By Lauren R. Goldstein
Many people commonly believe that English cookery is “bad,” and that English food became bad after the Second World War. However, when did this negative perception really begin? My dissertation, “Cooking Up A Nation: Perceptions of English Cookery, 1830-1930,” shows that English cookery was perceived poorly beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century. It demonstrates that criticizing their own cookery was a part of the English defining themselves, rather than something determined by visitors to England post-1945. Many factors contributed to the negative image of English cookery, including food adulteration, food innovations and new technologies, and industrialization and urbanization. This post will focus on the role moral values played in creating a poor perception of English cookery.
Today, we usually judge food by how it tastes, criticizing a dish for its flavour, or lack thereof. However, in the nineteenth century, English cookery was regularly judged by its ability to conform to the emerging Victorian values of cleanliness, economy, and efficiency. As the 1854 cookbook The Art of Good and Cheap Cookery stated, “Good Cookery—is not simply a matter of taste and relish (though that is very important,) but that it is a matter of health and strength, and of real economy” (p. 6). “Good” cookery was the practical application of good character and proper morals and led to the creation of a happy home. Wasteful cookery, as English cookery was perceived to be, was therefore the opposite—it was not clean, it was not thrifty, and it led to unhappy existence.
In the eighteenth century, roast beef became known as England’s “national dish.” The act of roasting was considered specific to the English, and demonstrated the high quality of English beef because only the finest cuts of meat could be properly roasted. At this time, the English perceived their cookery to be honest and considered French cookery to be expensive and pretentious. By the nineteenth century, the national dish of roast beef was considered part of an English national identity, defining the English as “meat eaters.” However, roast beef was no longer celebrated for its plainness. Wastefulness was something food writers frequently noted as one of the core problems with English cookery. Food writers criticized the English for continuing the tradition of eating large joints of meat, such as roast beef, claiming that the national dish conflicted with the need to be frugal and cook efficiently. Large cuts of meat were considered wasteful because they used a lot of fuel and families were accused of buying too much. Serving leftover cold meat all week led to dietary tedium and monotony, another perceived problem with English cookery, and often the leftovers were thrown out, furthering the idea that the English were wasteful. One article from 1873 claimed that the persistence of serving roast beef and mutton was “the fundamental blunder” of English cooking (The Leeds Mercury, 1873).
The critics of English cookery were often contradictory in their comments—serving leftovers was an example of being economical, and yet, the English were accused of becoming bored with them and throwing them out. In the mid-nineteenth century, the English also championed French cookery, especially the national dish of pot-au-feu. In the eighteenth century, food writers had criticized the French, but in the nineteenth century, French cookery was frequently noted as the cuisine from which the English should learn. Catherine M. Buckton, author of the school board cookbook Food and Home Cookery (1879) stated that the French were the “best and most economical cooks in the world,” while the English were “the most wasteful and worst cooks” (p. 31-32). Soup was the highlight of French cookery, and it was repeatedly recommended as the dish to save English cookery—it was considered economical and nutritious. But, an Englishman was not considered to be “a soup-eating animal” (The Pall Mall Gazette, 1881). By the end of the nineteenth century, English cookery’s reputation had been criticized for half a century and its negative perception was set. As an 1893 article in Reynold’s Newspaper declared, “English cookery has become a word of reproach throughout the world, not only on account of its heaviness and want of variety, but in consequence of its great wastefulness.” Taste was not the issue for nineteenth century critics of English cookery—waste was.
 Editors of the Family Economist, The Art of Good and Cheap Cookery for the Working Classes, (London: Groombridge and Sons, 1854), 6.
 “Literature,” The Leeds Mercury, Thursday, Feb 13, 1873.
 “The Cupboard Papers,” The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday, July 12, 1881.
 “The Democratic World,” Reynold’s Newspaper, Feb 12, 1893.