A garlicked isle, set in an olive oil sea

July 18, 1997

The food on our plates has been transformed since the war by a host of political, social and economic flavours. Continuing our series on food, Brian Harrison runs through history's menu

King George V thought anyone who refused roast beef on a Sunday could not be an Englishman. In his conservatism about food, as in so much else, he spoke for his subjects. "As a rule they will refuse even to sample a foreign dish,'' wrote George Orwell, discussing British working-class attitudes to food in 1944. "They regard such things as garlic and olive oil with disgust, life is unliveable to them unless they have tea and puddings.'' By 1944 the British diet had been improving for a long time, while the age of physical maturity had been falling for decades. By the 1970s European men reached their maximum height at age 17 or 18, compared with 26 in the 1920s. The advance of birth control meant that there could be more food per person. Twentieth-century welfare advanced things still further, and during the second world war national guidance on nutrition was improved and food shared out more equally.

Yet the war did nothing for the variety and quality of British food. The station buffet described in the 1945 film Brief Encounter was no cornucopia, and government-sponsored British restaurants were cheap but spartan. The war enhanced British insularity and lowered expectations of food for long afterwards. All this has now changed, as only people in their sixties can fully appreciate.

The history of food - a relatively neglected topic - is important. The kitchen revolution that began in Britain in the 1950s is still in progress and no historian of modern Britain should apologise for analysing what produced it.

Britain's postwar food revolution stems partly from growing affluence. Earlier generations were shaped by scarcity, and the simple life was an important constituent of both Christian and early socialist values. But in the 1950s western industrial societies experienced unprecedented abundance and each new possession whetted the appetite for more. Rationing was on the way out, and commercial television - that great impulse to consumption - was launched in 1955. Factory farming was beginning to convert poultry from Christmas luxury into regular standby, just as fresh and smoked salmon would go down-market in the 1980s, followed by venison a decade later. Increased car ownership made eating out more comfortable in the 1950s; in the owner-occupied home, stylish entertaining occurred.

During the 1950s food also became a subject of specialist expertise. The paperback Penguin Cookery Book, published in 1952, was an instant success. In 1957 the American idea of a Consumers' Association was imported, reinforced by its periodical Which?

But the English amateur did most to improve standards. The Good Food Club's members so enjoyed eating out that they wrote down their experiences. Founder Raymond Postgate noted in the first (1951) Good Food Guide that the club "exists entirely through the voluntary work of its members, and its continued existence depends upon the thoughtful filling up of the forms to be found at the end of this book''. Its impact was considerable. By the 1960s British pubs were losing their name for minimal, poor-quality food. The curiously British distinction between pub and restaurant, between drinking and eating, was at last fading away. Mergers between big brewing, catering and leisure concerns were a natural consequence.

But while new attitudes to food fuelled the social ambitions of suburbia, conventional attitudes became the resort of populist politicians. Entering 10 Downing Street in 1964, the Wilson family were self-consciously ordinary, and their eating habits were satirised in Private Eye, apparently with some truth. Richard Crossman's diary records the Wilsons' suspicion that he had thought himself superior ever since spurning their offer of Nescafe instead of real coffee. Edward Heath, also lower-middle-class in origin, was the Conservative riposte to Wilson. Although not personally austere at table, Heath wanted to distance his party from "the unacceptable face of capitalism": from the expense-account "fringe benefit" board room lunches. And although Thatcherites, in Alfred Sherman's phrase, "ate our way to victory'' in generous lunches at the Centre for Policy Studies, Heath's attitudes grounded the party more firmly on the mass basis of support it has always enjoyed.

Populism reached the heart of the party in February 1991, with John Major's breakfast in a Happy Eater. Waiter Gavin Ward, 19, described the scene: "A black Daimler rolled up and a man came in and said, 'You might think I am off my trolley, but I've got the prime minister here. Is it all right if we come in?'" In 1997 Major was ousted by a Labour leader whose election campaign flourished on his much-discussed appetite for chocolate bars.

Political internationalism through the United Nations disappointed many postwar hopes, but culinary internationalism triumphed after the late 1950s. Hungarian and Polish restaurants had catered for small enclaves of central European immigrants since the 1930s, but in the 1950s French cookery took the middle classes by storm. Elizabeth David brought a new cosmopolitan seriousness to cookery with her Book of Mediterranean Food (1950). Herbs, garlic and spices henceforth enlivened middle-class soups and stews. Vegetables, no longer boiled flavourless, acquired a new glamour, and in the 1980s became central to the visual impact of nouvelle cuisine. The British were cultivating their Eurostomach long before they joined the Common Market in 1973, and by the 1980s French bakers were at last toppling the custard tart and the Bath bun from their thrones.

