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

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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 1660Britain 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.

At the end of the 17th century a battle ensued over the composition of the English table and by extension over the elements of English identity and national character. Barely a decade after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and before the 1707 Union of Parliaments made the Scots truly British (or as much as they would ever be) Englishmen felt buffeted by an uncertain royal succession and wild parliamentary politics, as well as by throngs of millenarians predicting the imminent end of the world. The king, William III, was Dutch and the fashionable diet increasingly French. Several authors attempted to define, through food, the peculiarities of the English body and how best to maintain its good health. In Acetaria, or a Discourse of Sallets (1699) the elderly natural philosopher and diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) found English identity in ‘Gardens and Rural Employments, preferrable [sic] to the Pomp and Grandeur of other Secular Business’ and in a plain local diet largely composed of vegetables. In his 1705 translation of the book on condiments and cookery by the much mythologised Roman Apicius, the physician Martin Lister (c.1638-1712) praised the imperial Roman diet and its sweet-and-sour condiments as the most suitable for an imperial race. The Tory satirist William King (1663-1712) soon parodied Lister in his poem The Art of Cookery (1708). Like Evelyn, King looked back to a simpler and more primitive diet, but one based on hunting, herding and meat-eating rather than gardening. All three authors responded to the radical hatter Thomas Tryon (1634-1703), whose popular advocacy of a vegetarian diet rose from the political and religious upheavals of the Civil Wars.

The reputation of the English as meat-eaters dates back at least to Elizabethan times, when the physician Thomas Moffett (1553-1604) commented: ‘Let us give God thangs [sic] for storing us with Flesh above all other Nations, making our Shambles the wonder of Europe, yea verily rather of the whole World.’ A shambles, incidentally, was a slaughterhouse. The Elizabethan chronicler William Harrison commented on the variety of meat that graced the tables of the nobility. But by the end of the 17th century meat-eating, the basis of the English diet, had come into question. New medical theories questioned its healthiness; religious radicals rejected the violence inherent in its production and the class boundaries it implied; and a few moralists deplored the cruelty involved in any means of slaughter.

In the mid-17th century works such as Moffett’s Healths Improvement (written around 1595, but only published in 1655) and cookery books by Robert May (c. 1588-c. 1664) and William Rabisha (fl. 1625-61) supported the traditional meat-heavy diet of the upper classes. May and Rabisha both cooked for the nobility. About half of May’s Accomplisht Cook (1660) concerned meat and even more of Rabisha’s Whole Body of Cookery Dissected (1661). Each included menus for noble dinners that consisted overwhelmingly of meat courses: Rabisha described ‘A Bill of Fare for an Extraordinary Feast, on a Flesh-Day in the Spring’; a flesh day being a day on which meat could be eaten according to the ecclesiastical calendar, that is, most days. The first course for this feast consisted of 35 dishes of which 30 were some variety of meat; the only vegetables were two ‘grand sallets’. Included among the ‘Rich Tarts’ and ‘Tanzies’ and a ‘Frigasie of Apples’ of the second course (also 35 dishes) were a dozen more meat dishes and almost as many of seafood. In March or April one might have ‘a dish of Pease’, but otherwise potatoes were the sole representative of the vegetable world. May and Rabisha both also included the smaller ‘made dishes’ in the French style, often referred to as ‘kickshaws’ from the French quelque chose (literally ‘something’, meaning a trifle). May described a ‘Made Dish in Paste of two Rabits, with sweet liquor’:

Take the rabbits, slay them, draw them, and cut them into small pieces as big as a walnut, then wash and dry them with a clean cloth, and season them with pepper, nutmeg, and salt; lay them on a bottom of paste, also lay on them dates, preserved lettice stalks, marrow, large mace, grapes, and slic’t orange or lemon, put butter to it, close it up and bake it, being baked, liquor it with sugar, white wine, and butter; or in place of wine, grape verjuyce, and strained yolks of raw eggs.

At the same time, some religious sectarians and radicals in the wake of the English Civil Wars proposed a vegetarian diet among other attributes of an imitation of Christ and a new, more egalitarian England. Another radical hatter, Roger Crab, confined himself to a ‘small Roode of ground’ in the early 1650s and subsisted on the produce of this land. Crab’s 1655 pamphlet, The English Hermite, repeated the common belief that Adam was a vegetarian and further denounced meat-eating as conducive to violence because of its enflaming effects on the blood. In addition it was more costly than living on vegetables alone. The fact that Crab very nearly starved to death on his regimen was omitted.

