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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
Episode Six: The Fish Finger Bhorta
[Knocking on the door. Door opens].
Ash Sarkar: Hi! So nice to see you!
Bhorta is just like mashed, like anything mashed it. Do you have mustard involved in some capacity? Is there ginger? Is there chilli? And so that's like the traditional bit and then I guess the like fusion cuisine element is like, fish fingers!
And originally it's your mum's invention?
AS: Yeah, or like, it's kind of like drawn from like the collective Bangla unconscious. You can bhorta anything. The thing is that, like, if you can mash it, it can be a bhorta. All you need is belief!
Forest DLG – the man behind the music in this show – and myself are at writer and commentator Ash Sarkar’s house to learn how to make a fish finger bhorta. The recipe is one that Ash learnt from her mum. When she shared it on Twitter, Nigella Lawson picked it up and featured it as the first dish she made in her show Cook, Eat, Repeat. And with that, the fish finger bhorta blew up.
AS: I'd either been at home and got the recipe off my mum or I'd been at home and eaten it. And I just tweeted about it, saying that it was the equivalent of like Proust’s tea dipped Madeleine. Like it was just so connected to memory and being a kid. And then people were like, “oh, what are you talking about”? So I just posted a bare bones version of the recipe. And then Nigella was like, “I'm gonna cook it” and I was like, “lol, okay”, and then she was like, “I cooked it”. And I was like, “Oh, fuck!”
Ash attributes some of the success of the dish down to the nostalgia that people in England hold toward fish fingers, or beige food in general. But it’s also a dish that tells a story.
AS: It's kind of the story of the immigrant experience in this country, particularly for the ones that came over earlier. So my grandma when she first came to this country was like 1954 or something like that. You didn't have the ingredients. I mean, these people were eating like cavemen here. It was just like, unseasoned pebbles, and that’s it. Just like raw dogging boulders, just nothing! And so even for the basic stuff like garlic, that was hard to get. Or cooking with chopped tomatoes, or talk less of mustard seeds and mustard oil. So you're you're having constantly in your cooking to just integrate what you can find and season it, spicing it, do something with it in a way which tastes like something that you can have at home.
Welcome to The Full English, the podcast that looks at English history and identity through the lens of food. In this episode, we’re going to look at how immigration has led to new dishes being made and eaten in England. Do dishes like the fish finger bhorta count as English? To answer this question, first we need to know what a national cuisine is and, importantly, who gets to decide this? I also want to ask whether nationalism, and English nationalism as it exists in our everyday lives, actually receives enough attention from those on the left of politics who claim to be heavily invested in changing our culture. If not, then why? And can we really avoid talking about Englishness today? This is episode six: the Fish Finger Bhorta.
Jason Edwards: I think you can make a fairly cast iron case that any national food culture is a myth.
This is Jason Edwards who lectures on food and politics at Birkbeck University. He was talking to me about British food, but the same can be said of English food.
JE: There's a famous book on nationalism by Benedict Anderson called Imagined Communities. And, and it introduces this term, imagined community. He uses the term imagined communities, nations as imagined communities, and says they are imagined because we will never meet most of the people in that community. But we imagine who they are, their identities, and we imagine it through things like, you know, what newspapers, they read, what literature they read, what kind of sporting events they go to, what food they eat. Okay, so that's the sense in which we imagine our commonality, what we what we share in common with other members of this, this culture. Now, it's a myth that everybody eats the same thing in the same way at the same time, and so on. But myth doesn't necessarily mean false, that it has no basis in reality, right? Myth rather means important ideas, images, narratives about who we are, as as a nation. So it's not the case that English people sit around eating roast beef for dinner every night, or fish and chips or whatever. But it is the case that there are these important dishes and practices of food, which we imagined in our narratives and images, and so on, which do form a sense of, of national food identity
A national food is an image, or myth, that a community of people share in common. That doesn’t mean they actually all do the thing that the myth suggests, only that they consider a certain trait belongs to a certain group of people, who in turn constitute a nation.
JE: But what's very important is that it's a contested myth. So not everybody agrees about what constitutes British food, what constitutes British foodways, and so on. This is something that's open to contestation, and actually open to a lot of public contestation, and certainly has been in recent times.