Coffee bars and restaurants run by immigrants to Britain - Italian, Spanish, Greek and Cypriot - gave the young of the 1950s the unsupervised meeting places that teashops had provided for emancipated Edwardian women. In 1957 there were only 50 Chinese restaurants in Britain; six years later there were more than 1,400 in England alone, catering for nearly a third of Britain's diners-out. Rice, hitherto used mainly in its short-grained variant for puddings, was revealed in all its savoury dimensions - patna, long-grain, arborio and fragrant. During the 1970s Britain's rice imports doubled. Thereafter tastes from locations ever more exotic made themselves manifest in new restaurants - from Japan to Mexico, from Indo-China to Africa - all backed up by specialist food shops.

Feminism reinforced the transforming influence of internationalism, but in ways that would have surprised Edwardian feminists. Annie Besant, Charlotte Gilman and Sylvia Pankhurst all predicted that women would be liberated through communal cooking and professionalised housework. Gilman thought women's emancipation would strengthen the demand for public buildings: "Great common libraries and parlours, baths and gymnasia, workrooms and play rooms, to which both sexes have the same access for the same needs.'' Yet most Edwardian feminists were content with the vote, and did not challenge the separation of spheres between the sexes. So Gilman's predictions have not been realised. People have chosen to live in their owner-occupied, individuated homes, and households are growing smaller. Capitalism, not socialism, has generated prepacked convenience food, enabling women to combine paid work with individuated housekeeping.

Convenience food is nothing new. Victorian millgirls relied on such conveniences as pies, tripe, cold cooked meats and bacon and eggs, and northern textile towns gave us fish and chips. The 20th century simply saw the market widening as married women moved fully into paid work.

Between the wars almost every kind of meat, fish, soup and fruit became available in tins, and by 1928 over a million packets of potato crisps were being sold. "The English palate, especially the working-class palate, now rejects good food almost automatically,'' wrote Orwell in 1937. "The number of people who prefer tinned peas and tinned fish to real peas and real fish must be increasing every year.'' By the 1960s, Americanised ready-to-eat cereal was ousting porridge, and from 1972 drew in another European intrusion, muesli. The traditional English breakfast was gradually consigned to weekends. For married working women bottling fruit and making jam went the way of polished surfaces and open fires.

All this undermined the single family meal with parents presiding. Kitchen technology freed husband, wife and children to pursue divergent timetables and tastes. The microwave oven, like the video recorder and the answerphone, brought a new flexibility to life. Main meals were now at the start and end of the day, with morning coffee, lunch and tea in decline. Breakfast was more likely to offer fruit juice, cereal and yoghurt than bacon and eggs. Dinner replaced dishes that required suet and dripping with poultry and fresh vegetables.

Victorians would have felt at home in the food shops of Britain in the 1950s: small concerns managed by the proprietor, working through assistants who knew their employer, the goods he sold and customers he served. Housewives wanted items weighed out, wrapped and even delivered to the home. But already the supermarket with its prepacked goods was encroaching, filling family dustbins with wrappings and plastic. Shopping slowly ceased to be a personal, almost daily relationship between housewife and shopkeeper. With the advent of Americanised hypermarkets in the 1980s it became a car-borne family-based weekly foray among aisles of goods displayed in unprecedented range and abundance, promoting new tastes and defying the seasons.

New foods required new technologies. In absolute terms, more was being spent on food. But it took a dwindling proportion of household income: nearly a third between the wars, only a sixth by the 1970s. Food has played a diminishing role in the Retail Price Index since 1962. By contrast, consumer goods (including cookers and freezers) have taken an ever-increasing share. The refrigerator made shopping less demanding because food could now readily be kept fresh. In 1968 John Apthorp founded Bejam to sell food for freezers. Ten years later he had 151 stores, but the multiple grocery chains moved in, and the freezer centre's specialist role became redundant. By 1978 more than 90 per cent of households owned refrigerators. Three years later almost half possessed a deep freeze or fridge freezer. Responsibility for storing food was increasingly transferred from the shop to an enlarged home that could store food bought in bulk. Freezers also fuelled the 1970s middle-class fashion for allotments, and by 1979 "pick your own" accounted for about half Britain's raspberry crop and a quarter of its strawberries.

Here again one consumer good led to another as the freezer fostered new types of cooker. Where only 6 per cent of British families had an electric cooker in 1936, nearly a third had them by 1961 and nearly a half by 1980. Then the microwave oven, launched in the mid-1970s, took off in the mid-1980s; by 1991 more than half the nation's households owned one.

The history of food is important because it indirectly illuminates a host of political, social and economic changes that straddle the conventional categories of historical study. Perhaps this is why food's history gets neglected: it is everybody's concern but nobody's speciality. But perhaps there is a deeper difficulty. While historians are as keen on their food as anyone else, they cultivate a serious image, and for some reason food seems frivolous.

Raymond Postgate must have the last word. "There is still a decayed Puritan atmosphere in parts of Britain,'' he wrote in the Good Food Guide for 1969-70. "It is considered ... ignoble to concern oneself passionately with the quality of food and wine.'' The Good Food Club would, he thought, "have received respect from the intelligentsia and the official world if it had called itself something like the Society for the Improvement of Popular Nutrition. But it would also never have got off the ground''.

Brian Harrison is professor of history, Oxford University, and a fellow of Corpus Christi College.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments