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Review: Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of Empire chronicles the colonization of our dinner plates

Agostino Brunias’s A Linen Market with a Linen Stall and Vegetable Seller in the West Indies, 1780.

Paul Mellon Collection./Yale Center for British Art

The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World
Lizzie Collingham
Basic Books

In the late 19th century, plum pudding was all the rage on the English Christmas table, not least because it was a centrepiece with wordly flair. Advertisements and editorial cartoons depicted the round, semi-solid dessert as an edible globe composed of well-travelled ingredients, all sourced by intrepid Englishmen in exotic, far-flung locales.

The dessert's trendiness came at a crisis point for Britannia, writes Lizzie Collingham in her latest book, The Taste of Empire. On one hand, dried fruits and aromatic spices indicated that Britain had more or less conquered and "civilized" India, whether or not the locals agreed.

On the other, the wine and brandy required to make it involved frustrating European trade negotiations. American wheat brought both the slippery republic and underperforming local farmers in for criticism. Most tricky of all was sugar, for which the populace was eternally greedy but that could no longer be produced with enslaved African labour.

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As Collingham sees it, Christmas pudding wasn't just a sweet treat, but an edible summation of England's complex colonial consciousness, just as the Empire began to face real competition. An associate fellow in the history department at the University of Warwick, she makes a good argument, too.

Deeply researched and highly readable, her book takes on the sprawling subject of how 450 years of British colonialism affected foodways the world over. The overall effect is to solidify that the British aristocracy stole land and food security from its own people before moving on to Indigenous nations worldwide, destroying a breathtaking number of traditional subsistence lifestyles along the way.

Each chapter begins with a focused anecdote of a particular meal, gleaned from an impressive selection of sources, then zooms out to show the lasting effect on communities and entire countries. Things begin in 16th-century rural England with enclosure, when communal farming and grazing land was claimed by landlords, and move on to Ireland, whose "wild and nomadic people," as Collingham puts it, were distrusted by Tudor officials.

Kicked off their ancestral lands, these people became tenant farmers and consumers of prepared foods: proletariat who required money, not just their own labour, in order to eat. They also became settlers, moving on to the New World, where they passed on the disenfranchisement they had experienced to the people of places now known as Africa, India, Pakistan, Australia and the Caribbean, plus Canada and the United States.

Not all of these places were colonized in the same way, but the basic effect on food production was similar. Pastoralism and any sort of seasonal hunting movement were discouraged in order to assign plots of land to specific people (more often settlers than the Indigenous). Native crops were positioned as inferior to those preferred by British palates, even though millet, for example, is much easier to farm in West Africa than maize.

Indigenous people were either put to work, pushed onto less abundant land or killed. Sugar production was a main driver of the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, as well as the later indentureship of Indian and Chinese labourers who were (often falsely) promised a ticket home after a set period of work. Meanwhile, the English skimmed the fat.

Collingham's skill is to keep these sometimes heavy narratives engaging, often by poking fun at settlers' ideas of sophistication. Burra sahibs and their delicate wives in the British Raj, for example, preferred the comforts of home to strange local foods and subsisted on tins in an era when canning was a fairly new technology. It's a highly satisfying bit of schadenfreude to picture a red-faced lady in scorching Mumbai wearing a corset and eating poorly preserved English pears, rather than enjoying a mango in a loose salwar kameez. Hey, I take my revenge where I can. Especially since Collingham also outlines all sorts of infuriating appropriation, as settlers realized that colonized peoples' foods were delicious. She describes Thanksgiving, for example, as a ceremony to make tidy the stealing of North American Indigenous peoples' traditional foods after attempting to erase them.

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From Chinese tea to West African rice to cod from Newfoundland – hundreds of thousands of fish salted then sold abroad to Europeans for Friday dinner – all sorts of foods were claimed as "English," which leads us back to plum pudding.

The legacies of this period on eating and food production are still visible everywhere, often as live political issues. Canadians consider our broad palates sophisticated and multicultural, but there's a nagging sense than every imported avocado is a little sin. There's the question of returning hunting and fishing rights to Indigenous nations, not to mention how to repair the Earth itself. Collingham writes that from Australia to America, Indigenous people were told that their mixed-crop farms, integrated into local wilderness, weren't acceptable: Aiming to literally put the planet in order, the English demanded single crops planted in orderly rows.

As a historian, Collingham doesn't get into this, but today it's clear that those mixed farms were a form of "intercropping," a technique that cuts down on the need for pesticides and automatically rejuvenates soil. The problem is, it isn't likely to produce the abundance that mono-cropped factory farms do. Now, we need to decide if we can return to simpler, more modest ways of eating – a mighty task since, as this book shows, many of us have spent four centuries demanding another serving.

Denise Balkissoon is a columnist and reporter for The Globe and Mail's national section.

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