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History Revealed - - CONTENTS - by Lizzie Colling­ham

“The food web cre­ated a truly global sys­tem that con­nected all five in­hab­ited con­ti­nents”

As the re­cent suc­cess of the film Vic­to­ria and Ab­dul again demon­strates, the Bri­tish Em­pire re­mains a com­pelling – and con­tro­ver­sial – sub­ject. If you’re put off by what can be a huge, un­wieldy sub­ject, Lizzie Colling­ham here of­fers a com­pelling new take: telling the story of em­pire through its food. Struc­tured around 20 dif­fer­ent dishes, from a fish dish on the Mary

Rose to rum punch in Bos­ton, her book shows how Bri­tain’s global net­works for­ever al­tered na­tions and di­ets alike. Cer­tain themes (power, class, the ex­ploita­tion of re­sources and peo­ple) and food­stuffs (beef, stew, tea) emerge again and again, re­veal­ing trends and tastes that linger even today in the 21st cen­tury.

What food­stuffs and meals do you cover in the book, and how did you de­cide which to in­clude?

Each chap­ter be­gins with a meal and tells the story of how that par­tic­u­lar set of cir­cum­stances came about. I be­gin with sailors eating their last meal of salt cod on the Mary Rose the day be­fore it sank. I fol­low the story of the Bri­tish Em­pire, and the com­plex web of con­nec­tions be­tween peo­ple and places that it wove, by way of many dif­fer­ent things: sugar barons feast­ing on beef on Bar­ba­dos; Sa­muel Pepys tak­ing his wife to dine in a fancy French restau­rant; a ru­ral labour­ing fam­ily who ate 50lbs of sugar a year; em­i­grants to New Zealand grow­ing fat on plen­ti­ful mut­ton; Kenyans com­plain­ing about the paucity of beans in their na­tional dish of irio. I end the book with an em­pire Christ­mas pud­ding.

How did Bri­tain’s tastes shape the world, and it­self?

“The em­pire laid the foun­da­tions for the way the world eats today”

The em­pire shaped the world’s tastes in two con­tra­dic­tory ways. On the one hand, it had a pow­er­ful ho­mogenis­ing ef­fect. Rather than the ham­burger and soda of today, the typ­i­cal em­pire meal of bread, meat stew and sug­ared tea was the first global meal. It was eaten by ev­ery­one, from pioneer set­tlers trav­el­ling across the Amer­i­can prairies to Abo­rig­i­nal cow herds on Queens­land ranches. On the other hand, the peo­ple who the Bri­tish trans­ported around the globe to work on their agri­cul­tural plan­ta­tions took with them a panoply of culi­nary habits. And in this way, goat curry be­came a favourite Caribbean dish, roti dipped in co­conut milk a stan­dard Fi­jian break­fast, and African stews of leafy greens cooked with fat­back be­came an es­tab­lished part of the South­ern Amer­i­can diet.

Are there any in­di­vid­u­als in this his­tory that you think haven’t had the at­ten­tion they de­serve?

My book is full of in­di­vid­u­als, but few of them are well-known. From rice-grow­ing African slaves eating maize mush and pos­sum in 18th-cen­tury South Carolina to Margery Hall, the wife of an In­dian civil ser­vant strug­gling to cope with mak­ing a suit­ably rep­re­sen­ta­tive din­ner for her hus­band’s su­pe­ri­ors with­out the ser­vices of a cook. I am in­ter­ested in how large, seem­ingly im­per­sonal his­tor­i­cal pro­cesses im­pact on the lives of or­di­nary peo­ple.

How can we still feel the legacy of this story in the world, and Bri­tain, of today?

The Bri­tish Em­pire laid the foun­da­tions for the way the world eats. It is a legacy of the em­pire that East Africans think of maize as ‘food of the an­ces­tors’, for in­stance, when in fact it was in­tro­duced to the re­gion by colo­nial agri­cul­tural of­fi­cers. The ‘Bri­tish’ cup of tea is an in­fu­sion of the leaves of a Chi­nese plant, ac­quired in ex­change for opium grown in Ben­gal. Per­haps the most in­sid­i­ous legacy of the em­pire is the way in which sugar is an in­te­gral part of our diet. This is a di­rect legacy of the fact that the 19th-cen­tury in­dus­trial work­ing classes re­lied on sugar to give them en­ergy.

How would you like this book to change how read­ers view food?

Ev­ery meal car­ries within it a wealth of his­tory. Af­ter read­ing The Hun­gry Em­pire, I hope that even a cup of tea and a slice of bread and jam will bring to mind a wealth of sto­ries, and an aware­ness of how the food we eat con­nects us to the past.

ABOVE: The East In­dia Com­pany brought back many prod­ucts to Bri­tain, but tea proved one of the most pop­u­lar RIGHT: Large-scale fish­ing in New­found­land be­gan af­ter the coloni­sa­tion of Amer­ica, but the fish­eries col­lapsed in 1992 due to over­fish­ing

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