The first thing to say is that this is not a Vittles podcast. I know some of you have been clamouring for one, but I have been strangely reluctant to do an own brand (probably due to fear about my lack of audio nativity.) Plus, do we really need another food podcast when we already have our pick of our favourite restaurant critics interviewing yet another celebrity over lunch about what food they liked growing up?
And yet, and yet…The Full English is also not not a Vittles podcast, in the sense that over its six episodes, it expands and enriches many of the themes Vittles has been covering over the last two years. I’m thrilled and excited that The Full English team has chosen to debut it through Vittles before it launches later this year.
A little background for you: soon after he wrote the storming opener to Season 3 entitled ‘Fuck Fine Dining’, writer, chef and researcher Lewis Bassett asked if I would be interested in being involved in a podcast about English food, examining the country’s often unstable national identity through its cuisine (or lack of one). The pitch was ambitious, not just in terms of scope but in the range of voices it needed - a part of me wondered if it was doable. I said yes, Lewis disappeared and then came back a year later with an incredible transcript that he has whittled down and shaped over the last few months with musician Forest DLG into six episodes that cover Breakfast, Sheep, Tea and Sugar, Factory Food, Modern European in England, and Fish Finger Bhortas. Lewis’s doggedness over the last year means that the The Full English has exceeded the ambition of the initial idea, and is served by a variety of exceptional voices: academics, farmers, food writers, critics, historians, anthropologists and journalists, all in the service of finding out what English food actually is.
I’m going to leave it to Lewis to explain more in further detail, but I hope you enjoy listening (or reading the transcript, if that’s your thing) to these six episodes over the coming weeks. The first episode is open to all subscribers and the next five will be for paid subscribers only. If you would like to subscribe to Vittles for £4/month or £40/year, please click below — the price of a subscription will be going up soon so I recommend doing so if you have been thinking about it.
Vittles and The Full English would like to thank the following people for their contribution to this podcast:
Episode 1 (Breakfast): David Edgerton, Kaori O'Connor, Ben Rogers, Paul Freedman, Rowley Leigh
Episode 2 (Sheep): Pen Vogler, Maia Pal, George Comninel, Susan Rose, Ben Rogers, Matt Chatfield, Jeremy Chan, Rezaul Haque
Episode 3 (Tea and Sugar): Seren Charington-Hollins, Markman Ellis, Mathew Mauger, Mukta Das, Catherine Hall, Padraic Scanlan, David Edgerton
Episode 4 (Factory Foods): Matt Chatfield, Lucy Williamson, David Edgerton, Liz Bowles, Michael Clark, Aaron Bastani, Elena Walden, Tess Kelly, Pen Vogler, Tom Kerridge
Episode 5 (Modern European): Shaun Hill, Fay Maschler, Rowley Leigh, Jonathan Meades, Dan Lepard, Margot Henderson, Anna Tobias, Jeremy Lee, Ben Highmore, Fergus Henderson, Trevor Gulliver
Episode 6 (Fish Finger Bhorta): Ash Sarkar, Jason Edwards, Riaz Phillips, Andrew Wong, Catherine Hall, Adam Ramsay, Sunder Katwala, Mike Kenny
The Full English, by Lewis Bassett
The idea for a podcast about nationalism first occurred to me during Rebecca Long-Bailey’s campaign to become the leader of the Labour Party in early 2020. During that campaign, Long-Bailey made a pitch for ‘progressive patriotism’. But this appeared to please no one. Conservative nationalists accused Long-Bailey’s patriotism of lacking any substance (it being simply overcompensation for Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent hatred of Britain.) Meanwhile, some left-wing commentators rejected any engagement with patriotism outright, and staunch Remainers saw the more-or-less empty slogan as pandering to swing voters in Labour’s so-called ‘red wall’. In the end, Long-Bailey rowed back on the idea.
The campaign slogan highlighted to me the extent to which Englishness is a relatively mute and sometimes taboo topic, especially on the political left. I’ve often wondered why. In episode six of this first series of the Full English, the Scottish journalist Adam Ramsay suggests that just as men are less likely to think about their gender than women, English people are less likely to think about their Englishness than people of other nations. This, Ramsay claims, is because England developed a modern economy and society ahead of others; when England assumed a prominent position in the world it did not need the stimulus of nationalism. England has also lacked the dynamic through which a nation is born in its struggle for independence from colonial control: witness the far more overt nationalisms of the United States, Ireland, Jamaica and countless other nations. In this sense, the confused and muted nature of English nationalism is a lasting legacy of Britain’s Empire.
