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“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
BOOK OF THE MONTH