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).

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