People fight over the myths that denote national identity because these myths say something about who the national community are and how such a community should behave. This is particularly important in contexts in which those with power, such as politicians, want to seek legitimacy or endorsement. Think of the cringey relationship between Hillary Clinton and hot sauce.
Do all black people in America carry hot sauce in their bag? No. But is hot sauce synonymous with being black? Often yes. It’s culinary myth, or idea, that Clinton sought to mobilise in order to win support from black voters. And that’s why Jason Edwards explains that who creates the myth matters.
JE: If you think of gastronomical knowledge of what fine food is, or authentic, national food, it was, you know, it was always the gastronome and formalised gastronomic expertise that dictated or said, what authentic food was. France is the leading example of this. Which is interesting because the British state, so to speak, has never been involved in really in promoting an idea of British national cuisine. But of course, in France it was, from the period after the revolution, and really getting going, probably quite a bit later than that, from the late 19th century onwards, you have the French state sponsoring these ideas of what you know, classic French cooking is and how it symbolises France. And you have before that of course, the appellation system in France, which is first really set up system of legal protections for food items and food culture. It's that perhaps supported by official institutional knowledge that determines what authentic national cuisine is.
But when we get to the end of the last century, there's a shift. So, gastronomy is no longer seen in those terms. What tends to be elevated is what was traditionally seen as the peasant and the low, you know, it's the, it's ordinary rustic food, which gets to be seen as, you know, symbolic of a nation’s food. So, you know, you think of lardo as one of the, the typical examples. You know, lardo, is pig fat, back fat. That's, you know, salted. Who would want to eat that in a fine dining restaurant 30 years ago? But now, of course, everybody's putting it on toast with anchovies, and it's, you know, and it's, it's the thing, thing to have, and it becomes elevated into this almost fine item of gastronomy. Even though it's very rustic and very ordinary. So you have this shift, gear down, if you like, towards the more demotic, the more ordinary. And it's the rediscovering that authentic, sort of rustic ordinariness of natural food that that is important. In certain circles, if you turn your nose up at a plate of intestines now, then people look down at you. How's that? How's that happened?
While our ideas of what constitutes authentic or refined cuisine may have focused downward, exactly how and why the restaurant St John has gained widespread praise and recognition for the practice of eating the whole animal – from nose to tail, as they put it – rather than West African or Pakistani migrants in England who never stopped eating in this way tells us something about the relative power of different voices to determine dominant myths about food. If English, or British, food is now about eating from nose to tail, one question we should ask is: ‘according to who’? While it might be easy to see how our dominant myths or fashions around food fashions can change, who has influence and who doesn’t in that meaning making is often far less visible.
To explore these issues I’ve come to Accra Palace, a restaurant in Hackney, London, where offal is on the menu without much fanfare. I’m here to meet Riaz Philips. Riaz is the author Belly Full, a book which documents Caribbean food in the UK. I started by asking Riaz why he wrote the book.
Riaz Phillips: I noticed at the time that there wasn't much literature about Caribbean food in the UK, there wasn't much media about it. For me, that's where my family are from. And the history of that community is like an everyday part of my life. And it just occurred to me how little the mainstream knew about that community. So I wanted to do a project that celebrated the community in a fun way. That was like engaging.
I think, for the major part, if a restaurant or a takeaway spot doesn't tick those, those kind of new forms of media, if it doesn't appeal to certain aesthetic, or a crowd that it kind of just lives outside that genre of food, almost to the fact where it doesn't exist. So that's the issue I had with a lot of these Caribbean, and West African restaurants that I think are amazing. Some of them have been around for about, some of them, nearly 40 years, 30 years, 20 years, and never given a review. Never been celebrated. Never had a picture taken in a local newspaper. Certainly not in the national newspapers. And, yeah, I just thought that was ironic, especially given the fact that, you know, when these new restaurants open with trendy names, and trendy celebrity, Instagram names attached, they get all the reviews out, and all the newspaper editors and reviewers and bloggers go there. But for me, the super ironic thing is that a lot of these places are like literally on the same road as some of the places I featured in Belly Full, like across the road or a few doors down. I'm not one to complain. So I thought instead of like complaining and moaning about it, I'll just do something myself.
Open the restaurant review section of any national newspaper and its unlikely you will find anywhere similar to the places that Riaz documents. This tells us something about who has a voice in the making of our national myths, and who is marginalised. This kind of problem is also ridiculous, because ultimately we all lose out on eating good food with good people.
