Why was British Food so Awful? Blame it on Free Trade


As Manchester is the home of free trade we are keen students of the social effects. Trade gets blamed for almost everything these days, rightly or wrongly. Now it’s the awful reputation of British cooking. Reviewing Kate Colquhoun’s The Story of Britain’s Cooking (Bloomsbury), Ian Jack in the New York Times asks why we developed such a poor cuisine despite so many excellent ingredients (‘the roast beef of old England’) and finds it in “… the triad of the Industrial Revolution, empire and free trade. The first drove people from the fields to the factories; the colonies of the second grew what Sidney Mintz has called the tropical ‘drug foods’ (including sugar and tea); the cheap imports encouraged by the third drove out the homegrown”. By 1800 according to Colquhoun “… the poor in Britain were now subsisting not on a diet that had remained broadly unchanged for centuries of ale, grain and vegetables and a modicum of fatty meat, but on a vastly less nutritious mix of often adulterated white bread, cheese, tea and sugar”.

Many of us are eating better now (and Manchester has been one of the cities leading the renaissance of British food over the last decade). We are certainly eating more, as the rising obesity statistics bear witness (are you on your post-Xmas diet?). And the link between poverty and bad nutrition remains an urgent issue in the UK (check out the Food Access Network). Now off to the curry mile.

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