The pandemic has also shown us the hidden state of Englishness. As important decisions affecting public health were handled by the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (hence the different policies and outcomes in each region), the British government based in Whitehall became in effect the government of England. Yet England is the only part of the UK which lacks its own political institutions. It appears the English don’t accept that devolution has taken place, or else that despite it, we still don’t recognise ourselves as a distinct polity requiring distinctive institutions. Were we to do so, then the debate over what new institutions we might want could be the source of a truly progressive conversation.
As someone who has spent half of their adult life working in kitchens, as I do now, I’m keenly aware of the extent to which food is a medium for these debates. Many chefs reject traditional English fare, as do many eaters. In popular restaurants in England, the preference is often for food from France, Italy, India and China. Equally puzzling is the matter of whether there is a distinctly English cuisine, rather than, say, British or regional British cuisines. This sentiment – which is examined in the first episode on the English Breakfast (one of the few dishes with ‘English’ in its actual name) – seems to reflect the confused state of opinion around Englishness more broadly. It’s as if there is a lack of language with which we can identify a distinct, national repertoire of habits and traits.
Food is an important key into all of this, and much else besides. Food isn’t just about nourishment; but even when it is – such as in the form of protein shakes – this too can tell us something about the social worlds we inhabit. Considered through the lens of the English nation, food can help us understand the origins of capitalism, the lineages of Empire, the meanings of climate change and the power dynamics, tastes and status of groups and individuals in English society. But the episodes in this show are not solely about England or Englishness because nations are always porous, and this wide remit is also necessary in the context of a hidden nationalism, one submerged within a post-imperial Britain.
There’s an endless number of topics to explore in future episodes of this podcast: from whether high bread prices still make us angry, to what Greggs and Pret can tell us about the North-South divide, to the English’s extreme relationships with drink. But to do that requires your support. Sign up on Patreon to help make future episodes of the podcast happen. And get in touch to let me know what you think of the show via Twitter and Instagram.
If you live in London and would like to attend a live episode and event to launch the podcast, you can buy a ticket (which includes food and drink) here
Episode one: Breakfast
Lewis Bassett: Welcome to the Full English, a podcast about English food and identity. Because: who are the English, where do we come from, why do we eat the things we do and what do our eating habits say about who we are?
My name is Lewis Bassett, I’m a cook and a researcher and I’m fascinated by food.
In this series we’ll be digging into the meanings of England and Englishness by looking at what we eat. From mutton and the birth of capitalism, to cellular agriculture and the proteins of the future.
In this first episode, we’ll begin by looking at the what the English breakfast can tell us about how food in England has changed, and we’ll also be finding answers for why England has such a bad reputation when it comes to food.
Welcome then to episode one of the Full English.
1. Why England
But why England? Why not the United Kingdom or Great Britain? Why not European food? Or how about food in Nottingham, where I was born, or food in London, where I live now?
Well, I have a feeling that England – specifically England – is confused about who it is. It’s been a turbulent time in politics, and I think events like Brexit, particularly in its consequences for Northern Ireland and the rise of nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales have shaken up our understandings of national belonging. And I’m not the only one who thinks this:
David Edgerton: In many ways, the place we live in, is a country with no name.
DE: I'm David Edgerton, I'm a historian of Britain and of Science and Technology at King's College London.
DE: I mean, if you look at war memorials, it says things like, “gave their lives for King and Country” without specifying what that country is. And very occasionally, you see a war memorial that specifies England. But I've never ever seen a war memorial that says somebody died for the United Kingdom. I've never seen one that said that, that memorialised for Great Britain. So we have a very strange situation of a country with, with no name.
According to David, it’s only after the second world war that many people saw themselves as belonging to Britain, rather than the Empire. But that relatively brief period of British nationalism has been unravelling.
DE: So we have the rise of Scottish nationalism of, of Welsh nationalism, a new dispensation for Northern Ireland in, in good time. So a whole set of assumptions about what it was to be this thing called Britain come apart. And I think it is important to recognise that we now have a new discussion, I think, about England and Englishness which arises I think because of the limited self government that now exists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That raises some very important questions about what, what England is, what its place is in the United Kingdom, and what its democratic structures ought to be.
