Beef and Liberty, by Ben Rogers

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The Independent Culture

From Lévi-Strauss to Fernández-Armesto, scholars have been aware of the cultural significance of food. In the case of meat, this significance is deepened. The metaphor of blood embraces not just sex, but races and nations. As Ben Rogers says, food is, after language, the most important bearer of cultural identity.

The plain fare of the "good honest Englishman" has always been contrasted with multi-sauced French cuisine to illustrate the alleged superiority of down-to-earth Anglo-Saxon empiricism. By the time of Shakespeare, the image of a beef-eating yeomanry, victorious at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, was firmly fixed. The English had become, in Rogers's words, "the Texans of the early modern world".

Where continentals fried, braised or stewed meat, the British boiled or roasted it. Alongside the Anglo-French bifurcation was a class dimension. Beef was supposedly the meat appropriate to property-owning classes. Echoes of this persist in the great beef-consuming countries. The "meatless weeks" in Argentina, when restaurants do not serve beef in the interests of austerity, simply mean that the locals have to put up with lamb, pork and poultry.

It was Dorothy George, the great historian of London (whom Rogers unaccountably does not cite), who made the point that the "roast beef of old England" was a peculiarly 18th-century phenomenon. The 1700s saw the switch from medieval meats – whale, peacock, swan – to lamb, pork, poultry and, above all, beef. It was also the century when Britain and France fought for global mastery. In such a context, admiration for things British (by Voltaire and others) and French (by Hume and others) was thought akin to treason. The Duke of Newcastle, bulwark of the Whig-Protestant hegemony, was considered "unsound" because he liked French cuisine. In an entertaining excursus on Hogarth, Rogers traces beef and culinary motifs in the engravings, and points up the rampant xenophobia.

The archetype of John Bull, arrogant, beleaguered but triumphant, expresses disdain for the French. Rogers links the 18th-century cult of beef to those disgusting manifestations of Georgian England: the baiting of bulls and bears.

This is a fascinating jeu d'esprit ably conducted by an engaging author. Rogers is always entertaining and basically sound, but he suffers from having to locate his study mainly in the 18th century, of which he does not have an expert knowledge. His population estimate for Britain in this century (ten million) is too high, his knowledge of the Jacobites sketchy, and it is absurd to say that until 1756 France fought wars with England simply to restore the Stuarts. Indeed, it was a constant lament of the Jacobites that the French would only act through economic self-interest.

Rogers does stress that roast beef and its cluster of symbols was an English phenomenon in the 18th century. Only in the 19th century, with the improved breeds of Scottish cattle, did it become the roast beef of old Britain. Rogers is most incisive in his treatment of the beef motif from 1800 on: the world in which 18th-century symbols had real meaning had ceased to exist, but these "signs" continued almost at an unconscious level. To the French, we are still les rosbifs.