“The question ‘What is British cuisine?’ is a difficult question to answer, even for a member of British society.” (Crowther, 2018.) Panayani (2008) talks about the ‘stereotypes of British food (which) tended to focus on two endemic problems – its poor quality and its blandness’. George Orwell was rather damning in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937:89), claiming that ‘the English palate… rejects good food almost automatically’. A quote from 1988 (Reeves, 1) describes how two thirds of Brits on a self-catered holiday in Spain did not buy anything which they did not eat at home. Grace Dent bemoans her childhood spent eating overcooked cabbage and scorns unadventurous mini-breakers in London for the weekend, who don’t ‘like walnuts or aubergine and she doesn’t like rose water or cardamom. Let these people eat boiled cabbage.’
What is British food? A roast dinner, a bacon roll, bangers & mash, a Cornwall pasty and fish & chips? I’m intrigued by just how meat heavy it is, or rather the seeming absence of any sort of vegetarian food heritage. Did the war, rationing and food shortages make people so obsessed with meat? It seems to pre-date that, quite substantially. Let’s go back to the medieval era and what they ate.
Elias talks about the English upper classes consuming extra-ordinary amounts of meat in the medieval period, ‘a tendancy prevails to devour quantities of meat that to us seem fantastic’. Medieval monks ate very little meat, in sharp contrast to the peacocks, deer and swans devoured by the wealthy of the time. Fiddes (1991) dissects historical attitudes with precision in his book Meat: A Natural Symbol. Meat was strongly associated with masculinity as it was synonymous with the idea of man as a hunter. Pre-historic man hunted, as did the English nobility and royalty. Eating meat is also linked to the idea of man’s control over nature and the supremacy of sitting at the top of the food chain. These ideas can be seen in the Great Chain of Being, a religious concept espoused by monarchs to justify their positions in society and the belief that all material things exist for the use of humans.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, people would tell me how God intended us to eat animals, which feeds into the idea of the Great Chain of Being. I associated Christianity with eating meat. In Genesis 1:29-30 however, man is vegetarian but was given permission to eat meat after Noah saved life on earth from the great flood (Genesis 9: 3-4). Unlike the other two Abrahamic religions – Judaism and Islam, we have largely shed rules and regulations around food. Few Christians follow the rules about cloven hooved animals which do not chew the cud or shellfish.
Meat was almost unaffordable for most people until the eighteenth century when agricultural innovations made it more affordable, although it still represented a significant proportion of an average worker’s salary and was therefore a luxury (Stead, 1985: 20). Malnutrition remained wide spread among the working classes throughout the nineteenth century. Increased understanding of nutrition brought about more of a focus on fresh fruit and vegetables at the turn of the twentieth century. (Burnett, 1966). Today the government is still nagging us to eat more fruit and vegetables. Fiddes suggests that to a certain extent, meat is viewed as the only proper food (1991). Where did we get so stuck on the importance of protein, at the expense of other nutrients?
During the second world war, food, including meat and dairy, was rationed. The state told people exactly what to eat, issuing approved recipes. My impression of post-war food is that it was terrible. Homity Pie and Kitchener’s pie however both looked quite nice, harking back to a day of culinary skills and home cooking. I enjoyed watching Back In Time For Dinner on the BBC featuring the Robshaw family. (That’s not a real name!’, the Doctor yelled at the television.) They ate liver and onions, bread and dripping. Not really anything to shout about.
Things brightened up in the 1960s with the arrival of more exotic food such as spaghetti bolognese. The number of Indian restaurants grew and people were able to make ‘curry’ at home with Veet curry kits. Chicken became cheap; I assume this is where the obsession with chicken started. The promise of a chicken in every pot was first offered by Henry IV of France and was still being used in 1928, by Herbert Hoover in his election campaign. (Fiddes, 1991). Increasing numbers of women started to work full-time and so frozen food took off along with other convenience foods including smash and boil in the bag meals.
