The history of any nation’s diet is the history of the nation itself, with food fashions, fads and fancies mapping episodes of colonialism and migration, trade and exploration, cultural exchange and boundary marking. British food is no exception to this. Yet there is a fundamental contradiction in this food-nation equation. There is no essential national food: the food which we think of as characterizing a particular place always tells stories of movement and mixing. It is ironic, then, that those who claim to hate ‘foreign food’ and eat only ‘plain old English fare’ fail to realise there’s no such thing; all there is is a menu of naturalized foods brought to these shores through the course of history, modified and mixed over time. Those most quintessentially British foodstuffs—potatoes, or tea, for example—are imports which contain (and often conceal) histories of colonial exploration and exploitation. Indeed, it is often suggested that the definitive British (or perhaps English) meal is no longer the Sunday roast, but the curry washed down with lager.
   If we survey eating out in Britain today, we see a proliferation of so-called ethnic restaurants— Indian, Chinese, Thai, French, Italian and so on — many of which were originally opened to serve immigrant communities in Britain, but which have come to enjoy widespread popularity. Aside from these, probably the most remarked upon culinary import has been the very familiar American fast food outlet, which continues to be the source of anti-American sentiment for many who resent the Americanization of British eating. If we look at eating habits inside people’s homes we see a similar picture of diversity, with pizzas and burgers and a whole global range of ready meals lying in fridges and freezers alongside British staples (which these ‘foreign’ foods themselves have most surely become). While this has been seen as a cause for concern among those who fear the erosion of traditional British food, it is celebrated by many people as opening up British culture to important outside influences. It is not always that straightforward— just because we eat ‘foreign food’ that does not necessarily imply tolerance and acceptance of other cultures—but the sheer breadth of foodstuffs consumed in Britain which have their origins outside the UK at least attests to some level of cultural co-mingling taking place at our tables. The rise of so-called ‘foodie’ culture in Britain has contributed to this culinary-cultural diversification, by placing emphasis on the benefits of an increasingly globalized consumer culture (see globalization and consumerism).
   At the same time as this explosion in ‘ethnic eating’, there has been a consistent re-evaluation of British food itself, of what it comprises and how it is viewed both here and overseas. For a long time, British cooking has been seen as unimaginative, stodgy and traditional (in the worst sense of the word), with meat and two vegetables followed by pudding and custard symbolizing the average Briton’s diet. While this denies the host of local and regional foodstuffs (which in themselves have never achieved the status of, for example, French or Italian regional cookery), the reputation of indigenous British cuisine has undergone something of a renaissance, with the rediscovery of lost traditions and the invention of new ways of cooking British foods. The resurgence of cooking with offal and the celebration of the cooking traditions of the English regions could be taken as emblematic of this turn. What Britain eats is also the subject of close official scrutiny, with bodies such as the National Food Survey and reports such as the government’s The Nation’s Diet trying to quantify and analyse our dietary habits. Further, the nation’s diet has also come under repeated scrutiny by the European government, which attempts to regulate and standardize agricultural production and markets across the very different nations that make up the European Community. Legislation coming from Europe concerning food and drink has become widespread in contemporary folklore, with stories of decrees from Brussels over the size of apples or the straightness of cucumbers fuelling British anti- European feeling. The image of the food mountain, built to stabilize markets and prices, has become a powerful symbolic landscape form for Europe. The huge furore around beef and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (a fatal brain disease believed to be passed from infected cattle to humans, where it causes a similarly fatal brain condition called Creutzfeld-Jakob Syndrome Variant), which led to a worldwide ban on British beef in the mid-1990s, also brought out the cultural politics of food production and consumption very starkly; especially so, perhaps, given the association of Britishness with beef. It thus provoked, in some Britons, the patriotic response of ignoring health warnings and continuing to eat British beef, mocking those overseas who are more cautious about their consumption habits.
   Another interesting pop-cultural marker of the nation’s culinary predilections is the publishing explosion in cookery books, together with the increasing range of cookery and food programmes on television. Food has come to take centre stage in popular culture, with chefs and critics becoming major media celebrities. No one person epitomizes this more than Delia Smith, a television cook who has achieved an incredible prominence within British culinary culture through a whole string of cookbooks and associated television series. Other prominent food celebrities who have championed British food include chef Gary Rhodes, whose Rhodes Around Britain books and television series took him all over the country in search of local and regional delicacies. The current star status of British chefs (and their restaurants), in fact, has helped change the image of the nation’s cookery, putting a more progressive form of national pride back on many menus.
   See also: drink; eating disorders
   Further reading
    Hardyment, C. (1995) Slice of Life: The British Way of Eating since 1945, London: BBC Books (based on a successful television series, and packed with fascinating historical detail).
    Murcott, A. (ed.) (1983) The Sociology of Food and Eating, Aldershot: Gower (an excellent collection of papers on aspects of British culinary culture).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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