The history of British food, beginning with a tough grain that was all the rage among Neolithic farmers.
That was einkorn, in 4000 BCE. From there, Colquhoun (The Busiest Man in England: A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect & Victorian Visionary, 2006, etc.) moves through Roman feasts calling for ample servings of flamingo, sumptuous Georgian meals relying heavily on melted butter, the class-inflected foodie mania of the mid-1980s and the increasingly processed, commercialized foodstuffs we rely on today. Refreshingly free of jokes about British cooking, her text uses cookery through the ages to explain everything from the British Isles’ waves of invaders and immigrants to class conflict and consciousness, patriotism and terror during World War II rationing. The prose is occasionally stiff and often overly formal, but it thoroughly recounts the fascinating history of an empire. And Colquhoun can reach passionate heights, as in this passage about Victorian celebrity cook Eliza Acton, who “turned away from melted butter to its French equivalent—rich, unguent mayonnaise made by working drops of oil carefully into whisked egg yolks to form a smooth custard, coloured green with parsley juice or flavoured with a pea-sized piece of bruised garlic or a drop of tarragon vinegar.” As it seems most modern books about food must, this one laments meals gone by. “We buy green beans from Kenya and asparagus from Peru without considering its absurdity,” notes the author, who wonders whether this generation will be the last to know fresh fruits picked straight from the vine or bread collected that day from the baker. In discussing Britons’ tormented relationship with eating, Colquhoun points out that “we spend more on the slimming industry than we do on aid for the starving.” They’re not alone: Americans fork out an estimated $30 to $40 billion annually on weight-loss programs and products.
A thoughtful and detailed book to be savored—but not on an empty stomach.