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Tram Diary: The Cob Shop

A frosty Monday morning start to the week saw me queuing for salvation in the form of a bacon cob (sandwich) at one of the local cob shops. I usually get to my desk around 7:30am to avoid the worst of the motorway traffic, and when frequenting a café or cob shop at that time in the morning you sometimes find yourself queuing with a deconstructed rugby scrum of construction workers. It so happens that construction work – joinery, roofing, general building – has been a common thread running through much of my working life, and I find such early morning encounters strangely nostalgic even though I’m not usually nostalgic about such things. There’s an unspoken camaraderie that exists purely in my own mind, and one that probably speaks more to some deep seated class-based neurosis about wanting to belong while feeling perennially out of place than any actual human connection beyond the imaginary one. These are my people I think, and of course they are, but also not. As I say, neurotic cognitive dissonance is always in plentiful supply. Imposter syndrome seems to suggest that there is a demographic or combination of demographic, socio-cultural milieu and line of work where you would feel at home, but in practice it feels closer to being untethered and quite unsure where you fit. Suffice to say it’s a lot to think about while waiting to order an overpriced milky coffee.

If there’s a group of say three of four construction workers you can be fairly confident that the line will trundle forward at a reasonable pace as each person runs through their standard order. I’ve noticed, however, that the presence of a solitary builder, particularly towards the end of the week, often slows things down considerably, the reason being that tucked away in the deep bellows pocket of their high-vis jacket is a long list of breakfast orders.

As I passed the cob shop on the morning in question I spotted just such a lonely character who appeared to be finishing up his order in an otherwise empty shop having taken a lengthy slurp from a disposable cup. Taking something of a gamble in dismissing the findings of my own research on the subject I decided that a hot bacon sandwich might just succeed in lifting my Monday malaise, especially if I didn’t have to wait. The cob shop in question is significantly cheaper than the Costa where until recently I would routinely stop for a medium oat milk take-away latte on my way into the office. This had been something of a daily ritual going back to the before-Covid times, at least until I worked out that what I was spending on fancy coffee in a year would pay for a moderately lavish Continental city break, and so financially chastened I drastically curtailed my intake. I’m pleased to report that I’ve stuck to this new programme of fiscal responsibility for most of the academic year, with just the occasional and I think forgivable relapse on mornings such as this one when reserves of human kindness are low and the soul yearns for a little saturated fat.

Scanning the menu blackboards, I learned that in addition to the time honoured bacon and egg combo this particular outlet offered to include a scoop of baked beans and a slice of black pudding in your breakfast cob. This was new ground for me and I must admit I was tempted, although my first thought was how someone was meant to eat such a thing without wearing at least half of it, and the last thing I wanted to do was walk into a senior committee meeting with bean juice spattered down my front. Sidestepping temptation on this occasion I decided on a simple bacon cob. That, at least, had been my plan but just as I thought my builder companion (hello there neurotic cognitive dissonance!) was about to head out into the chill morning air he unexpectedly produced a list from his pocket and began to rattle off the breakfast cob orders for the entire East Midlands region. It covered an entire page of crumpled A4, and glancing over his shoulder I could see that many of the items were accompanied by various crossings-out and annotations suggesting that I had unwittingly just aligned the fate of my precious morning routine with the much feared building site sandwich run.

Each item on the list seemed to start with the same granular yet meandering details, the cumulative effect of which was to tip its guardian into a kind of deepening existential malaise that slowed the process down ever further. And I’m not entirely unsympathetic. We’ve all been there to a lesser or greater extent, and I know for a fact that anyone with the title “husband” has been sent out to the shop having strenuously refused a shopping list only to collapse into a similarly humiliating personal crisis within mere seconds of having walked into the shop and realising you had no idea what it was you had been sent to forage. I could sense his disquiet as the server, hand-on-hip, probed him for more information. Here was a man accustomed to the rough and tumble of the building site, a man who would think nothing of wrapping a dirty rag around a badly bleeding hand and going back to work, a man who a few centuries before would have been setting the pace in a Viking longboat was now visibly shrinking before the spatula lady. Words swam before his eyes. Was that his writing or someone else’s? Had Sean the site labourer really ordered a skinny caramel espresso or was that someone’s idea of a joke? Why hadn’t he paid attention!