2. Vox pops
But there are other reasons to look at English food as well. And that became clear to me when I went on the streets of London with the artist and producer Forest DLG who makes the music for this show. We wanted to know from people what they thought about English food.
LB: Excuse me, can I ask you a question? We’re making a podcast about English food. Do you have any views on it?
Person 1: Yeah, but I haven’t got time sorry.
LB: But you do like it?
Person 1: Yeah – whatever it is!
Forest DLG: Can we ask you a quick question about food?
Person 2: Yes – have you got any?
LB: We’re making a podcast about English food…
Person 2: English food? Why?! It’s bland most of it. I prefer a bit more spice
Person 3: Indian food, Jamaican food. That’s where all the flavours are.
Person 4: Well there’s a reason why there’s no English food stall here at the market?
LB: What’s the reason
Person 4: Because it’s just not as, erm, diverse a pallet as other cusines
LB: Would you say it’s bland
Person 4: Yes. That’s what I’m alluding too!
Person 5: You occasionally have a nice fish and chips but meat and two veg doesn’t cut it.
Person 6: I hate fish and chips, I have to say. It’s not for me
Person 7: Fruits and veggies, they’re just not as tasty
Person 8: It’s shit! That’s why we’re queuing for falafel.
Person 9: Yeah it’s not too bad. The English fry up will often go down nicely.
Person 10: I think typically the best English food is the food that’s been borrowed from other cultures. Isn’t the national dish a chicken tika masala? Which actually has nothing to do with Asian culture. It’s an invention to make Asian food more acceptable to an English palate. But even things like pizza, fish and chips, all these things are borrowed. So traditional English food – I don’t even know what that might be. Maybe it’s the home of fusion.
It seems that on the one hand, a lot of people think our food is rubbish and on the other, some people born in England aren’t always confident that we even have a distinctive national cuisine.
[Breakfast sounds: kettle boiling, people arriving at the door, chatter in Italian]
Back at my flat, I’m making a traditional English breakfast for my partner, Eve, and three of her friends. My partner and our guests are from Italy and I want to see what they think of what is probably England’s most widely known national dish.
Italian 1: What is this?
Italian 2: Is it tripe?
Italian 3: Spleen? Lungs!
LB: It’s kidney
Italian 1: That’s disgusting. I’m not eating it!
I’m serving an English breakfast, Victorian style. That means kedgeree, a mixture of rice and fish flavoured with curry powder, as well as Bombay toast, which is bread fried in butter with anchovies and cayenne, and a Victorian favourite: devilled Kidneys
[Sound of breakfast being served]
Who is gonna try this, only Zuli?
I'm going to try it
I'm gonna try
Wow you’re so brave
Um guys. It's good!
No I'm scared
Omg that toast is so delicious
Alissandro are you gonna try a kidney?
Not at all. I mean if I was closer to Bianca I would like sniff it from her plate.
You can still sniff it
You can sniff it.
Can I sniff it?
Sniff? A sniff is okay. Is it chewy?
Hmm. It's okay
It's ok? You should have more. There's a big one there look.
I think that for today that was quite a big achievement
Bombay toast is fantastic
Mama mia this potato thing –
Bombay toast is amazing
So that went down surprisingly well. And it shows, whether you like it or not, England certainly has a strong food tradition. The fact we have an explicitly national meal – an English breakfast – makes that obvious.
4. Kaoiri O’Connor
Okay, one of the ways that we often test the sound is we ask people what they've had for breakfast.
KOC: Oh yeah, yeah black coffee with a Jordan skinny syrup, coconut macaroon. I am a sort of a black coffee no sweet person but with this book two things have hit me. One is the Jordan skinny syrups - thank god otherwise it might have been the real thing – and chocolate, for which there is no substitute. It's all bad for you though and it all ends up on the hips and the jowls, what can I do?
This is Kaoiri O’Connor, a researcher based at University College London who wrote a book on the English breakfast.
KOC: when it burst upon the world, I suppose it was at the beginning of Victoria's reign, there was a huge, a huge promotion of national identity, a huge building up of the image of England, subsuming the other parts. And so that's when you have the promotion of England, and the emergence of this meal coming together, and therefore the English breakfast.
LB: What is so distinct about the English Breakfast compared to others?
