What the English Cooked in the New World: A Word about the Fallacy of Culinary Appropriation

Lately, claims of cultural appropriation have come to my attention, based on the argument that certain groups of people have “stolen” the culinary achievements of other groups, as well as commentaries  suggesting that unless a cook or chef was fetched up in a certain culture, then she or he has no business cooking the food of another culture.

Sorry, I can only say this: What poppycock!

But how about if we look at this from another point of view? I’d like to suggest something quite revolutionary: The English – who of course borrowed many culinary ideas from the French and others over the centuries – yes, the English, are the ones who ought to be grumbling about culinary appropriation.

How so?

Consider a few facts.

Chief among those facts lies the reality that much of so-called American cuisine derives from European, and more specifically, English/British roots. First, let’s look at this so-called American cuisine, which has evolved from the early days, but not so much that certain English meal patterns and food types are still very, very visible, even now, especially in Southern cooking, but also in that of the Great Plains states, etc. Meat, gravy, vegetables, cake, pie. The dishes found in the cookbooks of Fannie Farmer, James Beard, Irma S. Rombauer, and most charity and Junior League cookbooks harkened to the food routinely cooked across the nation in most households until fairly recently. The trend toward more international foods, remember, is a relatively recent phenomena, unless the cooks in question adhered strongly to their mother cuisines. But recall also, as Alice Ross wrote in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (p. 78): “… immigrant families were sometimes targeted by social workers, who tried to expedite the process of acculturation and assimilation by teaching them American cookery.”

Consider beans.

Might it not be possible that soup beans, baked beans, and even Louisiana red beans first saw the light of day in the pot of an English woman standing in her log cabin or lean-to, relying upon her heritage of many types of pottage?

Look at this list from 1622 of suggested provisions for persons setting out for the New World from England. Note the second item under the section labelled “Victualls”:

Jamestown supplies 1622 inconveniencies
Note the section titled “Victualls”

Pease. Legumes. A universal food. Beans with bacon, one of the oldest English dishes, long based on the tradition of pottage. After all, the combination was mentioned in a fourteenth-century cookbook. Take a look at this:

I. For to make Gronden Benes

   Take benes and dry hem in a nost or in an Ovene and hulle hem wele and wyndewe out þe hulk and wayshe hem clene an do hem to seeþ in gode broth an ete hem with Bacon.

~ Forme of Cury (1390)

Not exactly baked beans as we now know them or soup beans, but proof enough that the marriage of beans and bacon (or ham) has been a long marriage indeed, bacon and beans obviously being one of the oldest English dishes.

As I have mentioned many times before, Hannah Glasse’s cookbook appeared constantly in advertising in colonial newspapers in America. Here’s Hannah Glasse’s take on things beans and bacon:

To dress Beans and Bacon

When you dress Beans and Bacon, boil the Bacon by itself and the Beans by themselves, for the Bacon will spoil the Colour of the Beans. Always throw some Salt into the Water and some Parsley nicely pick’d. When the Beans are enough (which you will know by their being tender) throw them into a Collender to drain. Take up the Bacon and Skin it; throw some Raspings of Bread over the Top, and if you have an Iron make it red-hot and hold over it, to brown the top of the Bacon. If you have not one, set it before the fire to brown. Lay the Beans in the Dish, and the Bacon in the Middle on the Top, and send them to Table with Butter in a Bason.
— Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747)

Maybe it’s time to ask just who is appropriating whom. Or maybe, no one is appropriating anyone. That sounds better to me. Maybe a better word is simply this: sharing.

*This is just a short discourse and reflects only some of my thinking on this complicated topic. But truth be told, humans have been borrowing culinary ideas and doing what they can to survive, and to make money for a very long time.

© 2016 C. Bertelsen



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