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.

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