The British diet, claims the modern “Platine,” went straight “from medieval barbarity to industrial decadence.” With the general sentiment one has some sympathy. But as we have seen, medieval barbarity meant culinary differentiation, if not into something as grand as a sophisticated cuisine such as the French established in building on firm Italian foundations, at least into systems of supply, preparation, cooking, serving and consumption of food that resolutely set aside the high from the low. And “industrial decadence,” whatever its consequences for the haute cuisine
(larks’ tongues are not promising ingredients for a mass cuisine, canned food is not always the best basis for a gourmet meal), has enormously improved, in quantity, quality and variety, the diet (and usually the cuisine) of the urban working populations of the western world.1
It is also making a significant impact on the rest of the world, initially on the productive processes, some of which have become geared to supplying those ingredients on a mass scale, and more recently on consumption itself, since the products of the industrial cuisine and of industrialised agriculture are now critical elements in the food supply of the Third World.
But before we consider the impact on the particular corner of the world on which we are concentrating, we need first to look at the world context in which those changes took place, at the rise of an industrial cuisine in the West. The immediate factors that made this possible were developments in four basic areas: (1) preserving; (2) mechanisation; (3) retailing (and wholesaling); and (4) transport. As we have seen, the preservation of food was a feature of relatively simple economics like those of northern Ghana. The drying of fish and meat enabled animal protein to be more widely distributed in time and space; the drying of vegetables such as okra prolonged their use into the dry season when soup ingredients were scarce. The preservation of meat and vegetables, by drying, by pickling, by salting and in some regions by the use of ice, was characteristic of the domestic economy in early Europe.2
With the developments in navigation that allowed the great sea voyages of the fifteenth century, the use of long-life foods became a matter of major importance; the navies and
armies of Europe required considerable quantities of such products to feed their personnel. Werner Sombart has written of the revolution in salting at the end of the fifteenth century that permitted the feeding of sailors at sea. In the Mediterranean, salted fish and the ship’s biscuit were already long established (Braudel 1973: 132); in the Atlantic, much use was made of salted beef which came mainly from Ireland. The enormous catches of cod that arrived from Newfoundland by the end of the fifteenth century were mostly salted. Salt was much used by peasants to preserve food during the winter months.3
Butter and vegetables were also preserved with salt, and until recently the French peasant placed part of the “family pig” in the salting tub, while the rest was made into sausages. But the importance of salt was not only dietary.4
It was the hunger for salt, both for preserving, which became more common in eighteenth-century France, and for eating, that lay behind the peasant uprisings against the gabelle
, the salt tax. Such taxes were an important source of revenue in Europe as in Asia, both to the merchants and to the governments; it was against such fiscal impositions, as well as against the alien government imposing them, that Gandhi led the famous march to the sea in British India.
Salting, of course, is only one method of preserving food. It is possible to pickle in vinegar as well as salt, and the production of vinegar was an important aspect of early industrial activity. Sugar was used to preserve fruit in forms such as marmalade and jam, as well as being used for coating ham and other meats. Spreading first from India and then from the eastern Mediterranean at the time of the Crusades, cane-sugar played an increasingly important part in the diets of Western Europe, a demand that led to the establishment of many of the slave plantations of the New World. Imports of sugar increased rapidly in the eighteenth century. It was the fact that supplies of cane-sugar were cut off from continental Europe during the Napoleonic wars that led to the fundamental invention embodied in the canning process, as well as to the use of the beet as a source of sugar, at the same time chicory developed as a substitute for the second of the trio of “junk foods,” as Mintz has called them, that is, coffee (the third being tea). It was these “proletarian hunger-killers,” to use another of Mintz’s forceful phrases, that became such central elements of working-class diet in the nineteenth century and “played a crucial role in the linked contribution that Caribbean slaves, Indian peasants, and European urban proletarians were able to make to the growth of western civilization” (Mintz 1979: 60).
It was this general context of colonialism, overseas trade and long-lasting foods that saw the development of the great British Biscuit Industry. Its product owed much to the ship’s biscuit which was known there at least as early as Shakespearean times and was manufactured by small bakeries situated around the many harbours of the kingdom. “Hard-tack” was essentially a substitute for bread (brown or white, depending on class, as had been the case since Roman times), which with ale, cheese and meat, was a basic feature of the diet of the common man (Drummond and Wilbraham 1939: 218). In the course of the eighteenth century the victualling authorities in certain of the king’s dockyards such as Portsmouth set up their own large-scale bakeries “creating a human assembly line that economised each workman’s movements to the utmost” (Corley 1976: 14). Despite these organisational developments, the fluctuation of demand caused by the various wars meant that dockyard production had to be supplemented by the work of contractors. The situation changed in
1833 when Thomas Grant of the Victualling Office invented steam machinery to mechanise certain of the processes, reducing labour costs, increasing output and improving the quality of the biscuits.
