Headmaster’s Thoughts – September 2010

(As a note to new parents, I should explain what these “Thoughts” are, and why I write them.  I teach an ethical philosophy class to the entire Senior class. These “Headmaster’s Thoughts” (this is number seventy) are written as my personal monthly homework for the seniors to critique. They can be sometimes amusing and other times controversial and passionate, but usually I just write a topic essay that my students can criticize for whatever reason they wish. Trust me that they happily and frequently attack what I say and how I say it. The “Thoughts” are very often personal, as this one is.)


On a holiday this summer with five very bright and accomplished individuals, three of whom are members of my family, we played the game of answering the following question: “What would you request as your last meal if condemned to death?” When I started with my dream appetizer of “pigs in blankets” (those little hot dogs in puff pastry), my companions realized that I truly have no taste buds and no sense of the joy of good food.


I have talked in previous “thoughts” about my lack of interest in food.  I would argue that I am a casualty of history. I was brought up in post-Second World War London, and the fact is that the food was plain awful.  So, after humiliating myself with “pigs in blankets,” I started to wonder why English food rightfully had such a bad reputation. I believe the answer lies indeed in the history of the country.


I start off with the assumption that the Norman conquerors, who captured England in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings under William the Conqueror, brought with them Norman food and insisted that Norman cuisine be provided for them. I have no idea how bad English food was then, but the arrival of so many rich Frenchmen (rich because William gave them tracts of land as payment for their military support) must have had the impact of merging the foods of the two nations. The English Channel is only 21 miles across between Dover and Calais, and Calais was occupied by the English until 1558, so there seems no reason to believe that you could not get good Calais food in England.


Something must have happened between then and Voltaire’s dismissive line about English food—which I have also quoted before—that France has one religion and forty sauces while England has forty religions and only one sauce. Something destroyed the cuisine of a powerful nation, and I think the industrial revolution (at the very time when the British Empire was at its height) was to blame.


It is certainly true to say that Britain was the first country to go through the great industrial revolution of the 18th century and that it was the most industrialized country in the world. The creation of a vast factory system in its urban regions resulted in the flocking of farm workers (they were called peasants in those days, but I think that word is politically incorrect) to cities where their labor was needed. This industrial revolution changed the country rapidly with many negative consequences (including Marx making false future prognostications as he studied the effects in the library of the British Museum).


Without dwelling on the pollution, dreariness of the factory workers’ lives, and the general loss of community that mass urban centers create, one of the clear side effects was the emptying of the countryside of labor and the need to get food to the major population centers where the factories were producing goods.  Small farming, particularly farming of fruits and vegetables, is labor intensive. On the roof of York Prep we have flowers and vegetables for our five bee hives which require a great deal of work.  Seeding, thinning, weeding, watering, and gathering—this is “hand” work and not something that can easily be replaced by machines.


England needed food that could be easily produced, cheaply transported, and speedily prepared in a country where women were now a large part of the factory labor force and had no time for slow cooking. So meats became staple foods. Sheep and meat cattle require few workers to produce a great deal of food.  Better farm machinery made large farms more practical than small ones, and so England became a nation of meat producers.  Vegetables and other products that took more time were imported.  In the 19th century the farmlands of the New World made even meat an economically marginal product.  Only the largest farms could survive the arrival of cheaper meat from America or Argentina and, later, Australia and New Zealand.  Tinned meat was the most easily transportable food, and mass produced breads replaced the artisan loafs of the pre-industrial revolution.


The only consumable that the English could make well was tea, and that was because it was produced in a colony (India) by cheap local labor and is very easy to transport back in bulk to Britain with virtually no spoilage in the process.  Tea, however, does not a cuisine make.


Voltaire was not the only one who recognized that Britain was relying on cheap imported food to feed its people. In both World Wars, Germany tried to starve Britain by destroying the ships that carried food to it. In the Second World War, the U-Boats did an effective job of reducing food supplies and nearly starving the country. Arguably, the United States’ greatest contribution to the British war effort before it entered the conflict in December of 1941 was to have its merchant marine ships run the submarine blockade with food for the British people. Monty Python’s hilarious praise of Spam had a poignant truth.


I was brought up in the decade following the end of World War II. Starved of fresh food during the War, Britain still had to rely on cheap imported food. I remember we were limited to one egg a week, candy and meat were severely rationed, and (in the absence of cream and eggs) the ice cream was so lard-based that it has produced in me (and, I suspect, many of my cohorts) a life-long dislike for the substance.

The restaurants were subject to the same rationing and few patrons had the funds for quality imported meals. In a country recovering from the trauma of six years of fully mobilized conflict, the reconstruction of a massive enemy bombing campaign was rightfully given the highest priority. In practice, therefore, you could not find decent food in restaurants, certainly not the restaurants that the middle class could afford. My family liked to go to a restaurant on Charlotte Street because we were known and therefore given a good table. In the absence of good food, a good table became important. I remember there were two types of soups: thick and thin. What was actually in either soup I have never ever discovered.


By the late Fifties, the British started to return to foreign travel for their holidays. Of course, they found that the food on the continental land mass of Europe was infinitely superior to their own. Gradually, small farming returned, as did sufficient affluence for many city workers to be able to afford good ingredients for their home-cooked food and to demand better food in restaurants. For my generation it was too late. But now you can find great food in Britain, and British chefs seem quite the vogue on American television.


So this is why I have so little interest in food. Historically permanently damaged, I ask for “pigs in blankets” as my last meal. I rest my case!



Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster

E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org



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