Taste of a nation

Is there such a thing as English cuisine?

Is there such a thing as an English cuisine? It is telling that we've even had to borrow the word from the French. As far back as 1861, Mrs Beeton was lamenting that: "Modern cookery stands so greatly indebted to the gastronomic propensities of our French neighbours that many of their terms are adopted and applied by English artists."

And it's not just our near neighbours whose food we've co-opted: the American turkey has replaced the pre-Victorian choice of goose or duck at Christmas and Sir Walter Raleigh's potatoes quickly overtook earlier staple root vegetables. Indeed, very few historically "English" delicacies stand up to scrutiny as such, from roast beef (we were a nation of boilers for most of our history, according to the chef Fergus Henderson) to the ubiquitous cuppa, as imported from our colonies.

Startlingly, the menu -- sorry, "bill of fare" -- from which Chaucer or Shakespeare would have eaten is full of ingredients and recipes that are all but forgotten today. As Annette Hope records in Londoners' Larder, a medieval noble would have eaten birds such as larks and heron and had his "worts" -- root vegetables -- supplemented by dandelions, hyssop and nettles. The best-known cookbook (or scroll) of the late 14th century, The Forme of Cury, contained recipes for peacock and porpoise, as well as the lampreys that famously did for Henry I.

The other side of the coin is that many foreign dishes came to England far earlier than you might think. The Forme of Cury also offers recipes for "macrows" (macaroni cheese) and "rauioles" (ravioli), meaning that these were eaten in England well before bangers and mash or strawberries and cream. The latter, after all, was reputedly first paired up by Thomas Wolsey -- although the native wild strawberry he would have eaten, Fragaria vesca, has since been cast aside in favour of larger varieties.

Similarly, the English had a thing for spices well before the first curry house opened in Portman Square in London in 1809. The country was an enthusiastic importer in the Middle Ages -- after all, our only native spice is mustard. Saffron Walden in Essex was called Chipping Walden until it became the nation's centre of saffron-growing in the 1500s; and ginger -- now the mainstay of countless Thai and Chinese takeaways -- arrived then, too.

Seen against this background, the emergence of that ultimate British bastard dish -- chicken tikka masala -- seems almost inevitable. Some claim it originated as Punjabi street food in the 1850s, others that it's the result of an Indian chef in Glasgow, armed only with a tin of condensed tomato soup, trying to appease a customer who had complained that his meal was too dry. Whatever the truth, we order it by the bucketload -- and now export it to hotels in India.

The result of all this mixing and matching is that although many regional English dishes still survive, it's hard to pinpoint a distinctive cuisine in the way you might with France or Italy. According to the latest figures from the British Hospitality Association, we now have 11,000 "ethnic" restaurants (primarily Chinese and Indian but increasingly Mexican, too) and 5,500 "European" restaurants in this country. That leaves 11,000 "other" restaurants -- tellingly, the association doesn't record how many are English or British. "It's very difficult to define," says a spokesman.

It's probably most helpful to think of English food as being like the English language: unusually elastic and relaxed about incorporating foreign influences, even at the expense of its own identity. But when you can walk along a high street in even a smallish English town and smell peri-peri, cinnamon and garlic alongside the salty tang of fish and chips, who would have it any other way?

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt