Coronation chicken and its role in world history

'I plan to write a socialhistory of the 20th century, through Marxist analysis of sandwich fillings'

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In 1904, Lenin, in his pamphlet "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back", published his assertion against the Menshevik position: that a revolutionary socialist party should lead working-class consciousness through a highly disciplined cadre of full-time revolutionaries.

In 1904, Lenin, in his pamphlet "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back", published his assertion against the Menshevik position: that a revolutionary socialist party should lead working-class consciousness through a highly disciplined cadre of full-time revolutionaries.

To deflect the attentions of the tsarist secret police, Lenin was forced to disguise his diatribe against the Social Democrats as a how-to manual for the newly fashionable dance the foxtrot (hence the title). Many eager couples intent on learning the new dance that was sweeping through society were perplexed, on getting their book home, to find it filled with references to "the proletariat", "democratic centralism" and "class war".

Also, the illustrated, fold-out diagrams of footsteps, complete with arrows and directions, that were included in the book, rather than sending the pupils spinning round the room mastering the intricacies of the foxtrot, instead directed them out of the room, down the stairs and along the street to the telephone exchange, the armoury and the police station, where they were urged to "seize control of the means of production and the apparatus of state repression, in a syncopated fashion, daddy-o!".

These days, many books are not what they seem. A modern fashion in publishing is the production of what is basically a historical book disguised as a "biography" of something other than a person; thus in recent years we have had Kurlansky's Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world, Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever and Zuckerman's The Potato: how the humble spud rescued the Western world.

Taking those books as my starting-point, I plan over the next year to write an account of the turbulent social history of the 20th century, told through a Marxist analysis of sandwich fillings. Thus, my column next week will be my last for a while. This seminal text that I aim to write will recount the story of how certain sandwich fillings got their name and what part they played in history, and will also include recipes on how to make these delicious snack foods (thus boxing off another corner of the publishing game, ie, the celebrity cookbook).

I am a highly diligent author, and that has led, over the past few months, to my visiting many - in fact, pretty much all - sandwich bars in the Greater London area, to talk to the owners and those who work for them and to find out the stories they have to tell about their sandwich fillings. By and large, they are not people whose views are sought out by charismatic TV stars with access to the advertising power of a national newspaper, and it is only natural that - coming from hospitable Mediterranean countries, as many of them do - they would be inclined to offer the person interviewing them, purely in a spirit of Levantine friendship, perhaps a nice cup of coffee and a spicy bun, a minty lamb on ciabatta maybe, or a slice of carrot cake.

It is not true, as some unpleasant café-owners have implied, that there is in fact no book and that I am simply trying to get free sandwiches out of them. If I have happened to visit some establishments more than once, it is simply because I am trying to clarify some points I may not have got right on my first or second visit, or sometimes because I am not aware that I am revisiting a sandwich bar because I do not know where I am, on account of there being minty-lamb stains on several pages of my A-Z street guide.

However, just to confound those nasty souls who accuse me of mooching their poxy sandwiches (which I'd gladly pay for, except that I travel abroad so much, it's easier for me to carry only euros and, naturally, to accept change only in euros), I can now reveal that I am in a position to unveil some of the anecdotes that will go into my book What Is to Be Grilled?: a Marxist analysis of the sandwich filling.

Example one: coronation chicken. This sandwich filling is named in commemoration of the events of 1878, when German Proudhonists staged a brief coup in the eastern part of the country, temporarily seized power, deposed the King of Prussia and crowned a hen in his place.

Example two: the prawn cocktail. This delightful crustaceous filling, best served on wholemeal bread, originated in the era of United States history that is now known as Prohibition. At that time, the only way to get around the ban on the consumption and sale of alcohol was to disguise your drink as a meal. Hence, the development of the prawn cocktail (and its less successful siblings, the beef martini, the whitebait spritzer and the pork and soda).

Example three: chicken tikka. The name "chicken tikka" comes from the post-war period in Indian history that included the often-violent struggle for independence from British rule. Fanatical Indian secessionists would leave alarm-clock-timed bombs stuffed inside live chickens on the luggage racks of buses and railway carriages; the phrase "chicken tikka" was often the last thing some poor passenger said before the bomb exploded.

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