You are what you eat

August 28, 1998

Food can define a national identity. Shannon Peckham offers a taste of some of the historical ingredients that shaped our character

The destiny of nations," wrote the philosopher of gastronomy Brillat-Savarin, "depends upon the manner in which they feed themselves." At the close of the 20th century many might agree.

Stereotypes of national character are often evoked in relation to national cuisines. To the Greeks, the Italians are Makaronades, to the French, the British are Rosbif, to the British, the French are Frogs. In travel guides foreign cultures are identified with the foods to be tried and avoided; to travel involves the risk of becoming sick. Such displays of national foods underline the extent to which foreignness is an important part of self-definition. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss tells how during the Allied landings in 1944 American troops destroyed a number of Normandy cheese dairies because they reeked of corpses.

A distinctive cuisine and a shared food vocabulary can help define a national culture. Nations often emphasise their historical claims to certain kinds of food, even though these foods might be shared by many other countries. Kuwaiti, Algerian and Saudi cookbooks, for example, argue on historic grounds for their distinctive cuisines to be differentiated from those of other Arab countries. And after the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus it became de rigueur to call "Turkish" coffee "Greek" or even "Byzantine".

An organic Greek national cuisine was increasingly celebrated in the late 19th century. Nikolaos Politis, the man who coined the Greek word for folklore in 1884, listed food as an area of study for scholars concerned with preserving national traditions, which were in danger of being swept away by the onslaught of a cosmopolitan modernity and, later, by the consumption of "European tinned food".

It was not until the 20th century that a Greek cuisine was standardised, by Nikolaos Tselemendes, whose name became synonymous with "cookbook" in Greece. He set out to put Greek cooking on a level with other western cuisines and sought to wean Greeks off their excessive attachment to spices, which he considered a pernicious legacy of Ottoman rule.

But the massive influx of Greek immigrants from Asia Minor after 1922, following Greece's crushing defeat by Turkey and the ensuing exchange of populations, undermined the notion of a unified, homogeneous, national cuisine along the lines laid out by Tselemendes. These refugees from Turkey brought with them spicy Anatolian dishes and other "foreign" cooking practices. They were nicknamed yiaourtovaptismeni, meaning "those baptised in yoghurt", because of the liberal use of yoghurt in their food.

To speak of a national identity is to assume an analogy between the nation and the individual. Eating, it could be argued, is one of the ways in which the relations between nation and individual are embodied. From this perspective the infant's bond with the mother provides a symbolic equivalent of the subject's affiliations with the motherland.

If eating is essential to the assimilation of the self, so might it also be true for national communities. It was Freud in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) who explored "the reasons why a child sucking at its mother's breast has become the prototype of every relation of love". Love for the nation, for example. While Freud was penning his thesis, the association of motherhood with the nation was given emphasis in Britain in debates over the defective quality of women's milk and its substitution by cheap sweetened condensed milk. As reproducers of the nation through whom the nation's young imbibed their values, the poor health of women was a national concern, connected to fears about the deterioration of the national physique.

The National Milk Publicity Council's promoting of milk consumption in schools from the late 1920s responded to this anxiety. In 1934 the Milk Act provided subsidised milk. During the second world war the National Milk Scheme was introduced to supply milk to expectant mothers and young children. Free school milk was introduced in 1946 and lasted until abolished by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1970s.

In most secular societies the state was the regulator of dietary regimes, inheriting a canon of culinary prohibitions from the sacral institutions it displaced. In Britain the austerity of an enforced patriotic diet during the second world war prefigured the state's increasingly interventionist role as the arbitrator of the nation's dietary welfare. The National Food Survey was founded in 1940 and a Ministry of Food created. Lord Woolton, the minister, spoke of the "kitchen front". Citizens were encouraged through a campaign of "Digging for Victory" to cultivate vegetable plots.

Now, more than ever, national politics is about conspicuous consumption. Deals may be sealed over banquets, but politicians are required to display their intimacy with popular food in a symbolic gesture of electability. Unfortunate examples of culinary insensitivity on the part of politicians are highlighted in the media as political faux pas. Peter Mandelson, in the 1992 election, mistook mushy peas for avocado puree, while Alain Juppe outraged an electorate in France by indulging in a feast of ortolans, cruelly exposing the gap between delectability and electability.

Politicians and their entourages vie for the title of the nation's ideal master consumer and cook, acknowledging that food remains the quickest way to the heart of the nation. Nigel Lawson, the messiah of the profligate '80s, promotes the benefits of a frugal dietary regime in his cookbook, while journalists dissect the menu of the dinner hosted by the Blairs for the Clintons at Le Pont de la Tour.

