Food, Glorious Food

21st October 2011

Jill Glenn reviews A History of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright

It’s an ambitious project, but Clarissa Dickson Wright embarks on a comprehensive history of the history of English food with no evident shred of fear. She begins with a chapter entitled Bacon and Eggs: The Medieval Larder, justifies her start date (somewhere in the 1150s) with a quick but thorough analysis of the contemporary political and social situation… and then we’re off, racing through the twelfth century with an assessment of staple fare across the country.

By the end of the chapter we’ve encountered a wider selection of foodstuffs than one might expect, including rabbit and deer, pigeon and poultry, and a greater variety of fish than you’d see on most people’s annual menus today. There’s detail about beef and sheep – ‘the ultimate multi-purpose animal’ – and already a real sense that Dickson Wright has undertaken and internalised a massive amount of research. My advance copy of the book didn’t show the bibliography, but I’d be interested to see a list of her sources. I suspect actually that much of her erudition derives from a lifetime’s love of food and cookery, and a natural ability for acquiring information. She wears her knowledge lightly, though, drawing wide strands together and plaiting them into a pleasingly coherent whole.

As I read A History of English Food, I can hear Dickson Wright’s distinctive voice rising and falling as she modulates sentences, pauses for emphasis and then rushes on with an enthusiastic explanation of some point of particular interest. The work is peppered both with witty asides and with comments such as ‘The sixteenth century transformation of the egg has always fascinated me’ and ‘I also have a suspicion that, through Catherine of Braganza, English food made a mark on Portuguese cuisine’. Surprisingly, these authorial intrusions aren’t irritating; the quirky, almost gossipy style is unusual, but not unappealing. Despite its vast stores of detail, this is an easy pick-up-put-down volume; you can read it straight through, or open it anywhere – and I defy you not to find something intriguing on any page: the influence of Jewish food on the development of that very English dish Fish and Chips, for example, or the scorn that greeted the first use of the fork as a personal cutlery implement in the early seventeenth century, a habit observed in Italy and derided at first as foreign affectation’.

A History of English Food takes the reader on a journey from the feasts of medieval kings to the cuisine – both good and bad – of the present day. It explores not only the types of food that people have eaten over the ages, but looks also at the shifting influences on English food as the British Empire waxed and waned and as the new immigrant communities made their contribution to the life of the country. Dickson Wright tells the stories of those who have shaped public taste – the chefs and cookery book writers, the gourmets and gluttons whose lives centred on the dining table – and brings to life what it was like to sit down to the meals of previous ages, whether to an eighteenth-century labourer's breakfast, to an elaborate twelve-course Victorian banquet or to a frugal lunch during the Second World War.

It’s an impressive achievement, and, at over 500 pages long and fully illustrated throughout, a very substantial read. Just as well, then that Dickson Wright picked the mid-twelfth century as a launch pad. If she’d begun any earlier, then the result would either have been too heavy to hold, or lacking in the rich detail that makes it such an entertaining delight.

A History of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright is
published by Random House Books in hardback £25

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