Can you spare a few moments to think about English food? Try not to throw up in your mouth. I know the tradition ranges from “uninspiring” to “outright disgusting”, and is synonymous with colonialism, lack of imagination, poor nutrition, inferiority complex, and the rather bewildering tendency to just arrange items on a plate without anything holding them together. What I want to do is see what can be done about changing that: and this is, it turns out, inseparable from the politics of our present and of our past.
I’m going to start by talking about Brazil, and about Japan, because that’s how this thought achieved its genesis, although it’s been brewing away for a while, as you’re about to see. I’m also going to talk about America, and Russia, and about what this is, and what this isn’t.
Let’s talk about Nikkei
Fusion foods occur pretty much anywhere migrant populations settle in, and often in time they’re absorbed into the host culture as if they were always there, to be compounded and fused again when new populations move elsewhere. It’s really cool the way culture and human migration work! But I specifically want to talk about what Japanese migrants to Amazonas in Northern Brazil and to Peru etc did in the last century. It finally brought home something that had been dancing around the edges of my brain for a while, by recontextualising it:
Faced with a lack of traditional ingredients for the food they were used to, the immigrants improvised. They took local fish for the recipes they had brought with them; used local plants to produce familiar-and-yet-different iterations of the meals and components they remembered. Some of this was raw necessity combined with the very real homesickness we all feel when disconnected from what we’ve grown up with, especially in terms of food–and some of it was the heart of traditional Japanese cooking, a strong sense of place and connection to the local environment’s potential which comes more readily from Shintoism than from, say, Western Christianity. The result was a delicious, novel, unique fusion.
A devotion to local ingredients, native plants and animals, and a strong connection to the rhythms and possibilities of your own country is of course not just inherently Japanese. It’s something that all populations at some point, to some degree or other, have engaged in, or we wouldn’t exist at all. Seeing it in the context of a fusion of two cultures I don’t belong to helped clarify what I was thinking about, but it’s certainly not unique to either of them.
Indeed, some of this may sound familiar…
Getting wild about the wild
You may remember in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 a Danish restaurant with a strong ethos on providing local ingredients (often foraged) and local cuisine in a very high-class modern fine dining style was judged the best restaurant in the world. Noma has won a modest shedload of awards and done a great deal for making Scandinavian food–traditional food–cool again.
The movement hasn’t been limited to Denmark. Scotland, with a wealth of wild places and plants to draw upon, was already in on the deal before Noma scooped its top awards. Culturally, Finland has more or less never abandoned the right to forage and has begun re-embracing it with gusto. Once the bedrock of how humanity fed itself, it was hoped that this fine dining experience and scattered grassroots movements could coalesce into something more permanent, sustainable, and healthy.
Not everyone was convinced, however.
And I fully admit I’m drawing on more important work done by people who have lost significantly more, and more violently…
Reclaiming culinary traditions for health and cultural wellbeing
Destruction of traditional knowledge and the severing of a people’s connection to the land is one of the myriad crimes and atrocities of colonialism that went far beyond the simple acts of violence and brutality which grab the imagination. Resilient, resourceful, and struggling and deeply oppressed, communities strive to revive and redistribute knowledge that previously fed them and enriched them physically and emotionally.
Forced into food deserts, all across America Native communities have been rebuilding their agricultural and ecological-maintenance networks and producing both staple foods and convenience food products from traditional sources, reconnecting with the sacredness of food and feeding in their lives. Young chefs are combining fine dining and indigenous traditions drawn from multiple sources to revitalise the love of and connection to the food culture that these communities owned. And they are making beautiful plates of food.
Elsewhere, the trend continues. I think perhaps the English need to do what Vladimir Mukhin has done with traditional Russian cuisine, but perhaps in reverse. Our problem is not that we fail to celebrate our traditional food in the highest levels, but that is the only level at which we have acknowledged the existence of good, indigenous recipes at all. Mukhin has said that Russians have claimed there is no such thing as Russian cuisine. The same can be said of the English and perhaps for some similar reasons.
