The Hungry Empire How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World

Review :

What a delightful and original way to sidle into history, with stories of food, entertaining on the surface and revealing in the depths.

Lizzie Collingham has written a deeply-researched and lively account of the role of food, and the pursuit of new foods, in changing the global economy, beginning in the sixteenth century with salt cod, which was produced on the shores of Newfoundland as a portable food for British sailors. Salt cod soon became part of a trade route, traveling from Newfoundland in British merchant ships to the Mediterranean, traded for wine, olive oil, and currants to take back to England.

From there Collingham moves forward through twenty such stories (West Indian sugar, Carolina rice, China tea) toward a concluding section that soberly examines the ways in which the colonial empire fed the mother country, especially during World War II, often to the sacrifice of the colony. (Churchill does not come off well.) Though her conclusions are indeed serious, Collingham relishes the joy in food and in the pursuit of pleasure over four centuries.

The stories are often fun, and each of the twenty chapters begins with the story of a meal. We learn from a 17th-century New England cottage that has no table but serves a satisfying meal; from a tea party in a Manchester slum that illustrates a diet lacking in nutrients; from a British soldier's meal in North Africa during World War II, its mostly tinned components from all over the Empire.

And we thought mangoes from Chile were a new phenomenon

The revered Christmas pudding is a child's geography lesson, with spices and fruits from every continent, and it becomes a touchstone for this story. We may cringe at the cruelties of the often rapacious trade, but we can enjoy the cast of characters who prepare and eat the meals. Such is Collingham's skill that I will remember both.


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