Nowadays concerns about the McDonaldisation of national culture are often expressed. The impoverishment of the national diet stands as an allegory for other cultural and economic invasions that threaten the community's integrity. The proliferation of fast food and consumerism calls for local resistance. There is nothing new in the fears of such invasions, nor in the projection of a homogenous national culinary culture that flourished in a resplendent, but unspecified, golden age.

That other fin de si cle in the 19th century was dominated by similar concerns about the degeneration and impending collapse of the nation; concerns that found their expression in anxieties about the corruption of the nation's culinary culture. One writer noted in Macmillan's Magazine in 1886: "In years to come it will be debated whether the great minds of the later Victorian era were more concerned with their souls or with their stomachs ..."

In part the anxieties stemmed from an appreciation of the fact that the population was no longer producing the food it consumed. Imperial expansion had opened up new tastes and brought new foreign foods home, while technologies of conservation, storage and transport facilitated and encouraged this flow. The commodification of food divorced edibles from any concrete social relations so that consumers no longer knew what they were consuming or where it came from.

A connection was drawn between the nation's unsavoury diet and the deterioration of the national physique. During the Boer war the army was hard put to recruit soldiers of a suitable physique and the minimum height for the infantry was consequently reduced to five feet. Steps were required to safeguard the nation from those degenerative influences within. It was in this light that the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration (1904) was convened and argued for the need to improve the poor quality of foods.

Like the new literature circulated in popular newspapers, many contemporaries also argued that tinned food was detrimental to the nation.

Poverty could be spoken of only in terms of unsatisfactory consuming habits or perverse consumption. The frail physical constitution of the nation's poor was clearly connected to their deficient diet, and the nation's eclipse was also linked to the contamination of local foods by foreign imports of inferior quality. Consequently, one of the novelist's tasks was to record the nation's consuming habits and to evoke them as they ought to be, with contented protagonists sitting down to well-cooked and wholesome national repasts.

Threats posed to a unified national culinary culture called for cookery books such as Isabella Beeton's bible of household management (1861). For Beeton, cooking was embedded in an encompassing context of social relations that radiated out from the kitchen as the hub of the domestic and familial space. "Badly cooked dinners and untidy ways", she concluded, were the chief sources of discontent.

The Crimean war had demonstrated the importance of the management of food to the successful outcome of military engagements. Alexis Soyer had been in charge of supervising the victualling of the army hospitals during the war and his book, Culinary Campaign (1857), impressed on the public the relationship between cooking and military conflict. For Beeton, the mistress of the house resembled nothing as much as "the commander of an army". In the midst of potential chaos, Beeton the cook promoted an ideal of national order, proving that the new consumerism was not an inevitable recipe for disaster.

The drive to preserve the nation's food as a vital part of its heritage was not unrelated to the establishment of other national institutions at the end of the last century such as the Folklore Society, the National Trust and the magazine Country Life. Cookery books promoted notions of an homogeneous and timeless national cooking, ideas that still remain powerful and are promoted in political speeches that project Britain in terms of its essential Middle-Englishness: a nation that plays cricket and drinks tepid beer. Ironically, many of the ostensibly traditional national dishes are of recent provenance: like the ploughman's lunch, which dates back only to the 1960s. At the same time, many of the ingredients that make up national cuisines, such as the potato, were introduced in the wake of colonisation.

At the close of the 20th century there are commentators who maintain that with the proliferation of global networks, national affiliations are dissolving. Evidence of such a dissolution, it is argued, is reflected in increasingly pluralistic culinary cultures. Foreign foods are available everywhere. Comestibles as commodities are caught up in the dynamics of an economic system that compresses time and space, conflating hitherto discrete environments so that it is no longer meaningful to speak of national cuisines.

It may be, however, that the reverse is true. In overriding national affiliations an increasingly global culture has incited even more virulent forms of nationalism. Similarly, it may be that the culinary multiculturism that is construed today as evidence of the nation's obsolescence signifies precisely the obverse. The distinct categories of ethnic cuisine remain firmly in place, suggesting they are still potent. Today, it could be argued, commodified foreignness in the form of world cooking is served up by a mainstream culture in a feast that feeds the muscles of the consuming nation, incorporating and finally annihilating all difference.

Shannon Peckham is research fellowat St Catharine's College, Cambridge. A longer version of this article is in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, edited by Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (THES/MandarinBooks, Pounds 10.99). Please send your order and payment to: News Books, PO Box 345, Falmouth TR11 2YX or telephone: 0990 329454.

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