And still concepts which were once at the very core of how people fed ourselves are being derided as fads or fashions…
Nose-to-tail movement & eat the seasons
In any culture that values the animals it slaughters, for the work put into them and for the cost of keeping them, as well as the non-specific value of a life itself, making good use of every part of an animal is just common sense. Divorced from this practice by the rejection of behaviours connected to austerity/thrift in the rationing years during the decades that followed, the English found ourselves having to re-engage with concepts like “offal” and “feet” and “oxtail” that other cultures had simply never abandoned.
Some strong and loud proponents of movements such as “nose-to-tail” cooking have emerged. Keen to re-engage us with the best practice in butchery, thrift, variety and a grown-up palate, chefs and cookery writers began hitting TV and bookshelves with the notion that pretty much every part of an animal is edible and that we should be making the most of them. Some of them even broached the subject that, if you were going to kill something, it was far more respectful to actually make use of the whole animal instead of wasting that life.
Unfortunately, as ever the Great British Public has no appetite for being told what to do, and even less appetite for being told what to do by people who are successful, rich, or posh. The movement was enthusiastically embraced by the kind of people who would probably have eaten the stuff anyway–the adventurous, the gourmet, the gourmand, the seekers of the new, and the hipsters. Everyone else took their cue from the tabloids, turned their noses up at “posh people food”, declared sensible squeamishness, invoked the spectre of BSE/CJD, and and went about their burger-eating day.
Other attempts to reconnect the UK with its food sources, like suggesting that we return to the practice of eating seasonally in order to get food at its best and to lessen our reliance on high food-miles produce or energy-inefficient hothoused veg with no flavour have been met with similar disdain, indifference, or silence.
So far no one’s even suggested trying to get England to reconnect with its marine food supplies, despite our long and lovely coastline and abundant shellfish and small fish varieties (mostly exported). I suspect that’s because the English suspicion of fish has become so ingrained that getting us to so much as deviate from tinned tuna to tinned sardines constitutes an enormous leap.
Gradations of re-acclimating to food are clearly necessary.
How did we get here?
I’ve touched on what’s led to our general state of what I can only honestly describe as Food Stupidity above, and much-loathed celebrity chefs have all weighed in with fragmentary theories over the years, pointing to the current symptoms (lack of cooking knowledge, fear of various ingredients, cheap-and-nutritionally-void fast food) without looking into the longer-term causes.
Previously I’ve covered them in a more humorous style while talking about the fear and dislike of vegetables, but I think a truncated timeline would probably begin with the Enclosure Act and weave its way through Industrialisation, internal migration, urbanisation, two World Wars and the decimation of of generations (divided by a Depression which ruined things further) alongside rationing and austerity, and finally the “prosperous” rejection of anything that smacked of thrift or tradition. Meaning that when I was born in the early Eighties, there was a minor cultural war taking place between “awful but good for you”, and “tasty but possibly made out of a tape deck for all the good it will do you”, and whoever won, your digestive system lost.
As you might expect from something that takes in over 200 years of social change, there’s more than just “how do we eat more vegetables” and “where is our food identity” that needs addressing… As you might expect from something that takes in over 200 years of social change, there’s more than just “how do we eat more vegetables” and “where is our food identity” that needs addressing…
The bigger problems
Bringing back a more local-oriented, nurturing/nourishing, less instant cuisine to England is beset with obstacles and most of them are far beyond my power to do anything about.
The food infrastructure of the country (as many of us have discovered in the face of Brexit emergency planning) is heavily dependent on imports to provide year-round supplies to large supermakets for a public that’s been repeatedly taught that aspiration is out-of-season eating. Getting vegetables (and meat and other produce) from sources other than supermarkets is supremely difficult for many people, and while farmers’ markets, farm shops, and direct delivery services have made a dent in the monopoly of the supermarket, the lifestyles that have been created make it hard for these alternatives to take root. Local greengrocers/butchers/fishmongers/cheese shops and so on are a luxury most places don’t have.
