Roast Beef and Chicken Tikka Masala, Coca-Cola and Chinese Tea: A Historiographical Review of English Food History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century (Introduction and Part One)

(Image Credit: Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-Great-British-Pub/)

“One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad.  The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease.  After Finland, it is the country with the worst food”

-Jacques Chirac (2005)[1]

At an international meeting between French, German, and Russian officials in 2005, Jacques Chirac, the President of France at the time and former Prime Minister of France, condemned the food and cuisine of the British Isles, a bit of light (if lazy) comedy to ease the tension of the diplomatic meeting as well as locus of commonality between the three nations.  Though at points throughout history the three countries have been at odds with or fighting against one another, the leaders could all smile and take pleasure in the fact that for all of their differences, at least their food was not as bad as that of Great Britain.

Within gastronomy and culinary history, French food is viewed as the pinnacle of gourmet cuisine, a “triumph” according to Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson and still the foundation for much of the curriculum of culinary schools.  French dishes and restaurants, ranging from Michelin star establishments serving caviar, foie gras, and pressed duck, to traditional and rustic fare like beef bourgignon and ratatouille, are considered among the best in the world, with French cooks and chefs lauded for their creativity and mastery of ingredients, techniques, and flavors.

By contrast, food from the British Isles is presumed to be bland, boiled, and lacking in diversity, particularly when compared to the food prepared across the English Channel, a stereotype no doubt aided by the fact that a dish as simple as bone marrow on toast constituted “a cooking revolution” in London’s restaurants.[2]  Though Great Britain surpassed France in naval strength and economic prowess throughout much of modern history, food and cuisine serves as an arena of French supremacy, an aspect of contrast between the two countries and an expression of bourgeois civility and explicitly French genius and artistry.

Just as much of the world celebrates and studies French cuisine, scholars have turned their attention to studying the history of French gastronomy, using food as a lens to reveal new information about the history of France.  Some books offer overviews on the origins and development of French cuisine, such as Ferguson’s Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine (2006), while others hone in on a particular facet of French food history, such as the beginnings of the modern restaurant, the association of champagne with all things French, and the interconnectedness between colonialism and cuisine in Vietnam.[3]

Despite being disparaged by much of the international community, scholars have likewise contemplated the history of food in England,[4] using food as a way of examining trade, culture, empire, and society.  Works on English food range from longue durée social histories, such as Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England: A Complete Guide to the Food that Makes us who we are (1954), John Burnett’s Plenty and Want: Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day (1966), and The Making of the Modern British Diet (1976), edited by Derek Oddy and Derek Miller, to analysis of international trade and exploitative labor, such as Harold Innis’ The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (1954), Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997), and Catherine Higgs’ Cocao, Slavery, and Colonial Africa (2012).

Interestingly, there are significantly more works on the food of the English Middle Ages and the early modern period than books that track the history of food in the nineteenth and twentieth century.  Moreover, scholars that do focus on the modern era often look to the food of the empire, with a significant amount of historical attention on the British Raj along with studies on the British colonial impact on various African cuisines.  Additionally, with food being a popular subject for a popular audience, there are many long histories of English food written by non-academics, with the authors of these books often aiming for a comprehensive account of food throughout English history rather than focusing on particular periods.  Nevertheless, despite the negative stereotypes about the cuisine of the British Isles, there is a significant body of literature dealing with the history of English food, offering new methods for studying, understanding, and teaching the history of England along with opening up opportunities for comparative work with the scholarship on the history of French gastronomy.

This paper reviews five different works dealing with the history of English food and cuisine, concentrating on works published since the late 1990s in order to highlight more recent publications.  The review essay will assess the arguments, sources, and methodology of five books, comparing the individual analysis and situating them within a larger historiography.  The books in question range from recent attempts at unpacking the social history of English food with an explicit attempt to incorporate elements of “the cultural turn,” to large comprehensive accounts by non-historians, to a book that views the British Empire as an interactive system through the lens of food.

This essay examines Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain (1999) and England Eats Out: A Social History of Eating Out in England from 1830 to the Present (2004), written by John Burnett, Kate Colquhoun’s Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking (2007), Clarissa Dickson Wright’s A History of English Food (2011), and Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World (2018).  Though it is rather unconventional for a historiographical review essay to include works by non-academics, the fact that food and food history are popular topics among general audiences and the fact that works by culinary celebrities are more likely to be rented, purchased, and read than books by scholars merits their inclusion into this essay; in the same way that films dealing with historical themes are indeed historical arguments regardless of their accuracy, accounts of the history of food by non-academics must be treated as part of the broader historiography regardless of their intellectual rigor.  All five of these works reveal something new about the history of England in the nineteenth and twentieth century while also provoking further questions and research for historians of modern Europe.

Burnett’s Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain investigates the history of drinking in England, declaring that the choice of beverage and the physical consumption of drink are social acts, causal agency rather than inevitable.[5]  Though most people would argue that tea is the national beverage of England, Burnett traces the history of consumption of this along with water, milk, coffee, soft drinks, beer, wine, and spirits throughout modern British[6] history.  Burnett argues that changing drinking patterns throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century represent a change in mentalité, with the choice of drinks subject to a range of cultural and social forces and changes due to connections and globalization.[7]

Two major “drink revolutions” constitute major shifts in Great Britain, the first occurring in the mid-seventeenth century with the transition from beer and ale predominance to the influx of coffee and tea, signaling the “threshold of the modern world,” while the second began in the 1960s with the introduction and popularity of cold soft drinks, a poignant example of American economic hegemony after World War II.  While previous economic and social historians studied the trade and supply and demand of various beverages, Burnett contends that scholars had not done enough research on the consumption of beverages, with the notion of trickle-down dissemination and conspicuous consumption not enough to explain how and why the middle and lower classes of English society drank what they drank.  A social history that attempts to account for cultural factors, Liquid Pleasures endeavors to present a history of England, culture, and society through its beverages.

Burnett begins by tracking the consumption of water throughout English history, centering on water purification efforts of the nineteenth and twentieth century and municipal control over the water supply.  Though officials of the British Empire trumpeted the benefits of laissez-faire, competition between water distributors brought too little water of poor quality to the majority of the population, resulting in the collective ownership of water as an ideological break from free trade.  Though the struggle to provide clean tap water was decades long and required massive engineering expertise and enterprise, distributing clean water and marking a dramatic shift away from the nineteenth century “dark age” of waterborne diseases, Burnett notes with ironic amusement that today people want to purchase “natural” spring water.[8]

Burnett transitions to the consumption of milk, a beverage that served as a pillar of the agricultural community as a commercially traded commodity, while the elite largely mixed it with their tea or coffee to curb acidity or prevent the cracking of china.  Modern standards of cleanliness, health, and nutrition established in the nineteenth century had the effect of putting many small cowherders out of business and preventing the adulteration of milk by adding water or other products, with the increased quality of the product along with state organized milk delivery increasing consumption.  Milk transitioned from a symbol of rural society to an instrument of social policy during World War I and World War II, with destitute farmers needing to turn to dairy in the midst of agricultural depression and the presence of milk in war rations making it an essential product of the home, particularly a necessity for growing children.  Despite this, Burnett notes that the consumption of milk declined since 1969 due to its decreased use in cooking and questions with regard to its nutritional value due to high fat content.  The consumption of beverages throughout history are determined by social and cultural factors rather than a constant, with the history of milk an illustrative example of changing tastes and patterns of consumption.

Burnett then discusses the history and consumption of tea and coffee, both of which kickstarted the “drinking revolution” of the mid-seventeenth century.  The aristocracy first consumed tea as statement of status, with tea a way to show off various porcelain and mahogany drinkware, but made its way to the middle and lower classes over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century to become “a national drink.”  Importantly, Burnett explains that the middle class did not simply drink tea as a way of emulating the elite; the adoption of tea was an active process of cultural construction, a revolt against outmoded extravagance and immorality.[9]  Middle class women in particular drank tea to define temperance, civility, and domesticity, as coffee was associated with the coffeehouses of the masculine public sphere, while drinking in excess was the vice of the aristocracy and working class.  The expansion of the British Empire and “free” trade[10] made tea and sugar cheaper and more readily available to the working class, the stimulant beverage constituting a significant portion of the diet of the industrial working class.  Tea was a national beverage by the early twentieth century, but after World War II it represent the staid, old-fashioned lifestyle of the past, with postwar generations demanding and desiring new beverages.[11]

Though coffee was widely popular in the seventeenth century, the affordability of tea starting in the eighteenth century relegated the former to a small consumption base among the elite.[12]  However, new espresso bars in the 1950s and the association of coffee with an American middle class lifestyle and worldview, imagery depicted in advertisements, have made coffee more popular in England today (though not popular enough to displace tea).