KOC: It is the only breakfast. I mean, there may be imitations now but the distinctive thing about it is it was a cooked breakfast. A meal in itself. Whereas in most other places, let's say the whole of Europe, it's very much a scratch meal, you know, you have your coffee, and then you have croissant, toast, or perhaps nothing at first, then you get perhaps 11 o'clock and you get the pastries and things. And quite a lot of places are like that, you know, it isn't something that you get out of bed and sit down to a big cooked breakfast. And in Scandinavia, you do get more, but that's very much a buffet and you get a lot of pickled things and you get a lot of cold you know, meat sausages, hard boiled eggs, not this great big cooked thing, like we have here. So that's what made it distinctive. I mean, there wasn't anything like it.
And if you want proof that we can understand a nation by what it eats, the invention of the English breakfast is it.
KOC: At the time of Queen Victoria it was felt important to emphasise Englishness in everything. Because you see, the great thing about Victorian life is it's suddenly, lots and lots and lots of people had lots and lots of money or, you know, various amounts. And all over Europe, this is a period of revolution and change. And, you know, governments were rising and falling, and there was a great deal of concern. So what happened in this country is people became wealthy, but it was tamed in the sense that they were told, all right now we should all try and be civilised, and to emulate the upper classes. And so everyone became very refined, and very genteel, each in their own way.
A new rising middle class who had profited from the growth of industry in Victorian England sought the stability and status of the older land-owning upper classes. Members of the newer monied group did this through their dress codes, through their speech, through etiquette manuals, through being able to distinguish a soup spoon from an asparagus fork. But no less, these new middle classes in England sort to project their status by eating the kinds of breakfasts that the older upper classes ate in their country manors. To some extent, toward the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, even factory workers followed suit. And where workers in cities didn’t have access to fresh ingredients, cheaper, processed foods – from tinned baked beans to margarine instead of butter – increasingly filled the gap, giving rise to the fry up style English breakfast that we know today. But the important thing to note, as Kaoiri explains, is that it was the desire to emulate the upper classes, with whatever means available, that helped to popularise the English breakfast.
KOC: It was it was sort of gentility at one or two or three removed, but it was very important. Because it was something about the English that, you know, this idea of bettering yourself is what, what we should aim for.
Kaoiri, as you can probably tell, isn’t from England. She’s from Hawaii. But, she says, not being born in England is one of the reasons she so obsessed with English breakfasts.
KOC: You can only talk about the English Breakfast if you're not English. Because it's famous throughout the world. And particularly, you know, the fringes of the old Empire. And you think of it as the most distinctively English thing. And you have a vision of the sideboard covered with silver dishes and being in a country house and you know sort of working your way along the row and picking it up and you've got kippers, you've got mushrooms, you've got eggs done several ways, several kinds of sausages, bacon, and you make your own combination. And that is the English breakfast, with masses of toast, jam and so on. And this is what you think there is. And of course, if you look at the literature, the English Breakfast dances across the pages, I mean, this is what you expect to find here, which is part of the background to the wallpaper, its culinary wallpaper, you take it for granted, right? So you get here, and you can't find it. I remember my first encounter was, I guess you'd call it a fry up in a chippy. And there was chips and then there was fried egg. And then there was the beans and I thought “oh my god, where's the real thing?” And, and I went for a very long haul for it. And that's how the book came about. But it was, it was a hunt that took a long time.
LB: And did you find it?
KOC: Yes, I did find it. But you do have to pay for it. See that's the thing, it is not an everyday kind of thing. If I have to, you know, if someone asked me right now “I want an English breakfast”. What I would do if it were open is I'd head straight to the Wolseley because that's as close as you can get for a restaurant. You know, of course it's not on the sideboard, but you have a choice. And they do a wonderful dishes there that were part of the old sideboard, which is like kedgeree: wonderful! You know, which is an old Empire dish, which is fish and rice and a curry sauce on the side.
But is a food tradition like the Victorian breakfast still a tradition if few people eat it today? The fact that one of the few places you can get an old school English breakfast is a five-star hotel tells me it’s not really a widespread tradition in England. That also explains why my Italian guests were so surprised by the food I made them. Like Kaori, they had only come across the breakfasts served in greasy spoon cafes, with beans and chips and fried tomatoes. Maybe that, and not the wonders of a Victorian sideboard, are the real traditions of England today. And whether you like these more modern kinds of cooked breakfasts, perhaps it’s these far more everyday foods that England is to be judged upon. And so maybe it’s some of these foods that have given England’s cuisine a bad reputation.
