Eating the Empire: Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain
London, Reaktion Books, 2020, ISBN: 9781789142075; 285pp.; Price: £20.00
Date accessed: 4 June, 2023
Within the past decade, much debate has ensued surrounding the question of whether or not food studies and culinary history constitute valid academic disciples. Detractors of these fields contend that in an age of food network channels and a proliferation of YouTube videos extoling the virtues of every possible ingredient, recipe, and technique—with or without historical support, food studies lack academic rigor. While such assertions have roundly been dispelled, one has only to commence reading Troy Bickham’s book, Eating the Empire: Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain to close any debate on the matter. Interdisciplinary in scope and extensively researched, Bickham’s study is precisely why the field of culinary history is so relevant as a means to contextualize history, politics, culture, and economics. He has chosen the politically charged commodities of coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco as not only the tastemakers of Britain’s palate across the long 18th century (c1660 to1837), but as case studies for how taste was established, advertised, and politicized. Bickham employs the term “imperial ingestibles” to address how British society defined who they were, in part, by what and how they chose to eat and drink. Part One explores how Britons came to know their empire—the foods, the people, the habits, to define or redefine their own self of Britishness and the role of imperial authority upon consumers who would adopt and adapt their eating preferences as a result of strategic advertising campaigns. Part Two shifts the focus toward food preparation, social practices, and the manner in which British society determined the ethics of consumption.
Distinctly cross-disciplinary in his approach, Bickham employs excellent examples of material and visual culture: satirical prints, cookbooks, newspapers, travel accounts for example, to construct an innovative means to address political discourse within a turbulent empire. Simple actions such as taking tea, reading a newspaper, frequenting a coffeehouse or tavern, purchasing a cookbook, to Bickham, suggest that the mundane activities of everyday life serve as critical barometers of public taste. Relying upon imported ingredients from its colonies while exporting goods and foodstuffs translated into the economic success of Britain whose citizens became emboldened in the political process by the mere selection of what to ingest. Bickham mines correspondence and public documents—visual and textual, to create a narrative connecting consumerism to the solidity of the empire. Comfort, desire, and status as garnered through consumption of both luxury and commonplace foodstuffs provide the reader with a study of international foodways as a means to explore Britons’ engagement with the empire in myriad ways. Trade clearly dominates the focus of this dense and richly interwoven research connecting social norms and practices to political dissent, slavery, and taxes through the charged commodities of coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco. From the macro of the global to the micro of the tea table, Bickham serves up an impressive body of knowledge spanning imperial policy to the decorative arts while providing wonderful historical anecdotes throughout.
Part I: Encountering, Acquiring and Peddling
In chapter one, “The Empire’s Bounty,” the commodities of coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco are introduced as the basis for a modern consumer society. Sugar and tea—ingestibles (to use Bickham’s term), which were once relegated to the wealthiest in society, now through increased demand as established by campaigns to promote desire allowed the general public, across economic lines, to partake in the bounties of empire. This empowered consumers who wanted not only more, but the accoutrements and social interactions with which to demonstrate their culinary clout. The strategic promotion of certain commodities such as “American” tobacco was marketed to elicit a calculated desire among consumers who were convinced that they needed these products and thus fed the imperial economic machine. This was also fostered by the medical community as Bickham explains who advocated for the healthy properties of tobacco (“a pesticide for flies and a cure for haemorrhoids,” p30), coffee, and tea, as evidence of quackery became widespread. So too, Bickham establishes his argument on the economic importance of the empire’s ingestibles astutely with his research on the role of tea in British society linking the coffers of the empire to demand and social status in what, he asserts, becomes the modern consumer. Complemented with fabulous satirical prints, Bickham makes us aware of black-market trading, smuggling, crimes, and the adulteration of goods particularly related to tea, the East India Company, and the tobacco trade that infiltrated legal transactions as the government relied on taxable goods. The unadulterated, authentic, and genuine were assurances to customers who wanted to engage with these exotic substances as a demonstration of their worldly and culinary knowledge.
