The Salt
7:00 am
Sun February 19, 2012

Dining After 'Downton Abbey': Why British Food Was So Bad For So Long

Originally published on Fri October 19, 2012 2:06 pm

If you've ever watched the television show Downton Abbey, you've probably deduced that dining was a very, very big deal in the lives of the landed gentry of Edwardian England.

Much of the drama surrounding the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants unfolds against a tableau of the table.

Beaus jostle for the attention of the earl's eldest daughter while eating elbow to elbow. An engagement is publicly renewed during the evening meal. The butler works himself into an exhausted tizzy trying to keep up appearances without enough footmen to serve dishes in "proper" style.

And the food itself? Turns out, it was "incredibly sophisticated," says Ivan Day, one of Britain's preeminent food historians. "The upper-middle classes and the gentry and the aristocracy — they saw food as a way of impressing people," Day tells The Salt.

That's hard to reconcile with the reputation that dogged British cuisine throughout much of the 20th century as boring, tasteless fare.

So what changed? The short answer: World War I.

As cookbooks of the era attest, middle and upper-class cooking standards were actually quite high before the war, Day says. "Some of it was very technically dazzling and difficult to do."

Cooks and their assistants, he says, were often highly skilled at very advanced cuisines. Take, for example, the "fancy ices" that were all the rage at the end of the 19th century. Ambitious cooks would use specialized copper and pewter molds to create elaborate ice cream delicacies in the shapes of swans, doves, even asparagus — all without the benefit of modern refrigeration.

"It was very much the duty of the hostess and her staff to put very good food on the table when her husband and guests were being served," Day says. "And they were able to do it because there was a skill base that was very large, because so many people were employed as servants — and particularly servants in kitchens."

Plenty of working-class Brits were domestic servants back then — in middle-class as well as upper-class homes. When World War I came, a lot of these skilled servants — and their masters — marched off to the trenches. Many never returned.

Without the skilled labor required to make them, complex, time-consuming dishes dropped off the menu. Cooks had long relied on imports of produce and other ingredients to supplement limited domestic varieties, Day says, but the war disrupted these shipments. And those fancy ice creams? Banned — sugar and cream were both among the food stuffs being rationed.

"Our food culture got incredibly simplified, incredibly slimmed down — everybody was on an austerity program," Day says.

Working stiffs had seen their food culture steamrolled by the Industrial Revolution a century earlier, he says. As farmers left the fields for factories, industrial foods replaced fresh ones in urban workers' diets. Regional specialties and culinary traditions, like artisanal cheese-making, largely vanished. "Whereas France and Italy and Spain, they all kept up a peasant culture, so that the food of ordinary working people in these continental countries was actually much better than it was here," he says.

With the war, British food culture also unraveled at the top, he says, as the aristocrats who'd fostered it saw their power and influence diminish. Agricultural setbacks shrank their wealth, taxes hacked at their estates, political shifts shook their comfortable perches in the social hierarchy.

"The people who were talented cooks worked for the nobility, the aristocracy and the gentry," Day says. "And all the knowledge of the food was in those places. And once you knocked out that social layer ... you lost that food culture. And everyone else below had kind of looked up to it. They were aspiring to be like that."

British food culture had little opportunity to recover. Though the Jazz Age offered a brief respite from the gloom and doom, the economic crash of 1929 brought more belt-tightening. Then came the rise of fascism, the Second World War and the 14 long years of food rationing that didn't end until 1954 — long after the war itself was over.

The cuisine didn't start its long climb out of ignominy until mid-century, when Elizabeth David — the doyenne of British food writing — began extolling the pleasures of cooking with "exotic" ingredients like olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs.

Nowadays, of course, London is a center of culinary creativity, a renaissance fueled in large part by its booming immigrant population.

It may have taken the better part of a century, but "food is very much on the up," Day says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.