British Cookery, by George Orwell
February 7, 2019 7:36 AM   Subscribe

Generalising further, one may say that the characteristic British diet is a simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous diet, drawing much of its virtue from the excellence of the local materials, and with its main emphasis on sugar and animal fats. It is the diet of a wet northern country where butter is plentiful and vegetable oils are scarce, where hot drinks are acceptable at most hours of the day, and where all the spices and some of the stronger-tasting herbs are exotic products. Garlic, for instance, is unknown in British cookery proper: on the other hand mint, which is completely neglected in some European countries, figures largely. In general, British people prefer sweet things to spicy things, and they combine sugar with meat in a way that is seldom seen elsewhere.

This is the never-before-published full version of Orwell’s essay on British Cuisine, including his own recipes for Welsh Rarebit, Yorkshire Pudding, Treacle Tart, Orange Marmalade [“Bad recipe! Too much sugar and water!”], Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding.

The Guardian provides some context:
The author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm was, the body has revealed, commissioned to write British Cookery in 1946, as part of the organisation’s efforts to promote British culture overseas. But a discovery in the British Council’s archives has revealed that after commissioning the essay, it declined to publish it, telling Orwell that it was problematic to write about food in a time of strict rationing.

“I am so sorry such a seemingly stupid situation has arisen with your manuscript,” runs the letter, raising “doubts on such a treatment of the painful subject of Food in these times”. The publications department representative tells Orwell he has written “a good essay … apart from one or two minor criticisms, I think it is excellent,” but that “it would be unfortunate and unwise to publish it for the continental reader”.

Orwell went on to publish a shorter version of the essay in the Evening Standard.
The rejection letter can be found here, and the much shorter version, published in the Evening Standard as “In Defence of English Cooking”, here.
posted by chappell, ambrose (57 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Now I want to re read his novel keep the aspidistra flying again and pay closer attention to the food commentary.
posted by tilde at 7:41 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Now, I find myself disappointed that Orwell never wrote a dystopian recipe book called 1964. Lots of chilling descriptions of shrimp cocktails and that sort of thing.
posted by rongorongo at 7:59 AM on February 7 [20 favorites]


I'm British and an adventurous/novelty-seeking vegetarian when it comes to food; I can't imagine what it would have been like to grow up in any era earlier than my own because the food sounds so boring and awful.

My dad was born in the late 50s and he was able to remember the first time he ate pizza (when he went to London on a school trip; it took longer to come to his hometown). I have a coworker whose father was of a slightly older generation and belonged to a "spaghetti club" at university because they were the only people who'd heard of this miraculous non-meat-and-potatoes food substance.

And let's not forget that the first edition of Mrs Beeton recommended boiling pasta for 1h45...
posted by terretu at 8:03 AM on February 7 [12 favorites]


Orwell's description of the dining habits of the English strikes me as extraordinarily peculiar. Being an American who has traveled widely but has somehow missed Great Britain, tell, me, Brits, does anything remain of these barbarous culinary habits?

On another note, having read countless wonderful dream-comics by Winsor McCay that always seemed to end up with a boy in pajamas waking up saying something like "Oh, it must have been that Welsh rarebit I ate before bed," I was happy to see a recipe for it at the end of the article. I always wondered what it was, but not enough to look it up, apparently.
posted by kozad at 8:08 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Excellent post.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:08 AM on February 7


A Nice Cup of Tea, by George Orwell
Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.
posted by BungaDunga at 8:22 AM on February 7 [22 favorites]


Anyway, I have been reading Orwell's essays and just finished "In Defence of English Cooking" and therefore this is almost weirdly timely.

His essay on working in a used bookstore is also superb.
posted by BungaDunga at 8:26 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


BungaDunga, I am by no means an Anglophile, but I do wish decent tea was as easy to come by in Texas as it is in England. I'm currently working my way through a box of PG Tips Extra Strong and it is delicious and lovely with cream and sugar. I give up and just drink coffee if I'm out and need something, though -- it's easier than trying to explain why the water needs to be boiling, and whether they can hand me that and the (usually awful and full of tea sweepings) bag so that I can start a timer appropriately. When I travel I bring my own tea, sugar, and Mini Moos (truly a lifesaver) rather than be at the mercy of whoever's in charge of hot beverages.

