Scoff – A history of food and class in Britain, by Pen Vogler, Atlantic Books, 470 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1786496492
Among the personal stories served up in Scoff is one told by a television producer who described her background as “northern council estate, comprehensive school”. She once turned down the opportunity to bring her mother along as a guest to a Question Time after-show dinner because she knew she would have asked for a cup of milky tea to accompany her meal when everyone else was having wine. “She died ten years ago,” the producer said, “and I’m still ashamed of myself.”
Food historian Pen Vogler uses the anecdote to make an early point about the relationship between food and class in Britain. “We are still Two Nations, then. Those that drink wine at dinner and those that drink tea. The nation as a whole imputes a quasi-magical quality to tea at almost any other time of day and yet, as my colleague’s email shows, we’ve chosen to find a great many things to distinguish the right from the wrong one: the milk, the sugar, the type of tea and, crucially, the meal you drink it with.”
What we eat and how we eat it – whether that involves sitting upright at a table or stretched out in front of the telly – are barometers of class, education, aspiration, and so much more. Ditto the time of day you consume each meal, and what you call it. Lunch or dinner? Dinner or tea? You might think you carefully selected that packet of Jammie Dodgers but the author of this book contends that everything we choose to eat comes with years, and sometimes centuries, of “value-laden social history”. If I’ve learned anything from Scoff it’s that food and social class are interdependent and mutually stimulating; they’ve fed off one another since our earliest ancestors slid out of the slime and went looking for something to eat.
The author isn’t at all precious about British food: as early as page two she’s referencing grey minced meat and lumpy custard as something sophisticated Europeans might scoff at. (And yes, I know, there is plenty to poke fun at on this side of the Irish Sea too. Who among us has not slathered Rich Tea biscuits with butter or dropped squares of chocolate into crisp packets? Which of us has not queued at an “all you can eat” carvery for lasagne served with gravy, chips and coleslaw?)
The language around food is vast, and much of it is confusing and intimidating. Scoff is good on the conflicting resonances triggered by words. We could spend all day on examples but let’s just say that Queen Elizabeth doesn’t rhyme “scone” with “phone” and if you do she’s unlikely to be getting in touch. Happily, Vogler doesn’t care about such things; though she is energised by the hijacking by genteel forces of that most divisive of beverages: tea. “Fruit teas, herbal teas, decaffeinated teas, not to mention coffee, are all assailing our right and proper addiction to tea,” she writes. “According to The Grocer magazine, the socio-economic grouping ABC1s are more likely to dally with other forms of beverages, while C2DEs are most faithful to traditional black tea. However, if you add some diminutive sandwiches and a scone, and a full load of jam and cream, suddenly tea discovers its powers of refinement and aspiration.”
Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about cutlery, place settings, doilies, table manners and more is here. Several chapters chart the fads and fashion, the rituals and paraphernalia that came and went. Myths are dispelled too. Etiquette, for example, originated in seventeenth century France, not Britain, when visitors to the court of Louis XIV were given a list of protocols on their “ticket” or étiquette. The Earl of Sandwich did not invent the ultimate convenience lunch so he could stay at the gaming table, as is often asserted, but because he was a hard worker who wanted to remain at his desk. Still on the subject of desks, it has taken a pandemic and a surge in remote working to put a dent in that most unappetising of office practices, dining “al-desko”.
Gin too has had changing fortunes. Its eighteenth century reputation was “for being the inner-city hell raiser of the English drinks family, before it met tonic, moved out to the suburbs and settled down”. The history of gin (derived from the Dutch word for juniper) is a lesson in fiscal economics, we are informed, due to the huge sums it generated in taxes. Despite denouncing the popular spirit as “liquid poison” and the cause of the most decadent behaviour imaginable, the economist Bernard Mandeville in 1714 wrote that gin-drinking also “led to public benefits, including work for the poor and revenue for the public purse”. Rishi Sunak must be pleased: in the past decade, London has gone from having one ginmaker (Beefeater) to twenty-four, to fuel what Vogler calls “the second gin craze”.
A dizzying set of foreign influences brought British food to where it is today. Politics, economics, colonisation, travel and trade helped shape the country’s food traditions; colonialism and immigration, for instance, led to the national enthusiasm for curries and spices, while the nation’s sweet tooth was only fully satisfied when sugar, previously costly “white gold”, became affordable on the back of slave labour in the West Indies.
