A History of Typical English Food

Dispelling myths

To many, the myth that the traditional English cuisine is limited to something a sailor from the dark ages hacked together hurriedly to avoid scurvy, is a cemented and unquestionable mantra served with condescension and a sprinkling of ignorance.

I promised myself I'd attempt to write this article with clinical detachment, it took me all of 30 words to realize that it is an endeavor ill suited to my temperament. Instead, I will attempt to craft a factual riposte to the myth of England's traditionally and culturally sterile food establishment by fighting fire with more fire, humor and an assortment of traditional dishes that will make you froth at the mouth like a Pavlovian hound.

England's temperature climate has been a boon to domestic agriculture over the ages.
England's temperature climate has been a boon to domestic agriculture over the ages.

Notes: Influence

It is difficult to speak of traditional dishes in England because of the sheer amount of Influence and variety that have graced dinner tables across the country throughout its long history. The most important factors are:

  • Religion (simplicity)
  • Climate (fertility)
  • Colonies (culture mix)
  • Trade (importing)
  • Globalization (importing)
  • Class (Sunday roasts!)

A leap into the past

England's cuisine has been shaped by a horde of different, and often conflicting, cultural and socio-political trends. As a country that weaved an immense colonial empire, it opened itself to trade and customs from all over the world. Even before its relatively modern colonial undertakings, England "suffered" both Norman and Roman invasions, along with other cultural forces such as Puritan and Catholic regimes, which periodically altered what English food was, how it was served and how it was eaten.

I believe that in researching English food history, the single, unified message is one of a cuisine of a thousand separate facets. Each having contributed to what English food is today.

A beginning of sorts

One of the earliest ancient English cookbooks is the Forme of Cury, which dates back to the Kingdom of Richard II (1367-1400). It evokes an image of a simplistic diet: A preponderance of boiled vegetables, meat, broths, along with the preparation of breads and cheeses. The emphasis on these simple ingredients are the hallmarks of many acclaimed traditional English dishes, such as roasts and puddings.

I'm going to go out on a limb and claim that pre-colonial England was not dominated by flamboyant chefs, but rather emphasized simplicity and accessibility. All of this, of course, would change dramatically when Britain accrued an empire. But before this could happen, it would be shaped from within, due to the rift in class castes and philosophy.


Products of "class"

England's Sunday roast is an example of a food tradition that emerged from within a strict class system. The roast originated from a Sunday routine where serfs where rewarded for their week-long work with a succulent roasted ox (nowadays roast beef is still the most popular choice, followed by lamb, chicken and pork). It became an important part of a communities culture because of its unique ability to bring people of all castes together and have some fun, all while eating well.

Among the many infamous Sunday roast recipes that have become part of England's food heritage is the Yorkshire pudding (although it is not exclusively used in a Sunday lunch).

A typical Sunday roast, the Yorkshire puddings (which are not actually puddings) are the bell shaped "things" (a complete descriptive blackout!)
A typical Sunday roast, the Yorkshire puddings (which are not actually puddings) are the bell shaped "things" (a complete descriptive blackout!)

Notes: Class

The rift between classes gave birth to both communal Sunday traditions such as the Sunday roast (or lunch) and catalyzed the birth of fast food (Fish and Chips)

But there is a potential downside to class distinction (beyond, of course, political considerations) and that is a shift from the simple, cheap and healthy -- to the simple, cheap and not-so-healthy. At this point advocates and enforcers of the British cuisine stereotype will nod knowingly.

Yes, travels, locals and readers will know all about fish and chips. But a student of nineteenth century Britain will have realized that fish n' chip had a lot of things going for them.

Fish and chips trivia

"George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) put fish and chips first among the home comforts that helped keep the masses happy and "averted revolution"" BBC news.

Fish and Chips

There is a chance that fish and chips are not entirely an English dish and originated out of France (can you image an Englishman ever admitting to that? I thought not). But what is beyond any doubt is that it is England that gave this dish a future, like it or not, eat 'em or chuck 'em.

The context is one dominated by a country booming under an industrial revolution. Laborers, the new serfs, worked long hours, had little money to spend and necessitated cheap, fast and highly caloric food to spur them on. Fish and chips found a niche almost immediately. In the mid nineteenth century, a north English entrepreneur by the name of John Lees began to sell fish and chips out of his wooden hut in Lancashire. There is a great deal of uncertainty over where John was the first of his kind, in all fairness fish and chips took the masses by storm in a very short period of time, so their origins will never be certain.

Many people are tied to the tradition of cutting costs by using used newspapers as a makeshift container.
Many people are tied to the tradition of cutting costs by using used newspapers as a makeshift container.

A new world (cuisine!)

So far we've dealt with the obvious. After-all, many will claim that this article has only reinforced cultural stereotypes. "

"Fish and chips, roast beef, yea -- I know!"

The truth about traditional English food is in its many influences. While fish and chips may have originated from an invading force (the vikings) the English table is equally influenced by countries it has exported to. The British empire was not a one-way street in terms of cultural influence.