This is all to say I think it's time for another cup this morning.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:39 AM on February 7 [5 favorites]


From the outside, the change in English cooking just over my lifetime has been astounding.

But, to be fair to the English, as an American I grew up with a mother who came from an Eastern European family and the foods I never tasted, or in some cases even heard of, before I went off to college could fill a cupboard. In fact they mostly fill my cupboard now, and my mother ca. 1980 glancing into it would be largely baffled.

He is unfair about the custards. The custards, trifles, fools, messes, and the like are a distinctive English contribution sadly underplayed in the U.S.
posted by praemunire at 8:41 AM on February 7 [5 favorites]


From the outside, the change in English cooking just over my lifetime has been astounding.

[Posh waiter enters]
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:51 AM on February 7 [7 favorites]


Great post!

Since I grew up in England, I'm very nostalgic about the food, and Scottish and Irish food too. I think it's true that you couldn't get good food in restaurants back in the day, but I remember lovely Sunday dinners in the back room of our local pub (children weren't allowed in the pub, but they had a back room for all of us).

This made me laugh: Crumpets, which are of very strange appearance – they are white, and full of holes like a Gruyere cheese – are made by a process that is known to very few people. I don't much like crumpets, but the idea of them being some mystical magic product is hilarious. Here's a recipe: crumpets
posted by mumimor at 9:01 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


So it's not just "fry it or boil it"?
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:03 AM on February 7


Orwell: Nearly all British fruits and vegetables have a good natural flavour, but the apples are outstanding.

Yep, still true. Apples in the US tend to be pretty bland. In the UK, I couldn't wait every year for the seasonal apple harvest with wonderful varieties of apples, both tart and sweet.

praemunire:The custards, trifles, fools, messes, and the like are a distinctive English contribution sadly underplayed in the U.S.

I still think British desserts are the best. We sometimes construct what we think is the perfect European meal. The starters are Italian, the main is French, the dessert is British.

Some other comments:
--The cheeses in Britain have grown up since Orwell's day. A huge variety of cheeses has made Britain, to my mind, a great cheese nation.

--Welsh rarebit is amazing and I always order it wherever it is to be found. One of the best I've ever had was at a cafe in Hay-on-Wye.

--Butchers today in Britain can't seem to handle anything beyond beef, pork and game birds. Those are great, but duck and rabbit, common on the continent, are still really hard to find.

--One of my favorite places to eat in the English countryside where I lived was run by a British man who was a great Francophile. That to me is the perfect marriage: Continental cooking techniques but using the fantastic British meat and fish and game and fruits and vegetables. There's an odd timidity in cooking in the UK. It was never a lack of good ingredients. English butter and dairy, for example, easily rivals Brittany.
posted by vacapinta at 9:19 AM on February 7 [14 favorites]


This dovetails nicely with my recent obsession with The Great British Bake Off. Very interesting post.
posted by skewed at 9:25 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


*reads article because he is still curious about this Welsh rarebit which I think was potentially referenced in Wallace and Gromit, my source for trueisms about the Brits.
posted by Dillionaire at 9:33 AM on February 7


All I know is - with the caveats that I have better or at least broader tastes now, and had more money to spend - the food was SO MUCH better across the board when I was in England last November than it was when I was there in 1992. Ironically, the only disappointing meal I had was fish and chips.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:34 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


My dad was born in the late 50s and he was able to remember the first time he ate pizza

True story, my 80 year old father has never eaten pizza. I tried to convince him once pointing out it was bread,cheese and meat but he passed.
posted by Damienmce at 9:42 AM on February 7 [8 favorites]


Orwell doesn’t get enough credit for this descriptions of food and hunger, in Down And Out in London And Paris the descriptions of the poorly made and haphazard meals eaten admid such Imperial wealth are great.

And yes some of the best meals I’ve had was during a country tour of the north of England. Excellent cheese, lamb, butter and apples.
posted by The Whelk at 9:54 AM on February 7 [6 favorites]


My dad was born in the late 50s and he was able to remember the first time he ate pizza
This was also the era when olive oil was available only at Boots the Chemists - in containers suitable for its standard use of cleaning one's ears.
... but duck and rabbit, common on the continent, are still really hard to find.
The lamentable shortage of rabbit on the menu is because of the massive cultural half life of this - or musically this.
posted by rongorongo at 10:04 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Virtually all British working-people put sugar in their tea, and indeed will not drink tea without it. Unsweetened tea is an upper-class or middle-class habit, and even in those classes it tends to be associated with a Europeanised palate.