A lot of anti food-waste campaigners have discovered the reality that while many households may also benefit from advice on how to use leftovers and store food correctly so that they don’t waste their own money on food they don’t eat, many of the problems also arise as a result of our industralised and borderline abusive farm/supermarket relationship, which produces environments harmful to supermarket workers, harmful to farm livelihoods, and detrimental to the efficiency of food production in the country as pricing structures and demands wrongly blamed on EU legislation (which is far more concerned with fairness of weights and measures and the health and safety of workers, livestock, and consumers) lead to illogical and frustrating practices becoming the norm. Even when farms aren’t being encouraged give up on crops by pricing or leave food to rot due to a lack of available labour (our current rules do not see fit to allow people to supplement JSA by doing seasonal labour, only to replace it at the potential cost of never being able to qualify for it again), the agribusiness landscape has become such that larger businesses are the only ones which can financially survive–by planting environmentally damaging monocrops and sluicing the fields with organophosphates rather than giving us a variety and sustainability.
We also face a terrible lack of education, not just in terms of food preparation and cooking skills (which took a serious blow with the generation preceding mine as their parents… failed to raise them, and then got punched in the neck in my generation as Home Economics classes were lobbed out of curriculums due to lack of funding, teachers, and interest from the Education Education Education government… Ironically). We’re also broadly very uneducated about how the farms & fishing industries create food, and what the food processing and manufacturing industries do. In other cultures farms and farming are viewed with some degree of sane respect, as the source of food, which is kind of important. Food and eating for the English continue to be a mysterious source of shame.
This lack of food education and disconnection from food production leaves us vulnerable to fad diets, and a particularly mendacious food press intent on selling these products, and on shifting the blame, where possible, to a shame-increasing culture of personal failing, which is then twisted up into class anxieties. People on limited means with limited time are berated for enjoying food that has been developed at the costs of hundreds of thousands of pounds specifically to be addictive and appealing (if unfortunately often nutritionally void and overpriced), then told that any intervention externally to provide alternative options is “nannying”, a serious impingement on their freedom to choose.
There is no freedom to choose if you are given no other options! The personal failing angle is milked to extremes. It is not the fault of people who don’t know how to cook that they don’t know: people are supposed to learn this as children from their communities, families, and teachers; institutions which are eroded by capitalism. Reskilling a population and helping to break through neophobia with food products is something that can’t be presented as a personal penance for “failed people” or as a wonderful “mission” for the privileged middle classes. Free resources, a welcoming social environment, a sense of reward and agency are all necessary for people effectively learning anything.
At least the moneyed classes who miss out on this knowledge have the option to enrol in cooking classes.
In a lot of other cultures too, kitchen gardens and self-sufficiency are a big part of understanding food. Allotments were part of food-growing reality still when I was very young, in the 1980s, and have been subsequently wrecked as an idea. “Growing your own” has been slowly mocked into the ground as backwards and contemptible, then picked up again by the privileged as a retro occupation and firmly branded “not for you” to the people who would benefit most from it. And increasingly we’re boxed into buildings with no access to any kind of growing space.
Community gardens–a brilliant, healing idea which get people in touch with nature, provide social contact for the isolated, skills for the unconfident, and free food for the hungry–are persistently unfunded, ignored, earmarked as other because of their associations and once again publicly derided as pathetic, and “not for you, the cool person reading this newspaper”.
But growing your own food takes time and requires the investment of effort; cooking from scratch does too. And we’ve created a society in which people need to work 3 jobs at once to survive; where it’s acceptable for homes to have no functional cooking facilities; where people have to make choices between heating and eating (cold, tinned food). We cannot attach blame to people who barely have time to eat at all for being unable to pass on cooking skills and food culture to their kids.
The problems are cultural: the arrogance of the moneyed class in assuming the landscape will bend to our financial requirements rather than suiting the farming to the landscape (as some farmers still do); the narrowing field of foods we’ll actually consume as neophobia and food ignorance deprive us of choice; the very character of the English that makes us resistant to being told what to do as long as there’s someone telling us that we’re not being told what to do. We’re constantly told our diet is poor (and it is), but never told the truth about why: it’s always because we “have no willpower”, rather than because we’ve societally detonated the concepts of seasonal eating, growing our own, buying from producers, shared foodstuffs, leftovers, or knowing what ingredients are–leaving us doing our best to survive on what we’re marketed and sold by companies who never see one hundred of the blame hurled repeatedly in the faces of the poorest and most vulnerable people.