In chapter two, “The New British Consumer,” Bickham argues for the role of credit and competition in the consumer society of Britain. He lays out three reasons why food was a “conspicuous genre of consumption” (54): one, everyone ate, thus as a commodity food is a cultural equalizer; two, household budgets allotted a significant percentage of funds for victuals; and three, consumers wanted choice when selecting items for the table. This chapter situates the notion of status and consumer consciousness within the realm of shops and markets. The concept of store credit is explored at length as storekeepers and mail order options moved these consumables from rare luxury to popular commodities across class boundaries. The physical act of shopping, Bickham contends, was a gestural method for being a productive member of the empire. Strolling through stores, selecting items of fancy from wide and varied offerings, and establishing store credit to run up debt—these were the hallmarks of the new consumerism. Likewise, consumers relied upon the print culture of advertising and satire to provide and reinforce, through mockery, proper manners while engaged in social repasts. Such visual documents spurred demand for goods that were no longer deemed novel rather, they were now essential regardless of social or economic rank. Displaying proper manners and possessing the necessary accoutrements required for the tea table—even the modest tea table, demonstrated evidence of moral instruction and symbols of domesticity. Likewise, according to Bickham, consuming coffee or tea in public coffeehouses or taverns became socially charged spaces that fueled political discourse.
But how would one know what to purchase and which fashionable trends should one follow? In chapter three, “Advertising and Imperialism,” Bickham here elucidates on the role of marketing—the image/text trade cards, satires, and advertisements which functioned as enticements to promote desire and allow those of modest means to consume similarly to those of wealth. Goods imported from across the expanding empire flooded local stores and markets. Their purity flaunted to justify any expenditure no matter how small. Whereas social impact was Bickham’s emphasis in previous chapters, here the ideation of awareness takes center stage. He makes a convincing argument for the role of affordable commodities which became increasingly accessible due to market-driven demand, cheaply printed advertisements that propelled consumerism, and retailers who provided their clientele with a taste of imperial prowess and authority as demonstrated by the flavorful ingestibles procured from conquered lands. Of particular strength is Bickham’s acuity for visual culture and his discussion of trade cards—ephemeral notices printed on inexpensive stock that function as bellwethers of taste. Diminutive in size, trade cards were one-way conversations promoting goods and authenticity at times through the visual iconography of ethnocentric stereotypes such as enslaved African workers packing barrels of tobacco, indigenous figures smoking tobacco, or Chinese workers harvesting leaves or drinking tea. This is a brilliant chapter linking diverse modes of advertising to the central theme. It is also here that the subjects of slavery, politically-tainted ingredients such as sugar, and abolitionism are introduced. Bickham will return to these significant subjects in the final chapter where they will be paired with consumer choice and the ethics of abstention.
Part II: Defining, Reproducing and Debating
Chapters four and five address the art of cookery: establishing what constitutes British cuisine, the adaptation of “foreign” dishes such as curry in the British diet, how foods were prepared, and the role female cookbook authors played as teachers to hungry Britons. Linking domestic life to the empire is the focus of chapter four, “Defining a British Cuisine.” Discussion of food in cookbooks and what national dishes represented is something of a turn for Bickham who moves us from the macro of the empire to the micro of the kitchen which slowly incorporated ingredients and dishes from afar yet cloaked in British identity as a form of imperial commerce. Bickham delves into the field of culinary history. Cookbooks functioned as instruction manuals, class instruction, morality lessons, signs of gentility, and barometers of trends in consumption. Not only by the ingredients chosen, but how such foodstuffs were prepared, served in the creation of a national cuisine. The topic of genuine British fare was expounded upon by women cookbook authors in England. In fact, the designation of geographical awareness such as Yorkshire pudding instilled a regional, if not national, sense of identity and pride according to Bickham. As the empire expanded and introduced new and exotic ingredients to the British palate, it was the role of cookbook authors to generate a willingness to incorporate dishes such as Indian curry into the common diet. Bickham isolates two very important, well-known cookbooks to make his case, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1747) and Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769). Not only did these two books among others teach middling class women and their servants how to produce tasty British fare, but they also instructed in the art of frugality—a sign of successful domesticity. To imbibe in excess was sinful and unhealthy but it should be noted that women as consumers of household goods and foodstuffs still desired items of luxury as signs of social and cultural awareness and prestige. Bickham’s dismissal of the exploitative field in which these women worked deserves to be addressed. While indeed their works speak to cultural value, the gendered privilege of men in the mid-18th century must not be overlooked as female authors held little agency in their own success (much of which occurred posthumously) and were indeed taken advantage of by unscrupulous publishers. As well, it would be interesting to include the influence of British cookbooks once exported to the colonies and how national culinary identity became fluid. British cuisine was adopted and adapted by cooks in the American colonies, for example, who valued Hannah Glasse’s recipes but ultimately employed ingredients from the New World such as corn to establish an “American” cuisine post-Revolution.