From Orwell's piece. I wonder if this is still true (that is, if it were also true in Orwell's time -- I'm not saying I don't believe him, I just don't know!)
posted by andrewesque at 10:16 AM on February 7


The lamentable shortage of rabbit on the menu is because of the massive cultural half life of this - or musically this.

I’d say it’s more likely to be the massive cultural half life of this - or musically this.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 10:19 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


The fact that Orwell employs the vile corruption of the mother tongue that is "rarebit" invalidates his culinary authority for me for all time.
posted by sonascope at 10:37 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I still remember being disappointed when he compared Gaudi's Sagrada Familia to hock bottles and said the anarchists should have blown it up. Even the greatest writers won't be right all the time.
posted by rory at 10:49 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I just found out what a crumpet actually is—more or less what Americans call an English muffin. For some reason, I always thought it was a kind of sweetened quickbread shaped vaguely like a horn. Possibly I am thinking of Krimpets. It is best not to think of Krimpets.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:10 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I still find it somewhat convincing that British Colonialism was primarily inspired by a set of concerted attempts to improve British cooking.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:34 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


A more interesting twist is thatas soon as spices became accessible to everyday people the rich decided spice was vulgar and only bland, pure foods were noble.
posted by The Whelk at 11:45 AM on February 7 [5 favorites]


I just found out what a crumpet actually is—more or less what Americans call an English muffin.

Noooooope! Crumpet != English muffin. Nope nope nope. I mean, they're both round and you eat them both with butter, but... no.

I am amused by how immediate my sense of outrage was at the suggestion that they are more or less the same.

Actual conversation in my household last week...
Boyfriend: Hey hon, you know what it might be fun for us to try making from scratch sometime? Crumpets!
Me: Sure, that's a great idea! I think the crumpet rings on are on the top shelf in the kitchen.
Boyfriend: *pause* Wait, you own crumpet rings? Who owns crumpet rings? No, of course you do. Why am I surprised by this?
Me: *eyeroll* What sort of heathen doesn't own crumpet rings?

posted by Secret Sparrow at 11:49 AM on February 7 [26 favorites]


mint, which is completely neglected in some European countries, figures largely

Ooh, so Goscinny was right! In Astérix chez les Brétons, the distinctive, and only, meal eaten by the Britons is boiled beef with mint sauce.
posted by zompist at 12:20 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I forgot to say that I'm sad to see how much the list of apples would need to be amended.

One year I got some heirloom apples from somewhere in IL via Zingerman's and they were just amazing.
posted by praemunire at 12:30 PM on February 7


In Astérix chez les Brétons, the distinctive, and only, meal eaten by the Britons is boiled beef with mint sauce.

I don’t know whether it originated with Asterix (I’m pretty certain it didn’t) but the British are infamous in France for eating “boiled beef”, a dish that I, a British person, have never heard of. Outside of France, I mean.

My retirement plan involves coming up with a particularly disgusting recipe for the dish and opening a “British restaurant” in some nice corner of l'Hexagone... possible in Provence... and living comfortably from the inevitable stream of curious / disgusted / supercilious French tourists.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 1:00 PM on February 7 [8 favorites]


My dad was born in the late 50s and he was able to remember the first time he ate pizza (when he went to London on a school trip; it took longer to come to his hometown).

I was born in 1971 in the UK, in NW England and brought up there. We ate pizza because it was available as a cheap and easily prepared from frozen food. Our diet from the 70 and into the 80s was pretty basic, meat and veg, the latter usually overcooked from frozen. Chips often. Fish and chips once a week and a roast on Sunday were the highlights. Essentially pretty bland and repetitive because we were pretty poor and my father was highly conservative. No rice, no pasta, pretty much nothing that could be called non-traditional.

I remember the first time we ate lasagne, my uncle and his family came over and made enough to feed both sets of families. I think that was the first time that garlic was used in anything cooked in the house, maybe also the last.

Going to uni was a slow revelation of trying different things but I wouldn't say anyone was cooking anything very interesting. I first tasted curry a couple of years into studying, which was a welcome addition.