Waitress: You should try fufu.
RP: You can.
Ok. I’m scared to use my hands though!
That’s not to say there aren’t any barriers to embracing unfamiliar food. I’m clearly not used to eating with my fingers. In the same way, I remember how my grandparents found it difficult to eat using chopsticks.
RP: If that's the case, then you just got to make mistakes and learn. Like, a Ghanian immigrant to England, if they’re eating Sunday roast for the first time. You know, it's the same, it's no different. It's exactly the same thing. Just an alien food and you just you approach it how you think you might. That person might pick up the Yorkshire pudding with their hand and just try to jump it and other people will be like, “what are you doing, you have to use a knife and fork!” You just watch other people how they eat.
The reason why people get that familiarity to other cuisines is for the things I spoke about before. So they've been shown it so many times that before they even go there, they feel a familiarity with it, even though they might not have actually ever had it before. Take something like tacos, for instance, loads of people have never eaten it before. But they've heard of it. And they're familiar with the culture, because it's been illustrated to them so many times through soft media that when it’s time to eat, or when they get presented with it, they have that kind of openness to it.
While most people know what a taco is, even if they haven’t tried one, the same isn’t the case for Caribbean and African food. As Riaz says, that’s a product of our media environment. It’s a product of who gets the loudest say when it comes to creating shared images – or myths – about food.
RP: I think especially now, that social media and YouTube, when you can go into a restaurants page before you even go there. I think those kind of excuses are dwindling. Because you can know everything about, well, not everything, but you can have a good deal of knowledge about cuisine and how to approach it before you even go to eat.
We’re nearing the end of season one of the Full English and this is the part in the show where I ask you to give us a small regular donation so we can make more episodes. If you want to see a second season of this podcast, go to patreon.com/thefullenglish. You can sign up for as little as £3 per month and with that you’ll get access to loads of exclusive content including recipes related to this show. Go to patreon.com/thefullenglish.
One myth concerning English food is that we’re great culinary borrowers. We might not know, or perhaps don’t like, traditional English dishes but that’s ok, because we are happy to eat other national foods, from pizza to pakora. In England, this idea is linked to the sense that the country wiped out its own culinary traditions through its rapid industrialisation, or otherwise that, at least since empire, we’ve embraced and adapted culinary traditions beyond our own shores. Yet attempting to define English food in this way can make it appear to be everything and so also nothing. But there’s another problem with this idea of England having a clean culinary slate. This is Riaz again.
RP: If you look through some of these books that come up by your top chefs, you flick through them. It's just a pick and mix of different cultures. One page is kimchi, the next page is tacos. They've got plantain in there. So they're happy to promote that. But then when it comes to promoting the people of those originating cultures then suddenly it's an issue: like we don't know if we can sell enough books on Nigerian food, or yeah, it's a huge problem.
I would never say that people who aren't directly Caribbean can't cook Caribbean food. But it's plainly obvious to see when people from that background are struggling to get their work published or noticed but another chef can use those same recipes in their books. And there's no issue of that. The publishers don't have any problem with publishing that. So the issue is not that certain people can or can't cook food. It's the fact that people who are directly from those heritages aren't getting those same exposure opportunities as the other people. That's the major issue.
This point helps us think about who has the authority to determine dominant food myths and who doesn’t. About who gets the credit for cultural exchanges, and who is left relatively silent. What Riaz is saying is not an argument against cultural exchange as such. Because English food – like any national cuisine – is the product of interaction between different cultures. Because there is no such thing as a pure, untouched national cuisine. Ackee and saltfish, typically considered the national dish of Jamaica, is the fusion of the West African ackee fruit with North Atlantic salted cod, an ingredient that was often given to slaves by European slave owners and traders. The same is true of what we think of as Chinese food.
