Shifting of the plates

With Brexit and a shortage of lorry drivers forcing us to think about our food supply, Pen Vogler assesses how what we eat became bound up with political identity and social status

Hero image

Our post-Brexit food system is, like a speeded-up tectonic earth movement, shifting and creaking. Cracks are opening up in the supply of food and labour, and we’re not yet sure how they will be filled.

We import almost half of our food, with about a quarter of it coming from
the EU. So far our shelves have remained stocked, thanks to some impressive prep by importers, supermarkets, haulage and freight organisations. However, domestic production is running into the problems of labour supply. It turns out that, in spite of the appeal of the “field to fork” message, getting “garden” peas, raspberries, potatoes and onions planted, tended, harvested and delivered is not just a matter of advertising and filling a few jobs that anybody can do. It’s part of a complex machine, of which a large part is – or was – fuelled by low-wage, immigrant labour.

We’re about to discover what Brexit means for all our menus. Better pay and conditions that workers here would accept will lead to higher food prices? Or will we increase imports, particularly of meat and grain, from countries with troubling attitudes to animal welfare and environmental standards? Will either of these simply be staging posts to a speeded-up automated farming system, with electronic pickers humming down rows of strawberry plants?

It’s an ideal time to take stock and figure out what we want from our food and our food system – but in between getting the kids to school, back-to-back Zoom meetings whilst wfh, or running the country, who has time to do that? The government has subcontracted the question to Leon Restaurants founder Henry Dimbleby, but isn’t paying much attention to his report’s conclusions, beyond promising white papers.

We have at the moment something that looks like a two-tier food system. We’re a bit allergic to using the language of social status to describe our food, as if it was a train ticket or postage stamps. For those with the luck, money, time and/or education to go first class the vocabulary is familiar: field to fork, fresh, organic, sourdough, home-made, farmer’s market. Standard or second class incorporates a whole range of other adjectives: fast, ultra-processed, convenient, cheap. Most Brits can read a shopping basket like a character sketch. The young man shopping for a snack of avocado on sourdough toast with percolator coffee suggests a different image from the one who’s taking home baked beans, white sliced toast and builders’ tea-bags. The woman with an organic chicken and vegetables, plus fresh pineapple, melon and cherries for dinner tonight leads a very different life to the one who’s taking home a stack of deep pan pizza and chocolate bars. We’ve been obsessed with class and hierarchy ever since the Norman invaders kept the venison and spiced wine for their ruling class and left the dried peas and salt bacon (if they were lucky) for the Anglo-Saxon rest. Centuries of jostling for position on the class ladder and influences from elsewhere have shaped and honed our sense of what food tells us about our social status – and allow us to judge other people’s.

A new idea: farming

Whether we voted Brexit or Remain, being British in the 2020s leaves us figuring out what that means for our plates and fields, whether that comes as part of a list of urgent questions about the provenance of our food or a determination to make things better for our farmers, workers and consumers. But to change a food system means not just what food is available to us but also what we think about it.

For all our island status, we have never been insulated from the food of the rest of the world. We would have to go back more than 6,000 years in history to find a time when we were not influenced by European ideas of how to eat well. Around 4,500BC, Neolithic people crossed the Channel in boats, to join the small hunter-gatherer population of the south of Britain. These incomers brought their own livestock and a new idea: farming. The Romans took their Mediterranean lifestyle away with them when they left these islands in 410AD, but the Normans reimported tastes that would look innovative in an Italian trattoria of 900 years later, with their hopefully-planted vines and recipes for pasta. Although there are recipes for cures and medicines going back to Anglo-Saxon times, the earliest collection of culinary recipes dates from the court of Richard II from the 1390s, giving ways of making pappardelle with hare, lasagne (or “lozenges”) with meat and cheese and macaroni (or “macroons”) with butter and cheese. Vermicelli was a useful filler for the middle class table of the 18th century, finding its way into rosewater-scented puddings or into soups made from chicken or veal: the ancestor of our comfort food, chicken noodle soup.