The 1980s brought the microwave, the toasted sandwich maker and oven chips. Chinese food grew in popularity. The nineties gave us the sort of food that gave the impression of being fresh yet was ready almost instantly. I remember being struck by Polly Russell, the food historian, talking about the minimal contact people had with food. Bagged salad, dressing from a bottle in the fridge, tortellini to be boiled for two minutes. Conversely, an interest in organic food resurged with organic veg boxes becoming a middle class status symbol.
Bee Wilson discusses how embedded our relationship with ultra-processed food is. She describes them as ‘our soul food’ and ‘beloved’ as many of us were fed them by our mothers, before waxing lyrical about Findus Crispy Pancakes, spaghetti hoops and Angel Delight. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I wouldn’t swap my samosa-making mother for one who fed me beans and sausages.)
My impression now however is that we’ve shed our image of awful British food and now restaurants offers ‘modern British cuisine with fresh, seasonal, quality produce’. There may be a back story on the website and photos of the restaurateur’s friend, the farmer who supplies the produce, a handsome, slightly outdoorsy man hefting boxes of muddy carrots, wearing a cable knitted jumper and scuffed wellies. They’ll tell you that you can buy his produce at a farmer’s market somewhere cool in East London or perhaps from Borough Market.
We all own Ottolenghi books now, smoking aubergines and adding barberries and saffron to pilafs. Or are we all just obsessed with delivered food thanks to Deliveroo? Are we so useless that despite being able to find recipes and order groceries online we need to buy recipe kits, reasoning that we wouldn’t know what to do with a whole packet of fresh coriander otherwise?
Yet throughout all of this, a peculiar fixation with meat permeates everything the Brits have eaten. Grace Dent, the restaurant reviewer formerly for the Evening Standard and now for the Guardian puts it down to ‘Convenience and laziness rather than an actual hankering for flesh.’ Crowther (2018) talks about neophilia, the desire to try new food and neophobia, fear of new food. Do the British only desire to try new food that is very meat-heavy and comes in sauce? Vegetarian elements of foreign cuisine are rejected or ignored. Tofu is to be joked about despite our enthusiasm for Chinese food and the fact that tofu is consumed throughout China and other parts of Asia. ‘Fuchsia Dunlop, one of the world’s great cheerleaders for Chinese cookery, often finds herself shaking her head at western preconceptions about tofu. “We tend to regard it as an ingredient that’s used almost exclusively by vegetarians,” she says, “but in China, and elsewhere in Asia, tofu is eaten by just about everybody.”‘ (Granleese, 2020) Many Chinese Buddhists follow a vegan diet. (We had a wonderful lunch at a Buddhist monastery in Hong Kong. A far cry from the lumps of meat in sugary sauce served in this country.) Beans, lentils and pulses are another tired sources of humour and fart jokes. That beans, pulses and lentils form staples in Indian and Italian cuisine is glossed over. (The Tuscans are known as mangiafagioli or bean eaters.)
The Bean Eater by Carracci’
Sue Cheung (2019) talks about her childhood growing up in her parents’ Chinese takeaway. ‘Mum never made western food, and she never let us eat the food we served customers either because she said it had no nutritional value. Instead, we ate “proper” Chinese food, which consisted of bland steamed fish and vegetables, and sometimes chicken’s feet.’
We do dreadful things to food, bastardising and corrupting everything. Frozen deep pan pizza, dried pasta which has become the preserve of the lazy, useless student. Chips and curry sauce. Do we have any British vegetarian food, other than a cheese &onion pastry? All the vegetarian dishes we eat are borrowed from other cultures. There is a very high and unfortunate incidence of Italian simplicity being re-branded as boring, vegetable-free dishes offered to vegetarians, which can also be found on the children’s menu – spaghetti napoli and Margherita pizza. We have ubiquitous vegetable ‘curry’ with miscellaneous beans added. Spinach and ricotta cannelloni and vegetable lasagne have become staples of the frozen ready meal aisle. I’ve grumbled before about the journey of Berber&Qs shawarma cauliflower which had all of London’s restaurant reviewers cooing over its magnificence. It ended up as a slice of ‘cauliflower steak’ sold by M&S for £2, no doubt to be given to vegans at barbecues in appallingly dull iterations.
