Thursday, 2 October 2008

History in the News: Poverty, Diet & History

by Derry Nairn

Felicity Lawrence had a fascinating piece in the Guardian yesterday about the historical links between diet and poverty. She linked Jamie Oliver's new TV series (about poor eating among working-class people in northern England) to George Orwell's observations of the same topic, in his classically grim book The Road to Wigan Pier:

"A man dies and is buried and all his actions forgotten but the food he has eaten lives after him in the sound or rotten bones of his children." Orwell wrote down detailed accounts of how unemployed working-class people on welfare spent their money. He doubted it was even theoretically possible to live on their allowance. "The basis of their diet is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potatoes. Would it not be better if they spent more money of wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread?" Yes it would he answered, but "no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots ... A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita, an unemployed man doesn't ... When you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don't want to eat dull, wholesome food. You want something a little bit tasty. Let's have three pennorth of chips! Put the kettle on and we'll all have a nice cup of tea!"
It so happens that I am currently reading a related book, Taste: the Story of Britain through its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun. Its an exploration of culinary habits in this country since the Stone Age. In modern times, the auther focuses on the habits of housewives and families, on celebrity chefs of yore and in the manner in which certain customs filtered down through social strata from royalty and the nobilty. Rather surprisingly, another theme to emerge is the abnormally major influence which France has held over British eating habits.

Its a great read. But the section most relevant to both Orwell and Oliver is the section on the tastes of the Victorian working classes in London slums of the 19th century. Here's an extract, inspired by the writings of Dicken's friend HenryMayhew:
Crammed into rotting tenements, men, women, and children purchased their meals on the street, spending their pennies on ancient staples like oysters, sheep's trotters, pickled herrings, hot eels, pea soup, meat puddings, muffins, baked apples or kidney puddings, or on tea, coffee, and hot potatoes.
Muffins and coffee - doesn't sound so bad does it? But there were multiple health hazards associated with eating street food in urban Britain in the 19th century:
Reeling from the problems caused by rapid urbanisation, adulteration of goods was reaching a fraudulent and dangerous peak... Coffee was commonly bulked up with chicory or mangle-worzel and acorn, milk was watered, and tea had up to half its weight made up of iron filings
This part brought to mind the recent melamine-tainted milk scandal in China. Are food purity issues a problem common to all rapidly industrialising countries?

Back to the issues at hand, History Today has followed this topic closely over the years. Most recently, we had an article by John Burnett in our March 2006 edition, Eat Your Greens, about the politics behind 100 years of school dinners. Again, the article is linked to Jamie Oliver, but this time to his previous campaigning series, Jamie's School Dinners. Here's an extract discussing the situation in Bradford in the late 1940s:
Children could have porridge, bread and treacle and milk for breakfast and a variety of cooked dishes for dinner, including onion soup, hashed beef, shepherd's pie, fish and potato pie, baked jam roll and rice pudding - delights so unfamiliar to some that they were at first rejected until new tastes were formed. Substantial gains in height, weight and general health were reported, while teachers found improvements in concentration, table manners and hygiene.
The full article is available to read for free on the History Today homepage. You can reach it by clicking here.

Click here to read reviews on the Amazon page for Taste, by Kate Coloquhoun.

Click here to read Felicity Lawrence's original Guardian piece.

1 comment:

Sue Wilkes said...

In Victorian Manchester, the workers bought pickle a pennyworth at a time to relieve the monotony of their usual diet of potatoes and oatmeal. Tea was the great universal drink - Engels noted 'where no tea is used, only the bitterest poverty reigns.' Food adulteration was widespread - and it's shocking that over 160 years after Engels' 'Condition of the Working Classes,' this is still a problem. Orwell, once again, has proved eerily prescient. But shouldn't education on food nutrition be given a higher priority in schools, rather than waiting for TV chefs to show people how to prepare 'good' food?

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