Henry II settles down to dine

Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants introduced curry night to a post-war population who didn’t see why they too shouldn’t have the restaurant experience that their wealthier compatriots enjoyed but who would not have felt welcome in starchy “French” restaurants.  Over two centuries before chicken tikka masala was applauded by politicians as a truly British dish, aristocratic hostesses were serving curry to their curious guests. The first recipe for “Currey the India Way” dates from 1747. As a recipe it’s a bit one note – the heat comes from white pepper not chilli. Later recipes got their kicks from cayenne pepper, which has Becky Sharpe, the heroine of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848) famously gasping for water.  “True Indian curey paste” was being advertised by the Norris Street Coffee House in 1773, which was probably about as genuine as any of the “authentic ethnic dining” experiences promised in every big city today.

That other great British dining tradition, fish and chips, is “British” more because of its tendency towards of cultural absorption rather than its origin story. Fried fish was a favourite recipe of the Sephardic Jewish community who settled here as refugees from 16th century Portugal. Chipped potatoes (probably) come to us from Belgium or France. Chippies in London’s East End and in Mossley in the North West both lay claim to being the first in this country to put fish and chips together, at the end of the 19th century, to create a great British tradition that, it turns out, is less of a tradition in Britain than pasta or curry.

Although we often talk of our cuisine in terms of a melting pot of traditions from around the world, historically that is not how Britons have defined their food.  Before the Norman invasion, the Anglo-Saxons hardly defined their food at all. The image of Brits as beer swillers started early. In all the many scenes of feasting in the Old English poem Beowulf, only drinks – ale and mead – are mentioned because it was drinking together that forged the crucial bonds of loyalty between kings and thanes. In the Bayeux Tapestry, there are scenes of Normans feasting on meat before the battle of 1066, whilst the Anglo-Saxon kings are roistering in a tower with their impressive drinking horns, but not a bread roll to be seen.

Eaters of ‘beef and iron and steel’

The folk memory of humiliation from the Norman invasion, perhaps, fuelled by the uneasy relationship with France through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, has given some defiant touch points to show what British food is not.  French food was, according to patriotic 18th century yeomen and Tories, one of two things. The scrawny poor ate feeble vegetables and frogs; the luxurious rich spoilt good food by messing around with it to make “fricassees”, “ragouts” or “kickshaws”, the anglicisation of “quelque chose”. The political wrangling was both international and domestic. The great, European-looking Whig houses of the day vied with each other to employ the best, most famous French chefs, to impress their wealthy and influential guests at their dining tables. Joseph Addison, the political essayist who co-founded the Spectator, complained, mischievously, of being at a dinner where he was served “a porcupine” (it was a larded turkey), whilst the “noble sirloin” was banished to a side table. However, in the following century when industrialisation started to bring wealth and social mobility to all kinds of families, the French menu subtly changed from an indicator of political allegiance to a badge of belonging to a sophisticated and powerful social group. Aspirational middle-class families were convinced they had to recreate a particularly tricky type of haute cuisine that was used by the social elite, no matter how unsuited it might be to a small urban kitchen or untutored cook. It condemned them to agonies of social anxiety and undermined the celebration of regional baking, or thrifty traditions of dealing with cheap cuts and wonky vegetables so that, for decades, English, Welsh and Scottish food was seen as second best to a British conception of “French cuisine”.

What about Addison’s noble sirloin? For centuries, the star of “British food” was almost exclusively roast beef (with the award for best supporting role going to plum pudding). Shakespeare appealed to the patriotic audience of Henry V by describing English soldiers as eaters of “beef and iron and steel”, although their aristocratic leaders would have defined themselves by hunting and eating venison. The French epithet for the British, “les rosbifs”, goes back to the 1730s and, in the subsequent century, cartoons by Hogarth or Gillray, and countless accounts of Christmas, harvest and other feasts put roast beef (and plum pudding) at the centre of the British dining table. Although it took a few centuries for the turkey to edge roast beef off the Christmas dinner table, the bird was welcomed into the British meaty pantheon as soon as it was introduced, from the Aztecs, by way of the Spanish and thence to England by the Puritan trader William Strickland, in the 1520s. By contrast, tomatoes, potatoes and avocados, also encountered in the Americas at the same time, were either ignored or viewed with suspicion for centuries. Botanists knew for a fact that the tomato was “rank and stinking” and “dangerous” to eat, although the odd tomato might be admitted to a grand garden as an ornamental plant. France was no more sensible than Britain in this regard, declaring that potatoes caused leprosy and making their cultivation illegal for a time before the French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier proved that they were both benign and nutritious. He won an essay competition that had been set as a result of widespread harvest failures in the 1770s asking for “foodstuffs capable of reducing the calamities of famine” with a passionate (if inaccurate) defence of the benefits of potato starch. He also got a grant from Louis XV to research and promote the pomme de terre.

