Long Live the Lunch Break

From the builders of the great pyramids in Egypt to telephone staff in a modern call centre, the lunch break has played an essential part in getting the job done – and the modern worker is spoilt for choice when it comes to refuelling in order to get through the day. Where once there was little more than the traditional doorstep sandwich to sustain the workforce, adventurous new fillings have emerged and there are more varieties of bread available than you could shake a French stick at. So whether you say yes to egg and cress, or aye to ham on rye, here is some lunch break trivia while you chew. ·

A good, shovel-wielding railway navvy of the mid-nineteenth century could shift twenty tons of earth in a day. Maintaining this output took vast amounts of food and drink, and gangs of navvies often worked in remote areas without markets or inns. The employers of these gangs took full advantage of this situation by providing them with temporary truck stores that followed the men around the country in order to supply their food and drink needs (incidentally, the term ‘truck’ has no vehicular connection – it stems from the French ‘troquer’, meaning to barter – truck stores were housed in tents). As the navvies had no alternative store, the local Asda being yet some way in the future, the goods from truck stores were often of poor quality and over-priced. The situation of the men was hopeless though, as they were often paid in vouchers that could only be redeemed at these stores. The saying to have no truck with, meaning not having any dealings with, is widely thought to have stemmed from this practice. 

A world-famous food that has been sustaining workers for centuries is the pasty, and the best known of these is the Cornish pasty (who said Gregg’s?). This complete meal consisting of meat and vegetables wrapped in an edible casing of pastry was standard fare among Cornwall’s tin-miners. As these miners often came into contact with arsenic, and they had no means of washing their hands underground, the pasty was a popular meal because it could be held by its thick, crimped crust, which was later discarded, enabling the men to enjoy their lunch safely. The poisoned discarded crusts may also have helped keep the mice numbers down underground. 

While the traditional Cornish pasty thrives to this day, another version of it has, unsurprisingly, disappeared from lunch boxes. The two-course pasty had the usual meat and potato filling at one end, and a sweet filling, made up of jam, fruit or treacle, at the other, allowing the eater to enjoy a main course and sweet. A modern-day equivalent, the two-course baguette, perhaps filled with prawn mayonnaise at one end, and rhubarb and custard at the other, might not fly from the shelves. 

George Orwell described a typical lunch break for coal miners in the 1930s in The Road to Wigan Pier. These ‘splendid men’ got through their day with a lunch usually consisting of bread and dripping and a bottle of cold tea, which was taken during a fifteen-minute break – the only one in their seven and a half hours at the coalface. It would have been interesting to see the reaction of the miners had someone suggested that one day, bottles of cold tea would be sold at outrageous prices as a trendy drink.

The lunchtime habits of Edwardian building workers are vividly brought to life in Robert Tressell’s book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. At noon his workers broke for lunch and, gathering around a huge pail of tea, they ‘sat there in their rags and ate their coarse food, and cracked their coarser jokes, and drank the dreadful tea’. This coarse food was simple fare, often just a bloater or a slice of bacon cooked over a fire on a pointed stick, or perhaps some bread and cheese or, during harder times, bread and margarine. Of course, workers’ clothing, food and drink have improved enormously since those days, but a coarse joke is still a coarse joke.

A revolutionary change in the working lunch came in 1892, when chemist and physicist James Dewar invented the vacuum flask, although it was never manufactured for home use until 1904 when two German glass blowers produced the Thermos flask. The flask soon became a standard part of the lunch break, allowing hot drinks to be enjoyed any time, anywhere, although it was a vulnerable piece of equipment. There can’t be many workers who have not experienced the heart-sinking moment of dropping the flask and hearing the fragile glass interior shatter. This common occurrence gave rise to the old joke about someone spending a week on the sick with a broken flask.

The popular sandwich filling coronation chicken was created by chef Rosemary Hume and a florist by the name of Constance Spry to celebrate the coronation of our current queen, Elizabeth II, in 1953. However, this new concoction was really just a variation of an earlier filling, jubilee chicken, which had been created for the silver jubilee of George V in 1935.

In an episode of Steptoe & Son, rag & bone man Harold comes home after a hot day spent fainting on the cart to reveal that his lunch had consisted of a corned beef sandwich and a drink from the horse’s bucket. His dad, Albert, has a hearty meal waiting for him though; shepherd’s pie followed by bread & butter pudding – both dishes concocted from the corned beef sandwich he had brought home the previous day.

Top 20 sandwiches purchased commercially in a recent poll are: 1. Chicken Salad 2. Egg and Cress 3. Chicken and bacon 4. Bacon, Lettuce & Tomato 5. Mixes selection 6. Cheese & Onion 7. Prawn Mayonnaise 8. Ploughmans 9. Tuna & Sweetcorn 10. Chicken 11. Chicken Caesar 12. Chicken & Stuffing 13. Salmon & Cucumber 14. Cheese & Ham 15. Cheese, Ham & Pickle 16. Egg & Bacon 17. Tuna & Cucumber 18. Hoisin Duck 19. Ham & Mustard 20. Cheese & Tomato

(Note: The above is based on TNS Worldpanel data using bar coded sandwiches purchased in retail shops)

About Joe Young

Supposed writer from the north-east coast of England.
This entry was posted in General Interest. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Long Live the Lunch Break

  1. if i had a brain I'd be dangerous says:

    Now THAT has certainly given me food for thought.

    Most interesting article that is. Enjoyed, thanks.

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