The Great British Roast: Tradition? PR? A Brief History of Meat-Eating in Britain

Roasts: A Handbook, 17 October  2015
Roasts: A Handbook, 17 October 2015 It was a pleasure to participate in yet another lovely edition of Guardian Cook this weekend, alongside some wonderful contributions from cooks including Olia Hercules and Yuki Gomi. In this edition, I presented some thoughts on possible alternatives for those looking to reinvigorate their Sunday lunches (see clippings).
The roast has become a fundamental cornerstone of British culture, but, as with all traditions, it can become tired and neglected through repeated exposure. Happily, in most parts of the country, gone are the days of over-boiled, soggy vegetables, dry centrepieces and lumpy instant gravy, but that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t all benefit from rethinking what we put on our plate from time to time. For meat eaters, this could mean thinking about locally distinctive, seasonal meats and cuts, moving away from the limited selection presented by supermarkets, and supporting local producers and artisans in the process. It could also mean moving away from meat entirely for at least one weekend a month, and considering the other options are available – such as my delicious vegan haggis. Such a move would certainly fit more accurately in line with the eating habits of the vast majority of British people over the centuries.

Although the eating of meat at a roast dinner is presented as a tradition of great historical precedence, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the eating of meat was neither financially nor nutritionally viable for great swathes of the British population.  At the turn of the 18th century for instance, the price of a single chicken would have equated to around one tenth of a cottager’s weekly income[1], rendering the possibility of buying one for the Sunday table all but impossible for just under a quarter of the population[2].  Labouring people and out servants fared slightly better, but only just, and modern research supports contemporary statistician Gregory King’s suggestion that these two classes of people, who constituted over half of the population, had to spend more than they earned[3] (just how they managed remains a mystery). Further to the problem of the price of meat was its distribution: even if a family could afford meat, this did not necessarily mean that they would all have the opportunity to eat it. It certainly wasn’t the most efficient way for most families to get their nutrients[4]. Though working class men and women both commonly worked long hours, [some] men would eat meat daily, whilst women and children would have to make do without, eating meat perhaps once a week[5]. In some parts of the country they would subsist predominantly on bread and water[6]. As Meredith and Oxley recount, “women in particular came to rely on the new drug-foods of Empire: tea, sugar, treacle… although largely empty in calories, these were stimulants, and to an extent appetite suppressants”[7].

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