Magazine article The Spectator

Fare Flair

Magazine article The Spectator

Fare Flair

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 3

London Eats Out (Museum of London, till 27 February)

Fare flair

Bruce Boucher

We are what we eat, but when, where and how we do it also defines our social status. Whether we eat set meals at regular intervals or graze throughout the day, whether we use food for celebrations or simply for fuel, are choices with implications beyond mere necessity. They reflect social relations and economic transactions as well as projections of how we wish to be seen. The issues are as old as Plato and Aristotle, but they have been given new life by the Museum of London's inventive and entertaining show on eating habits in the capital from the reign of the Tudors to that of Conran. In doing so, the exhibition serves up a fascinating slice of cultural history from both sides of the lunch counter.

One of the surprises here is the continual presence of fast-food from mediaeval street vendors to modern sushi bars. Continuity is evoked by a theme-line running throughout the exhibition with telling juxtapositions: prints of l7th-century gingerbread-sellers are wedged between a currant-bun baked for the Coronation of George IV and a contemporary plastic sandwich box; in one corner an 18th-century coffee house is recreated and, in another, a booth from that beacon of 1950s functionalism, the Time-Life Building cafeteria. Here and there paintings add another dimension by illustrating kitchen still-lifes or, most memorably, a Tudor fete at Bermondsey by Hoefnagel, with its glimpse of a kitchen rotisserie and starched table setting for the gentry.

There is, of course, a serious sub-text to all this: food involves money and social hierarchy at almost every turn. The 17thcentury coffee houses were revolutionary for not serving alcohol, and the sobriety and stimulus of coffee provided the ideal conditions for financial transactions and networking. Food still has patriotic overtones as the section on roast beef exemplifies. A hearty slab of beef, the fabled 'Sir Loin', was seen by l8th-century Londoners as part of their birthright and a symbol of English prosperity as opposed to the meagre fare of Continentals. This aspect is represented by a series of topical engravings on the importing of interior foreign fare as well as by a silver tankard from the Beefsteak Club with the motto 'Beef and Liberty'. As elsewhere in this exhibition, the topical overtones scarcely need stressing. …

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