Magazine article The Spectator

Making a Virtue out of Necessity

Magazine article The Spectator

Making a Virtue out of Necessity

Article excerpt

FOOD IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND by Joan Thirsk Continuum, £30, pp. 396, ISBN 9781852855383 £25.50 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

John Evelyn would find our agonies about food all too familiar. He was impressed with the modern 'miracles of art' whereby plants were forced in hot beds and meats and fish were preserved for months or years; but nothing tasted better or was more wholesome than fresh ingredients.

He was preoccupied by healthy diets, noting that 'husbandmen and laborious people [were] more robust and longer lived than others of an uncertain, extravagant diet'. Others, from the 16th century through to the 18th, who were lucky or rich enough to be able to eat wild produce, rated their taste far above cultivated or reared foods. They hated that the seasons were being blurred by technological advances in preserving foodstuffs; that commercialisation of the food market led to bland standardisation; that man was losing touch with nature. With these boons came forgetfulness; in 1827 one writer noted that many former staples -- borage, burnet, fennel, caraway, mangetout, peas, saffron and sorrel -- were disappearing from the tables of the lower classes as tastes became homogenised.

If the subtitle of Joan Thirsk's book -- 'Phases, Fads, Fashions' -- sounds eerily modern, it is apt for the period that it covers, 1500-1760. For there was nothing static in English cuisine. Indeed, Thirsk emphasises the wide diversity of tastes and the restless search for culinary novelty among people of all classes. For the poor, variety came from the seasons, from the obligations to eat fish on certain days and from the wonderful inventiveness of people who scoured for herbs, plants and wild meats. Those who measure diet by agricultural supply alone forget how much wild produce there is, and just how skilled people once were in getting it and preparing it.

And to look simply at supply is to undervalue demand -- or the relish for diversity.

The expansion of trade brought a world of new ingredients and tastes. That there was an influx of foreign foods during the early modern period is no doubt a commonplace; Thirsk's great achievement is to show how eagerly English men and women seized upon new ingredients and adapted them to the national palate. Fashions and fads came and went quickly. Jerusalem artichokes were the height of style in the 1580s because they were new, but within a few years 'even the vulgar despised them'. …

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