At some point foreign food becomes absorbed into the host country and stops being, well, foreign. I think of my grandmother who never really got on board with vegetarian food, despite my dad becoming vegetarian when he was 21. It was always macaroni cheese. Her food tastes changed as she got older and she started objecting to eating Indian food, talking about ‘OUR FOOD!’ even though there is arguably nothing more British than a curry. (Especially the food they served in her local curry house. I argued with the waiters over the dal that clearly wasn’t sambar, the melted cheddar in the saag ‘paneer’ and their claims that kofta couldn’t be made without egg.) Yet she still ate pizza and samosas. Dad and I looked at each other, rolled our eyes and sighed, irritated by her inconsistency. I wondered what I would be like when I was old. Would I go on about ‘Our food’ and point blank refuse to eat anything but kitchari and chapatis? To be honest, I’m not far off that, as it is.
Dad’s side of the family never really got used to our vegetarianism. The snide comments every Christmas as they carved the beef and the turkey and the ham. (Does anyone really need that much meat?) ‘Now then,’ I wanted to say in my most patronising teacher voice. ‘Dad has been vegetarian for forty years. I think we’ve had enough time to get used to it, haven’t we?’
Is it merely about objecting to something unfamiliar or what you aren’t used to? Every year, they would refuse even a bite of the eggless Christmas cake I made. I wanted to point out that they were happy with eggless shortcrust pastry (proper French pastry contains egg yolks) or indeed the custard at Christmas dinner, made with Bird’s custard powder, when ‘real’ custard is made with eggs and cream. (I will scream if anyone asks at this stage if we were vegan. The word you’re looking for is lacto-vegetarian.)
Fiddes (1991) and Reynolds (2019) suggest that people object to meat-free diets as they threaten the status quo, how we do things around here. Fiddes discusses meat as a symbol of perceived masculinity, amusingly comparing the steak to the sports car, or penis extension vehicle. We have the modern phenomenon of the man who objects to everything new, including meat-free diets. Referred to as gammon, he is a middle-aged Leave voter who buys into the rhetoric of the Blitz spirit, of British greatness, shrieking ‘NANNY STATE!’ when it is suggested that we should cut down on meat and dairy consumption to try and mitigate what we’ve done to the environment. This is a peculiar contradiction as we did have a nanny state of sorts during the war and it’s not really an era to look back on fondly in terms of food. The bloke in question is unlikely to bring up rabbit food or malnutrition in response to a cheese & onion pasty or a cheese & pickle sandwich, probably because they are both familiar and British.
I don’t think Gammon Man is usually religious but his ideas seemed to be based in the Divine Chain of Being. This ideology has of course served the planet extremely well and hasn’t led us to literally trash the earth or bring about pending environmental disasters. But in a way, we in the developed world do sit atop the food chain. We can eat whatever we want, whenever we want, clocking up enormous food carbon footprints with pineapples flown in from South Africa in December.
The hunter narrative offers nothing to modern woman. Because it’s a rainy Tuesday, the trains were running late, the bins need to be taken out, there is nothing for dinner and the dishes need to be done. Women were oppressed for years; now girls outperform boys at every stage of education and there are more female medical students than male. Historical gender roles, my arse. In this day and age, the hunter narrative sounds like a child in an imaginary land of make-believe. ‘I don’t have to do chores or eat vegetables because I am a hunter with a spear!’
I wonder if people see meat-free diets as new fangled nonsense or made up rubbish but they are nothing new, as discussed above. Further afield, Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism have long traditions of vegetarianism. (Little dairy is consumed in east Asia, meaning many Buddhists are vegan.) Ital food eaten by Rastafarians is vegan. And delicious, like the meat-free cuisines from the Indian subcontinent. Fasting from meat and dairy is still common in countries where Eastern Christianity is practiced and food cultures have developed around this. (I tried fantastic Ethiopian food in Madrid. We watched Jamie Oliver learn to stuff vegetables with Levantine Christians for his vegetarian series.) In England, the Temperance Society (the forerunners of the Vegetarian Society) espoused vegetarianism and teetotalism in the 1800s. Yet what vibrant meat-free food culture we are left with? Bloody breakfast cereals! John Kellogg, who belonged to the Temperance Movement in the US, invented cornflakes as he thought their bland taste would prevent young men from masturbating.