Contemporary England is one of many cultures. But for the sake of this article, I'm going to deal with Britain's Indian Empire or the British Raj.

Despite India's independence, many Indians found a home in England and began to reproduce typical dishes and introduce them to the rest of the population. The result has been a steady and subtle meeting point between a majority and a minority that have created a unique cuisine that can absolutely be called unique.

A perfect example of this ensemble is Mulligatawny soup (from the Tamil meaning pepper water).

British colonies are in red
British colonies are in red

Globalization and Glocalization

The homogenizing force known as Globalization has take its toll not only on the English cuisine, but on the entire world. But in recent times a paradoxical force known as glocalization has began to rear its head. Many English people have become more food conscious, and have begun to take pride in eating well and researching their origins. You are probably one of these people (I say this not in arrogance, but you did just read an article on English food, and that takes nerve!). Glocalization deals with people consciously resisting homogenization and finding new comfort in culture and tradition.

My take on this is that globalization may be bad news for authentic food lovers. But the good news is that while it may erode tradition, it will lead to a new food-conscious era. Already we are seeing the effects that cheap, processed fast-food industries have had on western populations, and the dire consequences. My generation is expected to live on average 10 years less than the older one. Due, in the main, to food issues. Hypertension, heart disease and diabetes are now rampant.

This hub then, is an attempt to raise the curtain on the stereotype that English food (along with American food) is unhealthy and unimaginative. England has a history of wonderful food that demands greater attention, and a strong revival in today's society.


Fish and chips - Bane or Blessing

  • Bane
  • Blessing
  • Why should I care, its French
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Comments 17 comments

SilverGenes 6 years ago

Good fish and chips (the kind in the nasty newspaper cones that soak up all the ink) are pretty hard to beat for taste. Actually, the ink may be better for us than the chemicals added to food today. Good article and definitely fun to read!


thooghun profile image

thooghun 6 years ago from Rome, Italy Author

Thank you SilverGenes, I definitely agree regarding the second part of that statement! Regarding the ink, well, it brings a whole new meaning to digesting the news.


2besure profile image

2besure 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

I have already heard the English food was pretty bad an bland. Thank you for your insight into English cuisine.


SteveoMc profile image

SteveoMc 6 years ago from Pacific NorthWest

The Mulligatawny Soup you have pictured looks completely different from the one that it is linked to which leads me to conclude that there are many varieties of the stuff. And it does look good. Your command of the English is superb and makes for a mighty tasty read.


John B Badd profile image

John B Badd 6 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

That Sunday Roast looked pretty good to me.


thooghun profile image

thooghun 6 years ago from Rome, Italy Author

Thank you for the generous compliment SteveoMc!

John: You and I both!


Frances 6 years ago

Great article. I never knew that is what Yorkshire pudding looked like. I have always wanted to visit England but have not been much intrigued by the food, but this article makes me think I should rethink that:)


thooghun profile image

thooghun 6 years ago from Rome, Italy Author

Frances, thanks for stopping by! English food is highly under-appreciated!


oceansnsunsets profile image

oceansnsunsets 6 years ago from The Midwest, USA

Hello Thoog, I enjoyed this hub very much! Interesting and informative and I found myself smiling at a lot you said. Thanks for sharing, and congratulations on your nomination! Ocean


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

I love fish and chips, and I liked the humor in your hub. Thumbs up and congratulations!


Loren's Gem profile image

Loren's Gem 6 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

Haven't known so much about English cuisine or English foods until I read this. Very informative! Good work and congrats on the nomination! Rated it up! :-)


thooghun profile image

thooghun 6 years ago from Rome, Italy Author

Thanks all :D I'm glad it was informative and honored you found it funny. It was also great to see some other nominees giving me a thumbs up. Long live hubpages!


rebekahELLE profile image

rebekahELLE 6 years ago from Tampa Bay

I enjoyed reading this and learned at the same time. I didn't know the history behind the Sunday roast. I love fish and chips and I do remember one restaurant used to use paper that looked like newspaper. I always wondered why. the soup looks delicious and who doesn't love Jamie Oliver?? :)


prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

This hub is nice, Congrats by the way, I learned about history and more. Sunday roast, chips and fish and class etc. I like the style of writing too, Maita


Money Glitch profile image

Money Glitch 6 years ago from Texas

I have heard so much about the fish n chips in England that once the opportunity comes, I'm going to fly there and head to the nearest restaurant for a taste. :) Congrats on being a contender for this week's contest.


thooghun profile image

thooghun 6 years ago from Rome, Italy Author

Thanks fellow hubbers! Thank you for your great compliments. The more comments I read from high caliber hubbers the more I'm flattered!

Thank you all.


Monnow Man 5 years ago

Good article. Might be improved by an inclusion of the rise of TV chefs in the nineties and noughties and their effect on domestic cuisine.

The flag at the top is not "English": it is the union flag of the UK. Is the article about English or British food? There are overlaps but by no means is "English" food the dominant form in the other countries (Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland) of the union, who all have their own distinctive dishes.

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