We’re all well aware of the appalling nature of the traditional English cuisine. Oddly preserved vegetables (mushy peas?), grossly overcooked fresh ones, allied with dubious meat masked with gelatinous sauces. At least one American professor insists that the real reason for the British Empire was the desperate search for a decent lunch. That we found that lunch, as modern day English cuisine shows, is therefore why we gave up that empire, job done as it were.

Paul Krugman has written on this point:

Maybe the first question is how English cooking got to be so bad in the first place. A good guess is that the country’s early industrialization and urbanization was the culprit. Millions of people moved rapidly off the land and away from access to traditional ingredients. Worse, they did so at a time when the technology of urban food supply was still primitive: Victorian London already had well over a million people, but most of its food came in by horse- drawn barge. And so ordinary people, and even the middle classes, were forced into a cuisine based on canned goods (mushy peas!), preserved meats (hence those pies), and root vegetables that didn’t need refrigeration (e.g. potatoes, which explain the chips). But why did the food stay so bad after refrigerated railroad cars and ships, frozen foods (better than canned, anyway), and eventually air-freight deliveries of fresh fish and vegetables had become available? Now we’re talking about economics–and about the limits of conventional economic theory. For the answer is surely that by the time it became possible for urban Britons to eat decently, they no longer knew the difference. The appreciation of good food is, quite literally, an acquired taste–but because your typical Englishman, circa, say, 1975, had never had a really good meal, he didn’t demand one. And because consumers didn’t demand good food, they didn’t get it. Even then there were surely some people who would have liked better, just not enough to provide a critical mass.

There’s possibly a certain tongue in cheek element there but a great deal of truth as well.

However, there’s one little point coming out of an economic history project looking at the First World War that throws an interesting light on all of this. They have been taking a detailed look at the heights of those who joined the Army after 1914. Did birth order affect height? Economic background? Crowded industrial area as origin? All those sorts of things and then we get this:

Nor do we find that living in an agricultural district confers much height advantage, as studies of much earlier eras have found, probably because market integration had diminished the benefit of living close to food sources.

Something that is most, most, interesting.

If the tasteless nosh produced by those canning and early preservation techniques had been less healthy (rather than just less appetising) than fresh grown country food then we would have expected to see some differential in height between rural and urban entrants into the Army. But we don’t: differences in height are explained by many other factors but not by that access to fresh food or preserved.

Krugman may be right that that early urbanisation and the crude techniques used to preserve the necessary food led to the destruction of the palates of the nation for several generations. But while it may have led to a cuisine that would have (and did in some instances) make a Frenchman projectile vomit, there’s not really any evidence that it was an unhealthy diet. At least, not compared to what they were still eating out in the countryside.

Brown Windsor soup, corned beef pie with two overboiled veg, spotted dick to follow anyone?