Evidence For Krugman’s Contention About British Food

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Yes, it’s true, British food is now some of the best in the world. In terms of variety, quality, ability to gain both in diverse areas, this is – as anyone who has travelled extensively will tell you – now true. Of course, it was not true for rather a long time. Paul Krugman made a useful attempt at working out why:

Maybe the first question is how English cooking got to be so bad in the first place. A good guess is that the country’s early industrialization and urbanization was the culprit. Millions of people moved rapidly off the land and away from access to traditional ingredients. Worse, they did so at a time when the technology of urban food supply was still primitive: Victorian London already had well over a million people, but most of its food came in by horse-drawn barge. And so ordinary people, and even the middle classes, were forced into a cuisine based on canned goods (mushy peas!), preserved meats (hence those pies), and root vegetables that didn’t need refrigeration (e.g. potatoes, which explain the chips).

But why did the food stay so bad after refrigerated railroad cars and ships, frozen foods (better than canned, anyway), and eventually air-freight deliveries of fresh fish and vegetables had become available? Now we’re talking about economics–and about the limits of conventional economic theory. For the answer is surely that by the time it became possible for urban Britons to eat decently, they no longer knew the difference. The appreciation of good food is, quite literally, an acquired taste–but because your typical Englishman, circa, say, 1975, had never had a really good meal, he didn’t demand one. And because consumers didn’t demand good food, they didn’t get it. Even then there were surely some people who would have liked better, just not enough to provide a critical mass.

We have around here someone who complains of German food in exactly these terms. Germans won’t pay for good food therefore there isn’t any. Britons have changed in this matter.

OK, fair enough. And now for an example. From a book circa 1935.

100 Fresh Food Dishes for Health and Strength and How to Prepare Them

Note that this is fresh food dishes. Fresh.

Cream Cheese and Tomato Sauce Snack

Take a portion of cream cheese (not a fresh food – Ed), skim off the rind, if any, and beat the rest into a paste by the addition of a few drops of tomato sauce (not a fresh food). Put in, also, a dash of black pepper (not a fresh food) and salt (not a fresh food).

Spread the cheese mixture thickly on the (wholemeal, they mean digestives) biscuits (not a fresh food) and put a few shreds of young lettuce over it. Dry the lettuce thoroughly before using it.

The contention that things have got better has some supporting evidence, no?

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Spike
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Spike

The “Nobel”-winning “economist” says that urban Britons were simply unaware of good food even after they became able to afford it. And no one saw the chance to make a quick quid by making them aware, by filling this void, by marketing products whose peas were not mushy? Because of “the limits of conventional economic theory”? “Surely” Krugman’s theory is as crap as…all his others!

Balam
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Balam

It’s also about wanting to put the extra money in.

Even now, seems to me lots of English people (and Americans?) see food as fuel – the quicker you’ve knocked it down and got on with real life, the better.

I seem to recall a passage in The Road to Wigan Pier where he regrets that working class people’s tooth problems were not about being poor, but just about being used to 3 tonnes of sugar in their tea, and that even given the choice, they wouldn’t switch to healthier food.

Fish and chips is still way better than turnips…

Spike
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Spike

Yes, surely Americans too, the nation of “fast food.” But see Mr. TD below: What we eat depends on many values no one is going to predict reliably. Only, why does Krugman think that “conventional economic theory” is limited as to what we should do about this?

jgh
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jgh

My great-grandad started work as a cookhouse boy, and joined the army as a cookhouse boy and worked his way up to regimental cook on the way to sergant. I have his hand-written army recipe book from the First Great Unpleasantness. Full of fresh ingredient food. Things like “one gallon milk, two stone potatoes, one parsley….”

TD
Guest
TD

I think Krugman may have a point. I believe my father lived his entire life thinking that nothing ever matched WW2 RAF rations. Even my mother, now well into her 90s, seems to have reverted to pre War styles of eating. I think immigrants to the US venture out in eating because their kids eventually demand it. Even now as I close in on 70 I find that my tastes often fall back to things I was served as a kid.

Bernie G.
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Bernie G.