Andrew Wong: I'm Andrew Wong and I'm chef at restaurant A Wong
You can pick out random facts, you can say that, you know, Sichuanese food is based around chillis, predominantly Sichuan peppercorns, but, you know, chilies didn't arrive in China until the Columbian Exchange in the 1600s. You know, at the same time, you can, you could say that, you know, China has 14 international borders, it borders 14 countries ranging from Mongolia to Russia to, you know, to India to Turkmenistan, you cannot expect the cuisine to be the same when it has that type of transfer of culture along those borders. But I think the truth of the matter is China is the original sponge of other people's cultures, yet somehow because there's only been 100 and so odd years of Chinese cuisine outside of China in international countries I think that people have lost that message along the way. China through the various Silk Roads over the past several thousand years, has borrowed and adapted and – I don't want to use the word stolen – but absorbed more cultural gastronomy than any other cuisine. You know, whether it be from Persia through the south Silk Road or you're talking about the Ottoman influence from the kind of the sin Jang route into China, or taking stuff from the Middle East and India and bringing it back again. You know, China has taken all these ingredients and all these cultural gastronomies and made it part of what we perceive to be a lot of times just Chinese cuisine now in a generic form. But actually they're all very much integrated into being from other cultures. And I think sometimes people forget this, you know, they, they just assume that what they've experienced since their childhood is Chinese cuisine, but that is the very product of fusion over several thousand years.
Of course, a similarly global picture can be painted of England and the traditions we call English.
Catherine Hall: We've never been an island story. It’s always been a history of interconnection, with continental Europe, with Empire, with other empires.
This is the historian Catherine Hall
CH: The more you understand how the idea that globalisation is a 20th century phenomenon is I mean, it's simply, it's absolutely not true. Mobility around the globe started almost as soon as there was human settlement. And this has been, you know, the waves of different peoples that have come into the United Kingdom, and people from here who've gone out, you know, in very, very significant numbers. So the history of migration, of emigration and immigration, is actually integral to our history.
As dated and contradictory as it might sound, it’s probably better to think of any national cuisine as a kind of fusion food. But not all fusions are created equal. The chicken tikka masala is a dish that is often seen as the peak of this way of thinking about national food but this fusion food was invented for a white British audience. What Riaz has said should make us question why fusion food made for and by immigrant communities in England haven’t achieved the same national status. That is, at least until the fish finger bhorta.
AS: So fish fingers in the oven is the first bit
Nigella is clear that the fish fingers need to be cooked longer than the packet says
AS: Oh, yeah, they've got to be crunchy. But that's the thing, it’s that when I shared the recipe, I think I just had cook the fish fingers but I didn't specify that my mum always fried them. 1) it wants to get crunchy and then 2) growing up when my mum was making this you'd like be putting it on like kitchen towel or whatever and so you'd have this like fish finger pyramid so that if you were quick you could dart in and get a sneaky pre-bhorta fish finger and so that's kind of the way to do it. But then since Nigella was oven cook them I was like, yeah, what kind of obscene freak would fry them!
While our fish fingers were in the oven, and the onions were sweating in a pan, I wanted to know from Ash whether she thinks the fish finger bhorta would count as an English dish?
AS: Yeah, cos, like, what are the boundaries of Englishness? Like what does it stretch to accommodate? I was born in this country, my mum was born in this country, it's involving fish fingers, which aren't like massive in Dhaka. This is profoundly English and it's shaped by the experience of the Bengali diaspora in this country, in a way which is profoundly English. And I think that this is also why I get really annoyed with the constant litigation, particularly on the left, ‘ouuu but that's patriotism’, because it's like, you know, that people are gonna live their lives outside of this conversation. If you listen to that AJ Tracy song False Nine, where it's like, “in Trinidad fam, I’m the English fob, white Air Ones and England top”. And I just think like, oh, that's just happening. Like, it's not happening, like, because of the left or because of what, so and so's like, written for Novara or what Paul Embery’s tweeted, it's just that's the way in which diaspora exists and makes a life and shapes a place. So you think about the relationship of grime or drill to the British state and British history, it’s deeply antagonistic towards those things, but also doesn't exist without like football chanting, as well as like the culture of dancehall MCing or toasting or jungle MCing, it also needs like football chanting to happen. Then you've got the riff by Big Narstie on like, you know, Bass Defence League. Do you know what I mean? It's in conversation with a racist English nationalism and all this is happening at the same time.
As Ash says, this kind of meaning making around Englishness is happening whether people pay attention to it or not. It’s happening in music and it’s happening in people’s kitchens. The product of this fusion culture stands in stark contrast to the imaginary of people like Paul Embery, who Ash mentioned, and who sees the consumption of commonly imported food items as elitist snobbery. But at the same time, as Ash points out, people on the left of politics are often reluctant to engage with the ideas around national idenity, in particular Englishness, even when these ideas already engage people’s lives and when they help determine the outcome of national elections.
Adam Ramsay: Those of us who don't think of ourselves as nationalists still have our worldviews, you know, shaped by the lenses of nationalism. And there's a particularly Anglo-British arrogance to thinking that you're footloose, that you don't have a national identity
This is Adam Ramsay, a journalist from Scotland and an editor of the website Open Democracy.
AR: Because England was the first sort of modern nation, it had the first Industrial Revolution, every other European nationalism constructed in comparison to it. So in the same way as often men don't think about our gender in the way that women do. English people don't think about being English in the way that the French understand their French and Scots understand they’re Scots and Lithuanians understand they're Lithuanian. And so, once you don't understand that Englishness is a part of you, you don't see it as nationalism, it's very hard to analyse it. But it's absolutely written through all of our political conversations. So an example I often give is the media will often determine that a person is or is not prime ministerial. You know, Boris Johnson and David Cameron are both apparently Prime Ministerial, whereas Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn were apparently not prime ministerial. Now you look at the opinion data and Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn agree much more with most British people than did David Cameron or Boris Johnson. Ed Miliband had much more experience in government than either David Cameron or Boris Johnson.
If you meet those people, Boris Johnson and David Cameron are not particularly charismatic people. They're not very impressive in any way. So what does it mean, to say their prime ministerial? You know, this isn't just something the press say. This is something that is widely believed across a large portion of the country. What it means is they're posh, you know, they went to Eton and they have, they exhibit certain kind of personal traits of posh people. And English nationalism tells you posh people should be in charge. And so they're Prime Ministerial, they're like other prime ministers have been, which means they went to Eton. They appear to be posh. This is this is about the class system. It's about the belief that you know, the ruling class ought to be ruling us, they're good at ruling us.
I’ve come to the India Club on the Strand in London to meet Sunder Katwala. Sunder directs the thinktank British Future and I want to know from him whether Englishness is seen by people of different backgrounds as an inclusive identity. Because this might be another reason why people on the left of politics avoid engaging with this idea. But to start, I asked Sunder why he brought me here to the India Club.
SK: This dining room feels very untouched really over five decades it's been here. You could imagine somewhere like this being Bombay or Delhi, as well as in London. So I think we've got a little piece of the jigsaw here.
Sunder explained to me that for his Dad’s generation British identity was more heavily invested in than Englishness, which was associated with being ethnically white and having a long lineage of family from England.
SK: I think when my dad arrives actually, gets the plane, it's the Whitsun bank holiday of 1968 and it's about a week and a half after Enoch Powell has made the Rivers of Blood speech which is the most infamous speech in a way resonating down generations but it really shaped the atmosphere around Britain that that first generation of Commonwealth migrants was arriving into.
CLIP: “We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to permit the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents who are for the most part the future growth of the immigrant descended population”
SK: It's sort of message that says don't come, you might have got your medical degree and want to be a doctor. But no thanks. What, what it's really about, actually, that speech it's a rejection of the idea that out of the British Empire, modern Britain will become multi ethnic because what Enoch Powell is saying is Empire was all a bit of a mistake, the last two centuries, we've gone on a bit of a wander, but we're home now. So kind of go away and stay out. We are, we are the untouched, unchanged, Tudor England, that we, that we have always imagined ourselves to be after all this global wandering. And yet, of course, that, you know, India has been transformed by the British being there for two centuries. Britain is now being transformed by the fact that British Indians have a have a link here. And so there's a, there's a fundamental argument about British identity, who can be British. But by the time I'm a teenager that's going on, but that's kind of being won as well, because the fact actually, of being born in this country is, you know, gives you a sense of standing.
Britishness was also seen as more inclusive than Englishness since people who moved to England from within the Empire had been taught by the empire to see themselves as British.
SK: British identity had broadened, was broadening. I think migrants felt strongly British. They had a British passport. They were told about their Britishness. You look at another group, the British black Caribbean population. The Windrush is their symbolic moment of arrival. They come on a boat back to Britain. A lot of them have been in the RAF, they've got a sense because it's what's been taught in Imperial classrooms about their relationship to this country. And they sort of arrive in a London where, you know, schools in London haven't quite been told the same things as the schools in Jamaica. British identity proved quite easy to pluralise. Those who have a Commonwealth background felt it was their link to why they were here, the story of empire and decolonisation and migration and integration made sense. But we didn't have a conversation about British, English, Scottish and Welsh identity. I think in England, people tend to think of Britain and England as much the same thing until sort of Euro ‘96 and deevolution 25 years ago which makes the English start to realise actually England or Britain was slightly distinct. The Scots and Welsh have always known that. But your father's generation wouldn't have had a conversation about whether you could be English.