The mystic and pantheist Thomas Tryon further developed Crab’s arguments in his much-reprinted The Way to Health, Long Life and Happiness, or a Discourse of Temperance (1682). Natural appetites, he argued, needed to be trained and restrained with ‘simple Meats and Drinks’. ‘Varieties,’ said Tryon, ‘are always dangerous, if great Care and Temperance be not observ’d.’ To create sober and industrious working men Tryon advised a plain and sober diet and temperance. Too much food, particularly ‘a thousand Kickshaws enricht with the East and West-Indies Ingredients’, generated too much blood and bred disease. In addition, because meat was a product of violence, it engendered violence in those who ate it. Nonetheless, Tryon ranked various meats by their healthful qualities, with beef high on his list.

A further complication came in the form of the new French cuisine devised by François Pierre de La Varenne (1615-78), the chef de cuisine of the French aristocrat the Marquis d’Uxelles. La Varenne’s Le cuisinier françois was published in French in 1651 and appeared just two years later in an English translation as The French Cook. Many of May’s dishes, as we have seen, followed a medieval tradition of sweet, heavily spiced food. He used sweet spices such as cloves, mace and nutmeg, fruit (fresh or dried), or simply sugar, as well as exotic ingredients such as saffron and musk. La Varenne, in contrast, separated the sweet from the savoury and emphasised salty and sour tastes. Rabisha, who was younger than May, began his cookbook with recipes for sour and savoury pickles, but he continued to use sweet spices and sometimes sugar in his meat dishes. 

By the 1690s gardens and gardening had become extraordinarily popular in England. Market gardens flourished in and around London and physic gardens in Chelsea and Oxford dispensed medicinal herbs. In this context John Evelyn’s manifesto on salads staked his claim for a particular English character expressed in a peaceful and pastoral England of sturdy yeomen farmers. A Royalist, Evelyn had spent most of the era of the Civil Wars abroad. A founding member of the Royal Society he emphasised the practical uses of science. Acetaria formed a small part of his life-long enterprise, the Elysium Britannicum, a natural and civil history of gardening. Evelyn’s interest in gardens was of long standing and he designed famous gardens at his estates at Sayes Court in Deptford and later at Wotton in Surrey.

Although the early Royal Society had a ‘Georgical [agricultural, or rural] Committee’ of which Evelyn was a member, he nonetheless felt the need to defend his study of ‘sallets’ and pot-herbs on political, moral and scientific grounds. While acknowledging the humble status of gardeners and gardening, he also evoked several heroes of the ancient Roman Republic, including Cato the Elder (234-149 bc) and Cincinnatus (519-438 bc), to advocate gardening as a fit occupation for citizens and monarchs alike. In this way he hoped to deflect the obvious criticism that the cultivation and eating of vegetables had, in recent years, been promoted not by the nobility but by Levellers such as Tryon, whose Way to Health had reached a third edition in 1697. Evelyn’s sedate and Latinate style countered Tryon’s breathless and hectoring prose.

Evelyn’s glossary of ‘sallet’ vegetables ranged alphabetically from alexanders (of the parsley family) and artichokes to wood-sorrel. He classified each plant according to the classical four qualities: hot, dry, moist and cold. Amid reams of classical commentary he also cited scholarly humanists such as his friend Thomas Browne (1605-82), who had discussed vegetarianism in his Pseudodoxia epidemica, first published in 1646. According to the historian and food activist Tristram Stuart, author of The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times (2007), in the 1650s Browne, Evelyn and the natural philosopher Robert Boyle had proposed a kind of Royalist commune focused on gardening as a counterblast to the radical ruralism of the Levellers.

Woodcut illustration to Annibal Barlet's Le Vray et Methodique Cours de la Physique Reolutive Vulgairement dite Chymie of 1657. John Evekyn attended the courses that Barlet ran in Paris.

Health, physical and moral, formed the primary benefit of Evelyn’s ‘sallets’. He distinguished between plants that were purely medicinal – and therefore not to be ingested daily – and those that were ‘Nourishing and Refreshing’, acknowledging that some plants formerly thought to be noxious were in fact wholesome, such as cucumbers. Even the ‘vulgar Garlick’ had beneficial qualities, though ‘to be sure, ‘tis not for Ladies’ Palats, nor those who court them’. The composition of a salad, he advised, should carefully balance hot and cold, dry and moist and consist only of the freshest and best herbs. He spent 20 pages on the composition of the dressing, or ‘oxoleon’ (olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, dry mustard, salt and pepper and a hard-boiled egg yolk). Local and seasonal were Evelyn’s bywords. Spring and summer are the times of the best herbs and their cooling and moist qualities meant that salads best suited human health during the warm months. However, the particular balance of herbs depended on the season, the climate and the individual’s health.

