It’s a Sunday morning, and not for the first/last time I’m staring across a pub table at a friend who looks as though their internal organs have pins-and-needles. We’re getting older now, though the booze intake has not slowed down, leaving the recovery mode to kick in with all the pace and success of an ancient laptop, creaking and crunching its way through start-ups and breakdowns. We’re not ‘surrounded’ as such, though this is a Wetherspoons, so there’s an atmosphere all the same. Overly cheerful bar staff discuss the weekend’s football – “I like Brendan Rodgers, he’s got things right every time” – and a smattering of other similarly hungover folk are peppered around on tables all hunched over smartphones or newspapers. Not one of them is drinking alcohol, though it’s possible to buy drink from the moment the doors open at 9am, which is one of those New Labour licencing law legacies which hangs around unchecked. I note that some of the heavier drinkers at Wetherspoons are similarly prone to hanging around, unchecked.
A lone woman sits near by, her face one which has won arguments and weathered storms, a matriarch whose expression tells of penny jars and a dutiful marriage. She knows, as we know, that life was not supposed to direct her to a chain pub, on a Sunday morning, politely accepting the reheated food offered by nonetheless happy and polite men in branded shirts.
Within the context of “horsemeatscandalDRAMA” it’s worth remembering that Wetherspoons hasn’t been implicated. The world’s worst kept secret is the company’s reliance on microwaves and flash-frying, making their “curry club” nights identical to the rapid response seen in countless curry houses across the country. That said, what curries they do provide aren’t particularly bad, even if you don’t start at a round 100 before taking off points for soggy rice, cardboard-like poppadoms, a mango chutney with an apple-pie like consistency.
Their biggest failing and the source of my greatest food related angst since…well last week to be honest (post-ale festival ‘stodge’ of a Mattinsons sausage and a pint of lemonade)…has to be their ‘breakfasts’. It’s perhaps little surprise that there seems to be a single sort of man (and always men) who are spotted at early doors ordering a ‘spoons breakfast. Men who still have booze on their breath, or still have booze swirling around the brain, or who’ve been in need of proper munchies having eaten their entire kitchen stock of Battenburg cake and sour sweets. With warped tastebuds sleeping alongside most other vital organs – some more vital than others at such an early hour – it’s to be expected that the quality control is so low, but the wide acceptance of their early meals as adequate is a particularly British failing which brings to mind the oft-repeated maxim from a former line manager; “When you’re consistently below average, you bring the average down.”
The breakfast presented to me and countless friends over many hangover Sundays has always been below par, ‘acceptable’ because the hour is early, the head is sore and the tongue wants something other than real ale to taste. It is always lukewarm, because like my late-grandmother’s Christmas meals, they’re microwaved. Individual items congeal and wrinkle, sausages the colour of a baking dish, a single egg with a ripped underskirt for its white, toast which would be recognised as “warm, floppy bread” by Alan Partridge. It’s a plate which would embarrass most traditional ‘caffs’, and whilst a few cost cuttings are acceptable for the mass catering of evening meals, the state of breakfast at a company in rude health should be a point of some serious shame.
My friend and I carve our way through the barely heated food, little pats of butter secreted between the “toast” to assist with making malleable a hard, processed flower. What shadowy ghost of heat might have stuck around at the start has now floated away completely; we’re essentially eating cold food. And we don’t complain, not out loud, because this is accepted as what hungover people do between the hours of waking up and falling back to sleep. We’re guilt-filled and regretful, as any teenage masturbater caught by a family relative might be, at the satisfaction we nonetheless feel at consuming something, anything, to battle against the booze headache.
Our tepid plate, not so much fry-up as faux-up, can be placed anywhere in the current argument about lowering food standards, the increasing gap between those who can afford fresh ingredients and those who can only afford prepared ready meals. The complacency and acceptance is our own failing. The food industry hides its use of horse DNA as well as any businessman obscures his tax-evading savings, and in so many ways they’re choking us all. The horsemeat scandal engages producer and consumer with choices which must be made. It seems a long way from a reheated handgrab of reheated breakfast staples, and I suppose in the most basic way there is a distance, but the bad taste remains in the mouth all the same.