Sunder’s thinktank have conducted research into the extent to which people perceive Englishness to be an inclusive identity, and whether this is changing over time.
SK: It was a view of the young and not the old 15 years ago that everyone can identify as English, if they were born in England versus actually it's more ethnically defined thing you'd get from your parents or grandparents. And actually, older people have now adopted the view of younger people. In the last decade, they noticed that the norm has shifted and they've gone, they've gone with it. There's a reciprocal dance going on here. And to some extent, the white English have now moved to say, actually, we need to do the same thing with Englishness as we did with Britishness and the image we see in our football team that's who the flag belongs to. It belongs to people from here who want to belong to it. And match it up with whatever you want to. And ethnic minorities. If you're younger, you believe that as well. And if you're older, you're surprised to hear that, because you had a different set of set of categories. And so what we see in the data is that ethnic minorities think this is very true of the sphere of football in particular, but are less clear that it’s true of the flag, and on St. George's day and a pub in November, as it is of, you know, a football stadium in June. And so that's a work in progress across groups, across generations.
If Sunder is right, then English identity is increasingly being perceived as inclusive of different ethnicities. Sunder is agreeing with Ash who says that investment in Englishness is already happening. In a sense, both Ash and Sunder are saying that those on the political left who claim to be invested in changing culture are actually being left behind by those who are already changing the meanings of Englishness to make it more inclusive. But in the domain of politics, as Adam pointed out, when left wing politicians don’t engage with the ideas of national identity, then right wing ones will find it easier to define it in less inclusive terms and more elitist terms.
SK: You have to be quite secure about the passport in your pocket in order to believe that you don't need a national identity. And I think I think liberal left people who are sort of beyond national identity, who don't have a psychological need for it, don't realise actually the level of their security in doing that. And so you're less likely actually to see migrants and ethnic minorities take that post national view, even though they have post national links. So the argument about you know, do we get internationalism by saying the universal brotherhood man or do we get internationalism by arguing for an inclusive outward looking Britain an inclusive outward looking Sweden, Germany, France. On the whole, if you want to take a society with you, and people are going to run in democratic elections, you actually want the internationalist version of national identity to compete with the other version, otherwise, you give them all of the flags and things and all the stuff of the last few centuries to your opponents.
But there’s another reason why left wing politicians and activists are reluctant to engage with English nationalism. The problem stems from the fact that is England is a nation without a state. There is no English parliament, as there is a parliament for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That means that England doesn’t have political parties that represent England alone. In the non-proportional elections for Westminster, where the party with the most seats takes control of government, political parties like Labour and the Conservatives want to win seats across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; so if they spoke in the language of Englishness alone they couldn’t do that. But this could also be changing.
Mike Kenny: One of the really striking after effects of COVID will be that many people in England but elsewhere too sort of rather wake up to the fact of devolution, during the management of that crisis. And given that a number of the key powers that were important to those governments in relation to public health were held in different parts of the UK Boris Johnson was, in many respects, really managing England and as, you know, developing policy of England. I think that was really put into sharp relief.
This is Mike Kenny, a professor at Cambridge University. Mike is an expert on the history and causes of the devolution of certain powers from Westminster to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. In effect, he says, this devolution has caused the British state – represented by the ministries and parliament at Westminster – to become, at times, the representative state for England. That’s been observable in policies relevant to the pandemic and which have impacted our lives dramatically over the last two years. Mike also says that the absence of distinctly English political institutions can lend English nationalism a resentful character.
MK: I mean there are no English institutions, you know, the institutions of UK governance are labelled British and the English are ruled by the institutions of the British state. And this becomes a sort of feeling that Englishness is somehow being denied or forbidden, which I think has become a really important point and has undoubtedly, I think, given Englishness in some context, a sort of, you know, anti cosmopolitan, anti London vibe. I think what complicates that is that I think, particularly since the financial and banking crises, I think Englishness does, in some parts of the country, become a kind of almost a sort of a language, an idiom, that you can use to talk about a sense of feeling really forgotten about and disaffected about the sort of way in which government work. So I think there are different things going on here. But I think a really striking feature of the last 15, 20 years is the way in which the language of Englishness is picked up by those who are championing causes against the political elite if you like.