What this isn’t
This is absolutely not a call for Splendid Isolation, Turning Back The Clock, Unindustrialise Now Because I’m A Hippy. Time and societies can only move forward from where they’ve reached, taking in mind all that has changed and all that has happened. Excavating a food culture from this mess is going to be an act of reinvention, and I think one that is sorely needed. It can’t be done through denial, either.
I cannot deny the role of England as a trading and colonising nation in shaping our post-Middle-Ages cuisine, nor how our lust for the new has brought both benefits and detriments to our diet; for a cuisine to reflect us and feed us we have to embrace that the nation is a paradox. A paranoid island fortress obsessed with exploration, terrified of the new but utterly addicted to it. Here to misuse spices, put sugar in absolutely everything, copy the French and claim we did it first, and to take to other people’s food with almost embarrassing gusto for such a traditionally mind-numbingly xenophobic people.
One way to embrace this is to, in this process, always take pride in the things we have gained from the enriching experience of immigration, and to remember that we have gone to great and frequently brutal lengths to get our hands on sugar, spice, tea, and coffee over the centuries and should probably not insult our own history by disavowing these things as “non-native” (as if we ever would; the English are world-renowned for our hypocrisy) any more than we should take credit for the dishes that we’ve purloined.
It’s also not some diabolical attempt to impose a Total Lifestyle Change on a population, or to sell recipe books, or aspirations. I just think it might be nice for a country coming to grips at last with its own status as Not Special Or Important Actually to have its own culinary identity, as food is so close to the heart–and that it may be helpful for our health and economy to look at feeding ourselves differently at least some of the time.
Why and how?
First of all, while I think that we’ve made attempts in this direction before, they’ve always been at the peak of fashionable cuisine. The kind of high-priced dining experience that is fated by the very nature of its exclusivity not to be a revolution but a trickle-down concept that might eventually descend to those of use with enough capital only to feel guilty that we can’t afford the right kind of saucepan.
Top-down changes don’t usually stick, especially around things as fundamental and as basic as food.
This may sound like the kind of proposal you submit to a government board for some funding to waste on ultimately getting nowhere. The kind that’s accompanied by a campaign of scolding and fronted by a celebrity chef and sparks only an angry response on Twitter and in the redtops about how we’re being nannied.
It won’t do, either. No one likes being lectured.
But there is a fundamental connection between what we feed ourselves and our sense of identity as a people. And if politics–the inevitable catastrophe facing neoliberal globalism being exploited by alarming nationalism–in the recent years has show anything, it has shown that a lot of populations are suffering from a serious identity crisis.
It’s been easy for malignant parties to frame this as the fault of immigration; the “influx” of a small percentage of the population, who bring new cooking techniques, languages, cultural practices, skills, and ideas, of which our fragile identities are immediately suspicious. The truth is I think that the rot began a long time ago with the imposition of identity in the form of nationalisms to be milked for support in endless wars of expansion.
If you’re thinking “I came here to read about food, not politics”, I’m sorry. Food is unfortunately inherently political, especially when people are being starved. There is no such thing as a natural famine–they are always exacerbated and manipulated by the ruling classes of whatever location the deprivation begins in. Often those ruling classes rule from afar.
It’s all the more insulting to see this happen in a country which has been taught to let its crops rot, to throw out edible food and to starve its population for having the temerity to be unable to find enough work; or for having bodies which aren’t fit to meet the demands of increasingly unbearable work.
In a sense it’s fitting that we have such terrible, terrible food emanating from the base of our national consciousness, that we have lost our sense of culinary self, that we have lost our skills, and that we have turned all of our thoughts about food into nothing but scolding and guilt about our bodies and the impurity of our intake. Food is supposed to nourish us and bring us together but we’re psychologically fractured by decades of political and journalistic abuse.