Did Evelyn believe that humans should live on ‘sallet’ alone? He artfully picked his way through classical and biblical examples to navigate the minefield of religious enthusiasm, but his conclusions resembled Tryon’s. Both agreed that Adam and Eve were vegetarians, but Evelyn divided the vegetarian past from the carnivorous present at the Flood rather than the Fall. Before the Flood, he argued, the climate was warmer and drier and therefore the moister and cooler vegetarian diet was ideal. After, the air was corrupted by the ‘infinite numbers of putrid Carcasses of Dead Animals, perishing in the Flood (of which I find few, if any, have taken notice)’. This corrupted air led directly to the ‘Intemperance, Luxury, and softer Education and Effeminacy of the Ages since’, which included eating meat. Meat-eating, then, was not manly and wholesome, but effeminate and unhealthy. Browne had similarly surmised that the Flood may have damaged vegetables so as to force humans to turn to animals for food.

To Evelyn the Flood demarcated a golden age of salads and longevity. While ‘the wholsomeness of the herby-diet’ was indisputable, Evelyn, like Tryon, believed the real problem was the French style of ‘made Dishes and exotic Sauces; which a wanton and expensive Luxury has introduced’. Evelyn and Tryon, coming from very different perspectives, each valued the simple local diet and outdoor work of the yeoman farmer. While Evelyn condemned the cruelty of animal slaughter, he then backed off, as if not to appear too radical: ‘But this is not my business, further than to shew how possible it is by so many Instances and Examples, to live on wholsome Vegetables, both long and happily’. He yearned for an earlier, simpler time.

Evelyn contrasted his own moderate approach to eating to those who would gratify ‘a Sensual Appetite with a Voluptuary Apician Art’. Lister’s edition of Apicius appeared a year before the second edition of Acetaria. Although Lister, like most virtuosi of his generation, had a reputation as an antiquarian, his previous claim to fame had been his magnum opus on seashells, the Historia conchyliorum, published in several volumes between 1686 and 1697. The historian Anna Marie Roos has recently demonstrated Lister’s strong commitment to the chemical philosophy of Paracelsus (1493-1541) and particularly of the Flemish physician Jan Baptist Van Helmont (c. 1579-1644) who, in his editorial work on Apicius, attempted to find the classical roots of this philosophy. But only a select circle knew of this work: 120 copies were printed and 18 of these went to the subscribers listed at the front of the book, who included Isaac Newton, Hans Sloane, Christopher Wren and various bishops and politicians.

The reputation of Apicius, even among his fellow Romans, was not high and his contemporaries found him to be more of a gourmand than a gourmet. Lister aimed to demonstrate his own undoubted skills as a classical scholar and rehabilitate Apicius and his diet as a healthful one. Culina Medicinae famulatrix est, ‘the kitchen is the handmaid of medicine,’ he quoted, stated more simply as coquina est optima medicina.

Lister asserted the health value of condimenta, the exotic spices and seasonings which Evelyn and Tryon had condemned as luxurious and unhealthy. Condiments included herbs such as oregano, lovage and fennel seed, spices such as cumin and coriander and more exotic substances such as spikenard, mastic and sumac and the herb known as laser or silphium, which apparently became extinct in antiquity. The far-flung Roman Empire contributed these ingredients to its table, much as English ships brought exotic foods to London. The barbarians who overthrew Rome, said Lister, also overthrew its diet and its condiments in favour of a ‘primitive simplicity’, eating ‘cheese and half-cooked grains, rejecting any added condiments’. This was not a good thing. Among condiments, he favoured the ubiquitous garum, or liquamen, the Roman fermented-fish sauce that resembles the south-east Asian nam pla. Its ingredients were fish, often anchovies, and salt, with perhaps a few added herbs, fermented for several weeks. Garum, said Lister, was particularly conducive to digestion. Unlike Evelyn’s simple ‘oxoleon’, the ‘oxyporum’ of Apicius consisted of cumin, ginger, rue, dates, pepper, honey, vinegar and liquamen: ‘a choice remedy’, said Lister, ‘to restore an infirm stomach’.

Lister argued that the spoils of empire made the English stomach infirm, much like the imperial Roman one. Unlike Evelyn he did not advocate a return to the pastoral past of the Roman Republic, but suggested imperial solutions to imperial ills. Far from rejecting luxury, he embraced it. Meat and condiments formed the main ingredients. Apicius’s book is definitely weighted on the meaty side and Lister did not blink an eye at even the most exotic of meats. His comments on cooking ostrich, for example, consisted mainly of a natural history of the creature. If he had to choose between the barbarians and the Romans, Lister definitely sided with Rome.  

