Support 100 years of independent journalism.

9 December 2020updated 14 Dec 2020 6:39pm

How class defines British food

The story of our culinary landscape is one of changing tastes and widening inequality.

By Sophie McBain

Avocados can provoke a strong reaction, not because of their taste – which, after all, is quite bland – but because they have become such a powerful cultural signifier. Over the past decade or so they have become associated with middle-class millennials – the kind of people who might upload their lunch to Instagram, who probably eat clean and do yoga and have a lot of house plants. These are the young creatives who drive urban gentrification and love nothing more than exploring a not-quite-fashionable neighbourhood and finding a fashionable new café, with industrial lighting and exposed brickwork and a wide selection of mylks, that resembles all the other cafés they love so much. And so when Meghan Markle’s make-up artist posted a photograph of Markle’s avocado toast lunch, it generated two Daily Mail articles. The first, headlined “Meghan’s VERY unorthodox afternoon tea” noted that “royal fans are NOT impressed” by her snack. It was both too posh, and not posh enough. The second article, grasping for a new line of attack, explained “How Meghan’s favourite avocado snack – beloved of all millennials – is fuelling human rights abuses, droughts and murder”.

In A New Voyage Around the World (1697), the pirate and explorer William Dampier enthused about the buttery taste and “wholesome” nature of avocados. “It is reported that this fruit provokes to lust,” he added – though despite this titillating description it took several hundred years for the fruit to catch on over here, as the food historian Pen Vogler recounts in her lively and detailed new book, Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain. Avocados began appearing on British banqueting menus in the 1920s – increasingly so after Rudolph Hass, a retired postal worker from California, cultivated a new hybrid that he patented in his name in 1935 – and they later became a popular accompaniment to prawn cocktails. Sylvia Plath was a fan. And yet, by the late Nineties Nigella Lawson dismissed avocado salad as “very Seventies”, suggesting it should be served with potato skins because “if you’re going to go Seventies wine bar you might as well go all the way”.

Avocados were saved from becoming as naff as aspic or Black Forest gateau by the artful interventions of the California Avocado Commission. This growers’ association marketed the fruit as healthy (and therefore middle class) and part of a Mediterranean diet in an attempt to erase the fruit’s Mexican origins, “like an arriviste”, Vogler writes, “who does everything to hide their origins in ‘trade’”. And so its appeal grew among white, rich health nuts in California, among them Gwyneth Paltrow. Now, many of us have been mashing avocados on to our sourdough for long enough that we don’t even remember the first time we tried doing so or why.

[See also: I despaired when I heard that the venerable Bath Oliver biscuit had ceased production]

Vogler predicts we may be on the cusp of a new era of avocado eating, as concerns over their ecological footprint, their links with Mexican drug cartels and the sheer ubiquity of the mass produced, virtually identical specimens we find in our supermarkets mean their status drops. Middle-class consumers may soon begin seeking out rarer cultivars, such as the huge Wilson Popenoe, in the same way they are turning to heritage tomatoes over supermarket salad varieties or opting for sourdough loaves over plastic-wrapped sliced white.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Vogler’s point is that the food we like, as well as how we eat it, our table manners or what we call our meals, remain shaped by class. Eating is a way in which we express our social status and aspirations, and our tastes are less governed by the qualities of the food itself than by the rules and trends set by the social arbiters of the day. Scoff is a pacy social history, exploring how foods have fallen in and out of favour and eating habits have moved between classes over centuries. It is divided into bite-sized chapters, with sections on turkey, Brussels sprouts and Christmas pudding, on doilies and fish knives and small plates, on dinner parties and afternoon tea, on foraging and fish and chips. It is interspersed with historic recipes, updated for the modern home cook, for dishes such as Samuel Pepys’s Lenten wiggs (an enriched bun), 18th-century duck with peas, and nettle soup.

Vogler reads widely: she digs up references to food in Charles Dickens and Jane Austen novels (she has previously written recipe books inspired by both writers), and moves with ease between Shakespeare and Jilly Cooper, between Tatler and The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen (1594) or The Accomplisht Cook (1660). Even the most committed and well-read foodie will find titbits that surprise them: who knew, for example, that the first English recipe for macaroni cheese dates to around 1390, when “macrows” or “maccherone” pasta pieces were boiled and served with butter and cheese? There are many amusing details too. I enjoyed reading about the Victorian gentlemen who began experimenting with eating tomatoes raw (the fruit was only eaten cooked before) who warned that such daring cuisine is best reserved for “the sterner sex” and must be avoided if one is expecting to be on intimate terms with an unmarried woman.

***

Vogler’s more serious point is that our focus on class and status has served to perpetuate and also distract from rising food poverty and nutritional inequality in the UK. The introduction of rationing in the Second World War meant that the diets of the richest and poorest in the UK were more similar than they had ever been before: everyone consumed a similar number of calories, and similar quantities of butter, milk or meat, and diseases linked to malnutrition such as rickets virtually disappeared.

In 1959 the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, asserted that “the class war is obsolete”, and for a few decades the availability of cheap imported food suggested that might be true. But now British food banks are facing soaring demand, and even rickets has returned.

[See also: Why Beaujolais wine – like the region’s forgotten princess – is woefully underappreciated]

I was sceptical of Vogler’s focus on class at first – as a millennial, I am not sure that my generation gives much thought to old-fashioned social markers, such as whether someone eats “tea” or “dinner” or “supper” in the evening or how they pronounce scone. Her response is that eclectic food habits among young people – fast food one day, vegan the next, kale salad washed down with PG tips – is itself a sign of social capital. We don’t share the status anxieties of our parents – no generation does – but we have status anxieties all the same.

Midway through reading Scoff I came across a column in the Sunday Times by Jeremy Clarkson that was so sneering and nasty that it cemented Vogler’s points about how class influences the public conversation over food justice. The UK should lower its food standards, Clarkson argued, embracing American practices like chlorine-washing chicken, because working-class people want “cheap, nasty food” and would be delighted to feed their “fat kids with Bhopal-infused oven-ready British shit”. The debates about extending free school meals over school holidays is similarly shaped by class snobbery.

[See also: No single “immune-boosting” food can protect you from Covid-19 – but diet can help]

Vogler, who charts changes over centuries, does not get around to examining in detail how British food habits have changed in recent decades. She explores how immigration has historically shaped the British palate, from the Bangladeshis who gave us our first curry houses, to the Italians who brought ice cream to the masses, or the Jewish roots of fish and chips. I would have loved to read more, though, about recent debates over race and food, over who gets to cook and define British food, and which food cultures are celebrated.

Her observations about how our obsession with class exacerbates food inequality have only become more urgent, as during this pandemic the newly unemployed and the chronically underpaid line up outside food banks and the well-off shelter at home and wait for their groceries to arrive from Ocado – the supermarket delivery service named after, and “inspired by”, the avocado. 

Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain
Pen Vogler
Atlantic, 480pp, £20

Topics in this article:

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special