His­tory in the eat­ing

The Hun­gry Em­pire: How Bri­tain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Mod­ern World by Lizzie Colling­ham Bod­ley Head, 400pp

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Kwasi Kwarteng

Satur­day 18 July 1545 was fish day on the Mary Rose. The crew ate on the cramped gun deck, sit­ting wher­ever they could find room. Fish days were not pop­u­lar, but on this Satur­day the meal pro­vided a wel­come respite from fran­tic ac­tiv­ity, as all 185 sol­diers, 30 gun­ners and 200 mariners on board were ready­ing the ship for war.

The next day a chance gust of wind caused the ves­sel, over­loaded with ar­tillery, to keel over and sink. No more than 40 men sur­vived. In the face of the tragedy, Henry VIII is sup­posed to have ex­claimed: “Oh my gen­tle­men! Oh my gal­lant men!” He could hear the cries of the drown­ing sailors as he watched from the shore in Portsmouth.

In the wreck­age, ar­chae­ol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered the ver­te­brae of cat­tle and pigs, as well as thou­sands of fish spines, strewn among the re­mains of the wicker bas­kets that once held them. Th­ese were the residue of the ship’s stores of beef, pork and cod.

Such ev­i­dence has shown the ex­tent to which Eng­land was trad­ing across Europe and be­yond, even in the 16th cen­tury. Lizzie Colling­ham’s book, The Hun­gry Em­pire, is an en­er­getic and re­fresh­ing ac­count of a lit­tle-con­sid­ered as­pect of Bri­tish his­tory. By ex­am­in­ing what peo­ple ate, Colling­ham skil­fully pro­vides an ac­count of com­plex con­nec­tions.

She con­structs her book around 20 meals: each chap­ter tells a slightly dif­fer­ent story about the em­pire, cen­tred on a par­tic­u­lar dish. It’s hard to think of a more in­ge­nious way of treat­ing im­pe­rial his­tory. Chap­ters deal with the Chi­nese opium trade, the coloni­sa­tion of New Zealand and the diet of 18th-cen­tury labour­ers in rural Lan­cashire. The range is daz­zling. Purists may raise an eye­brow at the in­clu­sion of sev­eral recipes, in­clud­ing “Nel­lie Hu­sa­nara Ab­dool’s pump­kin and shrimp curry”, though bud­ding chefs may well find the pre­scrip­tive­ness use­ful: “Add curry pow­der, brown sugar, thyme, salt and pep­per. Stir and cook for an­other 15 min­utes. Add 250ml of wa­ter and cook for 20–25 min­utes un­til the pump­kin is soft.” Yet The Hun­gry Em­pire, it should be clear, is sup­ported by metic­u­lous his­tor­i­cal re­search.

Us­ing food as a way of un­der­stand­ing em­pire is highly ef­fec­tive. Food knows no bar­ri­ers of race, gen­der or even time. The recipe for jollof rice, a spe­cial­ity of west African cui­sine, has prob­a­bly not changed across the cen­turies. Michel Ja­jo­let de la Courbe, a French

ex­plorer and slave dealer, de­scribed a rice dish from west Africa in the late 17th cen­tury, in which he de­fined chill­ies as “a green or red fruit, shaped like a cu­cum­ber, and with a taste re­sem­bling that of pep­per”. No ac­count of food in the em­pire can avoid ref­er­ences to the slave trade. The Africa-Amer­ica sea route opened a chan­nel whereby “a host of Amer­i­can plants and food­stuffs en­tered west African agri­cul­ture”, par­tic­u­larly maize and man­ioc (cas­sava). In the early days maize was even known as “white man’s grain” in the Gold Coast.

Of all the meals that rep­re­sented Bri­tish cul­ture, per­haps none cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion more than the Christ­mas pud­ding. It was the Vic­to­ri­ans who fixed the tra­di­tional plum pud­ding as a fes­tive dish. “The au­thor of the Book of Christ­mas,” Colling­ham writes, “per­son­i­fied the plum pud­ding as a ‘black­amoor who de­rives his ex­trac­tion from the spice lands’.” In the book’s illustration, it even ap­peared as a portly black fig­ure, clothed in medieval cos­tume. The pud­ding was thought of as a na­tional dish pre­cisely be­cause of the for­eign na­ture of its sugar, spice and dried fruits: “an em­blem of our com­mer­cial em­i­nence”. This book’s treat­ment of food in the em­pire is in­no­va­tive and ex­cit­ing; to bring such vi­brancy to an old topic is a re­mark­able achieve­ment.

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