A Brief History of Food

In which I go full-geek and we take a tour of British food history- from Stone Age onwards. Prepare yourselves.

food history

It’s always fun to think about what people from the past would think of our 21st century. Filled with gigabites and megabites and clad in plastic, buzzing and bleeping and flashing in forty different colours, whirring out of control like a spinning top with no bottom. The comparisons are always drawn from their fantastic, cosmic imaginations of galactic proportions, where space-travel is a reality, shoes are self-lacing and Hover Cars glide along the moonbeams of the great ringroad in the sky. Reality is comparatively benign.

But think smaller- look what we’ve done! In the fifties, they didn’t even have wheels on their suitcases. They had to carry them- by hand. Now you can buy a suitcase made from carbon fibre that weighs less than a cup of sugar, you can buy it on a tiny device that you hold in your hand from a shop you’ve never been to, and it can arrive at your house less than 24 hours later.

In terms of space-travel, technology, and medicine we know exactly how far we’ve progressed, and were a native of the 1940s to arrive on our shores we would be able to talk them through these advancements with ease. One thing that’s often overlooked is our advancements in food. Who’d ever heard of Paneer? What would your grandparents think of Quinoa? Do we even know what Za’atar is?

Paneer is a cheese from India, Quinoa is a seed from South America, and Za’atar is a spice blend from the Middle East. Our new foods are not new at all; they are just from a different culture.

Welcome to Food Anthropology, the social study of food and its movement through history and around the globe. Most ‘new foods’ move across continents and are introduced to an overseas audience, who’ve never seen anything of its kind before. In the 17th century, explorers brought bananas and pineapples to England after discovering them in Africa and Asia, and Britons were astonished by these new foods that had appeared on their tables (tomatoes were also introduced in the Stuart era but they were regarded as poisonous).

We can trace it even further back than this, and that is where we’ll begin.

A million years ago, came the discovery of fire and a way to cook food. You ate what you found, and the Stone Age diet consisted of meat, fish, leafy vegetables, nuts, and berries, and was actually pretty healthy. Those who lived near the sea supplemented diets with seaweed. Around 700BC farm settlements begin to appear as people gathered in communities and began to farm animals, like pigs, sheep, and goats, and cultivate crops and plants, like wheat and cabbage.  The Iron Age brought iron and this was made into pots and pans which made cooking easier. In 330BC a Greek explorer navigates to the British Isles and describes the inhabitants as skilled wheat farmers.

Julius Caesar invades in 55BC and introduces Rome’s influence, but Roman settlement in Britain begins in 43AD under the invasion by Emperor Claudius. Romans brought over fruit and vegetables like onions, leeks, parsnips, celery, figs, cherries, grapes. They used herbs and spices in their cooking and they ate wildfoul, introducing pheasant and guinea fowl. Cattle, sheep, and goats were kept for meat, hide, and milk.

After 300 years the Roman Army leave Britain and they’re defenceless against invaders. Angles and Saxons from Germany arrive on British shores and split the country into small kingdoms. Too busy warring between themselves, Scandinavians invade. Lack of food in Scandinavia is one of the reasons they come to England. They reunite the country. The Nords- the Vikings- eat varied diets, adding eggs, milk, and cheese, as well as nuts and fungi. They preserve food through drying and salting, they ate a lot of bread, and they ate more plants than we do today, consuming crab apples, rosehips, bilberries (a.k.a the winberry!), sorrel, and wild garlic. Herbs like mustard and mint were popular and grown near to dwellings.

1066 and William the Conqueror arrives from Normandy, declaring himself the first king of Great Britain. The Normans ate plain but healthy diets consisting of oatmeal porridge, green vegetables, and sometimes meat, but as the medieval era progressed, food became more varied. Europeans on Crusades brought back new herbs and spices from the Middle East.

Bread was now such a staple foodstuff that laws were introduced preventing bakers from selling underweight loaves. For peasants, soups, stews, pottage, and foods that could be cooked in large pans over fires, were popular. For the rich, however, large, extravagant banquets would be held which could last for days and which consisted of eating meat, fish, pastries, fruit, boars, peacock, and even roast swan. Large amounts of game and rich foods were served to the upper classes. King Henry I died as a result of eating a surfeit of lampreys- a meaty eel.

For the first time, food is not just a necessity. Excitement and extravagance enter mealtimes; flavour is added to food.

The Tudor reign begins in 1485 when Henry Tudor defeats King Richard III at Bosworth Field and seizes the throne for the House of Lancaster. Out go the vegetables- the food of the poor- and feasts consist of platter upon platter of rich red meat. Explorers crossing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans bring back foods like chocolate from Mexico and tea from China. Turkey arrives in Britain from America in 1525. Spices are imported from all over the globe, and their usage becomes excessive and essential. They season bland meats, add flavour, and hide the taste of rotten meat. Foods were now boiled, roasted, or baked, and whilst some bakeries and butcheries appeared most foods were homemade.

Sugarcraft, confectionary, and sweets become popular amongst the rich, as sugar was a signifier of wealth. King Henry VIII becomes known for his generous stature, and food becomes a status symbol; the rich had meat, and the poor had veg.

When Queen Elizabeth I dies, she hands the throne over to James Stuart- King James I of England and VI of Scotland- and so begins the Stuart era. Food now takes up 4/5 of a family’s budget, and the diets of the poor were still pretty basic; soups, broths, bread, pottage.