For the vast majority of people there wasn’t the money for anything other than basic stodge. Subsistence food, something to fill your stomach. Often (1950s) there wasn’t even stodge, just a slice of white bread sprinkled with sugar (or brown sauce). ‘School dinners’ were slop, gristle and overcooked veg. I look back fondly on the Army who served up a wide range of well cooked food, and Asian immigrants provided exotic if basic fare. Have been fortunate to travel widely and broaden my taste, but the older I get the more I revert to type. Tonight it’s goose and plum… Read more »

Snarkus
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Snarkus

There you go Bernie. Markets and choices work. As I age I happily avoid the overboiled semi-cremated food my mother cooked. Will try most things except raw fish, the Scottish restaurant, and any biscuit associated with yank cooking due to death by sugar. Seen enough flesh parasites, marine and land based to encourage some cooking of meats.

Jon Jermey
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Jon Jermey

‘A few shreds of young lettuce’. What a grudging concession to the need for vegetable nutrient! ‘I know you’re supposed to eat these ghastly planty things, but let’s keep the intake to an absolute minimum’.

Matthew H Iskra
Guest

Queue the ancient joke about British Food:
“The British do know how to cook. They just don’t know when to stop.”

Luckily in my location of California, the foothills of the Sierra Madre, local mines imported plenty of Cornish miners. So we got pasties! Maybe not your traditional ones (local joint makes a Mexican seasoned one) but pasties nonetheless.

But ain’t nobody west of Illinois can make a sausage worth a damn… miss’en me some bangers…

jgh
Guest
jgh

Only one item isn’t a queue.

Spike
Guest
Spike

Proven the first time he tries to cut in front of someone else! But the word Matthew is looking for is Cue (signal that the one joke is about to take the stage).

Lumberjacks brought pasties to upper Michigan too. A popular brand is Upper Peninsula. One of the oddest package disclaimers I’ve ever seen is: “Made in Lower Peninsula.”

Matthew H Iskra
Guest

My pedantry is humbled by your perspicacious post, though as a computer scientist I will humbly defend my proposition that a queue can have one item, or even zero items, and still be a queue – and not just software-wise.

Exempli Gratia:an empty queue in front of the ticket window for zoo admittance is still a queue.

Disagreements can ensue, and are encouraged, as long as they are courteous.

I will utterly and completely admit to “cue” being a better or proper choice in my previous post.

(I think I’ve been reading WAY to much of the Bronte sisters for an article recently).

Reed
Guest
Reed

You really are lucky to be living in California where they have recently realised that health is a human right. So, if you are not healthy, you can sue every health provider for depriving you of your human right.
Oh, Happy Days!

Matthew H Iskra
Guest

Reed: I live in California. I can sue a ham sandwich for not being tuna salad. It goes with the ancient US custom (hell, even in colony days) of “lawsuits for I am unhappy”.

TD
Guest
TD

Oh dear, I read Krugman’s column and we have this gem. “So what does all this have to do with economics? Well, the whole point of a market system is supposed to be that it serves consumers, providing us with what we want and thereby maximizing our collective welfare. But the history of English food suggests that even on so basic a matter as eating, a free-market economy can get trapped for an extended period in a bad equilibrium in which good things are not demanded because they have never been supplied, and are not supplied because not enough people… Read more »

Spike
Guest
Spike

“a market system is supposed to…serve consumers, providing us [consumers] with what we [the editorial We] want….” Yes, indeed, the market system doesn’t work if you don’t eat what I think you should. Fortunately, every minute Krugman spends as a food critic is a minute he’s not doing greater damage.

Snarkus
Guest
Snarkus

You miss the point of article. Free market did provide what was wanted. Chronological snobbery as to ancestors taste or lack thereof is not a valid economic argument. However, one historical point is missed by Krugman. Also you lot. The British Isles has a low native edible food count. Even the Romans could not extend food choices much without imports. Oz is similar and has thankfully, a very varied cuisine thanks to the immigrants. Now if only the belief that solutions of tannic and tartaric acid is fermented grape juice would go away…

Chester Draws
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Chester Draws

Maybe the first question is how English cooking got to be so bad in the first place. British cooking in the 1950s was bad, compared to now, but not compared to other places at the same time. I have only eaten Soviet food later than then, and in flash (by their standards) restaurants. Judging by that, Soviet food in the 1950s must have been truly dreadful. It’s lucky I actually like beetroot and cabbage, because if you didn’t then you were in for a nasty surprise. The eastern Europeans of the time would have loved to have eaten like the… Read more »

MrKing
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MrKing

Ireland is probably not the best example (as it’s almost the UK) but as a kid I remember everything being boiled – potatoes, cabbage and ham.

