Panikos Panayi has written extensively about migrants. His books surprise and gratify, draw readers into the alternative history of this mongrel nation, unmade and remade by waves of outsiders – and not only the usual suspects. He has studied German migrants in the UK, earlier Italian and Spanish migrations to England, and other unrecognised groups. In our times, when notions of cultural and national purity have spread like oil slicks from right to left and fear of contamination pervades the isles once more, counter-narratives with fresh perspectives help to release the nation from paranoia and ignorance.
Robert Winder's wonderful Bloody Foreigners did just that, and brilliantly. I believed this "multicultural history of British food" would too. An early morsel had already titillated the palate. Exploring the origins of emblematic British food, the author discovered that fish and chips arrived with Jewish and French settlers. Interlopers gave the nation one of its patriotic symbols. The neo-Nazis have declared Panayi an enemy of the people; any enemy of them is my friend. The role of food in the struggle to belong cannot be underestimated.
Most immigrants offer transported culinary gifts to natives as a way of gaining their love; Britain cannot resist these offerings. The littlest Englander, the cruellest racist, still loves a good curry. The title of this book promises that riveting story, but it delivers instead a text which is confused, badly structured and poorly analysed. Take this: "Increasing wealth and personal disposable income underlie most other developments in British society in the past century and a half. Only the strength of the British economy could have led to the demand for migration... Similarly the concept of food simply as sustenance during the mid Victorian period to the choice available today clearly needs contextualisation against the background of the increasing wealth of Britons". In fact, economic devastation fuelled post-war migration, and the merchant classes were seeking choice from the time of Elizabeth I.
Food, claims the author, cannot have nationality because it is always changing. Yes, but inhabitants of regions and countries do have deep attachments to their core culinary identities.
The early section is a tedious list of food writers and their books. A good editor would have removed the excess baggage and howlers. Pat Chapman, self-fashioned king of the Curry Club, is introduced repeatedly, and exaggeratedly praised as "the ultimate popularizer of curry in Britain". That honour goes to Bangladeshi-run small eateries for working-class white customers.
The style and language are turgid and indigestible. Potentially fascinating parts are served up unappetisingly. An example is the section on restaurant eating, revealing and well-researched, but terribly overwritten. Grainy pictures appear throughout, presumably to evoke bygone days. A few are genuinely old, including pre-war bagel sellers and German butchers. Most are contemporary, dismal shots of nothing very much – a menu board outside an Indian restaurant; a Cypriot shopkeeper with a moustache, a Burger King, a döner kebab spit...
This book wants to impress peers and to entice the general public. Academics have to do both these days, and most simply can't. Panayi demonstrably can't. Cooking up such inedible mush is not worthy of the respected professor, and he should return to what he does best.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's 'Some of my best friends are...' is published by Politico'sReuse content