Chapter 4

How British is British food?

Allison James

Since Elizabeth David first published her book about Mediterranean cooking in 1950, four years before food rationing ended, the reticence and conservatism of the British palate appears to have been in sharp decline (Mennell 1985). 1 The cookery columns which had become regular features in newspapers and magazines by the 1950s gave way to a more serious form of food journalism in the 1960s and, since the mid-1970s, specialist radio and television, which have food as their topic, have begun to be broadcast. Amidst this burgeoning industry, interest in ‘foreign’ food seemed by the 1990s to have emerged triumphant: chicken tikka was recorded as a favoured filling for the British Rail sandwich, and chicken tikka masala, chilli con carne and lasagne had become bestsellers in Tesco’s pre-cooked food range (The Sunday Times 23 September 1991).

But although these trends might seem to indicate that an irrevocable change in British food traditions had taken place, by the early 1990s there were also signs of movement in the opposite direction. Alongside the enthusiasm for ‘foreign’ food was an increased parochialising of taste, as evidenced in the loud championing of ‘gutsy, unpretentious’ food (Bati 1991) and the flotation of Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip shop on the Stock Exchange (Young 1989).

This chapter explores these apparent changes in the patterning of food preferences in Britain through examining representations of food to be found in the popular press in the early 1990s—newspapers, magazines and food journalism—and considers what kind of impact foreign food could be said to be having on British food traditions at that time. Did it register a massive dislocation in food habits, so that now it is no longer possible for the British

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