The most dramatic transformation of consumption within the British Isles was the widespread popularity of soft drinks after World War II.  Though there were nascent attempts to create sodas and fountain drinks throughout the nineteenth century, it was the cultural shift after World War II and the establishment of informal, individualized consumption patterns of on-the-go lifestyles that fostered “a soft drink revolution” in England (and throughout the world), the entrenchment of Americanesque mass consumer society fundamentally altering drink preferences and consumption patterns.[13]

Burnett concludes with chapters dedicated to the production and consumption of beer, wine, and spirits.  While beer was central in English society during the Middle Ages, Burnett notes that its history is one of overall decline.  The introduction of new beverages like coffee and tea, the temperance movements of the nineteenth century, and the restructuring of working class lifestyles produced more leisure time, leading working class men to spend less times in pubs and taverns, all had an impact on reducing the consumption of beer.  Wine, by contrast, maintained a fairly marginal place within British society until the lowering of import duties when Great Britain joined the European community in the 1980s.  Over the late twentieth century, wine became associated with the modern home and the comfort of domesticity and middle class living, increasing in popularity and reflecting a pre-Brexit Europeanization of taste.

The consumption of spirts experienced ebbs and flows throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, affected by advertising, rationing, and work and life patterns within English society.  The choice and consumption of drinks, particularly in the modern period, was always subject to change, with certain beverages displacing others within English society due to affordability or cultural importance.  Analysis of the drinks of England offers a new way of understanding societal change, particularly class differences and the omnipresence of American economic hegemony after World War II.

Burnett builds his analysis from quantitative data collected from economic documents, ledgers, and surveys, as well as medical treatises and cookbooks from the Middle Ages to the present, Parliamentary Papers, documents from the Royal Commission and Select Committees, secondary economic histories and histories of trade, histories of beverages, and histories of the middle and working class throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century.  Though in many ways a work of social history reflecting Burnett’s academic training and previous works, discussing as few individuals as possible in favor of bottom-up analysis, Liquid Pleasures does account for cultural factors that led to the popularity of particular beverages at particular times.  Though people may prefer the taste of particular beverages, (and even considering the fact that today many drinks are specifically designed to taste good to the most amount of people) the consumption of beverages is a conscious decision made by individuals that when taken together reveal societal trends worthy of historical analysis.

Burnett is most successful when he is discussing the histories of milk and tea, as people did not inherently drink these products, both required changing cultural norms and easier accessibility.  Moreover, though not his explicit focus, his analysis on the increasing popularity of soft drinks in England coincides with increasing American economic hegemony after World War II and supplements literature on Americanization of the European continent, with “Coca-colonization” an often-cited facet of the “irresistible empire.”[14]  Burnett’s study uses the drinks of England as a lens to understand societal and cultural trends, viewing English history through the beverages its people consumed.

Burnett’s England Eats Out: A Social History of Eating Out in England from 1830 to the Present, the last book published before his death in 2006, traces the history of eating outside of the home from the nineteenth century to the time of his writing (2004).  As with Liquid Pleasures, Burnett investigates how and why people chose to eat their meals outside of the home rather than treating eating out as a given or an inevitability.  Eating in restaurants, taverns, and public houses became more important as home and work became increasingly distant from one another in the modern era, with the increased urbanization of England creating greater reliance on commercial producers and retailers rather than the very literal “farm to table” eating patterns of the past.[15]

For much of England’s history, eating food outside of the home was associated with work, men and women eating out for utility rather than pleasure.  However, the English elite began dining in French style “restaurants”[16] as an expression of wealth and status, breaking up the “monotony” of English roast meats with French style sauces, soups, ragouts, and vegetables.[17]  These dishes were prepared by émigré chefs fleeing the French Revolution, transitioning from the royal court to the homes of the English elite, demonstrating commonality between the cuisine of England and France despite the imagined contrast between the two.  Though the elite ate out for pleasure, the lower classes largely ate outside the home out of necessity until the mid-twentieth century, when the arrival of American chains, ethnic restaurants, and the renaissance of the public house coincided with increased disposable income and the arrival of mass consumer society.  Unlike Liquid Pleasures, the history of eating out in restaurants, taverns, and pubs is largely a teleological one in which increased income fostered greater consumption, eating out a product of modernity and greater leisure time and experiencing less volatile ebbs and flows than drinking patterns in England.

Though the history of eating in restaurants is largely straightforward, requiring a shift in culture but largely dependent on disposable income, Burnett explains that the total volume of eating outside of the home has not changed since 1830.  Just as scholars studying the history of drinking often narrowly focus on alcoholic beverages, centering on restaurants and restaurant culture misses how the working class and impoverished “ate out” in the nineteenth century.  For the poor, eating outside of the home meant survival rather than pleasure, England’s destitute relying on charity, soup kitchens, factory canteens, and affordable fish and chip shops for sustenance amid long working hours and squalid conditions.

As with the influx of soft drinks, the democratization of eating out began in the 1960s with the entrenchment of American mass consumer society.  More income and leisure time led to English families taking more holidays and leaving the home more often, promoting increased eating in restaurants, establishments explicitly designed to be different from the home and make eating out “an experience.”[18]  Though France had the greatest influence on English cooking and eating, ethnic restaurants, particularly Indian and Chinese eateries, and Americanization in the postwar decades made England “an eating out nation.”[19]  Ethnic restaurants catered to new immigrants working in undermanned industries after World War II and eventually attracted English patrons due to their affordability and “touch of exoticism,” with Indian restaurants in particular decorated with ornate imagery invoking the hegemony of the British Raj.[20]  Ethnic restaurants took over catering and eating out immediately after World War II, and though it is still popular to “go for a curry,” it was (and is) Americanization that influenced eating out habits more quickly and deeply than in most other countries.[21]  For better and worse, according to Burnett, England is now a nation that eats outside of the home, with dining turned into an experience at the expense of declining home cooking, resulting in standardization of cuisine.

Burnett’s sources in this book range from statistical data collected by The Compass Group, MSI Market Research for Industry, Gallup Poll social surveys, Taylor Nelson Sofres Research Group, food and medical treatises, wage and economic reports, letters, dietary surveys, cookbooks, advice publications, restaurant reviews, domestic magazines from the nineteenth and twentieth century, vacation and holiday literature, hotelkeeper’s gazettes, diaries, good food guides in the postwar decades (especially the 1960s), reports from National Catering Inquiry, and scholarship on the history of the rural and working class, works on food policy during the World Wars, and more general monographs on nineteenth and twentieth century England.  Though lacking the ebbs and flows of drink consumption patterns, the history of eating out in England does illustrate societal change over time, particularly class differences in the nineteenth century as well as the impact of American consumer hegemony after World War II.

The history of eating in restaurants also ties into the history of immigration to England, particularly Indian and Chinese migrants after World War II, using restaurants as a method of defining a social niche and providing food for their community.  The popularity of ethnic foods, particularly Indian curries, feeds into the narrative of England and Great Britain as a tolerant, multicultural society, exemplified by former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declaring chicken tikka masala “a British national dish.”[22]  Despite this narrative and its positive connotations, a celebration of diversity and casting the former empire as a happy family and nation, subsequent work by Uma Narayan and Elizabeth Buettner deem food “the acceptable face of multiculturalism,” a limited acceptance of diversity and a primary vehicle for denying and masking along with articulating racism.[23]  Britons can eat curry and claim to be tolerant while at the same time associating new immigrants with the stench of their food while simultaneously fleeing neighborhoods seen as overcrowded by new immigrants.

