It would be an understatement to say that the British Empire in its heyday was an engine of gluttony. But that is the story that Lizzie Collingham wants to tell in her book, The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. The Empire changed the world. There are arguments to both sides of the Empire’s deeds, that it did good is commendable, but the bad it did against the good is even more reproachable.
Trade was the first area through which the Empire propelled its power. A small trading company that went on to rule more than half the world and engineered the largest empire in history. From the 16th and 18th centuries, trading became the driving force behind innovation, both political and economic. This trade disrupted the life-cycles of many cultures and countries that eventually became part of the Empire.
This is what Collingham depicts in her enchanting history. The subject of this history is food. Food that drove trade and “helped to turn the wheels of commerce” (pg. xvi). Food that bolstered progress. However, with such progress, destruction went hand in hand. British traders settled in far off corners of the world for food, disrupting local cultures, and the people, even going so far as to annihilate entire native populations.
The food web that was woven by … [these developments] … created a truly global system that connected all five inhabited continents, drawing in even the most isolated and far-flung corners of the planet.
In this way, Britain changed the way the world tasted food. And yet, it should be noted that food was still just one aspect of commerce that British merchants were concentrating on. Indeed, with most histories “focus is usually on the story of maritime exploration and the quest for spices” (pg. 5). Among other things, Britain also traded in textiles, spices, tin, rubber, wood, dyes, etc. But food was important simply because it was a basic necessity that superseded all others; and trade thrived around food.
The book starts with “fish day on the Mary Rose.” Salt cod was never popular in English cuisine, but it lasted long and could be used for long sea journeys. It laid the foundation of English expansion. The ship Mary Rose itself became a shipwreck that, upon its rediscovery, became one of the best artefacts for historians. There was evidence in the shipwreck of the presence of beef, pork, and salt cod, and other things that could last for long without spoiling and becoming inedible.
“Tea was the last of the new colonial groceries to arrive on the English market (pg. 79).” It was rare and expensive, and came to London through the Dutch East India Company. As Collingham writes, sugar was popular with the English and led to the sweetening of tea overtime.
Collingham writes fluidly, without breaking her tone. Her main prerogative is getting the facts straight and putting them down in front of the reader. The pieces fall into place themselves. It is a fairly straightforward narrative that she has established. The author also supplies actual illustrations and colour plates depicting the history of food-making in the world. These illustrations complement the narrative easily.
Another thing of note is the recipes peppered throughout the book. These range from archaic recipes taken from old books that are still used in the kitchen today to authentic recipes passed down through families and friends across generations.
Even from the start, despite all the history provided in abundance, there really ever was only one topic of focus under discussion in this book: food. There are nuggets of information, both fascinating and unheard of at the same time. For example, the medieval cosmic view was that black was the colour of melancholy so it was not used in food. A combination of ginger and saffron was used because it was yellowish in colour and that meant the nourishing energy of the sun. But, this world view changed with the arrival of black pepper. Collingham helps the reader wade through this sea of history without any problems whatsoever.
Collingham is clearly fascinated by the effect the British Empire has had on the culinary arts and trade across the world. Sometimes, this fascination seems a bit laudatory, as if she can’t help admiring it. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that the Empire encouraged slavery or colonized countries like India, or that it appropriated cultures, even destroyed them. But she doesn’t openly criticize the actions of the Empire to a large extent. Since the topic is food, Collingham concentrates on that; sometimes to the detriment of any timely criticism.
The book is highly readable as an introduction to the past based on what is on your dinner plate.
Cover Image: AshPrad