So I don’t have a governmental proposal. The problem is simply too big. Below I will outline a few ideas I’ve had about working on some of the peripheral issues: the food supply, the agribusiness dominance, the social fracturing, the deprivation, and the lack of skills that are hurting us as a people. But I’m one person, and I’m painfully aware that I’m one person who took until his mid-thirties to figure out how to make food he didn’t hate and to stop acting out eating disordered behaviour both personal and national; that I’m calling it a good day if I manage to wash the dishes after I’ve cooked, and the kind of charisma someone needs to communicate grass-roots culinary movements is the kind of charisma that leads countries, rather than “occasionally managing to make 50% of a very small audience laugh on an open mike night”.
Besides, I think Jack Monroe has, alone, done a significant amount to help douse some of the more dousable flames.
So I’m sticking to trying to find, adapt, and experiment with “traditional” recipes with a heavy bent towards foragable/growable food for this general climatic area. Hopefully that will if nothing else inspire a few people to try it themselves. Also, feed your neighbours.
Why English and not British?
For a combination of political and agricultural and dietary reasons, I’m sticking with “English” cuisine. First, as a person who is effectively English in cultural background if dynastically, like most of us, a bit of a hodgepodge, I don’t think it’s a good look to tell Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish people how to deal with their shit. Secondly, we have different agricultural and environmental situations. Scotland has a much smaller population and more wild territory and a lot more coastline; Wales has done a lot less in the way of falling out of contact with farming; Northern Ireland is different again. While there’s variety in England, as a political entity it’s got different challenges to deal with, and a much bigger population is one of them. In terms of diet, too, we have a different history.
However, I will hopefully be able to draw upon dietary traditions elsewhere in the Isles due to our climatic similarities and shared plant and wildlife, and the influence we’ve undoubtedly had on each other. This should also extend to looking at what is done traditionally with similar plants and animals in the Republic of Ireland, Scandinavia, France, Germany, and the Netherlands where appropriate as we have been hugely culturally influenced by them over the course of our history.
Ultimately “English” culture has for a very long time been heavily influenced by ideas imported or nicked from other places, adopted and adapted for local use. I would assume the same of food culture.
How did we feed ourselves traditionally and what did we feed ourselves traditionally?
Historically, England’s class system (with its feudal roots) has divided what people eat between the producers of the food, who supplement agricultural plenty with foraged and trapped/hunted wild food, versus those who can afford traded exotic spices and fruits. Eventually these rich-people foods would become more accessible to the poor (via colonialism and imperialism, but also via preservation and new farming methods), and things like pineapple, sugar, cinnamon, and turkey stopped being exotic rich fare and became everyday. The story of deprivation under siege that was generally known as The Blitz (etc) demonstrated pretty well how much the British Isles had come to rely on our trading links with the rest of the world, in particular the rest of what was at the time the Empire.
(No snide comments about our current situation please, I’ve already had them all pass through my mind).
The process was not wholly complete: foods reserved for the aristocracy by tradition and associated with particular rituals and restrictions remained restricted: venison, pheasant, grouse, hare. There were rural populations whose connection to large estates allowed them access to these meats but the majority didn’t get the opportunity. So now there is an association with game that it is a pretentious indulgence, which its association with high-end restaurants and celebrity chefs is doing little to elide–but it was originally just an inherent part of the diet, before the feudalist society made deer the food of the privileged.
Some foods went in the opposite direction. The socially-mobile shellfish, the upwardly-aspiring bivalves went from being the food of poverty to being the food of privilege. Oysters, and later crabs and crayfish, have seen themselves lifted away from their working-class roots–in the case of crab, within a human lifetime. And we’ve stopped eating horsemeat altogether.
