Ever Wondered About... British food culture?

Even a 'traditional' British Christmas dinner owes much to the changes in lifestyle and borrowing from other cultures

By: Professor Anne Murcott (University of Nottingham)

  • Duration 10 mins
  • Updated Wednesday 27th April 2005
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Heritage
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A plate of fish and chips and a glass of beer Copyrighted image Copyright: photos.com

The pace of change in British eating seems to have increased at such a rate that you do not have to be very old to have experienced it. So think how much more dramatic is the contrast that older generations can remember from wartime rationing that did not finally end until 1954.

Rationing was designed to ensure fair shares of the most wholesome diet possible for all, resulting in a period when it is claimed that the nutritional status of the British population was never better. Those who liked sugar in their tea had to go without, no bananas, 2 oz cheese per adult per week – but those enjoying brown bread remember ‘national flour... sort of grainy’.

Haven’t we lately become a country of fast food and takeaways? Aren’t there unprecedented numbers of women going out to work, relieved they can rely on microwave ovens and convenience foods? Aren’t we benefiting from being a newly multi-cultural society with people from elsewhere bringing their cooking styles and recipes with them?

This is the kind of question addressed by various ‘knowledge producers’. Business consultants and market researchers working for industry clients interested in their markets, aim to provide them with details of commercial trends.

Based in universities, social anthropologists and sociologists aim to understand the social and cultural contexts of food, and are beginning to show how questions such as these tie together.

Tying these together goes back to the long social and economic transformation that is industrialisation. Progressively more food processing, preparation and cooking takes place in factories rather than the home – going the way of spinning and weaving, making candles and lighting fires – all depending on continuing developments in, and sophisticated new applications of, several sciences and engineering.

Socially, the invention of the factory meant the separation of the home from the place of manufacturing, which, in turn, gave a meaning to the expression for women ‘going out to work’ and the idea of a housewife who did not.

A period of full employment in the 1960s entailed a steady increase in married women employed outside the home, and, later, an increase in mothers of young children doing likewise. Household incomes have risen, yet women continue to be responsible for organising the shopping and doing the cooking.

The double burden of work inside and outside the home made a readily defined mass market for the sale of electrically powered kitchen technologies, sold in the name of labour saving to ‘busy wives and mothers’ and for frozen dinners, ready-prepared vegetables, cook-in sauces and more. It also created a market in which manufactured foods could aptly be re-named ‘convenience’ foods.

The taste of conveniece? Creative commons image Wraggy via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
A taste of Convenience? Image: Wraggy under Creative Commons licence

Industrialisation has brought its own versions of social inequalities. Despite the increased prosperity associated with these changing patterns, poverty persists, constraining the freedom to choose, and bringing disparities in diet between social groups. Long established debates continue to surface: are those on lowest incomes really too hard up to be able to afford a nutritionally well balanced diet, or are they simply bad at household budgeting and cooking?

Fish’n'chips – a mainstay of nineteenth century working class diet – is a case in point, at the time attracting criticism on the grounds of questionable nutrition, dubious social acceptability and representing monotony in the diet. More enlightened medical and social appraisal of the period, however, led to approval of its economy in time and money, and its source of nutrients absent in, and providing relief from, the monotony of bread and dripping.

 

Mashed Potato Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission

Modern take-aways familiarly extend well beyond fish and chips. Kebabs, burgers and the rest may originate outside Britain, yet younger generations are coming to think of pasta and pizza as British food.

Similarly, meals their grandparents think of as English, for example a Christmas feast of turkey, the pudding, with milk chocolates afterwards, reflect earlier migrations of foods – spices from the Far East in the later Medieval period; turkey from the New World, also the potatoes, sprinkled with mint brought by the Romans; and chocolate from Central America transformed from its bitter basic paste by the addition of sugar, milk and fats.

Globalisation is not new: conquest, waves of migration, Elizabethan exploration, modern tourism and more, have moved foods and recipes around the world for centuries, available for incorporation into local eating patterns to become accepted as typical dishes of these regions.

Unfamiliar cuisines, imported tropical fruits, fusion recipes – even the very expression ‘fusion food’ – are reminders of the fashionable use of foods whose meaning, over time, shifts from ‘novelty’ or ‘luxury’, to ‘everyday’ or even ‘necessity’.

In Britain as elsewhere in Europe, the massive social disparities in wealth of the Medieval period were marked by aristocracies displaying their superiority via gargantuan feasts. In the following centuries, quantity gave way to quality, with social superiority being expressed by refinement and discrimination in taste.

Successive waves of what was considered fashionable set in, with those lower down the scale aping those above, who in turn adopted new dishes, new times of day to eat, new styles of serving a meal’s courses by way of maintaining their distance from those below.

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