Food is never just about food

Eating the Empire – Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Forfatter: Troy Bickham
Forlag: Reaktion Books
FOOD GLOBALIZATION / 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 vice versa. It shows coronapandemic clearly. New book on 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 new, nerdy academic book on British eating habits in the 1600th and 1700th centuries, which was published exactly the day it was published. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was transferred to the intensive care unit with fever and breathing problems.

British imperialism

I Eating the Empire The American historian Troy Bickham uses the cookbooks of imperialism, newspaper advertisements, inventories, tax accounts and much more to describe how Britain grew and became the British Empire. It had an impact on the political world order, but also on everyday eating and drinking habits.

And though 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 interconnected across continents and time zones when goods are constantly crossing borders. Today, the whole world is feeling the effects of a bat (or was it a shellfish?) Being sold at a market in Wuhan. But as early as the 1700th century, food markets and food were off Orient decisive for the design of the world map and political developments.

British imperialism meant a revolution in British eating habits and culinary possibilities. When ordering take away in London today, one continues a tradition that dates back to at least 1773, when a nimble restaurateur decided to offer "True Indian Curry" for delivery – rice included.

The globalization of food is nothing new, and already 250 years ago you knew how to take a shortcut when you did not want to stand in the kitchen. Indian food came to Britain from the colonies and within a few decades gained great importance for the 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 over the years incorporated into the British culinary self-perception to such an extent that the then Secretary of State Robin Cook in a speech in In 2001, chicken tikka called masala «a British national dish».

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

But it was tea in particular that drove British imperialism across the globe. When the empire was at its height, 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, the author declared George Orwell a well-brewed cup of tea for «one of the pillars of civilization». And although British cookery has rarely stepped out of the shadow of French cuisine, it is precisely the British appetite, their penchant for sugar in tea and a pipe-full of tobacco after food, that has had a decisive influence on how the world map came to look.


Appetite for luxury goods

Troy Bickham portrays a changing nation. Within a few generations, Britain had become a worldwide empire, and the appetite of the domestic market for luxury goods from distant lands was a major driver of that development.

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

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

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

The English cuisine

The desire to control and increase the lucrative sugarproduction led the British to the Caribbean, where they eagerly removed entire populations and vast areas of plant life to make way for new plantations – and millions of African slaves were imported into the apartment. The triangle trade thrived and commodities flowed to the ports of Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and London. Although the food of the colonies quickly became commonplace for the British, it was far from everyone who cared about the development. In 1773, as take-away curry became popular, an anonymous essayist in London Magazine lamented the modern eating habits of the British: “Times, gentlemen, are changing. On a day like this, English cuisine used to be the palace of abundance, festivity and well-being. Instead of the firm roast beef, the aromatic pudding, our tables are now writhing under the opulence of France and India. Here a lean fricassee rises instead of our majestic ribs, and our well-known home brew is replaced by a rogue syllabus. "


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 at the time, he feared that foreign frivolity cooking would make the British forget, "that good food and good porter are the main supporters of Magna Cartas and the British Constitution, and instead open hearts and mouths to the modeling of cooking that will one day lead us into perdition." It was an anti-British farce, roared the writer!

Colonization and Brexit

In the 1700th century, thousands of Britons' usual afternoon meal was suddenly the culmination of worldwide trade, and today the British cannot fill their pantries (and stomachs) without extensive imports. The UK is only 61% self-sufficient in food, compared to 75% in 1989, and about 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 towards 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 over the years incorporated into the British culinary

At the same time, a new YouGov survey (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 just over a third believe 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 colonizers.

If there is one universal point in 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 put it all back on track.

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