The Hungry Empire by Lizzie Collingham – a wonderfully expansive book

In 21st century Britain, our meal plate reflects the foods of the world. And as our diet has been shaped by imported ingredients since the 16th century, so is our social and economic culture. The fascinating new book by Lizzie Collingham, The hungry empire, demonstrates that a cup of tea is never just a cup of tea — it’s a story of commerce, exchange, land grabbing, agricultural innovation and economic change. The culture of tea has completely changed the societies from which it originates and those to which it is exported. And that’s just the tea leaves: we haven’t even begun the porcelain cup, the silver teaspoon, the milk, the sugar, the lemons — and the growers, processors, farmers, pickers, merchants, craftsmen, transporters and traders who made this cup of tea possible.

Collingham examines how the vast trading networks of the early English empire from the 16th to the 18th century supported the development of a new class: the financiers, industrialists and merchants whose wealth, based on trade rather than land, gave them gave the political and economic clout to challenge the dominance of the landed aristocracy and thus paved the way for the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire of the 19th and 20th centuries. Each chapter opens with a meal: a 19th-century British family in New Zealand, for example, eating meat three times a day for the first time; or a rural family in eighteenth-century England, where the enclosures produced a wave of landless poor, but where even small village shops stock imported sugar, cocoa and Indian calico; or African slaves eating a stew of sorrel and watercress in a rice paddy in South Carolina.

It begins on “Fish Day” aboard a 16th century ship. Known as “Poor John”, dried and salted cod was the cheap alternative to meat: it was horribly chewy if undercooked, but it traveled well and lasted ages. Although it never became a popular ingredient in English cuisine, salt cod was the founding product of English expansion into North America. The rapid growth of the Tudor navy required a cheap and sustainable foodstuff: in the 1540s, feeding the 7,700 men of Henry VIII’s armada would have required, Collingham calculates, 200,000 dried cod a year. In the early 17th century, 100 ships a year sailed from the West Country to Newfoundland, where the waters were so teeming with cod that it was difficult to row. Fishermen caught, gutted, dried, cured and processed the fish on an industrial scale – 1,000 fish per day per coastal establishment. Salt cod was also a delicacy abroad – particularly in Spain and Portugal – and its sale in large quantities restored the fortunes of English trade in Europe after the collapse of the wool market.

Cod processing, however, was child’s play compared to the huge industrial complexes, the giant vats and boilers, which were developed in the 17th century to process sugar cane. If there’s one food that can be said to have shaped nearly every aspect of the modern era, in every corner of the world, it’s sugar. As Collingham puts it, “Virtually every payment made in the Atlantic trading world could possibly be attributed to sugar.” Vast wealth was accumulated by West Indian sugar planters who spent it on imported luxury goods. Farmers in the west of Ireland, once considered by the English to be primitive herders, thrived on exports of corned beef and butter to plantations where every square acre was devoted to lucrative sugar cane. Salt cod and boiled cassava were in great demand as food to feed the tens of thousands of slaves transported by ship to the sugar islands.

Back in England, once scarce and expensive commodities such as cocoa, sugar and tea fell in price and became staples in the diets of the poor, with often disastrous consequences. The urban poor of the 19th century ate white bread made with wheat grown in the Americas and drank copious amounts of sweet tea instead of the traditional high-calorie beer. (A social investigator noted that an ironworker’s family consumed four pounds of sugar a week along with half a pound of tea.) Innovations in preservation have trivialized exotic foods such as salmon and pineapple. Canned and packaged edibles have become prestigious overseas. Crosse & Blackwell soups and Huntley & Palmers biscuits, with their long-lasting properties, helped colonial officers penetrate further into inaccessible regions – and when they arrived they were used as a show of culinary prestige . In Kenya, the dish iriotraditionally made from rice and beans, is now usually made from rice and potatoes, as land once dedicated to Kenya’s traditional dry bean is now used for green beans grown for export.

This is a wonderfully expansive and readable book, packed with engaging detail and surprising connections. To bring us back to the starting point and the humble cup of tea, Collingham describes how in Raiatea in the Society Islands in the 1820s, a missionary reported that the adoption of teatime rituals would have a beneficial effect on the natives: “When they take tea. . . they will want sugar, tea cups. . . they will want a table. . . then they will want to install seats. Thus, we hope that in a very short time European customs will be fully introduced in the leeward stations.

The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s quest for food shaped the modern worldby Lizzie Collingham Bodley Head RRP £25, 400 pages

Lucy Lethbridge is the author of ‘Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain’ (Bloomsbury)

Photography: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

This article has been edited to correct an editing error regarding references to the English and British empires

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