Eastern European workers on a UK farm. Their absence is raising fears that crops will go unpicked

Although the British remained suspicious of the potato, it was eagerly adopted by Irish peasants so that by the mid-19th century around two fifths of Ireland’s population subsisted almost wholly on a particular heavy cropping variety of potato called the Lumper. It was found to have no resistance to a new blight that turned them black, slimy and soft in the field. Irish landlords, however, continued to export wheat, meat and dairy to Liverpool and other hungry cities of an industrialising England. As George Bernard Shaw said, it wasn’t a famine in the accepted sense of the word, but a “starvation. When a country is full of food, and exporting it, there can be no famine.” Historians estimate that a million people perished from starvation and related diseases, and a further million emigrated.  Although, incredibly, there are records of potatoes being sent from Sligo to Liverpool in 1847, the potato was condemned to prejudice by association, being seen as too reminiscent of the despised Irish poor for it to find favour. The 19th century parliamentarian William Cobbett, self-appointed spokesperson and adviser to the English labourer, wrote that he would rather see England’s poor hanged – and he with them – than see them live on potatoes. Many Victorian poor, particularly in the south of England, agreed with him. The journalist Henry Mayhew records an exchange between two boarders in a flea-bitten boarding house, in his monumental account of London Labour and the London Poor (1851): “I heard a bitter old Englishwoman say, ‘To —— with your ’taty-pot; they’re only meat for pigs.’ ‘Sure, thin,’ said a young Irishman – he was a nice ’cute fellow – ‘sure thin, ma’am, I should be afther offering you a taste.’”

The London poor were often a subject of study, and none more disapproving than the clerics, magistrates, artists and other intellectuals who became horrified by their consumption of a new, particularly inebriating alcohol, first imported from the Low Countries (the Netherlands) in the 1600s. First known as Hollands or Ginevre, after the juniper it was made from, it became known as gin by the time of Hogarth’s now iconic Gin Lane print. His sensational depiction of the horrors of the gin craze shows dilapidated buildings and idle people at Covent Garden’s Seven Dials, a destitute backdrop to the gin-soaked mother in the foreground who is too addled to notice her baby plunging to its death. It should be seen with its companion piece Beer Street, in which the sturdy residents of an economically thriving Westminster refresh themselves with honest (British) beer at the end of the working day. Hogarth admitted frankly that his work was done “to reform some reigning Vices peculiar to the lower Class of People”. Hogarth’s xenophobic dislike of Hollands had a degree of sociological grounding. The gin craze has been compared to crack cocaine. Both were new drugs pumped into equally new, unsettled inner-city populations, which don’t fit into established patterns of consumption and sweep social inhibitions and taboos before them.

When it was first a luxury import from China (and very heavily taxed) tea was also considered wholly inappropriate for the poor. Dr Johnson drank it eagerly throughout the day as its stimulating properties aided his intellectual endeavours, but he argued that, as it gave workers no strength to labour, they were better off without it. Other critics went further, believing indulgent habits learnt from drinking tea would lead uneducated young women to a life of prostitution. Three things contributed to making tea Britain’s national drink. In the 1780s the government slashed the duty on tea, thanks to a recommendation by the owner of Twining’s, the tea merchants, and it became more accessible to people of different sized pockets, without the help of the smuggler. Fifty years later, growers in India finally found a way of growing tea at scale, with some parent plants stolen from China. The tea plantations were run by Brits; India was “British”, therefore tea was quickly adopted as a wholesome and British kind of drink for all classes.