Rowley Leigh: despite the proliferation of restaurants and the vast improvement in restaurant food over the last 40 years, I'm still slightly sceptical about us having a food culture. And I rather suspect after 10 years of Brexit, we might be back to where we started.
This is the chef Rowley Leigh. His view on the current state of English food is deeply pessimistic.
RL: Because there isn't. There isn't honestly, really, the infrastructure. You know, that places like France and Italy have in terms of production. If you look at the Fens, which is the most fertile soil in Europe. We produce frozen peas, sugar beet and cannabis oil. You go to Brittany and see what they produce there. It's rather different. And you know, yeah, we've got a great cheese industry. But the fact is, when there was the listeria crisis in ‘91, almost every single cheese milk maker in Britain started to pasteurise their milk, sort of kill their cheese. And anybody who didn't got in terrible trouble. And, you know, do you think the French started pasteurising milk? Like fuck they do. I don't know. I just I just, as I say, you know, I mean, real proper food culture comes from the field. It doesn't, you know, come out of a chef's head. And we'll see. You know, without Italian and French produce coming into London every week we'll be eating sea buckthorn and lingonberries.
Clearly England’s culinary reputation has changed over time. To explore this further, I’ve come to the Quality Chop House in London to speak to Ben Rogers who wrote a book about food in 18th century England. Like Kaori’s research on the Victorian breakfast, Ben’s book, focused on the century before the Victorians, shows that England once had a very proud food tradition, one that even foreign observers were impressed by.
Ben Rogers: So here is the French traveller Henri Misson writing in 1698. “It is common practice, even among people of good substance to have a huge piece of roast beef on Sundays, of which they start, or they can swallow no more, and eat the rest cold without any victuals, the other six days of the week.” Another 25 years later, the Swiss traveller Mr. Moreat wrote “the pleasure to the table in this happy nation to be put in the same rank as the ordinary everyone is accustomed at good eating. They consist chiefly of a variety of puddings, golden Pippins, which are an excellent kind of Apple, delicious green oysters and roast beef, which is the favourite dish as well as at the Kings table as at the tradesman. It's common to see one of these pieces weigh from 20 to 30 pounds”. This might be said is the emblem of the prosperity of the English.
Food – and above all beef – was for many people in 18th century England a way of displaying your patriotism
BR: France was the arch national enemy, associated with Catholicism you know, and a sort of military rival throughout this period and a more hierarchical society with a very strong tradition of court cooking which was on the English British view ridiculously effeminate, over refined, dishonest. Roast beef was defined in opposition to that
Paul Freedman: So in the 18th century, these beefsteak clubs were formed in England, with the purpose of combating French, I think the implication is, effeminate food with a lot of sauces, as opposed to good old Hardy John Bull, the food that made Britain great. And you get the same kind of things where politicians feel they have to eat mushy peas in the north of England, that famous gaff I forget who it was of the Labour Party politician who was served mushy peas somewhere in the north and thought it was guacamole.
That’s Paul Freedman. He’s a historian at Yale University. We’ll hear more from him later. The politician was Peter Mandelson, a close ally of Tony Blair.
BR: It wasn't just a defined against the French. It was also defined against what was perceived to be a sort of a cosmopolitan upper class, sort of Frenchified upper class, a sort of Metropolitan Remainers of their day, if you like, who dominated government in the Georgian period, and viewed France in particular as a sort of, you know, model of sophistication and looked to France for inspiration when it came to the fashion to art architecture, and food. So, to go against the, against Walpole and against the aristocracy of the day, you were in favour of roast beef and that sort of cooking and this sort of and this culinary patriotism found expression not just in the kitchen, but in arts, in the art of Hogarth above all, the literature and buildings. … it found especially expression in beef steak clubs that I guess were a sort of fore runner of gentleman's clubs today, when people gathered, good English patriots, patriots gathered to eat roast beef and have fun and moan about the French and the Frenchified aristocracy.
Hogarth, by the way, was a famous nationalist painter and satirist of his day. And beefsteak clubs were not too dissimilar to the Quality Chop House, where Ben and I are sat now. But that’s not the only parrel between the past and the present that Ben points out.
