In Defence of English Cooking, Or, Orwell Revisited

George Orwell.* Remember him?

Of course you do.

Yes, think Animal Farm, Burmese Days, Shooting an Elephant. And, of course, 1984, which gave rise to the phrase “Orwellian world.” Orwell is actually enjoying a posthumous popularity, sixty-five years after his death in 1950, thanks in part to Edward Snowden and other factors.

But, if you’re a food-obsessed person, as I am, Orwell’s work means something else other than Big Brother and Winston Smith and a lot of talking animals. Orwell’s first book, a memoir of youthful poverty, Down and Out in Paris and London, chronicles his days spent in those cities, working at various low-paying, filthy jobs, including a stint as a plongeur (dishwasher) at a hotel near Paris’s famous Place de la Concorde.  He, as you might guess, ruminates about food a lot, not an uncommon tendency for a chronically hungry person.

You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food.

Given Orwell’s intimate acquaintance with hunger, it then comes as no surprise that food often appears in his writing, many times enshrined among discussions of social class.

He defends British cooking in the article he wrote for The Evening Standard in 1945, “In Defence of English Cooking.” In fact, in that piece he sounds a great deal like the homesick Mark Twain, who listed a whole plethora of American dishes while sitting in a damp hotel room in Venice, Italy, yearning for the foods of his homeland, many of which were actually English in origin. Of course, Twain meant the following recipe as satire (or did he?):


To make this excellent breakfast dish, proceed as follows: Take a sufficiency of water and a sufficiency of flour, and construct a bullet-proof dough. Work this into the form of a disk, with the edges turned up some three-fourths of an inch. Toughen and kiln-dry in a couple days in a mild but unvarying temperature. Construct a cover for this redoubt in the same way and of the same material. Fill with stewed dried apples; aggravate with cloves, lemon-peel, and slabs of citron; add two portions of New Orleans sugars, then solder on the lid and set in a safe place till it petrifies. Serve cold at breakfast and invite your enemy. (A Tramp Abroad, Chapter XLIX)

Twain’s recipe points out the still-prevailing attitude toward English food, quite ironic actually, given that so many of the dishes still popular in the United States – at least among home cooks and some restaurateurs such as Suzanne Goins – trace their genealogy to English antecedents.  Roast beef? Apple dumplings? Apple pie? Roasted potatoes? Mashed potatoes? Trout? Oysters?

However, Orwell’s most telling bit of food writing lay hidden for years. In “British Cookery,” an unpublished article in the archives at University College London, commissioned by the British Council in 1946, Orwell dissects what it is to be British, via food and meals commonly eaten in his day. It reads almost like a caricature of British cuisine, one quite expects Mr. Bean to pop out, grimacing. And, contrary to his statements in “In Defence of English Cooking,” Orwell comments time and again on some of the deficiencies of British cooking – “Fish in Britain is seldom well cooked.” … “British pastry is not outstandingly good … .” Yet he extols the fillings that go into the pastry, including lemon curd, which is not dissimilar to the filling found in Lemon Chess Pie, one of the little-known glories of American cooking, with deep roots in the English kitchen (see below). He lavishes praise on the “Sunday joint,” apples, and – surprisingly – English bread. I sense his deep emotions in writing about this food.

So bad is the reputation of English cooking that, aside from the occasional “Bangers and Mash,” it simply doesn’t appear on any culinary radar today, except of course in its country of origin. This is really ironic, given the influence of English cuisine – far greater than most other migrant cuisines – on American cuisine (and I do need to define that, and I will, in a later post; for now, let’s just say there’s a certain regional element to it, but not entirely). That doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to go through the culinary repertoire dish by dish and point out seeming origins. But reading essays such as those penned by Twain and Orwell brings home the point that English cuisine did not just stop being important once the Revolutionary War ended.

George Orwell should have the last word here, reiterating the positive side of English cookery:

“In addition, no one who has not sampled Devonshire cream, stilton cheese, crumpets, potato cakes, saffron buns, Dublin prawns, apple dumplings, pickled walnuts, steak-and-kidney pudding and, of course, roast sirloin of beef with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and horseradish sauce, can be said to have given British cookery a fair trial.”

Lemon Chess Pie (adapted from Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s The Gift of Southern Food)

Note: A quick glance at few cookbooks, such as Great British Bakes, turns up Fanchonettes, a recipe from Marie-Antonin Carême, which appeared in 1830 in Richard Dolby’s Cook’s Dictionary. In 1732, Charles Carter printed “Lemon Pudding Pie” in his The Compleat City and Country Cook, which sounds very similar to the following recipe, except that he recommended grating two “Naples Biskets” for thickening instead of cornmeal and flour. Hannah Glasse, Elizabeth Raffald, and Martha Bradley also included similar recipes in their cookbooks.

1 pre-baked 9-inch pie shell (baked with foil and pie weights inside for 15 minutes at 375 F, then 5 minutes with foil and pie weights removed, cooled completely on a rack before adding lemon filling)

4 large eggs, at room temperature
1½ cups sugar
1 tablespoon fine white cornmeal
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup unsalted butter, melted, cooled to room temperature
½ cup buttermilk, at room temperature
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, at room temperature
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs briefly. One at a time, whisk in the following, blending until each ingredient has been incorporated before proceeding to the next: the sugar, cornmeal, flour, salt, melted butter, buttermilk, lemon juice, lemon zest and vanilla.

Pour the filling into the unbaked pie crust, and bake in the middle of the oven for 30-40 minutes, until the pie is golden brown on top and almost set. The center should be slightly loose; it will set as it cools. Remove to a cooling rack. Serve at room temperature with lightly sweetened whipped cream.

*George Orwell was the nom de plume of Eric Arthur Blair, born in Motihari, Bengal, India, in 1903 to British parents.

© 2015 C. Bertelsen



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