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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