Consuming Identities?

Consuming Identities?

This week, Dr Judith Rowbotham (Plymouth University) examines the relationship between food, fiction and the four nations.

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, one of the most interesting ways in which understandings of the supposed inherent characteristics and qualities of the four constituent nations making up the United Kingdom – or Great Britain, as it was then generally expressed – can be discerned via comments not just on supposed national dishes and diets. Even more telling, though, is the wider cultural context in which food is served and consumed and the signals this sent out about how the English, the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish were to be distinguished from each other.

In many ways, the integration of the Scots and the Welsh into a broader British identity (‘naturally’ dominated by Englishness) was taken for granted. There is a presumption in the writings of that pre-1914 era, from journalism to fiction, that the majority of the middle and upper classes will retain traces only of any originating national characteristic. This could be a lilt, a bur or the inflection of a brogue to the voice and the sentence structure if someone grew up amidst the Welsh, Scots or Irish. However, an all-embracing ‘Britishness’ (rooted of course in a dominant ‘Englishness’) was generally held to have ‘civilised’, or substantially eradicated, other distinguishing identity factors that fitted into the British homogeneity less well. The Irish were the least well-integrated into Britishness. Even so, such amalgamation was both possible and desirable. Education delivered in English, and with British values interpreting national experience as part of that (especially in history lessons), worked to ensure that Welshness, or Scottishness or above all Irishness was suitably downplayed and identified as being of largely ethnographic interest. In Kipling’s Stalky and Co, the very English Stalky and side-kick Beetle make it their business ‘scientifically’ to kick the Irishness out of the third member of the ‘Co’, McTurk. Interestingly, it is only when McTurk’s instincts as the son of an Anglo-Irish landowner kick in, with the outcome being a regular invitation to stuff themselves with local Devon goodies like strawberries and clotted cream in Colonel Dabney’s lodge-keeper’s cottage, that his Irishness is acceptable – and when he hears the tea bell ring, he becomes a ‘Colleger of the College’ again, ‘speaking English’.

It is amongst the servant class, in particular, however that national characteristics become manifest in the choices of favourite food and drink to an extent but above all in how items were resourced, prepared and served. A distinctively ‘English’ cuisine by the Victorian era related to a consciousness of the Roast Beef of Olde Englande type of cuisine – hearty, substantial, ‘honest’ cooking without pretence or unnecessary ornamentation (which was distinctly ‘French’ and not ‘British’/English). As in Stalky and Co, and other schoolboy stories, it was good and wholesome, without being over-rich in sauces. Sauces were held to ‘disguise’ the core flavour, to deceive about the qualities of food, as popular authors underlined. Equally, it was English servants who best understood the making and serving of a good cup of tea – so much better and healthier than coffee! They were sufficiently meticulous, for a start, to ensure that the kettle was boiled fully, and that it was boiling (not merely hot) water which was poured over the tea to infuse it properly.

Overall, Welsh and Scottish servants were held to partake, or be trainable so that the end result partook, of the nature of the well-trained English servant – producing a generically British servant with some individually national characteristics in private or off-duty moments. Welsh servants were likely to sing at their work, for instance (especially hymns), and be given to poetic flights of fancy at times. Scottish servants, if Highland, were not so ideal in a kitchen as they could be a little fey at times and given to fears of the supernatural. A Lowland background gave them a practicality which, in the kitchen, boded well for thrift and an insistence on avoiding waste. No feckless disposal of kitchen scraps with a Lowland Scot in charge. Such servants, in personal moments, would also admit to an affection for simple wholesome food, which was of course also a measure of their underlying simple honest characters that did not crave for undue luxury and remembered simple rustic homes with pleasure.

For example, when it came to Welsh characters, cawl might remembered with fondness as a simple honest dish. Both Scottish and Welsh figures would recall eating fresh-caught fish from lakes, streams or burns (or the sea), and the culinary ease of simple cooking of these in pans over the fire. Both put a heavy emphasis on root vegetables in various forms, including turnips and carrots along with the ubiquitous potato. Along with porridge, stereotypically the great Scots dish (especially if eaten with salt, not sugar and jam) was the oat-cake. Fictional Scots cooks were notable for their cakes (such as Dundee cake) and biscuits in such scenarios, along with jams and marmalades.

In all of this, the Irish servant and their identification of a national diet has not been mentioned – and this is because the Irish servant was placed, in journalism and fiction, in a category of its own. They were, for a start, always depicted as both unpredictable and feckless, and substantially untrainable in terms of reaching a level of assimilated Britishness of conduct in service. Irish-born L.T. Meade, who was one of Ireland’s most prolific (and in my view, under-rated) authors, regularly used the stereotype of Irish wildness in her female heroines – who were all drawn from the middle or gentry class – but added fecklessness to her depictions of Irish servants. English-born Mrs O’Shanaghan in Light O’the Morning deplored the fact that Pegeen was completely untrainable. Later, after English money has restored the fortunes of the O’Shanaghan family, the imported English cook, Mrs Shaw, reflected that ‘the ways of the Irish beat all comprehension’. That, probably, represented the wider British perspective. In culinary terms, there is not much to distinguish the basic Irish diet from that of the other Celtic nations, apart from a slightly greater reliance on potatoes. Interestingly, the taste for simple food when displayed by Irish characters (especially that emphasis on ‘big, mealy’ potatoes) was more likely to be described as ‘vulgar’ than simply homely.

While Scottish, Welsh and Irish servants are all depicted as being more likely to come from a humble rural background than English servants, and to need extra training therefore to fit into a ‘well-run’ British home, it is only the Irish servants who were likely to be described with a mix of exasperation and incomprehension. It made them wonderful characters in various fictional stories, where credulity was more likely to be sensationally stretchable if the character up to some kind of unconventional action required for the plot was Irish (of whatever class). But their inherent unpredictability also made them dangerous to home comforts, and their ‘vulgar’ rather than ‘unsophisticated’ tastes also made the Irish servant a less desirable commodity to the commonplace middle or upper-class British housewife, looking for the smooth running of her household, large or small. It was the Biddies, the Pegeens, the Eileens and the Maureens who would smash dishes and bring ruination to a well-planned dinner, not the Megs, Elspeths, Bronwens or Gwens.

Dr Judith Rowbotham is a Visiting Research Fellow at Plymouth University, and a respected Interdisciplinary scholar with a particular expertise in the use of printed sources in her research. She is a co-founder and Director of SOLON, Promoting Interdisciplinary Studies in Law, Crime and History, one of the editors of its e-journal, and of the Routledge SOLON series, Explorations in Crime and Criminal Justice History. Recent publications include Crime News in Modern Britain and History of Public Indecency. Forthcoming include The Windsor Dynasty – Long to Reign Over Us?, Ed with Matthew Glencross (2016, Palgrave).



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