Additionally, the history of eating out speaks to the hegemony of American mass consumer society in England as well as throughout Europe after World War II, with Americanization resulting in a greater disruption of tradition than any other factor.  Though not a prominent theme for Burnett, a social historian emphasizing the eating habits of different classes, it is an avenue for further research and for scholars to study the nature of Americanization in England and whether there were similar efforts toward resistance as there were in France.[24]  Both the history of drinks and drinking as well as the development of eating out in England offer new ways of interpreting the history of the British Isles with significant opportunities for comparative work with the rest of the European continent.

 

[1] Paul Hechinger, “Five Myths About British Food,” BBC America, 2012, Accessed May 18, 2019, http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2012/03/five-myths-about-british-food.

[2] CNN, “The Dish that Sparked a British Cooking Revolution,” YouTube Video, Oct 19, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n97pPlhqc9U.

[3] Rebecca Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, 2000; Kolleen Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity, 2003; Erica Peters, Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century, 2011.

[4] Though unified as “Great Britain” since 1707, scholars largely examine the foodways and trends within England alone. Titles often describe “a history of English cuisine” rather than “a history of British cuisine,” largely reflecting their source base (or, more problematically, using “British” and “English” interchangeably).

[5] John Burnett, Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain, (London: Routledge, 1999), 5.

[6] Though using “British” in the title, the book is predominantly (if not entirely) an English history based on the contents and source base.

[7] Burnett, Liquid Pleasures, 1.

[8] Ibid, 28.

[9] Ibid, 50.

[10] Free in quotes due to the infamous relationship of growing Indian opium to trade for Chinese tea, augmented by the gunboat diplomacy of the British East India Company.

[11] Burnett, Liquid Pleasures, 68.

[12] Brian Cowan’s Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (2005) discusses the importance of the English coffeehouse as a space of political and intellectual discussion in the seventeenth century, while The World that Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400-Present, edited by Kenneth Pomeranz and Bernard Topik explains the economic motivations as to why tea became cheaper and more popular in Great Britain (1999)

[13] Burnett, Liquid Pleasures, 108.

[14] Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).

[15] John Burnett, England Eats Out: A Social History of Eating Out in England from 1830 to the Present, (London: Routledge, 2004), xii.

[16] Burnett credits Spang’s work on the origins of the modern restaurant in eighteenth century Paris.

[17] Burnett, England Eats Out, 3.

[18] Ibid, 324.

[19] Ibid, 327.

[20] Ibid, 283.

[21] Ibid, 328.

[22] Robin Cook, “Robin Cook’s Chicken Tikka Masala Speech Excerpts,” The Guardian, April 19, 2001, Accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/apr/19/race.britishidentity.

[23] Elizabeth Buettner, “Going for an Indian: South Asian Restaurants and the Limits of Multiculturalism in Britain,” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 80, No. 4, A Special Issue on Metropole and Colony (December 2008), Accessed February 4, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/591113, 901.

[24] Richard F. Kuisel, The French Way: How France Embraced and Rejected American Values and Power, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

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Roast Beef and Chicken Tikka Masala, Coca-Cola and Chinese Tea: A Historiographical Review of English Food History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century (Part Two)

(Image: O The Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’), William Hogarth and Charles Mosley, 1749; Image Credit: Tate Organization, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hogarth-mosley-o-the-roast-beef-of-old-england-the-gate-of-calais-t03918)

Significantly different from the works of Burnett is Kate Colquhoun’s Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking.  Unlike Burnett, Colquhoun’s previous books are works of literature in a Victorian setting, a writer of historical fiction rather than a historian with academic training.  Moreover, Colquhoun is certainly not analyzing the food and cuisine of England[25] from the perspective of a social historian, instead tracing the development of food from antiquity to the present.  Thus, her work is more of a history “of food” rather than a history “through food,” aiming for a comprehensive account rather than more narrow focus and attempting to reach a general audience rather than an academic one.

Nevertheless, Colquhoun’s work makes extensive use of primary sources and, because it is still a work of English food history, it is worthy of investigation and analysis and constitutes part of the historiography of English cuisine.  Furthermore, books like Colquhoun’s are more common within the field than more narrow inquiries like Burnett’s accounts of drinks and restaurants.  As a more typical contribution to the knowledge of English food and cookery, building analysis from primary sources, and more likely to be read by a nonacademic audience less discerning of what “history writing” is, it is imperative to place Colquhoun’s contribution within the larger historiography.

Colquhoun argues that cuisine and cookery serve as a valuable common language reflective of English history in which old and new march happily hand in hand.[26]  After tracking the history of English food and dining since prehistory, Colquhoun devotes the last third of her book to the cuisine and culinary norms of the nineteenth and twentieth century.  She argues that the nineteenth century was marked by an increasing gulf between the haves and have nots, as a cult of epicureanism developed within the aristocracy (aided by the arrival of chefs from France) while the English poor subsisted on imported grain (provided without instruction on how to cook new products such as rice and maize).  She also discusses the emergence of cookbooks and home economy manuals in the nineteenth century, which promised to help housewives reign in waste, use leftovers, and above all save time, for the Victorian age was one where time was money and speed was progress.[27]

Along with new norms of domesticity, the nineteenth century brought new technology to the home, turning the kitchen into a laboratory of the household regardless of the consistent heat of the range cooker.  While domestic technology, home entertaining, and food on the table helped the middle class to define their identity, the working class and urban poor survived off of penny pies, cheap fish, and potatoes, with mass poverty eating a subsistence diet fueling the material progress of the English nation.[28]

Poverty was so widespread and malnutrition so common that Colquhoun contends that the rations of World War I constituted and improvement in the average standard of living.  War rations, making sure all of England had enough to eat during World War I and World War II, depended on tinned food and processed good, both of which helped to bridge the dietary divide between rich and poor over the course of the twentieth century.[29]  Thrift was patriotism and waste “helped the hun” during World War II, with the housewife expected to make a nourishing meal for the whole family out of tinned meat, potatoes, hard bread, and powdered eggs.  The postwar decades, an end to war rationing, marked a return to French and Mediterranean dishes as well as an explosion of and access to kitchen appliances, again a result of American mass consumer society becoming entrenched in Europe after World War II.  At the same time, England witnessed the emergence of ethnic restaurants and new ethnic cookbooks like Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern Food (1968) and Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973), books that offered new dishes while simultaneously recapturing and perpetuating tradition of how one might have dined in the British Empire.[30]

Colquhoun defines the late twentieth century as an age of plenty in the British Isles, an age where its population loves food, celebrity chefs, and cooking programs but at the same time spends less on food than ever before, eats processed pot noodles and McDonald’s, and has “yet to learn how to talk about food as memory and history, to relax into it as part of the framework of our ordinary lives rather than as an issue, a programme, a new ingredient, or a political promise.”[31]  With the rapid change of the postwar decades, Colquhoun laments that the history of food is being lost, the heritage and tradition of the kitchen and cooking giving way to an increasingly atomized lifestyle.  Thus, she believes her work serves as an antidote to this loss of memory, telling the story of England through its cooking to remember what was.

Though not a professional historian in training, Colquhoun bases her work on letters, diaries, manuscript collections, household accounts, paintings, drawings, poems, plays, published records, cookbooks, and novels from the sixteenth to the twentieth century along with secondary sources on food and cooking in English history.  Though a history “of food” in England, highlighting cuisine and recipes throughout history, rather than history “through food,” using food, cooking, and eating as a lens to understand societal change and cultural shifts, Colquhoun’s work nevertheless discusses food throughout English history and makes it accessible for a nonacademic audience.  Moreover, the discussion of rationing during World War I and World War II explicitly appeal to the emotions of the reader and bring the difficult living conditions and lack of resources to life in a way that academic monographs are unable.  World War II in particular led to all but meatless, fatless, fruitless, and cheeseless larders, with wives aiming to stretch limited meat, offal, and Spam supplies by mincing and frying along with creating pies made from rolled oats and mashed potato filled with root vegetables.[32]  Furthermore, the lack of basic necessities like cream, milk, eggs, and even coffee make the struggle of domestic life during war quite visceral and would prove particularly useful as an illustrative example in a classroom.  Though not a focused study like historical monographs, aiming for broad coverage and accessibility rather than in depth research on a particular topic for an academic audience, Colquhoun’s work nevertheless provides a history of English cuisine and therefore English history and society using food as the primary category of analysis.