TD
Guest
TD

Yes. Boil till done. Recipes were pretty easy to follow.

John B
Guest
John B

Worth remembering all food used to be ‘organic’ = grown in shit, Human too. Boiling until done was to make sure intestinal parasites and other nasties on or in the food were killed. Meat also contained flukes and parasites… even fish. Thorough cooking was a health issue. As for boiling, only wealthy people had ovens. Most cooking was on the top of the stove. Also animals were not so much grown for meat as for output – wool, milk, eggs, and those that were were sold to the wealthy. The ordinary folk had old animals no longer productive or dead… Read more »

Bongo
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Bongo

“how English cooking got to be so bad in the first place” Notice the evidence free assumption from Krugman there that it was previously good, then went bad when industrialisation and the factory system started up. Fast forward two centuries and post-war rationing ended in ’54. It took until around 1968 for more than half of households to have an electric fridge. And “By 1974, one in ten households had a freezer.” Socialised industries were widespread until beyond 1979 keeping us poor. We don’t appreciate nearly enough how much richer and better the USA was then. It seems neither does… Read more »

Matthew H Iskra
Guest

From what little history I have on this (my specialties are 1920s America and the Eastern Roman Empire, not English cooking) the English DID have good food in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was the roasts on spits. IIRC they were the envy of continental chefs, the English having plenty of good livestock and diverse ways to prepare via a spit. For any who do not know about spit roasting: a long iron spike was pierced through the center of the meat and the meat rotated while cooking over a fire using either direct or indirect heat. Drippings where… Read more »

Bongo
Guest
Bongo

We could both be right – the English upper classes (I’m thinking Henry VIII of course) did enjoy hunting and then delegating the preparation of something delicious to their chefs who may have written some instructive manuals in their spare time. The middle class barely existed and the working classes were barely literate and wouldn’t have recorded how relatively marvellous their
ruddy diet became when potatoes came to these shores.
If Krugman could track the diet of the bottom 98% or so through history I think he’d find it has never gone backwards except under socialism and during war. Imv of course.

Bloke in Germany
Guest
Bloke in Germany

Nice theory, but Hollandaise is the only mother sauce that includes eggs. And it’s argued to this day whether that is really a mother sauce.

john77
Guest
john77

Horse-drawn barge brought in not-quickly-perishable goods, such as malted barley for brewing beer. Cheese (not noticeably quickly perishable but more so than malt) came by stagecoach. Meat came in on the hoof to Smithfield. Fish came in by boat. Mr Krugman has looked at the canal network (which grew up in the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution) and assumed that it was the only means of transport in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Prejudice against American commentators on English history is not, or extremely rarely, bigotry but is an observation of reality – the honest ones don’t… Read more »

Bloke on M4
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Bloke on M4

What he’s missing is the change in how much fuel is required. We have a lot less women walking to the shops, men working in factories.

Lots more Subways than caffs because only a few people need that extra energy.

John B
Guest
John B

Mushy peas are not a canned food. (In Northern England, canned mushy peas were unknown until recent times.) They are dried peas, which like dried beans needed to be soaked and boiled, a practice going back long before the canning process. British ‘cuisine’ is no worse than other Countries and largely the same. People scorn British ‘potted meat’ but extol the virtues of ‘rillettes’. And who wants duck gizzards when they can have gésiers de canard? And doesn’t cassoulet sound better than sausage and beans, isn’t bœuf bourguignon preferable to beef stew? For example. Anyway people confuse what is available… Read more »

Bloke in Germany
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Bloke in Germany

You can look back further to see how adventurous pre-war British food was. Beeton is quite enough. OK, it’s the food Bible for the bestaffed upper middle-class household of the era and not the peasantry, but there is a wealth of European- and colonial-, at least -inspired, dishes, among the spotted dick and suet puddings. This adventurousness disappeared entirely between the end of the Victorian era and 1945, probably due to a mixture of war, rationing, imports prioritising calories over flavours, and collapse of the upper middle class, with establishment in their place of a new middle class of lower-level… Read more »