At one point he took out his phone as though he was going to phone for help and then thought better of it, and went back to peering at his sheet of paper. And make no mistake the pressure was real. I know from bitter experience that should you get the breakfast order wrong for a group of brickies you’ll be paying for it for the rest of the week. A nickname would be immediately crowd-sourced and by lunchtime you’d be re-christened Skinny Latte, shortened to “Skinny” by the end of the day and your official legal name by the time you got home. People you’d never met would somehow know this one thing about you. They’d reference it in your eulogy.

I know this because as an apprentice joiner I not only observed the process on a fairly regular basis but also acquired several such nicknames myself. The one that stuck was “Weirdy,” a foreshortening of “Weirdo,” formerly “Weirdo Whitehouse.” What disturbing behaviour of mine had prompted this change of title I hear you ask? Well, I didn’t quite fit in and was prone to such distressing displays of outlandish eccentricity as reading novels in my lunch break, trying to teach myself to play the violin in the back of the spray shop which even I have to admit was an open invitation to ridicule, my dalliances with vegetarianism, having no discernible interest in football, and generally just being different in ways that are easily singled out for public scrutiny. In truth, it was done with a kind of backhanded affection as these things often are, and I actually felt a kind of reactionary pride. When I eventually left to try my hand at an education one of the joiners made a memorial by combining a photograph of Harry Potter with Barbara Windsor’s ice cream cornet hair and pasting it on the large hangar-like double doors of the workshop, the name “Weirdy” written underneath in bold capitals along with the dates of my reign of weirdness. The resemblance was uncanny, and I like to think that I continue to honour the title to this day.

Back in the cob shop the slowly shrinking man was relaying orders with what initially amounted to a degree of assertiveness on his part that quickly dissolved into a chaotic bricolage of contradictions and stuttering uncertainties.

“Okay, right – yes, let’s have eight full English boxes, no subs on those, except…no wait…”

The server looked on with well-worn resignation. Perhaps he was known to her, a Monday regular. Perhaps this was dance they had danced before and one that was likely to put her in a foul mood for the rest of the day. Muttering reassuringly himself he went on.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s it, we want four of those without tomatoes but with extra sausage and hashbrowns, one with scrambled instead of fried…better make that three without the sausage. Did I say fried?”

Every time he seemed to find his rhythm the server interrupted with a request for further information or to up-sell additional breakfast items, which was the last thing he needed.

“You wanna add beans to that, luv, or black pudding for an extra pound-fifty?”

“You what?”

“You-wanna-add-beans-and-a-slice-of-black-pudding-for-an-extra-pound-fifty?” she enunciated with a Yorkshire accent that could send men into battle, the final words rolling off as “paand-fiff-tay.”

“I don’t know.”

“What does it say there, sweetheart?” she asked, pointing at the list with a heavily loaded butter knife. Slightly panicked the builder pretended to review the list again.

“I…I…it doesn’t say.”

“I’ll take that as a no then,” she said, briskly turning back to the large flattop grill onto which she expertly cracked a half dozen eggs. “You want brown or white cob?” she shouted over her shoulder.

As the builder continued down his list I was amazed how easily she was able to corral his loose assemblage of meaning into discreet orders, placing a row of expectant styrene clam shells on the counter and unzipping the large cobs with a bread knife.

“You want spread on those? What about sauce? You want red or brown or mayo? Salt and pep?”

Mayo? I thought, at this time of the morning and on a builder’s breakfast cob no less, but having regained some modicum of composure he was able to pair each order with its appropriate sauce and even managed a couple of last-minute corrections. This fleeting clarity of purpose was, however, briefly lost as he started into the vegetarian and vegan orders, including some lunch rolls and an array of snacks all to be packed into the large carboard box that the server had retrieved from the back. For some reason the presence of vegan options gave me a lift.

