharing it, tearing it, of folding blue cheese onto a round smooth cracker, of cold old takeaway curry pleated into a naan, of shredding chicken and ginger and garlic into hot oil, of pouring tahini into smooth chickpeas, of pressing bacon into fresh baguette, of giving it, hands out, palms out, to you. You. You.

Come to dinner, we’ll light the candles, draw the curtains, and I’ll tell you a story. Maybe I’ll tell you the story of me and Tall Man: it’s a long story, me and Tall Man, and a good one. Come to dinner. Watch him chop, and me fold, and be fed, and be loved, and we’ll listen to Paul Simon, and Marc Cohn, and I’ll play you all the music that’s ever mattered to me, and maybe I’ll play you a song from this album, and I’ll cry a little bit, because I’ll remember the summer I fell in love with Tall Man, and how it felt, and how I was seventeen and in London for the first time.

The summer I fell in love with Tall Man I listened to this album, over and over. We didn’t have an ordinary courtship, or an easy one, or a sensible one: perhaps love isn’t often sensible. The day I knew I was in love with him- really in love- he taught me to use a lighter, and I stood at the station going away from him trying to remember the way his fingers had taught me to press down on the little metal cog, thumb on the teeth, and I listened to this album, over and over, and I thought my heart was breaking in the way that only seventeen year old hearts can break. In my memory it is raining, but I know that it wasn’t. It was a fine day. I was seventeen. I was braver than I’d ever been.

I was seventeen, and brave, and in London on my own for the first time, and in love, and being sad because I was in love was the best thing that had ever happened to me. And then I went and got breakfast, and I wished that Tall Man was there to eat breakfast with me, and I kept on wishing that, pretty much, for the next few years, and then, one day I found myself sitting next to him on the edge of a single bed in Wood Green, eating sausage sandwiches and drinking tea from a big mug with the M&Ms logo on the side, and he smiled at me, and it made sense. And it’s been that way ever since.

And all of this has been a long way of saying that there’s nothing quite like meeting someone who matches you, and who brings you tea when you need it, and who brings you breakfast, and there is nothing quite like bringing someone else food, feeding someone else, of making something for someone else, and that this website could not, would not, work without Tall Man, and that this, like all the food I cook, is ultimately for him. Thanks, Tall Man.

“Like if you needed something reached that I couldn’t reach, I’d unravel my favourite jumper just to make a lasso…”


Voluntary Butler Breakfast
Serves 2. Prep. time 10 mins; cooking time 1 hr. Trust me on this.
Good fresh bread
HP sauce
Red onions
One apple
Red chilli
Olive oil
Leftover Heart Attack Mash
Leftover onion gravy
A good book

The tea comes first. Or rather, I suppose, the making of the tea is first, and being the first to put one warm foot out into February, and while you’re up (warming the pot; fetching the big striped mugs; spooning sugar into one and not the other) you might as well put the sausages on. This is a trick I learned from Nigel Slater: put the sausages on on a very low heat for an hour. An hour! This is how to get those sausages which are fat and sweet and crisp and caramel-sticky on the outside, perfect and tender and eager on the inside.

(An aside: venison sausages are my favourite kind of sausage, and they are unexpectedly good for you- or at the very least, not bad for you, which in my book amounts to the same thing. They are deep and dark and wintry, and go very well with onions- but then, what doesn’t? You have to watch them a little more closely, but they are good enough that it doesn’t matter.)

So, you make the tea, and while the kettle is coming to a hummy boil you put four fat sausages into a griddle pan on the lowest heat you have, and then you take the tea back to bed and sit under the duvet with a big heavy book. I am on a bit of a Shirley Jackson thing, at the minute, but The Luminaries is coming up splendidly.

(Sometimes I think I think of books the same way I do plants, bedding them in, patting down the compost around them, hoping they grow tall and straight and good, hoping. It’s a very hopeful thing, reading, especially hardbacks. bookplantAnyway, The Goldfinch grew slowly and slowly and then withered abruptly; Americanah is currently budding promisingly; and S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh is one of those strange plants I don’t remember planting, and I am permanently surprised by the fruit it’s growing, and how much I like it. This is not a book blog, it is a food blog, but then again, books and food are tied up so closely together it’s hard, sometimes, to separate them. Anyway, I am talking about love, and there is no love without books, or at least, no love I could understand.)

You have half an hour to read as you please, although someone will have to turn the sausages. I suggest that it isn’t you: you made the tea, after all.

When you reach a suitable place to pause your reading- although the determined reader can keep a book open anywhere, one part of the mind in story and the other on food- hop up. Hopping up is a bit of a misnomer for crambling out of bed, yes, but you have breakfast to look forward to.

Poke the sausages, happily goldening, and fetch yourself a sharp knife, three medium red onions, two cloves of garlic and a punnet of mushrooms. Slice the onions into half-moons, and press down with your thumb to separate those moons into slim ribbons. Dice finely the garlic. Splash some oil into a frying pan- butter works here, too- and let it heat up. Add the onions and the garlic, and a shake of chilli, or one fresh red one, cut up small with kitchen scissors. Peel and chop a smallish apple; add that, too. Cut a cross-section through the mushrooms, twice (pleasing neat quarters of squat little mushrooms), and leave to sit a while: when the onions are soft, tangling up with themselves, add mushrooms, and a shake of salt and pepper, and leave until the sausages are done.

This is what we have on healthier days, but on the rest of the days this is even better: soft onion potato cakes, with leftover Heart Attack Mash, and the leftover onion gravy. This is Tall Man’s job: he mixes the two together, in the mash bowl, and pats into “burger-ish shapes”. Roll the discs in seasoned flour (salt, pepper, flour). Heat some butter until barely shy of foaming; fry 3-4 minutes a side, until just warmed through, with a crust on the outside. The advantage of potato cakes over the onion-mushroom mess is that you can shimmy them to one side of the pan, and make fried eggs.

The secret of perfect fried eggs, I have found, is just this: cover the pan . Cover the pan. Cover the pan. The white goes soft and yet not wet; the yolk stays oozy and golden. Cover the pan, medium-low heat. (I concede not everyone likes their eggs this way: however, if you are a person who likes those blackened, lacy fried eggs, I don’t know what you’re doing in a kitchen. Go to the greasy spoon. It will be much easier.)

Take the good crusty bread; spread thickly with butter, if you’re making me sandwiches, or absolutely leave off the butter if you’re making Tall Man sandwiches. A hefty spoon of the onion-mushroom mixture. Two sausages, split lengthways. A soft, yolky egg. HP sauce, or grainy mustard, or nothing. Black pepper. Top slice of bread. A second mug of tea. A blanket. Back to the book. Quiet music. Feet up. Sunday.


4 responses to “Voluntary Butler Breakfast

  1. Oh Ella I have tears in my eyes. This is truly gorgeous. I get how you feel about tall man. I have husband tea maker; he is no cook (sorry husband!). He always turns the handle at just the right angle to pick it up. A small thing but also a beautiful thing. Keep going this is as you say a brilliant post. X

  2. Pingback: Chemo Breakfast Bars | Eating With My Fingers·

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