Field to fork

Although the Brits will find all kinds of ways in which drinking your tea will distinguish you (milk in first, milk in last, leaves, bags, mugs, cups and saucers, what you call it, and what you drink it with, and on ad infinitum) the story of tea suggests that there are plenty of ways that new foods and drinks can – eventually – find a place in all our cupboards and contribute to some sort of shared sense of identity. We are too easily distracted in Britain by ideas that have more to do with political identity and social status than good food. As an American once remarked to me over a dinner in London, in her home country avocados were just something that grew on trees, but here they are posh.

As we renegotiate our food system with the rest of the world, what should we keep from our melting-pot culinary history and are there things that we can discard that will help us get rid of the compulsion to ascribe social class to foods, as we have done with the avocado?

We have learnt a great deal from our immigrant cultures. Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants, for example, bust the idea that restaurants were only for the more privileged of society. The post-war curry house owners opened premises where they could afford to, and local populations of people – factory workers, clerical workers searching for cheap and tasty food – were the first to pile in. Eventually every high street had an Indian restaurant and the middle classes were only too happy to follow.

By contrast, we should be suspicious of anything that looks similar to the elaborate series of filters, haute cuisine and its twin, a web of ever-changing and ever restrictive rules of etiquette, that privileged Victorians constructed to create a two-tier dining system to keep the aspiring classes in their place. A contemporary equivalent might be the way we are inclined to condemn those who are not educated or cosmopolitan enough to identify “authentic” international cuisines. Authenticity might be provable if the dish in question was written down by a chef after hours in the kitchen searching for novelty. As the French chef Auguste Escoffier wrote: “I have ceased counting the nights spent in the attempt to discover new combinations, when, completely broken with the fatigue of a heavy day, my body ought to have been at rest.” One of the combinations was the Pêche Melba – although searchers for the “authentic” Escoffier Pêche Melba would have to decide whether to go for the 1892 version with an ice swan, carrying on its back peaches adorned with spun sugar, or the 1900 version which swaps out the ice swan for the more familiar raspberry purée.

But most recipes have no distinctive origin story and emerge from a hazy folk history of making do with the ingredients available. The Cornish pasty, for example wasn’t, traditionally, the current specified ratio of meat, swede and potato. Recipes from Cornish housewives and cooks include pasties with herbs, jam, fish, even dates. (The pasty had an EU Protected Geographical Indication, which has been taken over by the UK government. It now has its own page on the government website stipulating what ingredients might go into a pasty, and a history carefully written to give the misleading impression that this rigid interpretation goes back 200 years.)

We should also discard any belief, no matter how cherished, that perpetuates our two-tier food system. We have fallen for the idea that the only way to feed people on low incomes is to produce ever-cheaper ultra-processed foods, no matter what the cost in terms of human and environmental health. In fact, our food is amongst the cheapest in Europe and making it cheaper will not help farmers and agricultural workers or, indeed, make much difference to our pockets. Most people on low incomes spend the majority of it not on food but on accommodation, which is amongst the most expensive in Europe.

The terrible tragedy of the Irish Potato Famine should remind us of the problems of monoculture. Being aware of the environmental importance of diversity also means not simply exporting the problem of monoculture to countries or regions that rely on cash crops of, for example, the two varieties of avocado (Hass and Fuerte). It isn’t solely a matter for developing economies. Eighty per cent of the world’s almond crop takes up half a million acres of California (and water that humans can ill afford to spare). Olive growers in Europe fear a blight that could destroy 70 per cent of mature olive trees. If a single new coronavirus can affect the world’s human population, blights, insects and plant diseases can also mutate and travel and, potentially, destroy whole food sources.

In Medieval England, the upper classes sought to distance themselves from the growing, production and cooking of food, which was the job of the majority workforce. Today this situation has almost entirely flipped, and the ideals of “field to fork” don’t permeate very far down from the upper income brackets. Perhaps one of the reasons that the French have a more egalitarian food system is something to do with Parmentier’s prize-winning essay. It was an invitation to anybody to come up with ideas which would improve the food of everybody – an acknowledgement that hunger was the nation’s problem, and good food was everybody’s right. In Britain we no longer have the famines that cursed our forebears, but a food system that allows for hunger, malnutrition and obesity impoverishes us all.

Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain by Pen Vogler is published by Atlantic

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Shifting of the plates

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.