Bonnie S. Benwick is deputy editor/recipes editor of The Washington Post's food section.
Clickable interest in food tends to range from how fast the stuff can be deposited at one's doorstep to how conveniently it can be transformed into dinner. But some of us still have an appetite for historical context. In this book, which is as thick as a double-cut pork chop, the author sees trade in sugar, spice, rice and tea as the reason the British were so keen to command sea routes dating from the 16th century. That Britain's merchant marines and its East India Company did much to expand the empire has long been accepted as fact. In "The Taste of Empire," historian Lizzie Collingham makes the case that acquisition of goods, not land, ruled the day.
Her comestible-based thesis begins with salt cod drawn from North America — or rather, the genetic tracking of its bones discovered in a Tudor warship wreck of 1545. Did the British armada's buildup increase demand for the preserved fish, which was a key source of vitamins and protein for sailors' long journeys? Or did the cod become a fixture in British cuisine because it provided welcome relief from the tyranny of "boyled" meats?
The fact was, England was plagued by food shortages around the time that salt cod production in Newfoundland kicked into high gear. The fish quickly became a cheap alternative to roast beef at home, and English trade brought it to southern Europe, where salt cod became a major commodity and remains a popular ingredient.
Subsequent chapters each introduce a character or a place that relates a particular foodstuff with empire building. The tactic smacks of a writerly device, yet it achieves the desired effect — drawing in the reader via narrative arc. The result is the stuff of lively cocktail party conversation among the geekiest food lovers, right down to the occasional recipe for mock turtle, rum punch and (Hello, Bridget Jones!) leftover-turkey curry.
The English brought home turkey from the Americas in the 16th century, serving it as the highlight of a Christmas table. The holiday's Victorian-era plum pudding became "a truly national dish" not in spite of but because of its foreign ingredients. The pudding had been boiled and plain, but the 17th-century additions of dried fruits and spices from abroad made it the Christmas pudding we know today.
If you are curious about why Africans became reliant on industrially processed grains and sugar, rest assured that Collingham has done the research. (The book's notes and bibliography account for nearly 75 pages.) The author, an associate fellow of Warwick University, says Western eating habits were most prevalent in sub-Saharan cities in the 1800s, since it was much easier to cook with white flour and imported rice than with indigenous grains. She cites reports of young members of the Bemba people in Rhodesia relishing canned, imported sardines along with their breakfast porridge.
Perhaps the most telling adverse effects of Western foodways are related through a 1931 British nutritional study of the Kikuyus' diet in Kenya. It concluded that the people were malnourished because they were vegetarian, but the findings overlooked the fact that Kikuyu men in the survey were laborers, given only daily rations of vitamin-deficient cornmeal mush. Kikuyu women, not surveyed, maintained a diet of local beans and greens and were actually quite healthy.
Britain's role in the export of rice is one of global success. British settler Nathaniel Johnson is credited with being the first to grow the crop in South Carolina in the late 1600s and early 1700s, thanks to the agricultural prowess of his many African slaves. East India Company ships brought Asian varieties to the New World and hauled Carolina rice — via London, where a re-export tax was applied — to the West Indies and to the Netherlands and German states, where it helped fill bellies in winter when supplies of legumes and grains ran short.
Proceeds from rice and tea, of course, enriched Britain's coffers and, in turn, gave rise to improvements in food processing that kept the nation's seafarers able-bodied and well quenched, as Collingham's story of pale ale proves. There is "barely anything at all that was British about a cup of tea," the author writes, "and yet it became a symbol of national identity."
Collingham devotes fewer pages to food and empire in Britain's modern times, understandably. Her thesis is not so easily sustained in the Brexit era. The end of the book seems to sprint through what Britain's far-flung soldiers ate and drank during World War II and looks dispassionately upon the rise of the local-food movement in the country. Better, maybe, to have not ventured further than that Christmas pudding, symbolic of a premium cultural blend.
By Lizzie Collingham
Basic. 367 pp. $32