(Spectator Scoff, January 2010)
If you are reading this article the likelihood is that you are university educated, your parents owned the home you grew up in and you’ve travelled extensively. Food enthusiasts fall into a cohort of the population that is, undoubtedly, the antithesis of the Chav, and his successful cousin Mondeo Man.
We have to face up to the close association between the food we eat and the class we aspire to, whether it be trustafarian bo-ho, haute bourgeois or plain aristocrat. Just as many of us wouldn’t be seen dead in a football strip, likewise, we cringe at the thought of enjoying the proletarian flavour of char-grilled burgers bought from chip vans or, worse still, the suburban lull of ham and pineapple on take-out pizza.
Yes indeed, food snobbery is alive and well, and I must say I do succumb to it myself, closely surveying the tawdry purchases of the hoi polloi on the rare occasions I venture into large supermarkets.
Equally, I grow weary at the nonsense spouted by food enthusiasts. My latest bugbear is the elevated status accorded to ‘peasant food’ which is now closely associated with the ideals of a lost agrarian authenticity. The difficulty I have with this depiction is that it ignores the ‘nasty, brutish and short’ realities of a peasant life characterised by food shortages, even famine, and petty paternalism.
Devotees, such as Rick Stein, bemoan a mythical lost heritage where agricultural workers enjoyed a diet of Cornish pasties, Bakewell tarts, Melton Mowbray pork pies and Cumberland sausages washed down with lashings of Real Ale. This picture is, of course, far from accurate. As Stephen Mennell author of All Manners of Food, the classic rendering of the divergence between French and English culinary traditions, tells us, pies, puddings and conserves were the food of the gentry, rarely eaten by the lower orders.
Instead, as with the rest of Europe, until the nineteenth century at the earliest, the food of the great bulk of the population was soups, stews or porridge cooked in one pot over an open fire, or worse: Sir Frederick Eden’s 1797 publication The State of the Poor shows how labourers in the south of England were ‘habituated to the unvarying meal of dry bread and cheese from week’s end to week’s end’.
The kind of ‘traditional’ English food that I encounter invariably contains meat, yet, this constituted only a tiny part of that diet: as recently as a century ago, the average annual consumption per capita in England was 25 kilos, a figure that has risen to 80 kilos today. This carnality is connected to urbanisation, leading Carolyn Steele to the conclusion that ‘the inexorable rise of burgher and burger go hand in hand’.
In anguish at the loss of ‘tradition’ in this country, food enthusiasts have sought rifugio in Italian cuisine, which is generally portrayed as being suckled on the teat of Mother Nature herself.
But a recent publication Delizia – The Epic History of Italian Food by John Dickie, explodes many of the myths surrounding Italian food: Marco Polo did not bring pasta to Italy from China, and there is no evidence for the contention that Catarina de’ Medici brought about the export of Italian culinary expertise to France.
Dickie contends that ‘Italian food is city food’ and says that ‘until the middle of the twentieth century ordinary people in the Italian countryside ate very badly – countless documents tell us as much’. He supports this by recalling a number of popular sayings; among my favourites were: When the peasant eats a chicken either the peasant is ill or the chicken is, and Don’t tell the peasants how good cheese is with pears.
Yet, as Dickie tells us, Italians now embrace the idea of ‘peasant’ food wholeheartedly: ‘the surest way to get a product moving off the supermarket shelves is by putting “peasant tradition” on the packet’.
This contemporary ‘peasant’ food is, however, far distant from the gruel of yesteryear. Until recently, even pasta, that most identifiable of Italian foods, formed only a minor part in the Italian diet compared to polenta (yellow maize) especially in the north of Italy. So in the 1950s each Italian man, woman and child was eating 60 grams of polenta per day, but by the 1980s the figure was too small to register statistically.
The point often forgotten about so-called peasant food is that food preparation for the peasant was, for the most part, a question of careful husbandry of scarce resources. There were no food fads, just survival. To quote Mennell again: ‘Judged in relation to basic physiological needs, virtually the whole history of cookery would have to be considered a study of luxury’.