A fortnight or so ago, my friends were suddenly very keen to eat Chinese food. I was bombarded by daily screenshots of char siu pork, its skin as rich and tawny as an old violin, in clouds of fluffy buns, and links to restaurants serving hand-pulled noodles and hotpots slick with chilli oil, all captioned: “We should go!”
The line between solidarity and sheer greed seemed, ironically, a slender one – not that this made any difference at the till. Although the restaurant sector is suffering as people hole up at home, Chinese businesses have been hit disproportionately hard by fears over coronavirus – far harder, it seems, than Italian ones, for reasons I suspect would not stand up to scrutiny.
Yet food-based fears are rarely rational. Despite there being no evidence of transmission from meat or eggs, sales of poultry and pork both fell during the bird and swine flu outbreaks of the Noughties, while a couple of summers ago a French waitress made a face when, after singing the praises of the Limousin steak she’d brought me, I asked her if she’d ever tried British beef. The spectre of “mad cow disease” still looms large across the Channel; the French government maintained the ban on imports of beef for years after the EU lifted it, and then, in 2008, quietly admitted its own cattle had also had the disease.
Sometimes the motives behind boycotts are political. Who can forget the US House of Representatives renaming the chips in their cafeterias “freedom fries” as revenge for France’s refusal to support the US in its war in Iraq? (If you find yourself in Oklahoma, pop into Brownie’s Hamburger Stand in Tulsa, where they remain on the menu to this day.) The Daily Mail called on readers to steer clear of Greek food in protest at the detention of British plane spotters in 2002, while a campaign against French wine following the country’s nuclear tests in the Pacific in the mid-Nineties saw Champagne imports to the UK drop by a third in 12 months.
Fans of Adrian Mole may fondly recall his grandma visiting during the Falklands War “to check our pantry for Argentinian corned beef”, but, historically, such wartime boycotts have often quickly escalated into active violence. In the aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, the Manchester Guardian reported on an attack in London’s Docklands, where “every second butcher’s or baker’s shop is German… To begin with a crowd of boys invaded the shop – a baker’s and pastry cook’s – and simply fell upon all the eatables within reach. The German occupants at once ran away. A lot of women appeared and carried out a systematic clearance of the place.”
Peaceful protest can bring about more positive results. The boycott of slave-grown sugar proved one of the most successful elements of the abolitionist movement; about 300,000 Britons, many of them women with little other power to effect change, are thought to have taken part, with a drastic effect on sales.
Two centuries later, supermarket worker Mary Manning’s refusal to put two Outspan grapefruits through the till led, after a strike lasting almost three years, to the Irish government banning the import of South African goods entirely. Visiting Dublin a few months after his release in 1990, Nelson Mandela told the strikers that their stand had helped to keep him going during his detention.
That’s rather more impressive than eating dim sum to fight racism, admittedly. But we still tell ourselves as we reach for another dumpling… surely every little helps.
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning