Colin Spencer




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The Cambridge World History of Food, Volume Two
Edited by Kenneth F. Kiple,
Kriemhild Conee Ornelas
Excerpt from ‘The British Isles’
by Colin Spencer

The effect of the Enclosures Acts was far-reaching. Rural life was radically altered and partially destroyed, and whole villages were abandoned. Within a generation, cooking skills and traditional recipes were lost forever, as the creative interrelationship between soil and table (the source of all good cuisine) had been severed.

From then on, the diet of the workers rapidly declined, although in the north of England the potato had, at last, been accepted. In the south, wheat, the source of fashionable white bread, had taken over the land. A farm laborer with a wife and four children averaged £46 in annual earnings, but the cost of the same family’s food amounted to £52 a year. Each week, such a family typically consumed 8 loaves of bread, 2 pounds of cheese, 2 pounds of butter, 2 ounces of tea, a half-pound of boiled bacon, and 2 pints of milk. By contrast, dinner for a late-eighteenth-century middle-class family of six has been depicted as consisting of three boiled chickens, a haunch of venison, a ham, a flour-and-suct pudding, and beans, followed by gooseberries and apricots (Drummond and Wilbraham 1959). Jonas Hanway, the reformer, said of the poor in Stevenage on 1767: “The food of the poor is good bread, cheese, pease and turnips in winter with a little pork or other meat, when they can afford it; but from the high price of meat, it has not lately been in their reach. As to milk, they have hardly sufficient for their use” (Drummond and Wilbraham 1959:208).

The eighteenth century, however, was one in which vast amounts of meat were eaten by those who could afford it. Sydney Smith, canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, calculated that during his 77 years, he had consumed 44 wagonloads of meat and drink, which had starved to death fully 100 persons. In Smith’s letters, and in Parson James Woodforde’s diaries, accounts of meals are laden with meats: game, fowl, cold tongue and hams, roasted sweetbreads, giblet soup, pigeons, veal, and marrow sauce. Obesity was caricatured by artists like William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson, and huge weights, up to 40 stone (about 560 pounds), were attained by some people. Among meat eaters, meat consumption averaged about 147 pounds per person annually, about the capita amount eaten today in the United States.