The changes in the UK in the last 20-25 years have been multiple I think. Bigger supermarkets offering more choice, and I wonder whether a lot of the other elements follow on from the marketing of these wider ranges of products and flavours, these include changes in the attitude to food, what people will try, the expanded norm, all the interest in food that came with the rise of the celebrity chef. But I wonder also how much many of us were waiting to get our hands on something different from the drudgery of out childhood diets.
posted by biffa at 1:09 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


infamous in France for eating “boiled beef”

Roast beef surely?
posted by biffa at 1:10 PM on February 7


Roast beef surely?

Yeah, you’d think that. But nope! We’re called “rosbifs” but accused of eating “boiled beef”.

It’s especially weird, since Pot-au-Feu is such a famous French dish. (I think it must be projection.)
posted by chappell, ambrose at 1:24 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]


The French seem to be especially bewildered by the English habit of eating mint sauce with roast lamb, although apple sauce with roast pork seems to get a pass. Mint sauce, for those who don't know it, is a mixture of chopped fresh mint (spearmint) with vinegar and sugar, which now I think of it is a bit odd, although since I ate it as a child I still think it is delicious with lamb.

Welsh rarebit also confuses people - I was in a Parisian cafe with my niece once, and seeing it on the menu, she ordered it. All the waiters came out to look when it was served - apparently it had been on the menu for years but no-one had ever ordered it before and they had no idea what it was. The oddest thing is that what appeared was a perfectly good version, with beer in the sauce and everything. She didn't get to eat much of it though, as all the waiters (about six of them) wanted a taste.
posted by Fuchsoid at 2:02 PM on February 7 [15 favorites]


Virtually all British working-people put sugar in their tea

My dad put 6 sugars in until 3-4 years ago, when the doctor insisted he cut down. Now he puts in 6 of those horrible aspartame sweeteners instead, which I'm pretty sure is actually worse for you.
posted by threetwentytwo at 2:06 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]


Mint, which is completely neglected in some European countries, figures largely

Orwell mentions mint sauce, and mint with new potatoes. Apart from mint jelly (basically mint sauce solidified), I'm drawing a blank on other recipes - what culinary delights am I missing?
posted by brushtailedphascogale at 2:07 PM on February 7


Mint tea of course but after that? Pea and mint soup would be one. The BBC recipes pages list over 800 recipes including mint but I would argue a lot of them are for adopted foods, and probably most of those adopted post Orwell writing this. Of course, other recipes may have fallen out of fashion before I came along.
posted by biffa at 2:13 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I just found out what a crumpet actually is—more or less what Americans call an English muffin.

Noooooope! Crumpet != English muffin. Nope nope nope. I mean, they're both round and you eat them both with butter, but... no.
I am amused by how immediate my sense of outrage was at the suggestion that they are more or less the same.


As I understand it, English muffins were an attempt to Americanize crumpets. Whether it worked depends on whether you've ever eaten a crumpet (I haven't, and think English muffins are not bad).

Virtually all British working-people put sugar in their tea

How can you stand it? I learned to drink tea on study abroad in China, and am very opposed to putting anything in tea, unless the person who made it for you massively oversteeped it (which I am led to understand is how British people make tea in the first place). In my head there's a fine line between British hot tea and American iced tea, and that line is along the temperature axis, not the sweetness or quality axes.
posted by dialMforMara at 3:23 PM on February 7


I just found out what a crumpet actually is—more or less what Americans call an English muffin

Maybe by appearance, sort of. But when I eat one the closest analogue that comes to mind is American style pancakes* (like the small ones that are 1/2" thick).

*Pancakes in the UK are closer to what Americans would call crepes.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 3:42 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]


English muffins - bready, not sweet, crispy when toasted, often dusted with cornmeal - IMO really have no connection to crumpets other than the holes, and the general size. But I could be wrong
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 3:46 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


"Mary had a little Lamb, with her ready to use mint sauce" - the label on the jar of my souvenir of England, a long while back.
posted by ovvl at 6:01 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


How can you stand it?

Not British, but I believe they do it by using ultra-bitter tea then leaving it to steep until it becomes so viciously tannic that it causes a kind of stomach spasm if you drink it straight. Then they add milk and sugar until it can be consumed without causing physical pain.