Lister’s edition of Apicius gained wide attention, so much so that it was reprinted in 1709. In the mock-epic Art of Cookery from 1708, William King described Acetaria as a ‘noble work’ but portrayed Lister as a fusty antiquarian and a fussy natural philosopher whose studies of seashells were the height of frivolousness. Although King ended his career as a hack writer, churning out satirical odes and mock-epics, he began as a scholar of Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford and was one of the ‘Christ Church wits’ who critiqued the Cambridge don Richard Bentley, a friend of Newton, during the Ancients and Moderns debates of the 1690s; as a high-church Tory, King was most emphatically on the side of the Ancients. Trained as a lawyer, King served for a time as a judge in Ireland but ended up in London, supporting himself as a writer. He parodied Hans Sloane in The Transactioneer (1699) and would return to the Royal Society in the mock-Philosophical Transactions entitled Useful Transactions in Philosophy (1709). King had already skewered Lister’s Journey to Paris in the year 1698 when he published The Art of Cookery ten years later. Unlike Acetaria or Apicius, The Art of Cookery remained in print for most of the 18th century. 

King’s satire of Lister in The Art of Cookery operated on several levels. It is a straightforward critique of Lister’s learning, along the lines of the Christ Church wits’ criticisms of Bentley. However, as some of his other targets indicate, King was uncomfortable with the entire enterprise of the Royal Society and its natural philosophy (he was often credited with that scathing critique A Tale of a Tub, published in 1704 and actually authored by Jonathan Swift) and, by extension, with modernity of any sort. Like the satirical publican Ned Ward and many others at the turn of the 18th century King felt that the old world was falling apart: natural philosophy cast the old verities in doubt, the latitudinarians had corrupted the Anglican church and class distinctions were no longer a certain guide. After all, he was a gentleman forced to support himself with his pen like any other Grub Street hack. He vented his spleen on Lister’s pretensions to ancient learning as well as his pretensions to modern medical knowledge:

Be cautious how you change old Bills of Fare
 [he warned]
Such Alterations shou’d at least be rare …
Fresh Dainties are by Britain’s Traffick known,
And now by constant Use familiar grown;
What Lord of old wou’d bid his Cook prepare,
Mangoes, Potargo, Champignons, Cavare?
Or wou’d our thrum-cap’d Ancestors find fault
For want of Sugar-Tongs, or Spoons for Salt.

 

Although King agreed that food has a large impact on health and temperament, he found Lister’s Roman condiments as well as foreign, particularly French, foods to be entirely unsuited to the English character. Like Evelyn, King was a locavore, but of a very different character.  Lister’s condiments, in any case, said King, were not Roman at all, but French, recalling Lister’s journey to Paris a decade earlier:

Muse, sing the Man that did to Paris go,
That he might taste their Soups, and Mushrooms know.
Oh how could Homer praise their Dancing Dogs,
Their stinking Cheese, and Fricasy of Frogs!

 

King praised, in contrast, the beefsteak of old Britain, suitably consumed by the proper classes: that is, the gentry. The yeoman ate bread and cheese, cabbage and bacon, but he longed for beef. Reflecting the wild electoral politics of the time, King wrote:

 A Caldron of fat Beef and Stoop of Ale
 On the huzzaing Mob shall more prevail
 Than if you give them with the nicest Art
 Ragousts of Peacocks Brains, or Filbert Tart.

 

The model for the English diet was not the Romans, imperial or republican, and certainly not the French. It was ‘Our Cambrian Fathers’, who fed sparingly and plainly on wood-grilled game and wild leeks.

King thus linked the eating of meat, especially beef, with the most ancient British traditions and with an ethic that, like Evelyn, opposed excess and wealth. King dedicated The Art of Cookery to the recently constituted Beef-Steak Club, of which he was a founding member. However, Ned Ward’s 1709 account of the denizens of the club showed that the reality fell somewhat short of King’s ideal. Ward’s ‘new Society of griliado’d Beef-Eaters’ devoted themselves to ‘the true British Quintessence of Malt and Hops, and a broil’d Sliver off the juicy Rump of a fat well-fed Bullock’ until they were ‘Knuckle deep in the Gravy’, not exactly the abstemious Cambrian or Evelyn’s frugal husbandman – but maybe something like the banqueting Roman, without the spices. 

‘Man is by his Frame as well as his Appetite a carnivorous Animal,’ concluded the physician John Arbuthnot in 1731. While the beef-eaters perhaps won the battle in 1700, the debates sparked 300 years ago still resonate today. Health, environment, nationalism and, not least, taste jostle for our attention as we shop for food or we prepare the evening meal. Locavore, carnivore, vegetarian, vegan? We are still not quite sure what to eat.

Anita Guerrini is Horning Professor in the Humanities and Professor of History at Oregon State University.

More on the history of food

Further reading: 
  • Colin Spencer, British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History (Grub Street, 2004) 
  • Kate Colquhoun, Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking (Bloomsbury, 2008)
  • J.C. Drummond, Anne Wilbraham and Dorothy F. Hollingsworth, The Englishman’s Food: Five Centuries of English Diet (Pimlico, 1994)
  • Tristram Stuart, Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times (W.W. Norton, 2007)


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