The rich hold banquets at special occasions and thanks to Charles II and the restoration, these parties were loud, large, and often; defiance at the end of the dull Puritan rule. They feast on turkey, hens, capons, geese, and ducks, and the most impressive dish is a boar’s head with an apple in its mouth.

Farming and agriculture methods improve, providing a constant supply of fruit, vegetables, dairy, and meat. Salt, currants, raisins, dates, figs, and apricots came from faraway lands and were called spices, and merchants dealing in these made huge profits from selling them on for costly sums. Sugar colonies are set up in the Caribbean, and Africans were bought as slaves from their homelands to forcibly work on the plantations. Sugar is so popular and profitable it’s known as ‘White Gold’.

Fruits like pineapples and bananas were imported from overseas, as well as tea and coffee, and these are so popular that coffee houses open. By 1675 there were over 3,000 coffee houses in Britain (there’s about 550 Starbucks stores in the UK today). Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, makes tea drinking popular.

Dining tables and chairs were grand, and table manners improved through better education. It was important to consider how you looked at the dinner table; food was now becoming a social event.

The Georgian era begins in 1714 with King George I from Hanover, Germany. Most people had an adequate diet due to the agricultural revolution, and improved techniques of grains and meat made it more available to the poor. Kitchen ranges, with a cast iron oven and a water heater, began to replace open fires and spits. Dinners were more formal and more extravagant than even Stuart feasts, and could often last for hours.

Sugar had become more affordable and was used endlessly, in sweetening drinks, in baking, and even in savoury cooking. Food was very rich, with recipes calling for pounds of butter, dozens of eggs, and pints of cream.

Despite the Germanic origins of the House of Hanover, traditional British meals start appearing, like roast beef, potatoes and vegetables. However, talented cooks in the households of the French aristocracy suddenly found themselves with decapitated masters and out of a job thanks to the French Revolution, so they make their way to England and foreign cuisine arrives, too, with French and Italian the most popular. Sake Dean Mahomed opens Britain’s first curry house, the Hindoostanee Coffee House in George Street, Central London, in 1810, but the flavours are too extreme for the British palate.

Outdoor ‘ice-houses’ are used to preserve fresh food, and the good availability of fresh meat, plenty of grains, and more fruit and vegetables than before, meant that the Georgian era saw the diets of Britons begin to improve.

Queen Victoria takes the throne in 1837, and foods we recognise today start to take shape. They like good food, but there’s a huge difference between what the rich ate and what the poor ate- think of the Charles Dickens visions of gruel, stale bread, and vegetable peelings. Meal times were a chance to show off wealth, with fine cutlery and china and meals consisting of twenty dishes. As the evening meal is eaten later, mid-afternoon snacks become popular and the afternoon tea is born- tea houses open to cater for the new delicacy.

The new invention of train travel meant that railways were used to transport food across the country, and fish could be eaten inland. Fish and chip shops opened and the traditional British meal is born.

Tinned foods arrive in the late 19th century, initially providing cheap meat alternatives for the poor. John and Mary Sainsbury open a grocery store in Drury Lane, London in 1869 and William Morrison begins trading eggs and butter on a market stall in Bradford in 1899.

The quality and quantity of food improved. Meals were often the same week to week and the dishes were no longer disguised with heaps of spices; food was becoming simpler and plainer.

After Victoria celebrates 63 years on the throne, Edward takes over from him mother in 1901 and with the change of monarch comes a change of food culture. Tea shops were now important meeting places and afternoon tea an important occasion for the rich. The grocery market continues to expand and processed and branded foods are now available; Jacobs, Colemans, Oxo, Birds Custard.

Big, showy dinner parties are back, accompanied now with strict dining etiquette, and dining restaurants such as the Savoy become popular, but for the poor, they can afford just one good meal a day. Food is once again an important social signifier.

It is all change during the War years. The threat of a world war sees people panic buying and hoarding, which causes food shortages in early 1914. Rationing is introduced in 1918, and whilst it is lifted during the interwar years it is back with a vengeance in 1940 as WWII breaks out. A Minister for Food is appointed and a fierce campaign begins to prevent food waste and promote healthy eating. Food is dull and bland for both the soldiers fighting on the front line and those back at home. There is little to go around as Britain’s food import ships are bombed. All available space is used to Dig For Victory and to cultivate vegetables. With male family members away at war and children evacuated to the unknown countryside, anyone left in the household sit down for dinner together.

Food is now an important and valuable commodity. Every ounce is measured out and accounted for and no scrap is wasted.

Rationing is finally lifted in 1954 and after fourteen years of restrictions, people can eat whatever they like. More meat, sugar, and fats were available and this resulted in the forced heathy diets of the war years disappearing.  People no longer grow their own food and they can afford to throw away anything they don’t want to eat. Supermarkets arrive, along with fast food, freezers, convenience. Everything is readily prepared, readily available, and ready-made. Foreign travel is affordable and the flavours of holidays abroad come to Britain as we embrace lasagne, pasta, and Chow Mein.

And so we reach today, with Portuguese Nando’s and Mexican Las Iguanas. Foods seem to be in the extreme- either soaked in oil or stuffed full of superfoods. People eat all sorts, and unusual and specific diets are becoming more popular. Everything you could ever want to eat is available to buy somewhere.

What does 2016 hold? Will it be the year we embrace insects? Will test tube meat arrive in McDonalds? Will koji and matcha become the 2016 ‘buzz foods’? It is impossible to predict. I’ve honestly got no idea- and isn’t that exciting?


All the information came from cookit, a fantastic website and basically my Google chrome homepage.

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