It's actually pretty good just with milk, no sugar, so you get some creaminess without needing to forget that you're tasting a plant that evolved to taste so nasty that nothing would eat it.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:40 PM on February 7


oh ffs.

english muffin

crumpet
posted by valkane at 9:01 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


What I wonder is Why did Britain become the Land Of Cake?
posted by The Whelk at 10:02 PM on February 7


What I wonder is Why did Britain become the Land Of Cake?

*pauses for a moment to listen to the wind buffeting the roof*

*reflects on the fact that it's too dark in here to read without the lights on even though it's 11 in the morning*

*glances at the raindrops on the window*

I'm going to say it's something to do with the weather.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:49 AM on February 8 [8 favorites]


MetaFilter: It is best not to think of Krimpets.
posted by loquacious at 3:40 AM on February 8


This thread needs more Wordshore.
posted by loquacious at 3:40 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]


Ahh so crumpets are McGriddles bread without the sizzurp flavor
posted by aydeejones at 6:39 AM on February 8


If there's one thing the Brits are good at, it's historical documentaries about their food habits:

Supersizers is a delightful binge hosted by Giles Coren (snarky food writer person who thinks Very Highly of Himself) and Sue Perkins (of Bake-Off fame) as they eat their way through the centuries, a week at a time. The early episodes had a little frame experiment about how they got their cholesterol and health checked before and after, but after a while they abandon that entirely so as to spend more time getting absolutely smashed.

Back in Time for Dinner, meanwhile, is a close-lens look at middle class family meals from 1950s-today. You definitely get the sense that Dad signed them all up for this, and Mom is culinarily challenged and doesn't really want to be there. There is definitely stuff in there about when various "ethnic" foods showed up, including pizza, kebabs, chicken tikka.

I will say, the US wasn't much better about this. As late at the 1990s, my mother had to make special trips to the local Indian store because the supermarkets in our DC suburb didn't carry things like cumin or coriander, and you couldn't get a good mango for love nor money.
posted by basalganglia at 9:20 AM on February 8 [3 favorites]


Virtually all British working-people put sugar in their tea, and indeed will not drink tea without it. Unsweetened tea is an upper-class or middle-class habit, and even in those classes it tends to be associated with a Europeanised palate.

From Orwell's piece. I wonder if this is still true


Anecdotal, but I’m a working-class Brit, and cannot abide sugar in my tea. To the point where, if my wife is making a brace of cuppas, she will use a different spoon for mine, because I can taste* if she stirs my tea with the same spoon that has just been in her two-sugar mug.

* She doubts the veracity of this claim. It is, however, True.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 11:11 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]


On the subject of crumpets, Seattle is home to The Crumpet Shop, which serves crumpets and tea in an aggressively unpretentious setting and I can't recommend enough. It is great.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:42 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


Crumpets are essentially highly-efficient delivery mechanisms for the maximum possible quantity of melted butter. And golden syrup if you’re feeling fancy. And damn you all now I want one with both but there’s no way I’m going out in that aforementioned weather to buy them.
posted by penguin pie at 12:06 PM on February 8 [5 favorites]


For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right.

Three spoons to the pot –
That is the brew of your vicar!
Three spoons to the pot –
That is the brew of your vicar!

None so cunning as he
At brewing a jorum of tea,
Ha! ha! ha! ha!
A pretty stiff jorum of tea!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:31 PM on February 8


Oh, man. I had to stop reading because I was just getting too hungry. My Mom made the best suet puddings when we were little.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:44 PM on February 8


Orwell mentions mint sauce, and mint with new potatoes. Apart from mint jelly (basically mint sauce solidified), I'm drawing a blank on other recipes - what culinary delights am I missing?

I've heard of minty peas.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:47 PM on February 8


my partner also remberes mint peas.

But I mean like, HOW is it the Land Of Cake? HOW did they have access to that much cheap sugar and flour? Is it just being the center of a colonizing Empire hellbent for sugar and spice for so long?
posted by The Whelk at 10:32 PM on February 8


I noticed that Orwell emphasized that cakes were a particularly Scottish speciality, which I hadn't realised before but makes sense.

Is it just being the center of a colonizing Empire hellbent for sugar and spice for so long?

Yes.
posted by rory at 12:17 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]


« Older Becoming   |   Around the World in Eighty Years Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.