26 APRIL 2003, Page 38

Thought for food

Digby Anderson

BEEF AND LIBERTY by Ben Rogers Chan°, £17.99, pp. 196 ISBN 070116980X By Shakespeare's time, the English ate more meat, especially beef and mutton, than their neighbours. And beef had become associated with battlefield prowess (see Henry V). The high consumption was partly a matter of supply and comparative affluence, and enclosures. Moreover, beef became associated also with a particular yeoman class. For instance, the Yeomen of the Guard, founded by Henry VII in 1485 to protect the king, became known under the Stuarts as 'Beef-Eaters' because they ate so much beef. As late as 1813 the 30 Yeomen on duty at St James's Palace received a daily ration of 24 pounds of beef, 18 of mutton, 16 of veal and 37 gallons of beer.

I rather like learning about things like this. The good Ben Rogers has lots more. He can tell you how English meat was cooked, boiled or roasted in contrast with the French frying, braising and stewing. He describes how the food of the French court and the English yeomen and others increasingly diverged. He explains the various ways English beef was spit-roasted in large lumps: I was especially entranced by the section on dogwheel spits: A certain dog in kitchen service [is] excellent. For when any meat is roasted they go into a wheel, which they turning about with the weight of their bodies so diligently look to their business that no drudge or scullion can do the feat more cunningly.

I am looking at our younger cat, Bomber Harris, who's been a bit lively lately, with a new interest.

The English, we learn, spurned French stock-based sauce reductions with their beef and preferred strong mustard or horseradish. They also liked various puddings with it and drank ale, beer or cider, not wine. The divergence of French and English cooking helped in the process by which beef and beef-eating became symbols of Englishness and images emerged of the English as solid, simple, manly and traditional with the French vilified as foppish, mincing, lisping and effeminate. The English patriot, like his food, is simple and natural. Stage characters appeared such as Jack Roastbeef. Patriotic clubs such as the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks were formed and the spirit of them is found in, for instance, Hogarth. Rogers is fascinating too on the origins of the meat-eating, stubborn, bull-baiting Bulldog as a national symbol and of John Bull himself.

So far so good. The author has a mass of stories and incidents to recount and a general point to make about how food in particular can become a symbol of a nation. But there is another Mr Rogers who is far more ambitious. He is not content with telling stories but is, according to his publisher, a 'brilliant, young thinker' with a 'pioneering study in a new subject — food nationalism'. The other Rogers elbows his way in between the anecdotes with profundities such as, 'All cultural identity is closely bound up with food.' All? And what about that escape word 'closely'? In short the other Mr Rogers is a theoretician. His idea, fair enough as a vague and general point does not stand up as a theory. He looks for the instances of patriotism which exhibit food as a symbol but does not consider the many which do not. Look at all

those patriotic adventure novels by Rider Haggard, Baroness Orczy, Forester, Sabatini, Henty: lots about Englishmen and foreigners, even Frogs, but hardly anything about beef and bulldogs. Consider the pastoral, countryside. Elgarish sort of Englishness; nothing there either. Where is horseradish in The Dambusters or

Biggles? Or what about that Englishness famous for reticence and understatement? They are hardly the hallmarks of John Bull. In short he can't specify when the association holds and why.

Most food writing is highly formulaic, centring around recipes. What is needed are new books discussing food in a more intelligent, thoughtful and amusing way. But to get thoughtfulness you don't have to import 'thinkers', let alone ones pioneering new food theories. Fortunately, the first and most welcome Mr Rogers writes most of the lines in this book, and his other self, when he does barge in, can easily be ignored. English beef-eaters know exactly what to do with food theorists.