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Between poverty and plenty

Stuart Walton enjoys an authoritative, readable, compellingly ethical history of British food.

By Stuart Walton

Stuart Walton reviews Stuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain, by Pen Vogler.

One of the most productive developments in recent food writing has been the amalgamation of contemporary food politics and its concerns with the food history of individual cultures. In this regard, British food writing has been particularly prominent. Diane Purkiss’s English Food: A People’s History (reviewed in WFW 79, pp.60–61) was a signal contribution to this genre, and the work of Pen Vogler is another. While Vogler’s previous book, Scoff (2020), looked at the relations between food and class in British history, her latest offering unpicks the embattled—often triumphant, sometimes infuriating—history of administrative intervention in who eats what, whether they have enough of it, and what it is doing to them over the long term.

Vogler’s approach is transhistorical. She opens with the gradual but relentless process of land enclosure in the British Isles, with Before and After chapters on its demi-paradisiacal prequel and its subsequent effects, before orienting a series of chapters on the ethical issues that affect the provisioning of a population during times of crisis—from harvest failures in the 18th century, to the World Wars and the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the text, the balance of sharp political observation, founded on exhaustive research, and entertainingly narrated history is dexterously maintained, and the text is leavened with recipes reconstructed from historical sources for the modern home cook—all without any overbearing sense of too many plates being spun.

An eternally vexed question

The kernel of the political arguments the book has to offer is the eternally vexed question of how much state involvement there ought to be—if any—in the everyday business of what we consume. Concepts of personal liberty took on peculiar acerbity in the Anglo-American world centuries ago, so that the widely understood balance between personal disposition and administrative protection that obtains in much of mainland Europe is a foreign language. If we want to eat garbage, we’ll eat garbage, and nobody has the right to tell us otherwise, although on the British side of the ocean, we also cleave to the expectation that an underfunded, overstretched, and demoralized public healthcare system will make our twilight years of ill health as comfortable as may be.

Vogler tells many tales of the confrontation between liberty and intervention in the pages of Stuffed, the title itself a double entendre that evokes both the digestive trauma of overfeeding and the hopelessly defeated state of people in times of medieval scarcity, or indeed of today’s clogged arteries and widespread obesity. Her argument is that legislative measures have periodically been mobilized, with general public support, to address crises such as the need for wartime rationing, toxic food adulteration in Victorian times, punitive taxation on everyday items such as tea, and the 18th-century gin plague. With the right executive will, the content and availability of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) could be similarly controlled, so that the dutiful hand-wringing that manufacturers and their lobbyists articulate to food journalists could become a matter of taking them at their word. The constant blather of advertising, now so invasive throughout the waking lives of the entire populace, would need to be curtailed, too. Good luck with that.

Much of the debate over what people ought to be eating turns on how likely it is that their tastes and predilections could be reformed. Vogler has a tantalizing cultural argument about the change from Renaissance to Enlightenment patterns of consumption, symbolized by the turnip. It was once grown as an integral part of the human diet, but with the expansion of farming to feed hungry urban workers in the growing cities, it became an element in the provisioning of livestock instead. It has thereby succumbed, over a longer period, to the journey of ignominy the mangelwurzel traveled: from nutritious root vegetable, to cattle fodder, or the index prohibitorum to which the French have consigned the parsnip. British supermarkets barely bother to stock turnips now, not just because customers don’t know what to do with them, but because monopoly retailers refuse to pay a respectable price for them to growers.

When Western countries ceased to be self-sufficient in food, they began to underwrite a global network that sees ordinary green vegetables that would grow at home imported from East Africa, where contract growers pay a subvention to the First World high-street multiples for the privilege of having them sold. At its worst, this system saw British India exporting its rice to the colonial power during periods of widespread domestic scarcity, but even in the present day, it has resulted in a self-delusive racket in which a supermarket that prides itself on supporting the seasonal produce of home agriculture is offering only New Zealand apples and Portuguese pears at the height of the domestic season for orchard fruit. The customer is paying their air fare.

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Wine Pairings with gooseberry fool
Wine pairings with chicken bhuna 
Wine pairings with coffee and walnut cake 
The cover of Stuffed by Penny Vogler
Photography courtesy of Atlantic Books.

The moral economy of the English crowd

Confounding the whole issue of sustainability is the fact that people who congratulate themselves on the catholicity of their tastes are still eating within as narrow a range as official rationing once stipulated. At restaurants offering the cuisines of our cross-Channel neighbors or of Southeast Asia, we stick to the same dishes each time, when we are not eating the supermarket ready-meal version of it. When the 17th-century writer Hannah Woolley, a Stuart-era Mrs Beeton, introduced her readers to chaculato, she explained that it was consumed as a hot drink in the Americas, and she gave instructions for scraping the solid compound into warm sweetened claret, thickened with egg yolk. If that had caught on, my own generation would have been deprived of the Curly Wurly.

The delicate negotiations between poverty and plenty that structured what the Marxist historian EP Thompson called “the moral economy of the English crowd” led to impressively well-organized demonstrations after the catastrophic harvest failures of the mid-1790s, sometimes exploding into the angry rioting that stood in for the wholesale revolutions breaking out elsewhere. In a suggestive passage, Vogler describes the habit—occasionally coalescing into a custom, even an entertainment—of throwing food to the needy for them to fight over. Children were delighted to tussle for scraps of bread and cheese. Scrambles were often organized by the Church. As late as 1870, we learn of a Suffolk vicar who liked to tour the schoolhouses at Christmas, scattering nuts and deriving great enjoyment from seeing the children scuttling in all directions after them. The custom lives on in the dangling of electrical goods over packs of jostling shoppers on Black Friday.

Hierarchies of sustenance—the household ergonomics that reserved the largest portion of the Sunday roast for the laboring man, or divided the layered Lancashire hotpot according to seniority, Father receiving the meat, while his children got a little gravied-up potato and onion—have survived to the present day. Mothers relying on food banks, and what the chaotically administered Universal Credit welfare system is prepared to dispose, will go hungry while their children fill up with freezer-pack French fries. This in a food retail environment so overstocked that nearly 10 million tonnes of food is thrown away untouched every year by the better off.

The workhouse gruel that the politician and social reformer George Lansbury analyzed in 1893 had rat droppings in it. It was the same muck that desperation drives a malnourished boy in Dickens to ask for a second helping of, still not improved 60 years after his story was published. In the 17th century, John Locke had warned that if you bribe a child with sweet treats to do his homework, he will grow up to love pleasure more than education, an observation that took for granted the notion that pleasure should know its place. There may no longer be rat droppings in the gruel—or what we now call oat milk, according to Stuffed—but the compounding of eating with one of the few remaining forms of pleasure has led to the insidious formulation of non-nutritive UPFs that make people want to keep eating, even when satiated.

Pen Vogler has written another authoritative, readable, compellingly ethical book in Stuffed, full of references that will point the researcher in food history in important directions. Her declaration that the Book of Ruth is the only one in the Old Testament named after a woman should prompt another look at the table of contents, but we are all allowed one lapse. The next stage of the overarching argument in this book is to ask how to negotiate the fact that people happily live with the knowledge that they are subsisting on a diet that will make them ill. It is widely known now that the baking bread aromas in supermarkets, which give the illusory impression that loaves are being made from scratch on the premises, are merely the finishing of goods that are part-baked in factories from industrial ingredients, but who really cares? A general political sclerosis throughout the developed world has trained people to fulminate on Facebook and X—if they have not switched off altogether. Is anything like a food riot conceivable on social media? 

Stuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain

Pen Vogler

Published by Atlantic Books / 453 pages; $30 / £22

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