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British appetites and the foods that fed them

Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking - Kate Colquhoun

On the surface, a book about British cuisine may seem to be an exercise in culinary trivia. Yet as Kate Colquhoun demonstrates, the study of what Britons ate can provide considerable insight into the history of their society and culture. Starting in the Iron Age, she traces the changes in both the British diet and how they prepared their food. A key subtext is the degree to which the changes in British cuisine reflected their island's interaction with the rest of the world, as infusions of foods and culinary practices from the Romans, the Normans, and the empire usually served as indicators of changing relationships with other peoples.

 

Overall, Colquhoun's book is an entertaining and informative read, yet it is not without some serious flaws. The first is that her discussion of what people ate is too often focused on the diets and habits of the middle and (especially) the upper classes. While this reflects in part the sources available to her, too much work has been done about the diet of the working classes and the poor for her to ignore it to the degree that she does. Her narrative also breaks down in her final chapters on the twentieth century, as what had until then been a broader survey reflecting a confident command of the material becomes an almost breathless decade-by-decade hop through culinary fads that can obscure broader changes taking place. It doesn't help that her last few chapters are riddled with errors, which make them the most skippable of the book.

 

In spite of these flaws, Colquhoun's book is an excellent study of British appetites and the changes that shaped them. Anyone seeking an introduction to the history of British food and how the study of it can offer a window into the past could do much worse than to start with this book. It is best advised, though, not to read this book on an empty stomach, for while Colquhoun can satisfy the reader's appetite to learn about cuisine, her descriptions can leave them hungry to try some of the dishes they're reading about!