Clarissa Dickson Wright’s A History of English Food is another attempt at a comprehensive survey of English food by a nonacademic, this time by a celebrity chef and television personality, starring in the late 1990s BBC series Two Fat Ladies.  Dickson Wright defines the food of England as “an amalgam of its history and experience,” with cuisine and culinary norms constantly changing and food itself revealing information about society.[33]  As with Colquhoun, Dickson Wright attempts to track the history of English food in its entirety, but begins in the Middle Ages rather than going all the way back to prehistory, devoting the last third of the book to the culinary norms of the nineteenth and twentieth century.  Though still citing cookbooks from the past, Dickson Wright uses significantly fewer primary sources than Colquhoun, but manages to include the work of social historians like Hartley and Burnett that Colquhoun neglected.  Moreover, as a cook and culinary personality, Dickson Wright includes comments about the quality of particular dishes or cooking styles, her book once again a history “of food” rather than history “through food.”  Nevertheless, because of her fame in the British Isles, her television program lending her significant clout in discussing matters of food and dining, Dickson Wright’s account is more likely to be picked up, purchased, and/or read by those interested in food history, and it must be analyzed and interrogated as part of the historiography of English food.

Dickson Wright’s discussion of the culinary history of the nineteenth and twentieth century begins with the emigration of French chefs fleeing the French Revolution, bringing over ostentatious dishes as well as service a la française (food served all at once) consumed by the aristocracy as an expression of decadence and status.  Though Dickson Wright (along with other authors of works on English food) focus significantly on the cuisine of the monarchs, particularly their adoption of French cuisine, she explains that English rulers and the elite were “tasters” rather than “taste makers,” abiding by the culinary fashions of the time rather than dictating them.[34]  Dickson Wright provided numerous details about the excesses of elite consumption in a more humorous manner, especially compared to Colquhoun’s moralizing tone, but notes that the chefs of the time paid great attention to presentation at the expense of taste.

She declares that it was in the Victorian age that people “forgot how to cook,” perpetuating the stereotype of poor English cookery, as wives and cooks began the tradition of overcooking vegetables and the increasing reliance on canned and tinned goods made food more inventive than the past but increasingly dull.[35]  In particular, Dickson Wright blames Isabella Beeton and her Book of Household Management (1861), a home economy tome aiming for comprehensiveness and accessibility, for making the cuisine of England standardized, bland, and reliant on canned and tinned foods, the latter owing to American advances in industrial food production.

As with Colquhoun, Dickson Wright uses food to examine inequality in England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, for though the dining habits of King Edward VII and his court represented the ultimate expression of overindulgence, with standard lunch and dinner involving up to twelve courses, the majority of the population relied in imported goods, as sixty percent of British food supplies were imported from the Empire or the United States.[36]  The dining habits of the elite and the nonelite highlight the point made by Colquhoun that nineteenth century England was a time of great inequality, a massive gulf between haves and have nots.

Dickson Wright spends less time (and puts less emotional weight) on food rations during World War I and World War II, but nevertheless mentions the lack of resources available to wives and cooks in the midst of war.  Though English troops managed to eat well on the front lines, having enough to eat even if it required a rock or hard object to break a biscuit open, those at home had to make something out of nothing, with food imports cut in half in wartime.[37]  Dickson Wright praises the ingenuity of cooking during World War II, as rations on flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and meat forced cooks and wives to create dishes like carrot fudge (a concoction created from carrots, gelatin, and a trace amount of concentrated orange juice) for sustenance as well as easing the burden and fear imposed by war.[38]  Moreover, the advent of nutritional science by the twentieth century and the inclusion of nutritionists in the Ministry of Food meant that though rations limited the quantity of food available, England actually ate a healthier and more nutritionally sound diet during the war.[39]

The postwar decades produced significant change to food culture in England, as rations came to an end and increased disposable income meant that fewer people went hungry than in the past.  Additionally, Dickson Wright praises the more cosmopolitan attitude toward food since the 1960s, with just about every national cuisine represented by a restaurant or a cookbook somewhere in England, with “English national gastronomy” now including Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern dishes rather than solely traditional fare and French dishes.[40]  While there is certainly more to eat in England based on quantity and diversity of cuisine, Dickson Wright laments increasing standardization, as supermarket chains selling processed goods displaced small food shops since the late 1950s and the varieties of produce and livestock breeds have decline to a select few that manage to sell.  Dickson Wright ultimately concludes that English food is a constantly evolving movable feast, with cuisine and culinary norms subject to both change and continuity accounting for both tradition and modernity, with the changeability and adaptability of English food being its greatest strength.

Dickson Wright’s account of the history of English cuisine draws from works of literature (she intersperses literary references throughout the text), recipes, cookbooks, and food and medical treatises from the sixteenth century to the present in addition to works of scholarship, largely social histories like the work of Braudel, Hartley, and Burnett.  She uses significantly fewer primary sources than Colquhoun’s work on the long history of English food, and thus, Dickson Wright’s book is significantly less rigorous in an academic sense.  Her work is a long history “of food” in England and the British Isles, a book given legitimacy due to Dickson Wright’s celebrity status in the English culinary world.  Though aimed at a general audience, particularly a British nonacademic audience curious about food and the cuisine that defines their identity rather than looking to scrutinize English culinary history, Dickson Wright’s work does not present any erroneous information even if it lacks the depth of research present in other works on English food history.  More concerned with giving opinions on the quality of food at a given time or telling stories, A History of English Food is more likely to be read than works by academics and it nevertheless adds to the knowledge base of food throughout English history, particularly offering new models and methods for understanding society and development in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

[25] Again, although using “Britain” in the title, this is a history of English food and cuisine.

[26] Kate Colquhoun, Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), xi.

[27] Ibid, 275.

[28] Ibid, 288.

[29] Ibid, 336.

[30] Ibid, 363.

[31] Ibid, 373.

[32] Ibid, 341.

[33] Clarissa Dickson Wright, A History of English Food, (London: Random House Books, 2011), ix.

[34] Ibid, 320.

[35] Ibid, 351.

[36] Ibid, 396.

[37] Ibid, 398

[38] Ibid, 417. Dickson Wright explains that she couldn’t bring herself to experiment with the carrot fudge recipe but was mildly intrigued to know what the end result was.

[39] Ibid, 424.

[40] Ibid, 455.

Roast Beef and Chicken Tikka Masala, Coca-Cola and Chinese Tea: A Historiographical Review of English Food History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century (Part Three and Conclusion)

(Image Credit: Twinings)

Unlike the works of Burnett, Colquhoun, and Dickson Wright, Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World uses food not simply as a lens to view the English nation, but to study the British Empire, specifically to analyze the empire as an interactive system.  Collingham, a historian in training though not affiliated with a university, previously wrote works on food policy during World War II as well as Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (2006), the latter of which used curry to investigate the interaction and interconnections between Britain and India.  The Hungry Empire continues this theme and expands on it to analyze the British Empire in its entirety, how the pursuit of foodstuffs or food policy in one part of the empire affected another region or the British Isles.

She argues that the pursuit of food and trade goods, beginning with tea, sugar, and rum before transitioning to imported food in the nineteenth and twentieth century, turned the wheels of commerce and motivated the expansion of the British Empire, Collingham illustrating the history of trade and empire in an unconventional manner through the locus of food.[41]  Though foreign foodstuffs initially benefitted the elite, the mass importation of wheat, tea, and sugar helped to feed the working class, which in turned fueled industrialization taking advantage of raw materials brought in from the empire, the metropole and the peripheries part of a unified system rather than separate from one another.  Moreover, British tastes reshaped the agriculture, landscape, and cultural norms of the colonies, a lasting legacy of imperial rule in the postcolonial world.  Rather than “nation” and “empire” as binary fields, Collingham highlights how both developed in tandem and depended on one another, using food to reveal the connections along with the economic and cultural effects of imperialism in both the past and present.

