Navigating the Gap: The Journey Between Poverty and Plenty

By | 10 May 2024

Stuart Walton enjoys an authoritative, readable, compellingly ethical history of British food.

By Stuart Walton

Stuart Walton reviews Stuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain, by Pen Vogler.

One of the most productive developments in recent food writing has been the amalgamation of contemporary food politics and its concerns with the food history of individual cultures. In this regard, British food writing has been particularly prominent. Diane Purkiss’s English Food: A People’s History (reviewed in WFW 79, pp.60–61) was a signal contribution to this genre, and the work of Pen Vogler is another. While Vogler’s previous book, Scoff (2020), looked at the relations between food and class in British history, her latest offering unpicks the embattled—often triumphant, sometimes infuriating—history of administrative intervention in who eats what, whether they have enough of it, and what it is doing to them over the long term.

Vogler’s approach is transhistorical. She begins with the progressive yet unsparing process of land enclosure across the British Isles, featuring chapters on its semi-paradisiacal prequel and its resulting aftermath. She then organizes various chapters around the ethical dilemmas that surface when trying to supply a population in crisis — from harvest failures in the 18th century, to the World Wars, and to the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the book, a balance of incisive political commentary, rooted in in-depth research, and engaging historical narration is skillfully managed, with the narrative interspersed with recipes pulled from historical sources for the contemporary home cook, without any overwhelming sense of juggling too many elements.

The crux of the political discourses the book proposes involves the age-old debate on the extent of state intervention—if any—in our day-to-day dietary choices. Perceptions of individual freedom took on distinct bitterness in the Anglo-American world many years ago, causing the broadly accepted equilibrium between personal preference and regulatory protection commonplace in much of mainland Europe to seem alien. If we choose to eat junk, then we’ll eat junk, and no one possesses the right to say otherwise. However, there is an underlying expectation, at least in Britain, that a poorly funded, under-resourced, and demotivated public healthcare system will ensure our twilight years of sickness are as pleasant as possible.

Vogler recounts numerous stories of the clash between freedom and intervention in Stuffed. The title itself is a pun alluding to both the distress of overeating and the hopelessly defeated state of individuals during times of medieval famine or amidst modern day artery blockages and rampant obesity. She suggests that legislative actions have been periodically implemented, often with public approval, to tackle crises such as the requirement for wartime rations, poisonous food tampering in the Victorian era, harsh taxes on regular items like tea, and the 18th-century gin epidemic. With the appropriate administrative motivation, the substance and availability of ultra-processed foods could be regulated similarly. This means the ceremonious concerns manufacturers and their lobbyists express to food journalists could transform into holding them accountable. However, for this to occur, the constant chatter of advertising, which frantically permeates the daily lives of the entire population, would need reining in. This might be easier said than done.

Topic discussions about what individuals should consume often pivot on the potential for taste and preference reform. Over time, as Vogler points out, the transition from Renaissance to Enlightenment consumption habits have been intriguing, demonstrated by the humble turnip’s journey. Previously, it was an important part of the human diet. However, with the expansion of agriculture to feed increasing urban populations, it became part of livestock sustenance. This long, declining journey was also faced by the mangelwurzel: evolving from a nutritious root vegetable to cow food, akin to the index prohibitorum to which the French relegated the parsnip. Turnips now find scarce space in British supermarkets, with supermarkets’ reluctance to pay growers a fair price, as well as the consumers’ lack of knowledge about using them.

As Western nations stopped being food self-sustaining, they supported a global network facilitating home-grown vegetable import from East Africa. Contract growers in these countries pay supermarkets in the First World for the privilege of selling their vegetables. This system, at its worst, saw British India exporting rice to its colonizers during times of local shortage. Even today, it’s a deceptive scenario wherein a supermarket that boasts of supporting local, seasonal produce sells New Zealand apples and Portuguese pears during domestic orchard fruit season, passing the transportation cost onto the customer.

Complicating the issue of sustainability is the fact that people, while priding themselves on diverse taste, often stay within a tight food selection spiral known from rationing days. At restaurants serving French or Southeast Asian cuisines, we consistently order same dishes frequently served as supermarket pre-prepared meals. Hannah Woolley, a 17th-century author, introduced chaculato as a hot drink to her readers, explaining its consumption in the Americas, while providing instructions for reducing the solid compound into sweetened warm claret, enriched with egg yolk. Had chaculato become popular, modern times might have missed the Curly Wurly.

The delicate balance between poverty and affluence that shaped the “moral economy of the English crowd,” according to Marxist historian EP Thompson, led to well-organized protests after the devastating mid-1790s harvest failures. These occasionally escalated into riots as a revolution substitute. Vogler outlines food throwing customs for the needy, often transforming into entertainment, engaging children scrambling for bread and cheese. Churches often arranged such scrambles. A Suffolk vicar, as late as 1870, enjoyed touring schoolhouses during Christmas, distributing nuts eliciting joy watching the children scrambling for them. This custom endures today in the form of consumer electronics being thrown amongst crowded shoppers on Black Friday.

Many households today still echo the traditions of past meal hierarchy. These urban practices originated from customs like giving the larger portion of the Sunday roast to the laboring man, or dividing the Lancashire hotpot according to rank, with Father getting the meat, and the children receiving potato and onion covered in gravy. Today, mothers who depend on food banks, or the inconsistently managed Universal Credit welfare system, will skip meals to ensure their children have enough food, often resorting to freezer-pack French fries. This, in a society that discards almost 10 million tonnes of untouched food each year because of overabundance.

The gruel the politician and social reformer George Lansbury analyzed in the workhouse in 1893 contained rat droppings. The same filth that a malnourished boy in Dickens’ tale was driven by desperation to request for seconds of, remained unchanged 60 years after the story was published. In the 17th century, John Locke cautioned that if a child is bribed with sweet treats to do his homework, he will grow to value pleasure over education, assuming that pleasure must have its limits. Though the gruel—or what we term as oat milk—may no longer contain rat droppings, as per Stuffed, mixing food—one of the few remaining forms of pleasure—with eating, led to the creation of non-nutritive Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs) that make people want to keep eating beyond satiation.

Pen Vogler’s latest offering, Stuffed, is another authoritative, engaging, and strongly ethical read brimming with tidbits essential to food history researchers. Her claim that the Book of Ruth is the lone book in the Old Testament named after a woman compels you to revisit the table of contents. Everyone has the right to make one mistake, right? Now, the question that arises as we delve deeper into this book is how do we resolve the fact that people are perfectly content knowing their diet is likely making them unwell? It’s common knowledge today that the alluring smell of freshly baked bread in supermarkets, implying on-site baking from scratch, is merely the finishing of items partially baked using industrial ingredients in factories. Does it really matter, though? Political gridlock worldwide prompts people to express their outrage on Facebook and elsewhere, unless they’ve entirely disconnected. Could there ever be something akin to a food riot in the world of social media?

Stuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain

Pen Vogler

Published by Atlantic Books / 453 pages; $30 / £22

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