The English Diet: Roast Beef and ... Salad?

The English diet has been mythologised as one of roasted meats and few vegetables but, as Anita Guerrini concludes from a survey of early modern writings on the subject, the nation’s approach to food has been rather more complicated than that.

Illustration from Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mystery of Cooking, first published in 1660
Illustration from Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mystery of Cooking, first published in 1660

Britain currently has the highest percentage of vegetarians in Europe, about five per cent of the population. How did this happen in the land of the beefeater? William Hogarth’s 1748 painting O the Roast Beef of Old England, or the Gate of Calais contrasted the beef-eating English to the famished French (and their Jacobite Scots allies) sipping their meagre potage, or nibbling on raw onions. But carnivores and vegetarians, as well as that recent innovation, the ‘locavore’, who eats only local food, all have a long history in Britain.

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