Rather than a straightforward narrative of the development of the British Empire, Collingham’s work is largely episodic, using an anecdote about food or a recipe to tell the story about a particular facet of British colonialism.  Her material on the nineteenth century begins with an Indian woman preparing chhattu, which Collingham describes as “an unboiled pudding”[42] but resembles an American biscuit with corn flour rather than wheat, rice, or millet as typically used in the Indian subcontinent.  Corn and corn flour are not native to India, their presence in the subcontinent only possible due to importation from the New World.  Collingham explains that bringing in corn helped the British feed Indian planters and laborers (or, more accurately, provided the food necessary for Indians to feed themselves), as under British rule, Indian agriculture in the north was increasingly geared toward opium cultivation rather than growing grains for subsistence.  Importing corn and grain from other regions of the empire allowed for cash crop production in India, with opium traded for tea and Chinese goods that went to the English working class and the elite, respectively.

Collingham contends that the importation of imperial grain proved important for the British Isles as well, helping to feed the poor and the working class and (more importantly for the elite) preventing social revolution.  The Corn Laws in Britain had artificially kept the price of grain at a fixed rate to protect the interests of the landed aristocracy, but the increased purchase and preference for cheaper American grain led to their repeal and the import of imperial grain.[43] Improved technology, specifically freezing and refrigeration, allowed meat to be shipped from Australia and New Zealand along with produce from India and African colonies by the early twentieth century, with more cheaply available food products improving the standard of living in England.  Because of its empire, England (and Britain) became a mass importer of food, the empire insuring the vitality of the nation rather than the nation simply ruling an empire due to power imbalance.[44]  The empire was an interactive system in which goods and people flowed from colonies to the nation and back again, with food illustrating these connections.

Just as food flowed into the nation from the empire or between colonies, foodstuffs made their way from the nation to the colonies, fueling the expansion of empire by nourishing imperial administrators.  Before advances in canning, refrigeration, and the production of tinned foods on mass scale, the lack of food motivated immigration from the British Isles to the empire, with impoverished rural Britons migrating to Australia and New Zealand in the pursuit of a better life, symbolized by the plentiful nature of lamb and mutton.  Canned and tinned goods in the late nineteenth century not only provided sustenance, but “a taste of home” for British officers, with canned meat, vegetables and grains harnessing raw materials from the empire to be processed in the metropole.[45]  Moreover, the consumption of tinned meats and process goods represented a performance of prestige and British identity, a demonstration of power and “civility” compared to the malnourished colonial subjects.[46]  Collingham explains that this served a greater purpose than conspicuous consumption, as missionaries and officials would ration “luxuries” such as tea to the native population to draw the latter within the sphere of imperial control, insuring compliance in a particularly evocative example of colonial hegemony.[47]

British rule fundamentally altered agricultural patterns and culinary norms in the colonies, remaking the rural landscape in order to grow goods based on British tastes or economic interests, such as the cultivation of less nutritious maize in Kenya instead of the native njahi beans.  British officers criticized and condemned African agricultural systems as “barbaric” and imposed monoculture and massive agricultural projects (even after decolonization) in the name of improvement and “civility,” when in fact the “pure planting” and newly introduced products were detrimental to soil and the cause of malnutrition in British colonies.[48]  Like Colquhoun and Dickson Wright, Collingham examines the affect of rationing during World War II, but rather than focusing on the conditions within the British Isles, she explains that the goods available to Britons during the war came from the empire and resulted in malnutrition and famine within the colonies, exacerbating hierarchies of priority and race.[49]  Though Colquhoun and Dickson Wright lament the lack of meat, dairy, and eggs in their discussions of World War II, Collingham complicates this narrative, illustrating that Britons had food to eat at the expense of Indians, Kenyans, and black South Africans.

Finally, Collingham concludes with a discussion of the traditional English Christmas dinner, centering on plum pudding in particular, deconstructing the dish to expose the imperial origins of its various components.  Empire and nation were fundamentally connected with one another throughout the history of the British Empire, while imperial relationships persist today as many former colonies are locked in the role as primary producers of raw materials for industrial nations.[50]  Food, its movement and consumption, help depict the history of “the hungry empire” in a new manner as an interactive system rather than a powerful metropole ruling weaker peripheries.

Collingham builds her work from the Hall Papers from the Centre for South Asian Studies in Cambridge, special collections from Reading University, cookbooks and food treatises from the nineteenth and twentieth century, histories of trade and commerce, social histories, histories of slavery and exploitative labor, anthropological works, scholarship on food and food history, monographs on colonial America, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Africa, and other secondary sources on British history.  Her book reflects a shift in the historiography of the British Empire, moving past binary divisions between the nation and the colonies, metropole and periphery, in favor of viewing the entirety of the empire as an interactive system and the nation and empire as one and the same.[51]  Though colonies such as Canada, Kenya, India, and New Zealand were separated by thousands of miles, they were connected with one another under the umbrella of “the empire where the sun never set,” with the transportation of food an effective way to highlight these connections.  Moreover, the movement of foodstuffs helped to perpetuate industrialization and imperialism, with wheat and corn imported from the Americas feeding laborers at home and abroad to ensure the survival of rural planters and working class factory workers, all of which kept the larger imperial machine running.

Additionally, Collingham’s work reveals the lasting legacies of imperial food policy, with the agricultural landscapes of former colonies detrimentally altered based on the norms, preferences, and tastes of British rulers.  Susan Zlotnick described the presence of Indian dishes and curry powder in nineteenth century cookbooks as a “conquest of curry and cuisine” in her article “Domesticating Imperialism: Curry and Cookbooks in Victorian England,” which I argue is an overstatement, a misreading and misunderstanding of English cookbooks and imperial identities.  However, the displacement of established agricultural patterns and introducing new foodstuffs and culinary norms, often to the detriment of the colonial or former colonial subjects, constitutes a very real “conquest of cuisine,” one with lasting effects even in a postcolonial world.  Collingham’s book casts English gastronomy as imperial cuisine and uses food as a lens to comprehend how the British Empire functioned along with the continuing legacies of imperial rule.

Taken together, these five books, though differing significantly from one another in authorship, intended audience, and analysis, contribute to the understanding of English food history as well as the history of modern Europe.  Both the histories “of food” by Colquhoun and Dickson Wright and the analysis “through food” by Burnett and Collingham, in different ways, highlight changes to society over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century.  What, how, and why people ate reveals significant information about their race, gender, and class along with conditions within the British Isles or the larger empire.  Despite the negative conceptions and stereotypes about English cuisine (or lack thereof), interrogating the historiography of English food history reveals new methods for understanding and teaching the history of England, Britain, and modern Europe.

That having been said, the field and scholarship on food in England is still nascent, particularly when compared to works on the culinary history of France.  Though quite a bit has been written about food history in England, the historiography lacks slim, cultural history monographs increasingly common within French food history.  Long histories can claim comprehensiveness and broad coverage, but they lack critical focus on particularly interesting developments or periods.  In particular, the modern era lacks the number of works that deal with English cuisine in the Middle Ages and the early modern era, particularly puzzling when considering the volume of sources available to study food trends of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Moreover, though all food history stems from social history and the works of Burnett and others like him are still useful, analysis of class and economics can only go so far, and there are many interesting and still unexplored opportunities for analyzing food and cuisine in England.  For example, Burnett, Colquhoun, and Dickson Wright all note the emergence of ethnic restaurants after World War II, but largely treat their acceptance as a gradual inevitability.  Future works within the field could (and should) explain the process and negotiations involved in “the triumph of curry” since the 1950s.  Though many “Indian dishes” like chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken were inventions of the British Isles (Indian and Pakistani migrants attempting to cater to the taste of British patrons), thus lending weight to Indian cuisine as part of British gastronomy and the narrative of racial tolerance, history is never that straightforward.  The history of immigration to England (as well as France and the United States for that matter) was one of negotiation, struggle, and racist backlash.  What specifically led to the success of ethnic restaurants in England?  What strategies did new immigrants use to attract customers and navigate the social terrain of a foreign land?  Research into this topic would help to bridge the fields between histories of food and histories of immigration, the latter of which lacks a substantial discussion of food or restaurants save for brief mentions in Robert Winder’s Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain (2004).