Chapter five, “An Edible Map of Mankind,” expands upon the role cookbooks played as didactic texts that allowed readers to understand cultural differences through a growing willingness to try new spices and bills of fare. To eat the food of another’s country provided insight into their customs. This was important in 18th- and early 19th-century Britain as colonial control waxed and waned. Additionally, Bickham calls upon a series of published travel accounts for first-person evidence that interaction with foreigners at times reinforced existing stereotypes such as the “uncivilized” Indian or African and affirmed discriminatory practices. But at times, a more scientific approach was taken such as James Cook’s descriptions of Tahitian society. Edible artefacts, as Bickham suggests, were one means of linking domestic practices to the broader world beyond Britain. The examples chosen to elucidate the private musings of travelers are fascinating and Bickham creates a complementary argument that with the addition of decorative objects—Indian cabinets, bamboo chairs, Asian porcelain, chopsticks, tomahawks—British consumers surrounded themselves with the spoils of empire and learned about Britain’s authority through the food they prepared and ate, the imported goods they craved, and the cookbooks they read. To travel the empire was to eat the empire!
Lastly, “The Politics of Food” is a powerful concluding chapter. Through the ethics of empire—the choice to consume or abstain based upon how certain commodities were procured is front and center. Bickham astutely addresses how slavery and imperial abuses of power are directly related to politically charged consumables such as sugar and tobacco. Purchasing power and a moral imperative guided many British consumers to denounce once favored items. The chapter opens poignantly with an English porcelain sugar dish depicting a kneeling African enslaved person in chains. The message on the opposite side is a call to give up West Indian sugar and thusly the anti-saccharite movement pairs with the abolitionist movement. Simple ingredients with complex associations became the basis for much public discussion about moral consumption. Taking tea with sugar, as asserted by Bickham, was at once a demonstration of luxury and refinement but by the end of the 18th century it could also become a metaphor for imperial consumption indifferent to cruelty and suffering. Through fasting days and abstention for some, the gluttonous days of old were replaced with consumer boycotts. To equate sugar with slavery was to admit to an ominous side to imperialism that awoke in many a call for social responsibility.
Whether frequenting a London coffeehouse, smoking tobacco, enjoying sugar-infused tea, or eating a bowl of Indian curry— the consumption of food and drink propelled political discourse and global awareness. In the coffeehouses and taverns, or at the proper tea table, newspapers and satires disseminated the current body politic. None of this would have been possible without the aggressive trade of imperial Britain. Ravenous consumer demand, harvested on the backs of enslaved people or marginalized populations across the empire, was the basis for an indentured economy to thrive. Thusly, Troy Bickham has argued substantively that the modern consumer economy emerged from strategic retailing, advertising, consumerism, consumer credit, and taxes in a complex web of desire, social standing, and morality. Eating the Empire is richly illustrated with visual materials: well-chosen satires, political engravings, and trade cards. The narrative that runs throughout this publication is convincing and elegantly composed. Well-crafted and painstakingly researched, in the hands of this authoritative scholar, readers will find Troy Bickham’s Eating the Empire approachable and informative. Clearly, Bickham’s work suggests the trajectory of food studies and is an important contribution to the fields of political and culinary histories. There is much to learn from Bickham’s scholarship and, moreover, Eating the Empire is an enormously enjoyable read. This reviewer is eager to see where his research leads and awaits a second helping.