BR: I'm struck by the really strong similarities between the politics and the sort of particular sort of cultural politics of late 17th century, 18th century Britain and today's divisions over Brexit and the Metropolitan elite. The way in which English roast beef eating, Bulldog owning, John Bull, patriots in the 18th centuries would characterise their enemies both internal and in this case European. This is very, very similar to the way that Brexiters characterise remainers and no doubt remainers look down on Brexiters a bit like sort of how the court looked down on roast beef eating John Bulls
In fact, it’s hard to ignore how John Bull, the buffoonish, rotund caricature of roast beef eating old England that was often depicted in cartoons in the 18th century, shares a few characteristics with Boris Johnson.
[Clip of Boris Johnson: “But when it comes to chilled meats, the wurst is behind us”
5. Why is English food so bad?
But while we can find continuities with England’s past, we should look closely at the changes as well. Does industrialisation, as we mentioned before, account for a decline in the quality of English food? Paul Freedman, the professor at Yale that you heard from earlier, certainly thinks so:
PF: Part of the answer is early industrialization, certainly in the case of England, that you get a rapid breaking of rural traditions and the creation of big cities with a population that doesn't have access to producing its own food. So that the food of Britain in the 17th century, was not regarded with contempt by foreigners. But by the late 19th century, when a vast majority of people were living in the cities, and were poor and subsisting on tea, bread bought from a store, jam, and, you know, maybe meat drippings, the food traditions were quite poor.
However, Paul says that industrialisation isn’t the only thing that explains England’s bad reputation when it comes to food
PF: You have some of the same thing in the United States, but also, in both places, the upper class culture regarded France as its example. So the best chefs in Britain and the United States were French chefs, the fancy restaurants were French restaurants. In New York in the 1960s, the top rated three star restaurants in the first New York Times guide, with only one exception we're all French. And you'd get the same kind of rankings for restaurants in London at that time. And then finally, the cultures of the two places shared a contempt for people who fuss about food, who make food, a kind of item, like music or art that is worth talking about and fussing about. So there's, to this day, a kind of tendency simply to say, food is functional, or food is whatever I like. And cuisine is kind of an affectation. In France, on the other hand, cuisine has, since the 17th century, been an expression not only of taste, but of national skill, and the wedding of pleasure, to prestige. And so, from the 17th century until I would say, around the 1980s, French food was the great standard of international haute cuisine, and only in the past 40 years has this diversified so that other countries such as Italy, or Denmark, have become prestigious or, you know, leaders in world gastronomy.
Paul says that England has a comparable food culture to the US, both of which contrast starkly with places like Italy
PF: So the love of processed food comes from a love of efficiency and health and being modern. But processed food actually doesn't taste as good as seasonal and local food. So what do you do, the ice cream may not be very good, but it comes in 30 different flavours. So variety is a distraction from quality. My epiphany on this was in Italy. So I was in Bologna, and was taken to a restaurant and we had to order tortellini that was one of their specialties. That's a specialty of bologna. They were the best tortellini I've ever had and my host said in other parts of Italy they make tortellini sometimes with cheese or with spinach. And I said, in a very American remark without intending it to be, “Oh, do you ever just get tired of meat tortellini and just have spinach tortellini for a change?” And the guy looked at me like I was an idiot. He said, “No. We're in Bologna. In Bologna. We eat meat tortellini.” We never find that in the United States. We have I mean, my supermarket has 10 kinds of tortellini. I could go there right now and get, you know, three cheese tortellini, pancetta tortellini, portabella, mushroom, tortellini, spinach tortellini, but it's not very good. I mean, it's not as good as these lovingly made Bolognaise tortellini.
DE: Well, the United Kingdom doesn't really have a peasantry.
This is David Edgerton again
DE: It has, in fact, a tiny rural workforce already in 1900, we're talking about less than 10%. And that's radically different from France or Germany, or Norway or Sweden, or indeed any part of, part of Europe. So, the agricultural population is essentially being eliminated by 1900. And food has become much more industrialised than elsewhere. And food is brought to the country by giant enterprises. And goes through all sorts of industrial processes. And we can mention canning. I mean, British people eat enormous amounts of canned food from a very early date. And as many commentators have pointed out, poor people in cities ate enormous quantities of unfresh food, which would not have been the case for a French or German peasant, for example, they might have had restricted diets, but they'd be they wouldn't be diets that came out of a can or out of a fridge. So, there was a profound effect I think on the British diet.
So industry – both industrial processed foods and industrial poverty – has had a big impact on England’s food habits. But, again, that’s not the whole story.
