From Plain Fare to Fusion Food: British Diet from the 1890s to the 1990s

From Plain Fare to Fusion Food: British Diet from the 1890s to the 1990s

From Plain Fare to Fusion Food: British Diet from the 1890s to the 1990s

From Plain Fare to Fusion Food: British Diet from the 1890s to the 1990s

Synopsis

Simple meals made from a limited range of industrially processed foodstuffs constituted the 'plain fare' which most people in Britain ate from the 1890s until after the Second World War. Dietary surveys show that when wages were low and social conditions poor, health was affected and support the view that malnutrition and dietary deficiencies existed during the first half of the twentieth century. Increasing knowledge of essential nutrients such as vitamins brought scientists into conflict with civil servants, particularly during the Great War and the depression of the interwar years. Wars put great strains on Britain's supplies of food, much of which was imported. In the Great War, civilians suffered unjustifiably before food rationing was finally introduced. The widely held view that the science of nutrition informed government policy in the Second World War is shown to be a myth, since dietary inequalities continued and, by the mid-1940s, children's growth was affected. The technological revolution in food processing, which gathered momentum when rationing was finally abolished in the 1950s, led to the growth of supermarkets, frozen foods and fast foods. By the 1990s, many traditional patterns of eating had been replaced by an ethnic and fusion food restaurant culture. It has been accompanied by new concerns over food safety and health issues - heart disease, obesity - and by an 'alternative foods' backlash. The irresistible question is: are we any better off? DEREK J. ODDY is emeritus professor of economic and social history, University of Westminster.

Excerpt

The industrial and urban development of Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was accompanied by major changes in the food of the people. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, the principal determinant of food consumption was the state of domestic agriculture. Before the development of a large-scale international trade in foodstuffs, the population depended on a limited range of food materials available on a markedly seasonal basis. Dietary patterns were determined by the extent to which traditional methods allowed foodstuffs to be preserved. Thus the predominant food material on the eve of the Industrial Revolution was bread made from either wheat, barley or oats, surpluses of which were processed to produce beer and spirits. Animal food — bacon or pickled meat, fish, butter and, to a lesser extent, cheese — was preserved by the liberal use of salt. Green vegetables were seasonal in supply, as were pulses, roots or bulbs such as onions, though the latter were capable of storage for some time. Nevertheless, every year brought the 'hungry gap' of the late winter and early spring when supplies of vegetables were exhausted, a pattern which had not been entirely eradicated in country districts before war was declared in 1914.

The consolidation of landholdings and changes in agricultural techniques of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries turned many country-dwellers into a rural proletariat dependent on wage-labour as the principal source of income and with little access to land of their own on which to produce food. Rural society, as a self-sustaining ecosystem, was in a terminal phase. For most of the nineteenth century only the vestiges of a peasant economy remained, largely confined to the more remote upland or marshland regions. Change was at its most extreme where industrial development in textiles, metal production and engineering created an urban society dependent almost entirely upon the marketplace for food supplies. As the nineteenth century progressed, reliance on the marketplace grew, not only with the expansion of industrial towns but also to meet the needs of the semi-rural but commercialized communities of miners, fishermen, and shipbuilders, and the various crafts and trades of market towns.

High prices of foodstuffs and food riots during the period of the Napoleonic Wars reflected the stresses that rapid population growth . . .

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