Written by Jess Edwards and Daniel Pullin
Daniel and I are both keen on History – and food! The events currently taking place throughout the UK to celebrate British Food Fortnight led us to consider what actually constitutes ‘British Food’. Of course, in one sense the phrase describes food produced in Britain, but it could also mean the food eaten most regularly in the UK, and entrenched in British culture, which equates to a very different interpretation of ‘British Food’. Many of the meals most commonly eaten in Britain today have been introduced from foreign shores. We decided to explore the development of the modern British palate in the Gale archives, and unearthed historical references to both foreign and native recipes – as well as learning how both have solidified their reputation and popularity in British food culture. And to add an amusing twist, we thought we’d rustle up a few dishes under the guidance of these historical recipes…!
A cherished dish of the British public is undoubtedly a curry; slid out of countless cardboard sleeves and warmed in infinite microwaves nationwide. But when exactly was the English stew replaced by its spicier cousin? As early as 1786, New Lady’s Magazine described how ‘To make India Curry’ but from the mid-nineteenth century, as India and Britain became increasingly tightly linked, cultural exchange between the two nations really flourished. Nineteenth Century Collections Online includes an article in an 1895 Cookery Annual by a colonel who had ‘served for over thirty years in India’. Significantly, this writer suggests curry pastes ‘are nowadays procurable without trouble in London’. By 1898 the Daily Mail was suggesting curry to be ‘very fashionable…at the season’s lunches’. It is also interesting to note that while the latter sought to describe a curry exactly ‘as prepared in India’, the colonel was a forerunner in curry-adaption, suggesting the best curries ‘are the result of a blend between European and Asiatic cookery’ – thus offering an early precedent to the culturally-combined cardboard-sleeved curries of today!
Perhaps even more prominent in the British palate today is pasta. As we’re not content with frequently consuming home-boiled pasta, almost every British high street features an Italian restaurant to meet the British craving for Italian foodstuff. Though its initial infiltration into British culture would have occurred much earlier, we found in Gale Newsvault an increase in discussion of pasta dishes from about the 1920s. At that time, most articles still described pasta as a new contribution to the British palate; its various shapes are often defined and origin indicated.
Then, as now, one of the great appeals of pasta was its short preparation time, making it suitable for unregulated eating habits. In 1928 the Aberdeen Press and Journal said it was ‘excellent’ for when ‘guests arrive too late for dinner’, and you could even prepare it ‘in the middle of the night’ – how liberating! So while housewives were still rubbing their own pastry and kneading their own bread, pasta was already widely available ready-made; in 1949 the Daily Mail wrote ‘most English grocers sell spaghetti or macaroni in some form all ready for the boiling water.’ By 1958 The Times was describing the ‘miles of spaghetti’ consumed in London, and discussing increases in native production, suggesting pasta was entrenched in the British palate by the 1950s. Mass native production is also evident in a 1964 advert in The Sunday Times for A La Carte Spaghetti exclaiming ‘How to dine in Rome at Home’!
By the late twentieth century cookery articles shifted from a focus on necessity to pleasure, and ‘homemade’ became the new ideal; the Gale archives include adverts from the 1990s for homemade pasta machines.
(Having been given one herself as a birthday present, Jess is included in this cultural phenomenon!) ‘From scratch’ recipes have appeared for ravioli throughout the decades, however; ‘We in this country do not often make pasta, except for ravioli’ wrote The Listener in 1950. It is, perhaps foolishly, this riskier recipe that Daniel and I attempted – mainly for the chance to use the pasta machine!…
 “Italy’s Staple Dish.” Aberdeen Press and Journal [Aberdeen, Scotland] 2 July 1928: 2. 19th Century British Newspapers
 “In Italy it’s the sauce that counts.” Daily Mail [London, England] 24 Sept. 1949: 4. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004
 “Miles Of British Spaghetti.” Times [London, England] 14 June 1958: 4. The Times Digital Archive, 1785-2009
 “A la Carte Spagnetti” Sunday Times [London, England] 25 Oct. 1964: 50[S]. The Sunday Times Digital Archive, 1822-2006
 Helen Davies, “Recipes for the Housewife.” Listener 29 June 1950: 1115. The Listener Historical Archive 1929-1991
 “The Lady’s Assistant in the Whole Art of Cookery.” New Lady’s Magazine (1786): 244+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online
 Colonel Kenney-Herbert, From the Cookery Annual of 1895, “Curry-Making.” Everyday Housekeeping V.4 (1896): 176+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online.
 Lady Charlotte, “An Indian Recipe for Curry.” Daily Mail [London, England] 23 June 1898, p.7. Daily Mail Historical Archive