Furthermore, encroaching Americanization is a running subtheme in most of the books analyzed in this essay and opens opportunities for further study of how American consumer hegemony functioned in England and, potentially, whether it differed significantly from the experience of the European continent.  This historiography of English food up to this point is fascinating and reveals new information and new methods for understanding modern English history while also stimulating curiosity into new avenues for research and history writing.  With food history itself fairly new within the discipline, it is up to future scholars to broaden and enrich understandings of the culinary past.

[41] Lizzie Collingham, The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World, (London: The Bodley Head, 2018), xvi.

[42] Collingham quotes a source from Robert Montgomery Martin, an Indian Civil Servant, dating back to 1838 to describe chhattu. Based on further (though not extensive) research (as the use of corn flour is still very uncommon within Indian cuisine), it is likely he is referring to a dish that is called kajur today, made of semolina and kneaded into biscuits.

[43] Collingham, Hungry Empire, 219. Importantly, it was economic concerns that led to the repeal of the Corn Laws rather than the fact that maintaining an artificial price of grain was a contributing factor to the Irish Potato Famine.

[44] One could argue (and I would argue) that it is difficult to truly pin down what “English/British national cuisine” truly is because Great Britain was a mass importer of various foodstuffs throughout the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century.

[45] Collingham, Hungry Empire, 185.

[46] Ibid, 193.

[47] Ibid, 192.

[48] Ibid, 245.

[49] Ibid, 260.

[50] Ibid, 267.

[51] One of the key books in this reassessment of the British Empire and the relationship between the nation and colonies was David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Movie Franchise?: Reexamining Iron Man (2008)

(Image Credit: Marvel Studios)

Avengers: Endgame is set to premiere in a few days, the twenty-second film in the ever expanding (and fiscally dependable) Marvel Cinematic Universe, promising to shatter box office records along with serving as the culmination of multiple story threads that began with the first phase of the cinematic franchise. After the events of Avengers: Infinity War, in which the mauve menace Thanos snapped half of all existence into dust (spoilers, I guess?), the remaining heroes must rally together to defeat Thanos as well as bring their friends and loved ones back.

The remaining cast includes the original Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor,  Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Incredible Hulk along with additional Marvel heroes Ant-Man, Rocket Raccoon, blue android and daughter of Thanos Nebula, and (coming off of her billion dollar smash) Captain Marvel. These heroes will team up, do something with quantum realm, timey-whimey things, and “avenge” the fallen, stopping Thanos’ plan and keeping the MCU chugging along.

The Marvel franchise has been the dominant box office entity since the release of The Avengers in 2012, with other studios looking to co-opt the success of cinematic universe continuity, resulting in, ahem, mixed to terrible results. Lifting popular characters and storylines from a long comic book history along with leaning into continuity and shared worlds has become a profitable enterprise for Disney, the owner of Marvel Studios. Moreover, the Marvel films have offered the most consistent blockbuster entertainment for more than a decade, films guaranteed to be “ok” or “pretty good” at worst and accessible for a diverse audience.

While it is one thing to celebrate the quality of the Marvel films and the success of the franchise as a whole, it is important to remember that their consistency and bankability was not always a given. Before the release of the original Avengers, the moviegoing consensus questioned whether such an ambitious concept would be viable. Would all of these beloved characters mesh with one another in an organic way, each getting a proper amount of screen time and interacting with one another in an entertaining way? While we now see the critical and commercial success of the Marvel films, particularly the Avengers subseries, as inevitable, it was not always the case.

Ultimately, potential for a sprawling, cinematic universe owed to the goodwill built from the first Iron Man film (as well as the post-credits scene introducing Nick Fury and something called the “Avengers Initiative”). Though Captain America: The First Avenger is well made and well regarded, it along with the rest of the Phase One Marvel films (Thor and The Incredible Hulk) are largely jogging place, setting up characters before the big team up in 2012. Their narratives can only go so far, introducing characters we are supposed to care about but still make them work within a subsequent team up film.

Unlike the other Phase One films, Iron Man was made as a movie first rather than a cog in a cinematic machine. It centered on the now beloved Tony Stark, a former weapons manufacturer that survives capture in the desert, constructing an arc reactor to power a metal suit, dubbed “Iron Man” (despite the fact that the suit was made from various alloys rather than iron). He learns what it means to be a hero, manages to destroy weapons caches in the Middle East, and prevents the arc reactor technology from falling into villainous hands.

The film enjoyed great critical success and made good money, but was not nearly as financially lucrative as the successive films in the MCU. Moreover, the film was a significant risk, featuring an actor with significant issues with addiction in the past starring as a comic book character less well-known than the ubiquitous Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. The character of Tony Stark was significantly different from many of the comic book heroes that made their way to the movie screen. Rather than a teenager adjusting to superpowers or an alien learning what it means to be human, Stark was first and foremost a man, a man that had achieved great success but had to reckon with the consequences of war profiteering and the resulting violence and human suffering.

In 2008, well within the cinematic landscape of the 2000s dominated by fantasy franchises like Harry PotterLord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean along with the supposed “death” of comic book movies with the release of Spider-Man 3 (2007), Iron Man served as something new and different, a breath of fresh air that revived interest in the comic book genre (along with the subsequently released Dark Knight), resuscitated Robert Downey Jr.’s career, and promised something potentially grandiose with the Avengers Initiative.

The original Iron Man is fundamentally a character piece, following the transformation of an egotistic “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” to a hero looking to redefine his legacy and protect those he put in harm’s way. It may be the first film in the MCU, but it was first and foremost a movie about a singular man in a metal suit, a movie with modest but not outsized expectations. The hype for the original Avengers largely owed to the goodwill built from this original film, as the succeeding films (The Incredible HulkIron Man 2Captain AmericaThor) had their moments and ranged from average to good but are hardly as memorable as the first Iron Man. Though the MCU has been on a run of steady quality throughout Phase Three, with films like Captain America: Civil WarThor: RagnarokGuardians of the Galaxy 2, and Black Panther achieving massive critical and commercial success (the latter of which nominated for and well deserving of Best Picture), this was not always a given within the franchise. When assessing the merits of the MCU, it is important to avoid determinism and view the entire experiment (and it is still an unprecedented experiment) as inevitable. The quality of one fairly risky film very different from what came before it marked the beginning of the dominating MCU that we have today, something far from a given at its outset.

Style vs. Story: A Thought Exercise

(All films and images are the property of their respective studios)

(Featured Image Credit: New York Post; Paramount Pictures)

Recently, I finally sat down and watched the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a story originally by Truman Capote (yes, that guy) turned into a romantic comedy featuring an iconic Audrey Hepburn performance. Hepburn plays Holly Golightly, a New York socialite and “American geisha” who meets and grows attached to writer Paul Varjak, somewhat of a self-insertion character for the author. Paul witnesses Holly’s lavish lifestyle, learns about her past, explores the city of New York with her, and eventually falls in love. After rejecting him in favor of marrying other men for money, the film ends with Holly putting on a Cracker Jack ring engraved at the eponymous Tiffany & Co. jewelry store and running back to Paul to profess her love, simultaneously collecting her cat named…”Cat” to begin their new life together.

After viewing the film, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Breakfast at Tiffany’s has its comedic moments, great production design, and a cast admirably performing their roles (Mickey Rooney’s racist caricature notwithstanding), the film buoyed by Hepburn’s charm and grace. But, the narrative itself is nothing spectacular, a traditional romantic comedy that would likely be panned by critics if it were released today.

Despite the fact that romantic comedies (rom-coms) are often dismissed as derivative, cliché, or nothing more than escapism, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is regarded as a classic film, with Hepburn’s Holly Golightly the most memorable performance of her career (sorry Roman Holiday and My Fair Lady). The mention of “Audrey Hepburn” immediately conjures the image that preceded this piece: the actress as Holly with the tiara, necklace, black dress, and the long cigarette holder to the side. Many people likely have this image on a poster as testament to their love of the actress or for classic cinema (many of these people likely not seeing the actual movie). The image of Hepburn as Holly is iconic, a representation of style, elegance, and elite sociability, the lasting legacy of a film that otherwise lacks much to differentiate it from others in the romantic comedy genre.

