Ruling the Roast

David A. Bell

  • Beef and Liberty: Roast Beef, John Bull and the English Nation by Ben Rogers
    Chatto, 207 pp, £17.99, April 2003, ISBN 0 7011 6980 X

At moments of stress, depression or grief, my thoughts turn irresistibly towards the golden arches of McDonald’s. Usually, I find the food repellent, but there are times when nothing can soothe my wounded American spirit like the famous ‘two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame-seed bun’. Yes, the burgers are assembled from the meat of dozens of separate animals, then flash frozen in a distant factory. Yes, the animals themselves are raised and slaughtered in abhorrent conditions, and stuffed with antibiotics. Yes, the literally tasteless finished product needs to be ‘reflavoured’ with chemicals concocted in a factory overlooking the New Jersey Turnpike. It’s no madeleine, but the Big Mac is nonetheless the comforting taste of my childhood. McDonald’s understands this, which is why it has long employed teams of psychologists to help market its products to children as young as two. Give it a child at an impressionable age, and it will have a customer for life.

Ben Rogers is aware of food’s emotional power, and of its ability to create bonds between people. In Beef and Liberty, he has written a whimsical, amusing, informative book about the English and their favourite meat. Long before the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ came on the scene, the English, Rogers writes, had come to see their national essence distilled into cow flesh, slowly roasted over an open fire, carved into thick slices and served in its own juice, with nothing but a little mustard or horseradish as accompaniment. Rogers concentrates on the 18th century, when beef enjoyed its patriotic apotheosis, but he argues that it still lingers on the palate of English national memory, as shown by reactions to the recent trauma of mad cow disease. When France decided to maintain a ban on British beef in 1998 after the EU had certified it safe for export, the response was so violent that the French agriculture minister Jean Glavany went on television to complain that ‘Britain has unleashed a torrent of xenophobic hatred.’

From the late Middle Ages, the ability of the English to raise and consume beef was a source of national pride, particularly when set in contrast to the diet of the scrawny, beef-deprived, clog-wearing peasantries of the Continent. At a time when most of the French subsisted primarily on stale bread, and were lucky to taste meat three or four times a year, even modest English yeomen could put beef on their table every week. Foreign visitors marvelled at the quantities of beef passing through English market towns. ‘It is common Practice, even among People of good Substance,’ the French traveller Henri Misson observed in 1698, ‘to have a huge Piece of Roast-Beef on Sundays, of which they stuff till they can swallow no more, and eat the rest cold, without any other Victuals, the other six Days of the Week.’ Famous among the gorging classes were the Yeomen of the Guard (otherwise known as the Beefeaters), who, as late as 1813, received a ration of nearly two pounds of meat a day, including more than twelve ounces of beef. They could accompany it with that favourite English side dish, plum pudding, and wash it down with a per diem ration of a gallon of beer.

It was no easy matter to keep a huge joint turning over the fire, and the desire to save cooks from sitting for endless hours next to the spit, like smoky punkah-wallahs, served as a considerable spur to English ingenuity. For centuries, one popular solution involved hanging an oversized squirrel wheel near the hearth, connected to the spit by pulleys, and setting a dog to run in it, thereby turning the meat. Over time, however, this brilliant device gave way to more prosaic mechanical substitutes, including ‘roasting jacks’ powered by falling weights, ‘smoke jacks’ powered by the upward draught of the chimney flue, and wind-up, spring-powered ‘bottle jacks’ which remained in common use until well into the 20th century. Today, ovens reign triumphant – a pity, Rogers says, as they produce meat which is not properly roasted, but half-baked, half-braised. Some enterprising restaurateur might think of bringing back the dog-powered roasting spit, and letting it run in full view of the clientele, though it would probably violate several dozen EU regulations.

It was in the course of the 18th century that ‘the Roast Beef of Old England’ became an emblem of patriotism. On the Continent, this was a time of culinary revolution. French chefs were busy experimenting with complicated stews and sauces, and learning to keep savoury and sweet tastes firmly separated, instead of mixing them together, as in a mouthful of beef and plum pudding. In England, the aristocracy took up the new fashion, and imported French cooks along with French tailors, French dancing masters, French musicians and French language tutors. Before too long these trends provoked a ferocious patriotic reaction. Novelists, dramatists and journalists all railed against French influence, and organisations such as the Laudable Association of Anti-Gallicans urged consumers to boycott French goods. The English for ‘étranger’, a French novelist quipped in 1762, was ‘French dog’. Writers like Addison and Steele blasted French cooking for disguising and adulterating good wholesome food, for enervating and even poisoning those who consumed it, and for betraying the proud old English tradition of roast beef and mutton:

This was the Diet which bred that hearty Race of Mortals who won the Fields of Cressy and Agincourt . . . The Renown’d King Arthur is generally looked upon as the first who ever sat down to a whole roasted Ox (which was certainly the best way to preserve the Gravy), and it is further added that he and his Knights sat about it at his Round Table, and usually consumed it to the very Bones before they would enter on any Debate of Moment.

