Classic Book Review
The Englishman’s Food: Five centuries of English diet
JC Drummond and Anne Wilbraham
Jonathan Cape, London, 1939; new and revised edition 1957; reprinted by Pimlico London 1991, 1994
In a world in which two billion people are malnourished, one might be tempted to question the topicality of a book about what the English ate during the course of five centuries. King Henry VIII, who had no fewer than six wives, two of whom he had beheaded, regularly ate porpoise and seal; but the relevance of such a historical nugget to a world in which two in seven people do not have a nutritious diet could seem questionable.
The Englishman’s Food: Five centuries of English diet, by the great British nutrition scientist Jack Drummond and his second wife Anne, is, however, a remarkably topical work.
First published in 1939, it appeared just before the outbreak of the Second World War. So popular was it that a revised and updated edition was brought out in 1957, five years after the tragic murder of Drummond, his wife and daughter by a roadside in the south of France in 1952. By the time it was reprinted in 1991, it was recognized as a classic that was timelessly relevant.
As Tom Jaine writes in his 1991 introduction to the book,
“lunch is a bundle of chemicals whose impact we should seek to understand.”
Sir Jack Cecil Drummond, a pioneering vitamin scientist and nutrition policy-maker, was also a great lover of food and wine. He was an early member of the Wine and Food Society, founded in 1933 by the French vintner and gastronome André L. Simon, and he contributed to the Society’s Journal.
His understanding of food and nutrition embraced breakthrough science on the one hand and a deep understanding of history on the other.
It is this ability to grasp the experience of the past and see it through the prism of contemporary scientific knowledge that gives Drummond’s writing such elegant authority: Here is an author who can fully appreciate the pleasures and struggles, the quirks and achievements of previous eating practices, while remaining quietly coherent and level-headed in his analysis of them. For a world still trying to strike a balance between over-consumption and starvation, between junk food and gourmet cuisine, between the tried and tested recipe and the latest TV chef’s signature dish, this is a work that has a great deal to tell us.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
The book surveys in chronological order: Medieval and Tudor England, the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century. We learn of farming and cooking practices, the influence of herbs and spices, and the differences between the diet of the peasantry and the aristocracy, the country and the city.
It is interesting to discover that medieval London had sophisticated convenience food outlets, that stringent controls existed to ensure purity of ingredients and accuracy of measures, and that, until very recent times, consumption of fruit and vegetables was regarded by many English people as actually unhealthy (the intense seasonality of agricultural production would have tempted people to eat excessive quantities of produce that was either unripe or else in a state of decomposition).
The received idea that the Anglo-Saxon peasants all starved while their Norman overlords waxed fat would appear to be something of a misconception, for Drummond argues that for long periods at a stretch, the common people had access to a reasonably balanced and nutritious, if somewhat dull, diet. What is striking, however, is the prodigious appetite for meat among all classes of society, the devastating effects of war, disease and poor harvests, and the intimate link between the vagaries of the global economy and the man in the street’s belly. Plus ça change …
Despite the historical sweep of the narrative, and the pellucid account of the rise of nutrition science in the nineteenth century, it is hard to read Drummond’s account without being reminded of King Solomon’s dictum that there is nothing new under the sun.
The link between food policy and politics is demonstrated time and again: in Elizabethan England, for example, the government attempted to introduce the compulsory eating of fish not only on Fridays (as was traditional) but also on Wednesdays.
The object of this was to make more men go to sea, so as to have a bigger population of experienced mariners to draw on for the royal navy. We see the same with the interesting connection between wealth and malnourishment. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was fashionable for the rich to farm out their babies to wet nurses; only the poor breast-fed their own children. The wet nurses employed by the wealthy were generally poor and undernourished, with the result that the blue-blooded babies they fed were particularly prone to develop rickets. One is reminded obliquely of the ravages of ‘cocaine chic’ in the most affluent sections of some of today’s western societies.
As a companion to the history of England, The Englishman’s Food provides colour, detail and surprise on every page, like sunlight flooding a well-worn tapestry.
It is equally compelling as an introduction to some of the ravaging diseases brought about by malnutrition: The accounts of scurvy, not just among seafarers but also among the common people on land, are harrowing in their detail.
The characteristics of starvation
Perhaps the most haunting passage in the book, however, is Drummond’s characteristically concise account of what happens when people have too little to eat:
“The most usual reaction to shortage of food is decreased activity. Even a slight shortage leads to irritability, complaint and unrest; a severe shortage results in lack of initiative, apathy and an unwillingness to co-operate in any kind of activity, physical or mental. The body conserves itself to the greatest possible extent, but if the shortage continues long enough body weight is inevitably lost.”
“People dying of acute starvation seldom show any particular symptoms. There is increasing weakness and emaciation followed by overwhelming lethargy merging into a state of coma. If the shortage of food is less severe but more prolonged the decline is correspondingly slower and a condition known today as ‘hunger-oedema’ may appear. The limbs, and sometimes the whole body, swell as in dropsy, the circulation is impeded and death follows from failure of the heart.”
The Englishman’s Food is indeed about much more than the eating habits of a procession of defunct societies on a little island in the North Sea. It is, at the deepest level, an essay on the relationship between the resources of the planet and the fate of the people who live and die in accordance with their access to those resources.
First published in Sight and Life 2/2012 (www.sightandlife.org).
If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy Malnutrition and Psychosis in Don Quixote.
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