In Orwell’s excellent essay, ‘British Cookery’, written in 1946, that master of British cultural writing, in a spirited defence of his native cuisine, enumerates the dining habits of the population of Britain as though he were explaining them to an alien (not exactly an alien, he had Voltaire- a Frenchman- in mind.) The passage of time has worked it into an historical document as well as social commentary. However, we can still view our own foibles in the less opaque parts of the mirror. Consider:
“The fish fried in oil to which the British working classes are especially addicted is definitely nasty, and has been an enemy of home cookery, since it can be bought everywhere in the big towns, ready cooked and at low prices.”
“At normal times the average consumption of sugar per head is very much higher than in most countries, and all British children and a large proportion of adults are over-much given to eating sweets between meals.”
Eating unhealthy food outside the home and snacking can only have increased since 1946, with a boom in convenience food and a greater tendency away from set, traditional mealtimes, and one towards a nation of people vacantly grazing alone, like socially distanced cows in a field.
The poor dietary practice of Brits, and especially Scots, has been attributed to many factors, including, but not limited to: widespread pessimism, and cold, wet weather. A nation where variations on the theme “that filled a hole” and “food is fuel” are common parlance can not be said to have a highly developed attitude towards food. In Britain, one is expected to “clear the plate” at a meal, lest the cook be offended, or the diner not fully realise its advantages, because in Britain food is not viewed as a pleasurable pursuit but rather as a necessary investment, and not to utilise every finished product is to fail to profit from all of the potential returns.
This economic and anhedonic tendency may even derive from our historically Protestant spirit, and it is perhaps no surprise that statistics show Catholic countries like Spain, Italy and France spending almost twice as much time eating and drinking each day than Brits.
However, may we dare to hope that the present situation unintentionally offers a chance for us to refine our palates? Many are currently furloughed from work and consequently without the most common reason families give for not being able to eat together and to eat good home-cooked food. The present situation has led to an increase in those locked down experimenting with new home-made recipes, and what is more, according to a study, “a rise in community spirit has seen almost a third deliver their creations to others, including 36 per cent to relatives outside of their home and 23 per cent to neighbours.”
To relieve the tedium, many are using the abundant free time of quarantine to take up new hobbies, and cooking is a creditable option, being an artisanal activity in which it is fairly easy to gain proficiency and which allows scope for creativity and endless experimentation across borders.
More heartening is the display of community through food. Food lives as a means of communion and, especially at a common table, it serves as an opportunity for social oneness through a shared experience, in which one gives the gift of nourishment to friends. Eating proper meals also helps offset the incessant peckishness which Orwell described.
If quarantine makes us a nation of people who take food more seriously it will have been a fantastic unintended consequence. But perhaps our habits are just as hard to change as the cold, wet weather.
Feature image credit: Mattias Meckel/Wikimedia