Ultimately, it is a very distinct sense of style that separates Breakfast at Tiffany’s from other films and made it as memorable as it is today. Though an engaging story is the driving force for any film, movies are fundamentally a visual medium. Thus, the aesthetics of filmmaking, the production design, costumes, cinematography, and musical choices give every film their own character and help bring the story to life in a way that the script alone cannot. The technical aspects of a film can help to make up for a weak screenplay or they can help elevate the narrative, adding unique elements to tell a story in a new way or simply imprinting the filmmaker’s sense of style into the movie.

The costumes, music, and art design throughout Breakfast at Tiffany’s help the film stand out and are the reasons that it is still a memorable work of cinema regardless of its conventional plot. In Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, author Donald Spoto deems the image of Holly with her oversized cigarette holder one of the most iconic images of American cinema, while Hepburn’s “little black dress” was determined to be the greatest outfit worn by a female on-screen. The stylistic elements of Breakfast at Tiffany’s transcended its narrative, cementing Hepburn’s status as a fashion icon and the character of Holly as the embodiment of style and glamour, neglecting the fact that Holly is considered “a fake” within the film due to being “a lady of the evening.” Style and iconography help to make a film memorable, and in the case of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, can even redefine the film within the popular consciousness.

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Image Credit: Summit Entertainment, Warner Bros.

The 2014 film John Wick is another example of style and design elevating a film to produce one of the most memorable action movies of the past decade. John Wick, for those that have not seen it (if you have not, go see John Wick now), is a simple film based on its plot alone. The main character is a former assassin attacked by Russian gangsters who destroy his car and kill his new puppy, spurring John to come out of retirement and wreak havoc on those that wronged him.

Based on the plot alone, John Wick isn’t memorable; it is a revenge thriller and, according to the filmmakers themselves, an attempt to make “the ultimate 90s action movie.” But, the hyper-stylized elements make for a unique visual experience. Unlike the “shaky cam” to make the viewer feel “in the action” popularized by the Bourne series, John Wick features many wide angles and clear focus on the action without cuts. The nightclub scene, one of the best sequences in cinema in the past few years, stands out because of the attention given to color scheme, stunt work, and the effective use of music, leading Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of The A.V. Club to call the sequence “a very loud and bloody dance piece.” Production design and action choreography give John Wick its own sense of style in the same manner as the aesthetic elements of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. John Wick represented a breath of fresh air within the action movie genre and subsequent films looked to co-opt the stylistic elements from a film without a sophisticated plot.

In 2004, Christopher Booker released The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, a book that outlines what Booker considers to be the most common narratives within film and literature. Though Booker denies climate change and is maybe not someone to be taken entirely seriously, his argument that there are only seven basic plots is something to consider, regardless of its oversimplification. Probably the biggest complaint within film criticism is that films often lack originality, featuring formulaic or cliché ridden plots. It is true that movies often have similar storylines and often rely on conventional narratives and structure. Style and aesthetics represent one way to make up for or elevate the story, the effort involved in explicit production and technical choices differentiating a good or great film from an average or poor one. Both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and John Wick are popular films within their genres despite the fact that their narratives are conventional. John Wick’s suit and his killing spree of Russian gangsters clad in red shirts and Holly’s black dress and cigarette holder are the most memorable elements from their respective films, style superseding story as the lasting impact for both John Wick and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Why Didn’t This Work: Rogue One A Star Wars Story

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios)

*Disclaimer: Because of the omnipresence of the Star Wars franchise, I have previously workshopped the ideas in this piece in conversations with various friends. Though the  opinions in this article represent my true feelings about Rogue One and ideas certainly never emerge in a vacuum, thoughts from others certainly influenced how I viewed and interpreted the film and I wanted to credit that here. Additionally, Jenny Nicholson’s review and analysis deals with similar themes and goes into more depth regarding the problems with the film, and likewise influenced (and when I first watched the movie, confirmed) my feelings toward Rogue One. Nevertheless, as part of a (potential) series examining why certain movies with good ideas and potential just “don’t work,” I feel this piece offers some insight and originality into the mechanics of storytelling.*

In December 2016, Disney released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the newest installment in the Star Wars franchise to that point. With the financial success of Force Awakens and the sheer brand power of the series, the studio looked to instantaneously capitalize on Star Wars mania by releasing a new film one year after the previous installment.

But, unlike the previously released films, Rogue One offered something new, in that it offered something old. Rather than a unique story building off of its predecessor, Rogue One focused on events after the much derided prequel trilogy but before the events of A New Hope, explaining how the Rebel Alliance acquired the plans for the Galactic Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. This “midquel” provided Star Wars fans with information to answer unsolved questions as well as an opportunity to tell a new story and experiment with the traditional formula and storytelling.

Rogue One follows Jyn Erso and her ragtag cohorts as they learn about the Death Star and attempt to steal its design plans and relay them to the Rebel Alliance to prevent mass destruction across the galaxy. They are challenged by Orson Krennic and the Imperial Army and eventually get caught up in a major land and space battle on the planet Scarif, making the ultimate sacrifice in order to deliver “a new hope” to the rebels

If you have not seen the film, the names of the characters and the planet are likely unfamiliar to you, constructed to sound equally familiar and foreign in order to depict people and societies in a galaxy far, far away. If you have seen the film, however, the names of the characters and the planet Scarif are STILL likely unfamiliar to you.

Did you remember that Felicity Jones’ character in Rogue One was named Jyn Erso? Or did you just call her “Felicity Jones” or “other Rey?” I literally had to look up the planet where the main battle, the climax of the film, took place and cross-reference it with various Star Wars wikis to double check my information.

Rogue One made over one billion dollars at the global box office and received fairly good reviews upon release, but it is ultimately a film that just doesn’t work. Unlike that other prequel film I wrote aboutRogue One isn’t simply a collection of references attempting to pass itself off as a story or an appendix of unnecessary information on screen. The film is an attempt to do something interesting with Star Wars property and experiment with story concepts, dealing with covert operations and focusing on “the other guys” involved in warfare rather than generals or space samurai. It offers a good premise, how the rebels got the Death Star plans, and has a solid narrative the successfully builds to the events of the original Star Wars, standing up to evil and making the ultimate sacrifice for the rebellion, dying in the fire the superweapon they were trying to stop, demonstrating the power of the Death Star and the resolve of the Empire.

Rogue One is composed of good storytelling pieces and ideas but ultimately does not come together because of the main characters and their lack of development. The narrative arc of the film wants the audience to sympathize with the main characters and feel an emotional gut punch when they are destroyed by the Death Star’s laser cannon. This pathos never comes because the characters are underwritten, particularly appalling for a Star Wars film. The Star Wars films that worked the best, the original trilogy and Force Awakens, are character driven stories, intentionally borrowing from Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” narrative structure. Rogue One fails to develop its characters in the same way, rushing from planet to planet and plot point to plot point in order to finally get to the action spectacle of the third act.

A perfectly illustrative example of this: a friend of mine recently let me know that Disney was beginning production on a new Star Wars show for its forthcoming streaming service. This new series would focus on the adventures and exploits of the male protagonist from Rogue One. In response, I asked for the name of this supposedly central character that would headline the upcoming series, of which I got no answer. Cassian Andor was the name of the main male character, played by Diego Luna, but even if you did see Rogue One you likely had to look that one up just as I had to look up Scarif.

This is not simply an issue of faulty memory, it is difficult to remember the names of the characters in Rogue One because they are not written in a way to truly care about them. Mentioning the original trilogy immediately invokes Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader, etc. Rey, Finn, and Poe were the highlights of both Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Hell, even the prequel trilogy brings characters to mind first and foremost, regardless of whether those characters were good or bad.

