A History of English Food, By Clarissa Dickson Wright

Christopher Hirst
Thursday 20 September 2012 15:12

Re-reading this richly informative book, surely destined for classic status, you find it just as entertaining, though it carries an important message. In her introduction, CDW reports the view of a professor of nutrition – "we have no idea how soon we will need to be self-sufficient" – and adds, "I hope… we will increasingly produce our own ingredients and show the same flexibility and ingenuity that our ancestors did."

This does not mean eating the now-protected badger, though CDW recalls that "West Country pubs of my childhood had badger hams on the bar". Rabbit, however, is a different matter. The introduction of myxomatosis in the Fifties meant that "a useful and flavourful meat that people had been enjoying for centuries largely vanished from the English diet."

Other disappearances include most of our apple varieties and many traditional breeds of pig. If we ever need to return to self-sufficiency, CDW has a head's start in the pig department. During the war, her father raised pigs in St John's Wood. When a neighbour asked who butchered them, Clarissa's dad replied, "I'm a senior surgeon at St Mary's, Paddington. Who do you think butchers them?"

The whole family "would help wash out the tripes and scald the hair off… we prepared a lot of bacon and ham and tripe chitterlings. Everything was eaten." In the same spirit, CDW recalls visiting a tripe seller in Dewsbury market that sold "nine different varieties of tripe, including penis and udder (which is remarkably like pease pudding)."

After sideswipes at supermarkets and convenience food ("They may not be particularly cheap but they have the comfort factor that comes from all the sugar, fat and salt"), she notes the weird irony that "while post-war England has shown an ever-diminishing desire to cook, it has displayed an ever-growing appetite for watching other people cook" on TV. Still, her optimistic conclusion suggests a pleasant surprise awaits if we can summon the energy to move from the couch, and into the kitchen.

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