In an effort to clarify and define the rights and obligations of British citizenship, Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently invited the British public to help its government develop “a statement of British values”: as a Scot at a time when Scots in England are not as popular as they used to be, reviving the waning idea of an inclusive British identity is useful to him. Many people misread his words and imagined Brown wanted to find values unique to Britain — “British values.” More careful readers noted that what he was looking for was a particularly British expression of the Enlightenment beliefs common to, say, France or the United States, whose catchy slogans (“liberty, equality, fraternity” and “land of the free”) he seemed to envy.
The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking.
By Kate Colquhoun.
Illustrated. 460 pp. Bloomsbury. $34.95.
In a country without a written constitution, national values can be slippery. What are they — characteristics, aspirations, exemplary models of behavior, laws, traditions? Can food express a national value? In the 18th century, Britain (or at least the English part of it) saw roast beef — “the roast beef of old England” — as more than a piece of meat with some gravy slopped over the top. It came plain and hot from the oven and the spit, its freshness needing no fancy foreign trickery with spices and casseroles to disguise its age or toughness. Roast beef symbolized honest yeoman strength. As a patriotic symbol, it appeared in cartoons and said boo to the French. Today its equivalent as the national dish is said to be chicken tikka masala, a popular, yellow-sauced invention of Britain’s Indian restaurants. Perhaps this is a consoling myth of multiculturalism that would be contested by McDonald’s, but again it shows how a nation can use food to boast of its qualities and strengths.
In the two centuries between the roast beef and the chicken masala, Britain did very little culinary boasting. The cliché was that it had woeful cooking, the worst in Europe. Foreigners wrote home with details of floury brown soups, overboiled vegetables, watery stews and coffee that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, “tasted of old coffee pots.” Why was it, people asked from 1800 until about 1980, that a country so rich in promising raw materials (beef, fish, lamb, game, cream) had the habit of murdering their flavors on the way to the table? The question was aggravated by the divisions created by social class and by the shortages of war. As a child of the 1940s and ’50s, this reviewer grew up in Britain when food was still rationed — butter and cheese until 1954 — and recalls puzzling over the highly-colored pictures of roast hams studded with pineapple chunks that appeared on the back covers of National Geographic magazine, advertisements that were just as exotic to him as the editorial content about, say, Samoa, that lay inside. By the 1960s, the exotic had become ordinary. Prosperity provided European holidays and different ideas of cooking, and waves of immigration had begun to establish Indian and Chinese restaurants, peppered with a scattering of Italian and Greek, in every British high street. The story is well known, and Kate Colquhoun tells it well in “Taste.” But because Colquhoun is a writer of lively detail rather than argument — you might say her book is too busy stuffing its face, one course after another, to pause for conversation — the question of why Britain developed such a poor cuisine is never fully addressed.
All the evidence points to the triad of the Industrial Revolution, empire and free trade. The first drove people from the fields to the factories; the colonies of the second grew what Sidney Mintz has called the tropical “drug foods” (including sugar and tea); the cheap imports encouraged by the third drove out the homegrown. None of these phenomena were peculiar to Britain, but no other European country had them in combination so early or to the same extent. Britain’s industrial working classes, unmoored from the domestic habits of their rural ancestors and crazed by their factory hours, simply forgot how to cook. As early as 1800, according to Colquhoun, “the poor in Britain were now subsisting not on the diet that had remained broadly unchanged for centuries, of ale, grain, vegetables and a modicum of fatty meat, but on a vastly less nutritious mix of often adulterated white bread, cheese, tea and sugar.”
In the course of the next century, the British population grew fourfold. Canning factories were part of the solution to feeding it. “Tinned meat was generally foul,” Colquhoun writes, “but it was cheap and it came in handy for unexpected guests, titivated into soups, stews and rissoles.” It cost less than half the price of fresh meat and arrived from everywhere. First from Australia as “coarse-grained, overdone lumps with a wad of fat,” then from the United States, whose tinned exports to Britain multiplied nearly 1,500 times between 1866 and 1871, and finally from Uruguay and Argentina, whose modern economies were founded largely on shipping tinned and refrigerated beef to London and Liverpool. By 1914, Britain was the world’s largest consumer of tinned goods — a fact that echoes today in the figures for its consumption of “ready meals,” which are three times more than the European average. In 1937 George Orwell wrote: “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.”
Orwell wasn’t the first (and certainly not the last) anxious inquirer into the British diet. Food scares erupted throughout the 19th century, caused mainly by adulteration, and the physique of the poor spoke eloquently of their undernourishment on jam and margarine. The crisis was reached in the Boer War, when 38 percent of eligible army recruits were found unfit to fight and a government study showed that working-class boys aged 12 were on average five inches shorter than boys of the same age who attended private schools. The parents of these richer boys would have been sitting down to meals at the apex of late Victorian and Edwardian luxury — meals that stretched far into the night, ice-cold caviar followed by velvety soups, followed by sole and duckling breasts and Chateaubriand steaks and meringues, the courses interspersed with sorbets and finished off with a savory, oysters wrapped in bacon or eggs en cocotte.
Colquhoun is mindful of these extremities of privilege, though the real delight of her book lies in the abundance of illuminating and curious facts. Alexis Soyer, chef at the Reform Club, designed one of the earliest gas cookers and called it, catchily if you were very well educated, the Phidomageireion, which means “thrifty kitchen” in classical Greek. Meanwhile the English passion for gravy led to the belief in an illusory substance called ozmazome, a kind of El Dorado of juicy nourishment thought to lie at the heart of the meat — a “befuddled concept” from which the German chemist Justus von Leibig nevertheless made a great deal of money when he invented beef extract.
Social class is never far away in this story. Just before Gordon Brown became prime minister, I had a meal with him in his Scottish home. Homemade lamb stew was followed by shop-bought rhubarb tart, with a glass of supermarket white available, if anyone wanted one, from an already-opened bottle. As befits a politician keen to stress his plain values, the meal was perfectly good and superbly ordinary, the kind of food we had both grown up with (though 40 or 50 years ago, wine would have been unusual). The interesting thing is that we called it “lunch.” In my youth, the working-class appellation for the midday meal was dinner. Tea was the evening meal. Lunch (luncheon! How fancy!) existed only in the stories of children’s books like “Wind in the Willows.” Just as much as the television popularity of the sacred Nigella Lawson or the profane Gordon Ramsay, this change in terminology suggests that in much of Britain middle-class eating habits have triumphed, not a moment too soon.