The French influence was broad, but the domestic dinner party was a rare British innovation. With self-serving objectives. While the nineteenth century French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was enthusing about how home entertaining made the host responsible for a guest’s happiness, “the Brits”, Vogler notes drily, “were working out how to give a dinner (or go to a dinner) that either enabled them to rise in society, or keep out the people who were trying to”.
The arrival of tinned foods massively extended the range of ingredients available to the working class diet. The first tin-opener appeared around 1855; until then, a hammer and chisel did the business. George Orwell wrote that the Great War was only possible because of tinned food but a legacy of that war was terrible injuries and a high death count. “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun,” he noted despondently in The Road to Wigan Pier.
Still in the kitchen, electric kettles, which appeared around 1900, had to be plugged into light fittings and took a dispiriting twelve minutes to come to the boil. Refrigeration of course brought immediate and far-reaching benefits; fast forward to 1978 and Marilyn French was observing that without the invention of kitchen appliances such as the freezer “there would not be a woman’s revolution now”.
The account of the chronology of the arrival of many now common foods of course includes the much joked-about avocado, “the ultimate middle-class signifier”. Vogler in her introduction writes that a friend’s mother once said that when she was young, “you were middle class if your father had heard of Saul Bellow and your mother knew what an avocado was”. It’s a narrow definition, but you know what she meant. Beloved of millennials and much uploaded in photos to Instagram, avocados were in fact served at banquets in England as far back as the 1920s.
In a delightful chapter on tomatoes we learn how, over time, the fruit was alternatively believed to have poisonous, magical and aphrodisiacal qualities. Colonel Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert, who served in the British Indian Army, included in his Culinary Jottings for Madras (1878) a tomato chutney that he deemed best limited to “the sterner sex”. However the onion-laced relish was not advised when the man was, as Vogler puts it, “expecting to be on intimate terms with one of his frailer counterparts until they were safely in wedlock”; and then, presumably, she was stuck with his oniony breath.
Britain’s class divisions have both blurred and subdivided since John Betjeman’s 1954 send-up of the newly rich middle classes in How to Get on in Society (“Phone for the fish knives, Norman …”) A 2013 BBC survey identified seven classes in Britain, with the poorest ‑ the “precarious proletariat” ‑ suffering most from food-related ill health. You’d think all of Britain would be eating better by the twenty-first century, but that is not so. There is unprecedented food poverty among schoolchildren; in February of this year, there were more than two thousand food banks operating. In the wake of austerity, pandemic and economic slowdown, more people than ever do not have enough to eat. Scoff asks the right questions when it comes to food as a social issue, including why it is that many of the most popular and cheaper foods are being allowed to ruin the health of the deprived; and to what extent a distracting obsession with class is to blame: “Have we allowed some really bad food – health-destroying, unadulterated or overprocessed – into our lives, and into the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, simply because we were concerned with the wrong issues?”
Pen Vogler, already the author of Dinner with Mr Darcy and Dinner with Dickens, enlivens this thousand-year longview with literary references, witty asides and even some recipes (Col Kenney-Herbert’s kedgeree, anyone?) It can’t have been an easy book to knock into shape and in the acknowledgements the author’s agent is thanked for advice on how to pull together “what was, for years, a baggy monster in my mind”. The result is a fast-paced history, viewed through the lens of food.
Scoff – the title of course has a double meaning ‑ is entertainingly informative throughout. For instance the account of the Leveson inquiry being told that a News International chief executive had contacted the prime minister in 2009 about how best to manage a damaging Times article. “Let’s discuss over country supper soon,” Rebekah Brooks texted David Cameron. She came in for criticism for the chummy tone of the text but also much ridicule for using “country supper” when anyone who has been to Eton knows the correct term is “kitchen supper”. The eighty-seven-word text told of elite habits and insider scheming but it was just two words that had ABC1 newspaper readers choking on their fine-cut marmalade. The linguistic slip-up was the culinary equivalent, writes Vogler, of Eliza Doolittle saying “not bloody likely”. And there you have it. Food, it brings us together and it sets us apart.
Maura O’Kiely is an Irish Times journalist.