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n “Industry and Empire,” the ninth chapter of British Food: an Extraordinary Thousand Years of History, Colin Spencer proposes to answer the following related questions: “What went wrong with British cooking, the reasons for its decline and exactly when this began” (244). British Food, which relates the changes in British diet and cuisine to a wide range of political and economic factors, in the process providing a history of the nation (or nations) from a fascinating point of vantage, begins with the effects of capitalism and the industrial revolution upon the British populace, pointing out that the “nineteenth century was one of great expansion and change, which succeeded in making the rich richer (often beyond the dreams of avarice) and the poor poorer, sinking to depths of neglect, exploitation and inevitable malnutrition, which earlier had only been experienced in medieval famines” (244).

With the decline of the peasantry — “one of the most startling differences between Britain and the continent” (246) — came the loss of peasant cooking, which Spencer argues has always been the basis of a nation’s nutrition and stylish cuisine. The development of a market economy "undermined local self-sufficiency and enmeshed the village in a network of cash sales” (246) while at the same time destroyed the ability of individual workers to grow their own food, since they no longer had land to cultivate or time to do so after long hours in mill and mine. “What the change had wrought was to erase the English rural cuisine; there were now no ingredients for the soup or pottage flavoured with with greens, thickened with dried peas or beans and if they were lucky a hock bone to give added lustre and flavour” (246). The making of rich, healthy soups, a principal part of English cookery since the middle ages, generally ceased as people forgot how to make them. (Spencer sees the recent revival of British cooking as a return to medieval cooking, even though authors of cookbooks and popular chefs might not realize this.)

At the close of “Victorian Food,” Spencer's tenth chapter, he sums up nine factors that caused the dramatic decline in British cooking for all classes, rich and poor, beginning with the

Enclosures Acts which removed the constant stimulus that peasant cooking gives to any nation’s cuisine; our roots were cut away. Secondly, Victorian society praised French cooking and belittled the traditional British cuisine, so that no distinguished cook was encouraged to develop it and lead the way. Thirdly, as the first industrial society we became to a great extent urbanised, which created new and acceptable practices not conducive to good food. Fourthly, the architecture of the suburban villa and the hierarchy of servant labour drove a wedge between kitchen and dining room, turning cooking into a mercenary duty. In addition to which there was a dearth of experienced cooks. With the huge expansion of the middle classes needing more and more kitchen staff; illiterate and untrained women were employed as cooks who could only muddle through, presenting their employers with overcooked, tasteless meals, which they learnt to accept rather than lose their staff. Fifthly, the advent of technology in canning, packaging, freezing and retailing was enthusiastically and uncritically embraced in the kitchen, bringing standardised tastes and textures. Sixth, a fear of the untamed, the raw, the hearty and the vulgar caused dishes to be bland and over-refined with their emphasis upon appearance rather than flavour. Seventh, religious zeal made bad cooking acceptable and insensitivity over food praiseworthy. Eighth, and this factor was to continue with even greater disaster into the twentieth century — war. Wars caused naval blockades and the halt of food supplies from distant countries, severely limiting the diversity of ingredients on which British cooking had traditionally relied. The Crimean War (1853-1856) and then the Boer War (1899-1902), though both only of three years’ duration, halted supplies. Lastly, in the seventeenth century, we had lost a royal court that thought of food as a developing aesthetic form. Our monarchy thereafter followed bourgeois practice; it was the bourgeoisie that took over the role of food guardians and in the eighteenth century fulfilled the role admirably. It was totally unaware of the role it played, however, so tragically threw it away; instead, it pursued a French culinary chimera, which they often felt inadequate to create.

By the end of the nineteenth century, all these factors had combined to wreak their havoc upon the British kitchen, without the British people being quite aware of what had happened. They remained smug, defensive and not a little arrogant on the British food they offered to guests from other nations, they found criticism of their food hard to accept. For the process of its decline had occurred at their finest hour, so how could the sustenance of Empire builders be in any way inadequate? [291-92]

Related material


Spencer, Colin. British Food: an Extraordinary Thousand Years of Food. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Created 15 September 2015