So why is it that people still haven’t gotten to used to the idea of a meat-free diet? Like I want to say to my dad’s side of the family, we’ve certainly had enough time to get our (meat)heads around the idea. A Guardian Long Read asked why people hate vegans. I wonder more specifically why men think it’s ok to be rude to people who don’t eat all of the things they eat. I once sat opposite a man who asked me if I fellated cattle because I ordered the vegan option (something weird about injesting bodily fluids…) Appalled (partly because I thought expensive private schools taught manners), I told a rude, long-winded joke about blow jobs. The table laughed and the situation moved on. What a (bull’s) knob.
A study by MacInnis and Hodson (2015) found that ‘unlike other forms of bias (eg, racism, sexism), negativity toward vegetarians and vegans is not widely considered a societal problem; rather, [it] is commonplace and largely accepted.’ I suppose I tend to see this as being a d*** or toxic masculinity as we know call it. Ruth Whippman (2019) wrote a piece for the New York Times about men learning to behave more like women and learning to pipe down, reflect and listen, rather than acting with ‘blowhard arrogance’. She also talks about a 2010 study saying that men have “higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.” She then comments ‘This is almost exclusively framed as an example of female deficiency. But really, isn’t a person with a “high threshold of what constitutes offensive behaviour” just a fancy name for a jerk?’
But back to today and the current vegan boom which seems to attract bizarre amounts of ire. What is vegan food in this day and age? An entire food movement has been created through social media. Photogenic bowls with lots of colours. Deliciously Ella showed us how healthy food with rather a lot of restrictions could be attractive and tempting and varied and lovely and colourful. (I really wish Ella had been on the scene when my dad went through his clean eating phases in the early 2000s.) Firmly left behind are ‘musty old associations, synonymous with soybeans and brown rice, with ageing hippies spooning beige bowlfuls of worthy grains and pulses’. (Reynolds, 2019). I think a lot of people hold onto this idea, regardless of how many smoked aubergine dishes and barberry & saffron pilafs you shove under their unobservant noses.
There seems to be a proliferation of vegan junk food and fake meat. A place called By Chloe opened up with lots of fake things: chickpea tuna, shitake bacon and seitan chorizo. It wasn’t well reviewed and is overpriced which seems a shame as there is so much good vegan food out there. Why not serve pan-Asian cuisine, which is bursting with real vegan food? I am however looking forward to trying the food from Club Mexicana and I eagerly await the opening of OmNom in Islington, which will do vegan Indian street food.
We seem to be at a crossroads of old and new, as we sit on the brink of environmental disaster. Where do you sit? Are you a flexitarian? A reducitarian? Can you cope with a meat free meal? Can you cook a meat free meal? Or are you firmly entrenched in the past, laughing at outdated images of bean eaters, oddly blinkered and nose blind to the smoked aubergine and barberry&saffron pilaf that has been served to you? As a Deliveroo ad on the Tube said, the future is here and it smells of smoked aubergine.
Having grown up in a religion which has vegetarianism as one of it’s main tenets, I found it especially interesting to look at the interplay between food, religion and culture. As I often feel after writing a new blog post, I think it’s time to put on my eating trousers and head off into this fabulous multicultural city sitting on my door step that is home to people and food from all over the world. I think I’ll seek out some aubergine-based cuisine…
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The picture shown is of Carracci’s painting The Beaneater and can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beaneater
Wilson, B. (2020) How ultra-processed food took over your shopping basket. The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/feb/13/how-ultra-processed-food-took-over-your-shopping-basket-brazil-carlos-monteiro.