Historian Lizzie Collingham's new book looks at how food fueled trade, conquest, and oppression around the globe.
The British Empire, once spreading to nearly every corner of the map, was linked by the island nation’s mighty trade routes and staggering sea power. But one could make another link between England and its territories by way of the stomach. In “The Taste of Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World,” historian Lizzie Collingham does just that, navigating the conquests and consequences of Britain’s expanding empire from its roots in the 16th Century through food.
"One of the reasons I choose food to write about as a historian is that lots of people can really connect to food," Collingham tells Food & Wine. "If I just told the historical story they wouldn't be as interested. I try to tell them about real people in particular situations and how the food demonstrates why they were there and what they were doing and how these stories come together. Food connects you to the past in a way that's immediate that people can relate to."
“The Taste of Empire” is a thorough narrative, opening each chapter with the details of a meal emblematic of the time period, trade route, or conditions discussed therein. "Any meal that you sit down to eat contains, within it, a history," Collingham explains, "and you can unpack it and take it apart to figure out what made that meal possible."
Other than the prospect of riches, spices are typically the go-to answer for what spawned an era of sea-faring explorers to chart routes to the New World. For Britain, however, a more humble quest laid the groundwork for what would become the mightiest fleet of ships in the world: salted cod.
The first meal described is that of sailors aboard the ill-fated Mary Rose in 1545, one of reconstituted salt cod, cheese, butter, bread, and beer. As it happens, researchers at Cambridge were looking into the sunken vessel's cargo, which helped Collingham flesh out the story. "At the same time I was writing the book, they discovered and were analyzing ten of the many thousands of fish bones and one of them was from Newfoundland and that really caught my imagination."
When the Danish pushed British ships out of Icelandic waters in the 1500s, fishermen sailed further west to Newfoundland, where the seas were teeming with fish. Using both standard salting techniques and applying newly learned air-drying methods from the area's indigenous tribes, British salt cod soon became a valuable trading commodity and allowed the country's sailors to easily navigate the Atlantic, making further expansion all the more possible.
The more well-known pursuits of spices and sugar were, of course, financial ventures. But the mass importation of these goods expanded palates and magnified demand. "Even ordinary sailors carried peppercorns on their person. It gave the food a bit of spice," Collingham says. So the appetite was clearly there, it was just access both literally and financially that allowed the floodgates of commerce to open. "We're programmed to like sweet things, so as soon as you can afford [sugar] you're going to buy it. It was considered a 'perfect food.' Sugar sprinkled on any kind of food made it suitable for any humor of person. So you'd sprinkle sugar on your bacon and eggs and everything. It becomes a mass product."
The book goes into further details and descriptions of dishes eaten by people in all aspects of the West African slave trade, pre-revolutionary America, West Indian sugar plantations, colonial India and later Africa, all the way through 20th Century, with both the lasting influences and consequences brought to light. Those dishes include everything from iguana curry to possum and maize to beef and potato stew, culminating in Empire plum pudding, a dessert that nearly contains the entirety of Britain's once-expansive reach on one plate.
"The Taste of Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World" is currently available at bookstores and on Amazon.com.