But Rogue One? Actors come to mind, Felicity Jones, Forest Whitaker, maybe Donnie Yen, along with the space battle and the ending scene with Darth Vader, but not the characters you are supposed to care about. The characters aren’t written with any personal or internal conflict to allow for development or a character arc throughout the film (a sense of “want” versus “need”), and the main characters are fundamentally devoid of any personality other than a dispassionate sense of duty. This makes it difficult if not impossible to relate to or sympathize with the characters experiencing peril and putting their lives on the line and makes their sacrifice ultimately meaningless, nullifying the intended story arc.

Gareth Edwards served as the director for Rogue One after previously directing the 2014 version of Godzilla. You know, the Godzilla film with a great action scene action scene at the end but too much focus on underwritten and uninteresting characters. This is the very same problem that plagues Rogue One, a film with a great deal of potential to tell a different kind of Star Wars story along with filling in details from previous films regardless of its role in brand management for Disney. Yet, the film’s poorly written, bland characters disrupt its narrative arc, a missed opportunity to do something innovative or interesting by a film that just doesn’t work.

Why Didn’t This Work?: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

(Image Credit: Warner Bros.)

Three days ago, Warner Bros. released the final trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the upcoming sequel to the 2016 film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. An extension of the Harry Potter franchise, re-dubbed J.K Rowling’s Wizarding World, these films follow the adventures of magizoologist and textbook author Newt Scamander in 1920s New York City. The first film in the prequel series focused on Scamander’s attempts to recollect his creatures while dodging the anti-magical New Salem Philanthropic Society as well arrest from the Magical Congress of the United States of America, believing Scamander to be working with the notorious Gellert Grindelwald, the preeminent dark wizard of the Potterverse before the rise of Lord Voldemort.

The new trailer checks all of the boxes to excite Potter fans, hitting familiar musical cues, showing the castle and grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the first appearance of future school headmaster Albus Dumbledore as a young man, touching on but not explicitly dealing with his sexual attraction to the dark wizard Grindelwald. Upon watching the trailer, I had the same reaction I had to the first Fantastic Beasts film.

“Well, it looks pretty at least, but man am I bored.”

This is not simply an excuse to pick on a franchise that I don’t like. Like many people, I am a big fan of the Harry Potter series, reading all of the books (some of them twice) as well as watching all of the movies to the the point of quoting them verbatim. Despite the importance of Rowling’s literary and cinematic work for my worldview growing up, I can’t help but feel disappointed with the Fantastic Beasts series so far, dreading the upcoming sequel more than anticipating it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t without its strong points. As I said before, the film certainly looks nice, with the production and art design doing a wonderful job depicting 1920s New York City. Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, and Dan Fogler all do well in their supporting roles, with Sudol and Fogler having great chemistry as an unlikely couple. Colin Farrell makes a good antagonist as Percival Graves, later revealed to be Grindelwald in disguise, and would have been a more interesting and less problematic choice for the role than scumbag Johnny Depp.

But, films are not simply judged by their technical qualities, it is the story that matters most when it comes to assessing the quality of a movie. It is in the narrative itself that Fantastic Beasts falls short of the lofty standards set by the Harry Potter books and films. The filmmaker choice, structure of the story, and the main character Newt Scamander derail the potential of this prequel series, the original Fantastic Beasts a shell of the characters and stories it tries to invoke.

The Man in Charge

Director David Yates directed the first Fantastic Beasts film along with the upcoming sequel, becoming the go-to director for J.K. Rowling after helming the last four movies in the Potter franchise (Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows Part One and Two). Though all four of the Potter flicks directed by Yates were critical and commercial successes, “the magic” of the series came from previous directors rather than any inspired vision from Yates. The worldbuilding, setting up the characters, the familiar musical score (John Williams is a genius), and the almost tedious accuracy to the written material all occurred in the first two films directed by Christopher Columbus. The shift toward a darker, more adult tone came from subsequent directors Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell. Yates took over the director’s chair for half of the series, but by then the style and tone were set, leaving Yates little to do other than put the last three books on the screen.

One thing Yates excelled at, for better and worse, was trimming the books to fit to a standard run time, with the exception of Deathly Hallows being split into two films because of corporate greed to tell the entirety of the story. Yates streamlined the narrative and captured the essence of the last three books, particularly useful for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince where most of the subplots were insufferable. In the Fantastic Beasts series, Yates appears to be doing the same thing, aiming for a condensed narrative to prevent an excessive run time. Though referencing a textbook from the Harry Potter universe and written by Rowling, Fantastic Beasts is an original story tangentially based on outside material. For full immersion into the new magical universe, the film (particularly the first in a series) needs to set up the world and its “rules.” The American magical body and New Salem society represent attempts to do this, but worldbuilding is shortchanged for the Grindelwald plot. Production design and art direction provide atmosphere and great visuals but not a clear understanding of this new magical setting. Yates’ preference for sleek narrative over engaging in a new world prevents Fantastic Beasts from reaching the standard of its predecessor

References Do Not Equal a Story

The film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a reference to a Hogwarts textbook within the Harry Potter universe, read by students of Care for Magical Creatures and released to us muggles along with Quidditch Through the Ages as supplemental material for obsessive fans (myself included). Grindelwald’s relationship and rivalry with Albus Dumbledore were subplots in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and a brief reference to Dumbledore in the film occurs specifically so fans can “ooh” and “ah” and make connections to the original Potter story. As a part of a prequel series, like many other iterations, the film often makes references to the material it was born out of to establish the importance of the events despite the fact that the outcome is already known.

Though connections need to be made, Fantastic Beasts falls into the trap of making references for the fans at the expense of its own narrative. With the failure to fully engage with worldbuilding, the movie hopes that callbacks to Potter material will satisfy fans, “getting” the obscurities being part of the fun. Because Dumbledore and Grindelwald are important for future events in the Harry Potter storyline, they are focal points in the series, receiving significant attention in the new marketing push and acting as “the real story” in a film titled “fantastic beasts.” Rather than a new story on the world of magic, Fantastic Beasts often seems like the Harry Potter appendices on-screen. Though nostalgia and shared continuity are ever more marketable, fitting Fantastic Beasts into the canon of Harry Potter limits the storytelling potential and leads to references for references sake, like that other time it worked so well.

Newt Scamander and the Failure to Capture Nostalgia

Fans of Fantastic Beasts may argue that this film works because it reminds you of watching or reading Harry Potter, transporting you to a world of magic and wonder where anything is possible. Indeed this is what the original Harry Potter series did, transported “you” to a magical world, a place where your uniqueness and special talents were appreciated and cultivated rather than being “different.” Someone who knows a lot more about books than I do mentioned that main characters in young adult series are often written as empty vessels to act as a surrogate for the reader, with Harry being “boring” compared to the more interesting supporting characters he reacts off of. Harry is a character for readers to project themselves , the reader or moviegoer experiencing a year at Hogwarts, playing Quidditch, and immersing in the magic.

Instead of a proxy for the viewer to latch onto, Fantastic Beasts centers around Newt Scamander, a known figure within the Potter universe with his own personality. This is not to simply criticize Scamander for his lack of charisma, as this seems to be part of the point of his character as someone who has difficulty interacting with people but is at home among his creatures (much of the internet suggests Scamander is on the autism spectrum). Scamander has his own mannerisms and is already an experienced wizard and an expert on magical creatures; the audience does not get to learn and develop with the character in the same manner as Harry. If Fogler’s muggle character were the focal point of the narrative and his being blindsided by the existence of magic the central plot before moving to Grindelwald, the film would be more compelling and properly invoke the feelings of nostalgia it attempts to benefit from. Instead, Fantastic Beasts opts for tangential connections to a beloved story and characters, failing to conjure a new and unique story while also ignoring the template the worked in the past.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them represents yet another attempt to commercialize nostalgia as well as cinematic continuity in the same manner as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film doesn’t make sense without familiarity with the Harry Potter franchise nor does it offer anything interesting to say about the wizarding world, preferring to capitalize on superficial callbacks and references. Producing something with the quality and cultural resonance of the Harry Potter franchise, something that speaks to and offers lessons for children as well as adults is certainly a difficult task, but Fantastic Beasts is definitely the wrong way to go about doing so. Instead of recapturing the magic, the sense of wonder for fans and the commercial success for the studio, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a film that just doesn’t work, a movie with great potential and an opportunity to go in interesting directions that fails to do so.