But how and why people express their Englishness isn’t limited to just that.
MK: The degree to which people find meaning in their national identity when it comes to politics just varies. I remember, I've always been struck by this, I did a workshop in Leicester, with a bunch of stakeholders, people who were sort of involved in community work or involved with working, doing projects with the council, mostly ethnic minority. I tried to replicate the cultural and ethnic character of the area. Most of the people said, “No, no, I feel British not English. That's not for me.” And then at one point one of them said, “Yeah, but my kids, they talk about being English”, and so on. And the room sort of lit up, because everyone said, “Oh, yeah”, and “I can't understand it”. And I just thought that was so interesting. Now they were partly talking about a cultural thing about football and so on. But it was more than that, because I probed them. And I just think it's really important that we remember that people's feelings of nationhood are not fate, they often are part of the materials that people use to make sense of the social and political world they inhabit. And, above all, I think what the evidence suggests is that there is quite a latent appetite for people to hear more the political world being conducted in a register that speaks to them as people who are English in their sense of national identity, as well as people who live in Leicester, or are members of their local community, it's just like a sort of level of, of identity and community that is sort of pretty much missing, I think, from the political world.
LSo what has any of this got to do with food? Well, if questions around national identity are not settled, if they are constantly evolving in our everyday lives, and if there are tensions in our political system that means our national identities are being mobilised, then how and who defines Englishness matters. As this podcast has sought to show, one way we define ourselves is through food.
Looking at food can reveal both our national history as well as some of the contemporary fault lines in our society: from who can afford to eat out and where, to who struggles to put food on the table. Our ideas around food indicate, rightly or wrongly, what we see to be posh and elitist and what by the same token is seen as more popular. But food also shows us an immensity of collaboration, exchange and the embracing of difference: insofar as national cuisines can be said to exist at all, they are always, like the nation itself, a product of fusion, of exchange across man made boundaries, of cultures whose existence exceeds these boundaries but can, by the labour of our imagination, crystalised into something we call national.
For this show I asked almost all the guests I spoke to what they would consider to be a dish that would represent English food today. Answers included roast beef, the English breakfast, roast mutton and an Indian-English curry, like Chicken Tikka. But if I had to choose, I’d probably suggest the fish finger bhorta. Why? Well, first of all, nations are ideas that bound together a group of people who usually share a language and a patch of land.
But these things are deeply porous. They are in fact made and traversed by the interactions of those who are not always included within the idea of the nation. And that’s especially the case for England. While America is often seen as a nation made by immigrants, England often represses what was a central position within an enormous global empire. I think the fish finger bhorta recognises this history. Second, the dish was created by Bangladeshi women looking for a taste of their previous home. Unlike the chicken tikka, it wasn’t intended for a white English audience, but by working with what was to hand – in this case a popular processed food, the fish finger – the dish has become popular among those with different heritages but who occupy the same spaces as people like Ash Sarkar’s mum: spaces both geographic and linguistic but also spaces like supermarkets and neighbourhood shops, school canteens and the front rooms of homes in England at tea time. The dish speaks of English history but above all the fish finger bhorta is also just delicious.
LB: This is delicious!
Forest DLG: yeah it's fucking good!
AS: I think I overcooked fingers, which you'd think is impossible to do!
This podcast starts from the principle that the meanings of Englishness is a topic that is already a lively conversation in our society and that a key medium through which we talk about the nature of Englishness – just like any other national identity – is food. In a sense, this show is about crafting Englishness as much as it is about finding it. And that’s something that I want to do with you. If you have any ideas or views you’d like to share with me then please get in touch via Twitter and Instagram. You’ll find us there @FullEngPod. And again, if you want this podcast to continue, please show your support over at patreon.com/fullenglish. There’s so many topics we’d love to cover but we need the money to do that.
Thanks as always to our guests. Thanks to Forest DLG for the music and to Jonathan Nunn for all the support in making this show. I’m Lewis Bassett and that’s it for season one. Thanks for listening.