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Historian laments forgotten finery of British food

Rationing, the Industrial Revolution and a drastic reduction in household servants have nearly killed off Britain’s once-rich tradition of food.

At least that’s the argument put forth by British food historian Ivan Day when presented with the stereotype of his country as a nation filled with fast food-loving Philistines.

Day, a food history author and academic who also advises chefs such as the Michelinstarred Heston Blumenthal, says British food once rivalled its European cousins in Italy and France before necessity forced dining habits to decline.

“We are very culturally confused in culinary matters. We have lost touch with our own terroir,” Day said.

He said the Industrial Revolution and its accompanying urbanization in the 19th century were two factors in a deterioration in British eating traditions that were then all but eradicated by two world wars.

Basic foodstuffs

“Rationing during the Seciond World War forced people to live off basic foodstuffs,” he said.

By the end of the war, Britons were left with a gastronomic void that has been filled with food from other cultures, including the fast food blamed for rising rates of obesity.

“When ethnic groups moved into England from places like Bangladesh, they saw a lack of food outlets and thought, ‘let’s fill the gap,’” Day said. “If you visit a market town today there are lots of Thai, Indian, Chinese, Italian restaurants, but few English restaurants.”

The fortunes of war and industry divorced Britons from a part of their own culture, which once revelled in the cooking and presentation of fine food. The Victorians were the last Britons conscious of food in that way, Day said.

“There was a hugely sophisticated food culture, with the working class involved in the preparation of food,” he said. “They would present their masters with amazing dinners.”

At the same time as the landed gentry began to diminish and servants became a luxury few could afford, the industrial revolution also lured agricultural workers from the land.

Junk food

“Rural culture changed quickly, and the changes in food were dramatic,” Day said. “People were fed processed food as part of an industrial revolution machine.”

Today’s newspapers warn of an impending obesity crisis. But it was as early as two centuries ago that junk food began to creep into the British diet, Day said.

“They were fed things like Bird’s custard, which is just adding liquid to powder. We lost our sensibility for food.”

For the last 45 years Day has studied the preparation and consumpt ion of food throughout history, covering everything from the aphrodisiac cordial waters of the 18th century to the gravity-defying jellies of the Victorians.

He believes Britons should reconnect with their real food traditions and is saddened that many people still mistakenly associate British food history with “wenches, cleavage and frothing mugs of ale.”

“I am fastidious about how this stuff should be taken seriously,” he said. “Lots of past food is misunderstood. It’s actually incredibly good. I run about 20 classes a year to convince people that this is the case.”

Day’s push to reconcile Britons with the past is also in tune with modern notions of consumption, environmentalism and support for local food.

“Restaurants boast seasonality, local sourcing and organic produce, but in the 19th century all food had that,” he said. “We want to return to that, as an alternative to supermarket culture and industrial food with packaging and additives.”

“Frightening lessons”

Using authentic kitchen artifacts (including a roasting range complete with clockwork spitjacks) in his 17th century country farmhouse, Day runs courses to teach participants a range of techniques, from confectionary to broiling, using methods from the late Medieval to the Victorian period.

“In the past we ate everything, including organs. Now we are urbanized into squeamishness,” he said. “Before, when we killed an animal we believed that the animal offered up its life for us. It was a gift from a deity and so nothing was to be wasted.”

Day said that history departments of modern universities place little emphasis on the role of food. Yet those lessons may be the most important with a severe global economic downturn in the offing.

“If we fall into a Depression, we will need cheaper food,” he said. “We may be forced to look to our culinary past. History has the best , but some of the most frightening lessons.”

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