Food is never just about food

Eating the Empire – Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Forfatter: Troy Bickham
Forlag: Reaktion Books
THE GLOBALIZATION OF FOOD / When goods are constantly crossing borders. What the corona pandemic can teach us about ourselves and the world we live in.


The world changes when we change eating habits. And the other way around. It shows coronathe pandemic clearly. New book about the globalization of food and the imperialist appetite of the 1700th century tells a current story.

Everyone is wondering what the corona pandemic can teach us about ourselves and the world we live in. Perhaps the answer lies in a geeky new academic book about British eating habits in the 1600th and 1700th centuries, published on the very day it British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was transferred to the intensive care unit with a fever and breathing problems.

British imperialism

I Eating the Empire American historian Troy Bickham turns to imperialist cookbooks, newspaper advertisements, inventory lists, tax accounts and much more to describe how Britain grew and became the British Empire. It was important for the political world order, but also for everyday eating and drinking habits.

And although Troy Bickham had no idea corona when he wrote his book, he paints a vivid and suddenly current picture of how people's everyday lives are connected across continents and time zones when goods constantly cross borders. Today, the whole world is feeling the consequences of a bat (or was it a crustacean?) that was sold in a market in Wuhan. But already in the 1700th century, food markets and foodstuffs were off to the east decisive for the design of the world map and the political development.

British imperialism meant a revolution in British eating habits and culinary possibilities. When you order take away in London today, you are continuing a tradition that goes back at least to 1773, when a clever restaurateur came up with the idea of ​​offering «True Indian Curry» for delivery – rice included.

The globalization of food is nothing new, and already 250 years ago people knew how to take a shortcut when they didn't want to stand in the kitchen themselves. Indian food came to Britain from the colonies and within a few decades became very important to British eating habits. Dishes such as chutney, kedgeree and curry (which is not a dish at all, but a European collective term for a number of dishes from the Indian subcontinent) were absorbed over the years into the British culinary self-perception to such an extent that the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, in a speech in 2001 called chicken tikka masala "a British national dish".

In the 1700th century, you could get several kinds of coffee and tobacco, chocolate, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, ginger and black pepper.

But it was tea in particular that propelled British imperialism across the globe. At the height of the empire, the British colonized about a third of the world in a kingdom where the sun never set, as it was popularly called. Today, «tea» is not just a drink, but simply synonymous with a time and a meal.

In 1946, author George declared Orwell a well-brewed cup of tea for «one of the pillars of civilisation». And although British cookery has rarely stepped out of the shadow of French cuisine, it was precisely the British appetite, their fondness for sugar in their tea and a pipeful of tobacco after the meal, that had a decisive influence on how the world map came to look.


Appetite for luxury goods

Troy Bickham portrays a nation in flux. Within a few generations, Britain had become a worldwide empire, and the home market's appetite for luxury goods from distant lands was a major driving force behind that development.

Around the middle of the 1700th century, in any grocery store you could get several kinds of coffee and tobacco, chocolate, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, ginger and black pepper. Or you could buy a curry powder in a can, which the author Jane Austen's cousin Elizabeth did as early as 1775 – according to Troy Bickham.

The UK is only 61% self-sufficient when it comes to food.

Imperialism's food infrastructure brought exotic luxury goods to Europe, but at the same time helped create a new political reality that for millions of people meant an effective division of the world into colonizer and colonized, into exploiters and the exploited.

The English kitchen

The desire to control and increase the lucrative sugarproduction led the British to the Caribbean, where they zealously removed entire populations and vast areas of plant life to make room for new plantations – and millions of African slaves imported for the occasion. Triangular trade flourished and raw materials flowed to the ports of Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and London. Although the food of the colonies quickly became commonplace for the British, not everyone cared about the development. In 1773, at the same time as take away curry became popular, an anonymous essayist in the London Magazine lamented the modern eating habits of the British: «The times, gentlemen, are changing. On a day like this, the English kitchen used to be the palace of plenty, festivity and revelry. Instead of the solid roast beef, the aromatic pudding, our tables now bask in the opulence of France and India. Here, a lean fricassee rises in place of our majestic roast ribs, and there our well-known home brew is replaced by a rogue syllabub.»


The anonymous writer just needed to know that syllabub later became known as a classic English dessert, a kind of cream drink and distant relative of the Indian lassi. But then he feared that foreign frivolity cooking would make the British forget «that good food and good porter are the main supports of Magna Carta and the British constitution, and instead open hearts and mouths to the fads of cooking which will one day lead us into corruption.» It was an anti-British farce, bellowed the writer!

Colonization and Brexit

In the 1700th century, the familiar afternoon meal of thousands of Britons was suddenly the culmination of worldwide trade, and today the English cannot fill their pantries (and bellies) without extensive imports. Britain is only 61% self-sufficient in food, compared to 75% in 1989, and around a third of all food is imported from the EU. But Brexit will, in one way or another, lead to increased customs duties on food, and thus the UK may have to look at e.g. former colonies such as South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand, both for import and export.

Dishes such as chutney, kedgeree and curry were incorporated into the British culinary over the years

At the same time, a new survey by YouGov (March 11, 2020) shows that around 25% of Britons would prefer Britain to still have an empire (the figure is 40% for Conservative voters and Brexit supporters), while well over a third believe that the former colonies are better off than if they had never been colonized. Only the Dutch seem to be more proud of the past as colonial masters.

If there is one universal point i Eating the Empire, is that food is never just about food. And just as a good cup of tea can help sustain civilization (or maintain an empire), eating a bat can help bring it all back to a standstill.

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