The implication was clear: Britannia could rule the roost only by keeping the roast. Make Britons slaves to foreign sauces, and soon they would be bowing the knee to foreign princes.

Some of this story will be familiar to readers of Linda Colley’s Britons, or Gerald Newman’s The Rise of English Nationalism, but Rogers adds his own engaging details and grace notes. He gives a lucid account of the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks, founded by actors and playwrights in 1736, which began its meetings with a song praising ‘beef and liberty’, and identified its members with a badge cast in the shape of a gridiron (a successor society still exists, and has recently taken up the cause of fox-hunting). His analysis of Hogarth’s 1749 painting and engraving The Gate of Calais, which shows grotesque Frenchmen slavering over a huge joint of beef destined to feed English travellers, is particularly keen. The scene is painted from the perspective of a dark and forbidding archway; beyond the principal figures stand a portcullised gate and drawbridge. Colley has observed that ‘by the mere act of looking at the print we have come within the arch of a French prison,’ but Rogers suggests another, equally ingenious reading. The gate and portcullis resemble a mouth and teeth, he writes; the drawbridge might be a tongue, and the arch at the forefront, a throat. In short, not only is the painting about food, ‘it is painted, quite literally, from the stomach’s point of view.’

Rogers also has sharp chapters on the rise of two other bovine symbols of Englishness: the bulldog, and John Bull (here he draws heavily on the work of Miles Taylor). Both supposedly represented the same qualities of directness, determination and courage. In the case of the bulldog, which took its name from the grisly sport of bull-baiting rather than from any resemblance to the animal, these qualities seemed to be taken to an insane degree, with the dogs often dying beneath an angry hoof. In Rogers’s account, the suicidally brave bulldogs recall the qualities an anonymous wit once ascribed to the English soldier: ‘he has a courage matched only by his stupidity.’ Significantly, while the figure of John Bull himself possessed many admirable traits, intelligence was conspicuously not among them. Indeed, in the hands of the brilliant Gillray, John Bull underwent a somewhat sinister transformation, becoming ‘a grotesquely ugly, moronic, gullible and ungrateful creature, a representative of what Burke contemptuously referred to as the “swinish multitude”’.

As this shift suggests, the history of English national identity is not always so bullishly direct as Rogers makes out. In The Island Race,[*] Kathleen Wilson has recently reminded us that national identities are always multiple, contested, contradictory and mutable, not to mention racialised and gendered. Had Rogers written his book in this spirit, he would probably have noted that, since the 18th century especially, England has been symbolised as much by fish and chips as by roast beef. He might have added that the ‘sandal-wearing vegetarians’ scorned by Orwell are almost as recognisably English a type as the beef-gobbling John Bull. He might have compared the English beef fetish to those of other nations – Argentina, say, or Japan, with its beloved Kobe cattle. He would have inquired closely into the diet of English women, as opposed to English men. And he might have explored the irony of a nation of Beefeaters grabbing for the jewel of its Empire a civilisation that sanctified the cow. This approach would have added new dimensions to Rogers’s story, but at the risk of steering him off course into a fog of academic quibbling and qualification. At least with the present book, no reader is going to ask: where’s the beef?

The broader point is simply that no nation has a single, dominant national symbol, or a single, dominant set of stereotypically national characteristics. Sometimes England is John Bull, sometimes it is Saint George, and sometimes it is the Queen; sometimes it is a bulldog and sometimes it is a lion; sometimes Robin Hood and sometimes King Arthur. It is roast beef, except for the moments when it is fish and chips or steak and kidney pie, or, for that matter, lamb vindaloo or jerk chicken. Some of its ‘national’ symbols and traits belong only to a part of the population; some of them are shared with other nations; some are deeply contested; some are constantly changing. In practice, we speak of a ‘national identity’ when a certain number of these elements come together, but they need not do so in any set, fixed pattern.

Similarly, nations don’t resemble each other in the ways they talk about the phenomenon. In some countries, ‘national identity’ itself is an obsessive subject of interest; in others, much less so. On this spectrum, somewhat surprisingly, the English and their oldest rivals stand in very different places. French people refer to things as ‘très français’ far less often than English people use the words ‘very English’. The French rarely speak of typically French weather, or a typically French landscape. And despite the glories of their cuisine, they do not generally ascribe national qualities to particular dishes. A cassoulet or a boeuf bourguignon are held to exemplify particular regions, not the country as a whole. Closer to the English in this respect are the Russians, who, as Orlando Figes has observed, collectively have an endless capacity for commenting on how Russian they are. It is easy to imagine a Russian counterpart to Beef and Liberty, although its proper subject would not be a national meat, but vodka. Thankfully, perhaps, it is much harder to imagine such a book about the Big Mac.

[*] Routledge, 282 pp., £55 and £16.99, October 2002, 0 415 15895 8.