​The Wonderful World of English Cookery


Food lovers have long regarded the English cook with awe. His boiled cabbage and overcooked beef. Those cannonball puddings. There is no foodstuff on Earth he has not reduced to an overcooked, flavorless monstrosity. But why? The French believe(d) it’s genetic. “The Englishman is naturally a glutton stuffed with beefsteaks and plum pudding, a boa quasi-asphyxiated by a gazelle he just swallowed,” opined scholar Jean Saint-Arroman in 1852, “whereas the Frenchman is naturally sober . . . so it is to us [the French] the sun, fine weather and the most precious gifts of nature: To the English, fogs, coal, plum pudding, the spleen and consumptive diseases.” It’s a point of view that has some resonance for anyone who’s experienced the splendors of English cookery (green eel pie, anyone?). There are, however, other theories. Historian Stephen Mennell, for instance, believes France’s obvious culinary superiority to the English developed from Louis XIV’s requirement that France’s nobility live with him in Versailles. 

Louis had merely wanted to keep an eye on rebellious nobles. But by putting all the aristos under one roof, he inadvertently created a gastronomic hothouse where armies of chefs, pâtissiers, sommeliers, boulangers, and maîtres d’hôtel competed for the approval of the world’s fussiest eaters. One maître d’, François Vatel, went so far as to throw himself on his sword when the fish arrived a half hour late. Voilà, the birth of French haute cuisine. British nobility, on the other hand, were not obliged to dwell at court, and, living in their own estates enjoyed lesselevated fare. If the fish arrived late, good—it meant two helpings of boiled beef.

Although this theory does explain the absence of a truly British high cuisine, my personal favorite relates to the so-called invention of childhood during the Victorian era of the 1800s. The Victorians were the first to completely embrace the notion that children are fundamentally different from adults. Juveniles were strictly segregated, dressed in funny clothes, and told specific bedtime stories. They also had special dietary needs, i.e., old potatoes. “New potatoes are acceptable,” wrote Pye Henry Chavasse in his 1844 bestseller Advice to Mothers on the Management of Their Offspring, “but old potatoes, well cooked and mealy, are the best a child can have.” Chavasse preached that children under ten should breakfast exclusively on lukewarm milk poured over stale bread that was preferably seven days old.” Sweets were “slow poison,” as were green vegetables. 

Once children had reached their second decade, they could be served old mutton—never beef or pork—and weak beer. Onion and garlic were absolutely forbidden. “Meat, potatoes and bread, with hunger for their sauce is the best, and indeed should be the only dinner, they should have,” he wrote. Chavasse was the Dr. Spock of his day, and middle-class Victorians followed his advice religiously. Children were shoved full of a gruel made of milk, crushed biscuits, and flour that had been boiled for seven hours. The students of Eton ate nothing but old mutton and potatoes 365 days of the year for both lunch and dinner until a compassionate graduate left a bequest to provide them with a plum pudding every Sunday. Their peers in France may have had to choke down an unreasonable number of baguettes, but almost a quarter of what they ate consisted of vegetables, eggs, and fish, not to mention half a bottle of wine every day. Even the boarding school in Provence that served nothing but cabbage soup 125 days of the year ranked above the English programs.

This sadistic approach to child nutrition was a perfect match for the theories of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who believed children were “natural atheists” because they enjoyed nature instead of God. He recommended bringing this under control by reminding them that “they are more ignorant and wicked than they could possibly believe,” and breaking their spirit at every turn. Withholding pleasant food was considered a particularly plum way to do this because it trained them out of the expectation of “natural” pleasure at the table. Add this food guilt to the insanely bland food expectations created by Chavasse, and you have the pleasure-free cuisine that some claim helped create the stoic Victorian personality that led to Great Britain’s domination of the world. It also explains why Victorian brats were so fond of American children’s literature. It was the scenes of kids gorging on buckwheat pancakes with maple syrup, eggs, and sausage that they really liked.

—Allan Stewart Lee

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