Within minutes she had filled numerous orders, adding a serviette to each and marking the lids with a marker pen describing their contents. Then came the hot drinks order and I started to lose patience. I contemplated leaving and walking up to the Costas that is easily within view of the cob shop, before deciding that it would be rude to do so, inwardly commended myself for being such a good person. I was also more than a little curious to see how this little vignette ended and how the man was going to carry his huge order out of the door without the use of a wheelbarrow. This momentary reverie was broken by a sentence I won’t soon forget.

“Oh, sorry, can I have those last two with lard instead of butter.”

I know that every town has its own idiosyncrasies when it comes to breakfast sandwiches, but lard? The word “cob” for instance is common enough around these parts but travel just a half hour down the M1 and it changes to “batch,” and people have been known to come to blows over the supposed differences. “Roll” and the coyishly suggestive “bap” have been in perpetual use for as long as I can remember, whereas “baguette” is a more recent addition to the high street sandwich lexicon. I think those purveyors of filth, Subway, just call it a foot-long and leave it at that, as though the imperial length of a sandwich is its most important quality. Conversely, no self-respecting cob shop that I know of would ever pause to enquire if you’d prefer focaccia or a nice ciabatta, although maybe some do, my experience is limited. I like to think the term cob is in reference to the fat cobble stones which pave the older parts of the city and with which they share a certain hefty resemblance, although Google, forever the killjoy, tells me it’s simply the name given to a small round loaf. Choice really comes down to white or brown bread with one of our three national breakfast sauces: brown sauce, ketchup or “red sauce,” and of course that aforementioned European upstart, mayonnaise. Even by the roguish standards of the East Mids the choice of lard seems to me a decidedly macho addition to the repertoire, although maybe its usage is far more widespread than my occasional forays into cob-world can account for. It’s probably more delicious by virtue of its forbidden allure, especially in the Age of Kale and chia seeds.

In our house a bacon roll was known simply as a bacon sarnie or occasionally a butty or egg booty. If it was just a fried egg sandwich you were after then an egg banjo could be requested, and to this day I remain unclear as to its curious etymological heritage. I do recall a friend’s family who would cut a hole in the upper most slice of bread and fill it with either red or brown sauce which I suppose could look somewhat like a banjo, especially if you’d never seen a banjo before. I’ve often remarked that should the three-minute nuclear warning be sounded I’d use my time to cook and hastily devour a bacon butty, presumably while trying to ingest as much hard liquor as possible and sobbing uncontrollably, but at least I’d have the sandwich to console me as the searing atomic winds tore my face off. It’s just such a thing of absolute perfection (apologies to my non-carnivorous friends) and difficult to get wrong. It won’t mend a broken heart or banish a hangover completely, but it can move you along that particular stretch of hard road with a feeling of satisfaction as yet unsurpassed in 3-minute sandwich territory.

Peering over the glass counter I watched as the server retrieved the lard container, a stout Tupperware looking thing with a yellow rubberised lid, and began to lather two cobs appropriately enough in the manner of a builder buttering a brick. And it’s not as if they aren’t generous with the butter, meaning a half-inch of lard will capture a toothy builder’s bite with the detailed precision of a dental impression. I imagine some people actually reply with “toothy” when asked how thickly they want it spread, and if they don’t then they should. It was also strangely nostalgic (that word again) to hear the sugar count for the teas order, with one fellow, who coincidentally I also imagine to be on first name terms with his dentist, requesting no fewer than four “heaped” spoons. As an apprentice I remember all too well being sent out to make the teas, everyone with their own signature brew and darkly stained novelty mug – Garfield the Cat and a plump pink imitation human breast being two of the more memorable examples. Goodness it was a world loaded with overzealous assurances of heteronormativity, although at the time it did strike me as rather odd that suckling tea out of a ceramic tit was somehow meant to signal resplendent masculinity, but what did I know, I was just a weirdo.

The breakfast boxes and teas made, the server carefully packed everything down into the box. As she did so a gangly teenager appeared at the door through a plume of sweetly smelling vape smoke and carried it out to the van, his menial position in the social hierarchy on display to all. “Learn how to write will you! Your handwriting is f@%king atrocious!” I heard him say whiff of dramatic irony as he followed the lad out of the door, the server and I respectfully waiting for the curtain.

“Sorry about that, luv,” she said, “you want beans or a slice of black pudding with that?”

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