Lamb’s Tails

Christopher Driver

  • All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present by Stephen Mennell
    Blackwell, 380 pp, £14.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 631 13244 9
  • Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the 14th Century including ‘The Forme of Cury’ edited by Constance Hieatt and Sharon Butler
    Oxford, for the Early English Text Society, 224 pp, £6.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 19 722409 1
  • The English Cookbook by Victor Gordon
    Cape, 304 pp, £12.50, November 1985, ISBN 0 224 02300 4

For a generation now, it has been a commonplace that in Britain food and drink are much discussed. Fewer people seem to notice that this has almost always been so, wherever the capacity to discuss anything is found. Pockets of unawareness are the exception rather than the rule: early redbrick university departments striving to differentiate themselves from Oxford and Cambridge; or the English gentry, who, as Lord Stockton has reminded us, taught their genteel imitators that it was bad form to notice the manna that came to dinner. In other times and places, both hunger and plenty have proved stimulating sauces for food discourse. Miranda Chaytor tells me that the dreams of a 16th-century Northumbrian witch elicited at interrogation centred upon food rather than sex. English diarists – Evelyn as well as Pepys, Thomas Turner as well as Parson Woodforde – confide their meals to paper as readily as their other concerns. One reason why Keats makes better reading than Shelley is that he had a superior gust for eating and drinking, and found a language for it in verse and prose: not just the lucent syrops tinct with cinnamon but the nectarine: ‘good god how fine. It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy – all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry. I shall certainly breed.’

Jane Austen’s more obtuse admirers or detractors often deem her either too witty or too etiolated for fleshly preoccupations at bed and board. But she achieves an imaginative universe where food and cooking do not need to be framed in externally observed, Dickensian set-pieces: their crucial role in her characters’ lives can be disclosed by passing reference. Emma is full of food, though scarcely a dish is described – apart from the egg whose soft boiling so perfectly delineates the character of Mr Woodhouse. We know exactly how Mrs Elton would have behaved at the grocer’s and how Mr Knightley would have carved a joint. Projecting these households into our own time, we can see Mrs Elton leafing through A la Carte as a substitute for actual cooking, and Emma consulting Elizabeth David for instruction in the matter of marrow-bones.

Wherever the daily human comedy of manners is deployed as a cloak for our brute, indispensable appetites and satisfactions, food and drink must be present or, if absent, must expect to have their absence remarked. Food is one of our supreme fictions. The history and sociology of the subject suffer from arrested development, but intelligent men and women in Britain were applying their minds and senses to the transformation of edible matter into culture long before more guarded minds in university departments, the British Council and the BBC caught on. Few bureaucrats, however fond of a free lunch, care to risk being accused of greed and frivolity by funding international, interdisciplinary inquiries of a kind taken for granted elsewhere.

They order these things somewhat better in the Council of Europe, where Stephen Mennell, a disciple of Norbert Elias, began work on All Manners of Food. The slow-baked book that has finally emerged reads like a series of essays on pertinent food topics in cultural history rather than a comprehensive account of what has been eaten, and why, in Britain and France since the Middle Ages. However, at this stage the questions are at least as important as the answers. Moreover, by dividing his library-burrowing between London and Paris, Dr Mennell has done something to bridge the ditch of separation between France and Britain in the matter of food. If most British students of French culinary traditions are handicapped by excess reverence, almost all French scholars – Lévi-Strauss for one – are handicapped by blank ignorance, often of what British diet is, and almost always of what it means to its consumers.

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