DE: There's another element, which is that the United Kingdom is free trading. And that's, that's really important and quite, quite distinctive. It means that half the food roughly that is consumed within the United Kingdom comes from overseas, I mean, from Europe and from the other side of the of the world. And that's true of no large economy at that, at that time. I mean, that gives you a very different sense of what the, of what the nation is. There's no expectation that you should, you should eat British flour in British bread, there's no expectation that, that you eat the roast beef of old England, you eat the roast beef of, of Argentina, and, and Uruguay and so on.
6. Is English food even English?
So it’s not just industry that has defined British and English food over the past two centuries. On the one hand, is our attitudes towards food and on the other is the consequences of empire. England and Britain’s ability to organise the world in its own image in order to reap the benefits of trade and sometimes direct extraction has meant it never needed to invest in an agricultural workforce: because why have a peasantry at home if you can outsource one to the Americas, India and Africa? But doesn’t this raise a question about the Englishness of our food? Surely, if you’re taking wheat from Canada, tea from China and spices from India, how can you then call what you eat and drink English or British?
KOC: That's the difference. I mean, if you have got an empire, it's your food, it becomes yours. That's the whole, the whole thing about conquest, it becomes yours. And so, you know, back then, I mean, of course it was foreign, but it was our foreign, right. And because kedgeree was really a colonial dish, I mean, there's nothing quite like it. In the original, it was taking elements of, you know, traditional cuisine and mixing it together in a way that would be palatable to the colonials. So that's another way that it It's ours.
In fact, and as contradictory as it might seem, English and British nationalism went hand in hand with the expansion of empire during the 19th century. As Kaori explains.
KOC: So, there was a huge rise of interest in the mythic past and one of the heroic figures was Alfred, you know, who had done so much to bring the foundations of England together.
Kaori tells me that a story that was popularised at the hight of England’s empire was that of King Alfred and the stove cakes. The story goes that in the 8th Century, before England even existed, Alfred, the Anglo Saxon King of Wessex, had been fighting Vikings and had sought refuge in a peasant woman’s home. Not knowing he was a king, the woman asked Alfred to watch some stove cakes. But the great king’s mind wondered, and Alfred let the cakes burn. When the woman found out she gave Alfred a telling off. And the king, in spite of being a king, accepted the punishment.
KOC: The Tale of the cakes was a kind of a test of character. Here he was, the king driven out, in a peasant woman's house, having burned up all her food, and, and he apologised, he let her berate him, and, you know, from then he went on to succeed.
LB: it just feels like such a contradiction to be at the peak of Empire and at the same time to be so heavily invested in constructing a pure domestic origin story?
KOC: You have to. You're constructing the homeland to which, you know, the motherland the father land, to whom the new subject peoples may now feel a family relationship. I suppose anthropologically, the point is you say, we are ancient, we spring from the soil we are we are pure, we are English. But what you want to do is you strengthen your own identity at the point at which you begin to dominate others. Yeah, there's no point in being sort of fluffy and saying oh, well, we're all sorts of people were really cosmopolitan. That will not do not at that early stage, you want a very, very strong image.
Empire and industry are two inescapable features of England’s past that continue to animate who the English are today, evident in what we eat. Already, we find that defining who and what England is has a lot to do with the country’s relationships with places and people outside its national borders. The English breakfast itself is fundamentally similar to an Irish and Scottish breakfast. At the same time, a full English served in Cornwall is often distinct from one served in Yorkshire. That’s because nations share features as well as contrasts with other countries externally, while they’re not as homogenous internally as nationalist myths tend to imagine.
If England is a country in crisis today, having left the EU and existing within a frayed union with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, then understanding what England has been will be the first step in asking what those who live here want it to be now and in the future.
For the rest of this series we’ll be digging a little deeper into some of the themes we have just covered, starting in episode two with sheep farming and the birth of capitalism in England. In episode three we’ll be looking more at England’s place within the history of slavery and the British empire by examining our taste for sugar and tea. And from there, we’ll hear more about how modern agriculture changed the way we eat and how it continues to do so in the context of climate change. We’ll chart the invention of what is often referred to as modern European cuisine in England. And finally, to end season one, we’ll examine who has the authority to make a national cuisine, and whether immigration changes how we might view Englishness.
Huge thanks to all our guests. There are more details about them and their work in the show notes.
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