Roast Beef and ... Salad? the English Diet Has Been Mythologised as One of Roasted Meats and Few Vegetables but, as Anita Guerrini Concludes from a Survey of Early Modern Writings on the Subject, the Nation's Approach to Food Has Been Rather More Complicated Than That

By Guerrini, Anita | History Today, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Roast Beef and ... Salad? the English Diet Has Been Mythologised as One of Roasted Meats and Few Vegetables but, as Anita Guerrini Concludes from a Survey of Early Modern Writings on the Subject, the Nation's Approach to Food Has Been Rather More Complicated Than That


Guerrini, Anita, History Today


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Britain currently has the highest percentage of vegetarians in Europe, about five per cent of the population. How did this happen in the land of the beefeater? William Hogarth's 1748 painting O the Roast Beef of Old England, or the Gate of Calais contrasted the beef-eating English to the famished French (and their Jacobite Scots allies) sipping their meagre potage, or nibbling on raw onions. But carnivores and vegetarians, as well as that recent innovation, the 'locavore', who eats only local food, all have a long history in Britain.

At the end of the 17th century a battle ensued over the composition of the English table and by extension over the elements of English identity and national character. Barely a decade after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and before the 1707 Union of Parliaments made the Scots truly British (or as much as they would ever be) Englishmen felt buffeted by an uncertain royal succession and wild parliamentary politics, as well as by throngs of millenarians predicting the imminent end of the world. The king, William III, was Dutch and the fashionable diet increasingly French. Several authors attempted to define, through food, the peculiarities of the English body and how best to maintain its good health. In Acetaria, or a Discourse of Sallets (1699) the elderly natural philosopher and diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) found English identity in 'Gardens and Rural Employments, preferrable [sic] to the Pomp and Grandeur of other Secular Business' and in a plain local diet largely composed of vegetables. In his 1705 translation of the book on condiments and cookery by the much mythologised Roman Apicius, the physician Martin Lister (c. 1638-1712) praised the imperial Roman diet and its sweet-and-sour condiments as the most suitable for an imperial race. The Tory satirist William King (1663-1712) soon parodied Lister in his poem The Art of Cookery (1708). Like Evelyn, King looked back to a simpler and more primitive diet, but one based on hunting, herding and meat-eating rather than gardening. All three authors responded to the radical hatter Thomas Tryon (1634-1703), whose popular advocacy of a vegetarian diet rose from the political and religious upheavals of the Civil Wars.

The reputation of the English as meat-eaters dates back at least to Elizabethan times, when the physician Thomas Moffett (1553-1604) commented: 'Let us give God thangs [sic] for storing us with Flesh above all other Nations, making our Shambles the wonder of Europe, yea verily rather of the whole World.' A shambles, incidentally, was a slaughterhouse. The Elizabethan chronicler William Harrison commented on the variety of meat that graced the tables of the nobility. But by the end of the 17th century meat-eating, the basis of the English diet, had come into question. New medical theories questioned its healthiness; religious radicals rejected the violence inherent in its production and the class boundaries it implied; and a few moralists deplored the cruelty involved in any means of slaughter.

In the mid-17th century works such as Moffett's Healths Improvement (written around 1595, but only published in 1655) and cookery books by Robert May (c. 1588-c. 1664) and William Rabisha (ft. 1625-61) supported the traditional meat-heavy diet of the upper classes. May and Rabisha both cooked for the nobility. About half of May's Accomplisht Cook (1660) concerned meat and even more of Rabisha's Whole Body of Cookery Dissected (1661). Each included menus for noble dinners that consisted overwhelmingly of meat courses: Rabisha described 'A Bill of Fare for an Extraordinary Feast, on a Flesh-Day in the Spring'; a flesh day being a day on which meat could be eaten according to the ecclesiastical calendar, that is, most days. The first course for this feast consisted of 35 dishes of which 30 were some variety of meat; the only vegetables were two 'grand sallets'. Included among the 'Rich Tarts' and 'Tanzies' and a 'Frigasie of Apples' of the second course (also 35 dishes) were a dozen more meat dishes and almost as many of seafood. …

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