English Food by Diane Purkiss (William Collins)

“If historians and readers think they know exactly when food culture in England was stable and not subject to the fickle whims of fashion, they tend to finger breakfast as the changeless moment.”

FROM the opening paragraph, above, Diane Purkiss lets on that she is about to blow up a lot of the myths that surround our food culture and the role it has played in our politics and lifestyles. Followers of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson be warned.

A remarkable book, scholarly, entertaining fascinating, an update really of Dorothy Hartley’s magnificent Food in England first published in 1954. Purkiss is extraordinarily well read, articulate, entertaining, thorough. Drawing from a towering mass of read research, she sets out a startling, informative portrait of what we ate in England (not Britain) or at least what was written down. The sub title is the People’s History, even if most of her witnesses are very literate, upper people. Breakfast she redefines, almost in abstract, as toast, a class declension of the poor servant sweeping out the grate, making the fire, holding fork to the flames and passing up her toast for buttering or even occasionally jamming by her betters. Another poor woman does not butter her fresh bread because the fresh bread is too soft, but toasts it a few days later when she can afford to light a fire at all.

In the introduction Purkiss compares dinner at an Oxford college, the feast for the men of partridges and sprouts, to the “gravy soup” endured by the young Virginia Woolf for the women at a Cambridge college. From here she goes under the skirts of convention to strip bare the many presumptions that surround what we eat and why, covering most aspects from fish to milk to cake and back again. Lunch gets a proper, awesome dissection of its own. She explains why houses in Whitby were built with whale bone rafters and who makes/made the money from whaling. And there are instructions for fly fishing – the favoured sport of clergy – to include a rod cut from hazel or willow between Michaelmas and Candlemas. The thread would be white horse hair from a stallion or a gelding because mares tend to mess theirs up. Hooks were needles rendered in a flame.  She writes beautifully herself. This is a rogue carter bringing so called Epping sausages:

“Sent to London daily by wagon – a broad wheeled wagon, with a russet-coloured awning, a pair of farm horses in the shafts, and for a teamster a pippin-faced countryman, in a snowy smock-frock, and with turnpike tickets stuck in the band of his battered old beaver hat…”

Or here, concluding an argument about bread with this pithy thought:

“The need for bread also marked the people’s first attempts to speak politically, to protest about the price paid for grain, the price of their aching bellies, and some of them died for their words.”

Her approach is not specifically culinary but a broader political thinking on nutrition and impacts. Modern fast rising breads, eg the sliced loaf, she points out allow the gluten to stay in the bread in a way that would not have happened in the more traditional slower and longer fermentation. Intolerance is today’s disease where baker’s asthma was a condition from working in feudal unlit, unventilated basements. Working conditions may have improved, but ‘progress’ comes with its own backlash.

Mandatory reading for anyone involved – however peripherally because she throws her net wide to include farmhands as well as chefs et al – in what we now refer to euphemistically as the food chain, as if it were a piece of jewellery or a ball and chain, but which includes all of us, as consumers, and eaters. And I would add politicians and policy makers, although that is a big beast of a ship to turn around.

In the end she concudes, as did Napoleon, that the English were shopkeepers who turned into voracious traders. Brilliant.


About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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