As colonialism, following on from the example of the Crusades (do the English ever visit anywhere without doing our best to destroy it? Why do we have so little respect for difference?), brought the English to different cuisine and then the cooks of different cuisine to England, fads and fashions moved from just individual ingredients (often misused) and the inferior reproductions of continental dishes, into fusions and love affairs with new worlds. We got into curry. We met with Anglicised dishes from China. The process continues to this day, in waves: the exploratory palates pass on diluted versions to the more cautious, and we are gradually globalised…
…but unlike many other cultures, we’ve lost our sense of culinary self along the way. Our attitudes to food have frequently been unhinged: not about nurturing and comfort but about fuelling, about punishment, about class distinctions–Industrialisation and Protestantism combined to produce ugliness, unhappiness, and disconnection.
So what am I looking for?
What do I want from an English Cuisine?
- Local food sources
- Use of indigenous plants & animals
- Ecologically-robust plant and animal consumption
- Diminution of destructive agricultural practices (especially monoculturing of crops & out-of-season growing where unnecessary)
- Perhaps an aim towards managed wild populations or farmed indigenous species
- A greater cultural value placed on food the production and preparation of food and evven just on eating in general
- Better food education and an end to diet culture
- Greater self-sufficiency for individuals and for the country in terms of food production
- To include methods and dishes from our national past that draw upon the locally available items, and to stop behaving as though these dishes are shameful or boring
- To consume these things alongside or in fusion with the foods we have enjoyed from other cultures ,or experienced as fusion from immigrants in this country–we need to understand that a large part of our national food identity as we understand it has come from our interactions with other cultures and their adaptations to being in England (and Scotland and Wales) and that in future this will continue to happen, and that this is a good thing.
Farming definitely needs to change. It needs to stop being treated as a shame and a problem, and needs to be treated as an opportunity and a necessity. What vegans have got right, absolutely, is that we need to rely less on meat consumption and to look at better practices in animal farming than we have in place; having stringent animal welfare legislation is pointless if it isn’t enforced and the same is true of our workers’ rights legislation (both agricultural, food production, and otherwise).
Unfortunately our climate and soil makes it impossible to efficiently produce for a balanced all-plant diet–that kind of thing works better in places which are more verdant. It’s a lot more effective for sheep, pigs, cows, deer, rabbits etc to convert some of our more hostile landscape into protein than it is for us to try to graze it ourselves. But we an stand to eat a lot less meat and a wider range.
We should definitely eat more seaweed and acorns. In future we’re going to be eating insects whether we like it or not, and some farmers have got a head start on this. And sure, culturally we’ve moved away from one of our most efficient traditional sources of protein and fat: sheep and goat (and horse!), which can thrive in conditions that human-edible plants struggle in, but fortunately one of the few positive side effects of the global reach of the late empire is the influx to the isles of people who are very familiar with making delicious goat & mutton dishes.
A broadened palate, a wider range of indigeneously-acquired products, and a globally-available increase in skills and knowledge would give us the best of tradition and of the future.
Where should I start?
Enclosure, Industrialisation, two World Wars, a Depression, the associated destruction of communities and traditions, and the dramatic pace of modernisation have led to a fractured diet and a traumatised approach to food and eating and the loss of valuable food culture. It needed be irreversible; we need to stop looking on agriculture and eating as somehow shameful and backwards and accept that the most technologically advanced countries in the world (which are not us in the slightest) value and cherish their farms, their farmers, and their food. They take pride in their food traditions and they pass on food knowledge within communities. We would benefit from doing the same.
I don’t want to diminish the problems facing us, and one of those problem is poverty, and another is habit.
Jack Monroe has done sterling work in looking up, for example, recipes in the British Library and converting them for the modern palate and the foodstuffs available to us; I’ve made “worts” from Cooking on A Bootstrap myself and found it a good base for all kinds of customisations, in line with Ramen Hacks.
I’m already in possession of cookbooks focussing on different eras of historical English cooking: The Form Of Curry ; Lobscouse and Spotted Dog; a British Museum publication medieval food, a compendium of cookable Saxon recipes…
With these providing inspiration and starting points, balancing availability and ease, and hopefully acknowledging the colonial influence on our modern palate, I’m hoping to be able to work my way towards “English” food that can be either complex or simple, challenging to eat or comforting, supermarket-lazy or foraging-and-gardening-hard.