“Fancy biscuits” like “hard-tack” also had a long history, being employed for medicinal purposes as well as for the table, especially at festivals. The earliest proprietary brands were probably the Bath Oliver, invented by Dr. William Oliver (1695–1764) and the Abernethy, called after a doctor of that name (1764–1831). All these biscuits were initially made by hand, but mechanisation was applied to their manufacture not long after the technological changes had taken place in the dockyards. In the late 1830s a Quaker miller and baker of Carlisle, named Carr, designed machinery for cutting out and stamping biscuits. In 1841 George Palmer, another Quaker, went into partnership with his cousin Thomas Huntley who made biscuits in Reading.
The business that developed into Huntley and Palmers had been founded at a bakery in that town in 1822. Huntley’s shop was opposite the Crown Hotel, a posting inn on the main London-Bath road. He had the idea of sending his delivery boy to sell biscuits to the waiting passengers. Their quality led customers to demand Huntley’s produce from their grocers at home, opening up the market from a purely local one. So Huntley persuaded his son, who had been apprenticed to a Reading ironmonger and kept a shop nearby, to make tins and tinned boxes in order to keep the biscuits fresh. He also employed a traveller to collect orders for Abernethy, Oliver and other biscuits in the south of England, which he dispatched mainly by the canal system. When Palmer joined the firm, he immediately investigated the application of steam power to mixing the dough, to rolling and cutting, and to providing the oven with a continuous feed. These inventions subsequently led to the development of a whole secondary industry of specialised manufacturers of machinery for the trade, a development that helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution.
The sale of biscuits made rapid headway. The manufactured brands, Carrs, Huntley and Palmers, later Peek Freans, were distributed throughout the nation. In 1859, these firms sold 6 million pounds of their products. Changing eating habits in the shape of earlier breakfasts and later dinners led to a further increase in consumption, and by the late 1870s the figure had risen to 37 million pounds a year. Huntley and Palmers had become one of the forty most important companies in Britain, and within fifty years their biscuits were distributed not only throughout the nation but throughout the world. As with the early canning industry, much of the production of biscuits had first of all been directed to the needs of travellers, explorers and the armed forces. Such produce sustained sailors, traders and colonial officers overseas; only later did industrial production impinge upon the internal market in England or upon the local market overseas, eventually becoming part of the daily diet of the population.
The creation of a long-lasting cereal product, the biscuit, long pre-dated the Industrial Revolution, though its production and distribution were radically transformed by the course of
those changes, making the biscuit an important element in the development of the industrial cuisine. But that cuisine was based in a large degree on two processes, the discovery of the techniques of canning and artificial freezing. The preserving of food in containers again dates back a long way, but the canning on which modern industry depends was invented by Nicolas Appert in response to an appeal of the Directoire in 1795 for contributions to solving the problems created by the war situation in France. During the Napoleonic wars France was cut off from its overseas supplies and this separation stimulated the search for substitutes. At the same time the recruitment of a mass army of citizens raised in a very radical way the problem of supplying food for a large, mobile and non-productive element in the society; in 1811 Napoleon invaded Russia with over a million men. So the aim of the appeal was partly military, though the citation to Appert when he received the award refers to the advantages of the new invention for sea voyages, hospitals and the domestic economy (Bitting 1937).
This invention of “canning,” what the English call bottling, was based on earlier practices and earlier devices, such as the “digester,” a sort of pressure cooker, invented by Denis Papin in London in 1681, which provided John Evelyn, the diarist, with a “philosophical supper” (Cutting 1955: 5; Teuteberg in E. and R. Forster 1975: 88). A contemporary account of Appert’s book in the Edinburgh Review (1814, vol. 45) calls the process “neither novel in principle, nor scarcely in any point of practice” (Bitting 1937: 38), and declares that “our fair country women … unless they have alike forgotten the example and precepts of their ancestors … must … be more or less acquainted with the methods” (p. 39). Nevertheless the author goes on to recognise the importance of Appert’s contribution, especially as the ladies of 1814, having been relieved of various household tasks by the Industrial Revolution, tend to know too little about such things.
Appert had been a chef, and he worked out his new methods at his business near Paris. It was in 1804 that a series of public tests were made on his produce at Brest, and in the same year he opened his bottling factory at Massy, near Paris. Five years later he was awarded the prize of 12,000 francs by the committee that included Guy-Lussac and Parmentier, on condition that he deliver a description of the process, in 200 copies, printed at his own expense. This description he published in 1810 and proclaimed the use of his method of bottling as a general aid to domestic life. Entitled “Le livre de tous les ménages …,” the book gave instructions for bottling pot-au-feu, consommé, bouillon or pectoral jelly, fillet of beef, partridge, fresh eggs, milk, vegetables (including tomatoes or love apples, spinach, sorrel and petit pois), fruit and herbs. “No single discovery,” declared Bitting, “has contributed more to modern food manufacturer nor to the general welfare of mankind” (1920: 13).
Nor did Appert stop there. Investing his prize money in production and research, he founded the house of Appert in 1812, produced bouillon cubes two years later and experimented with a number of other ideas, turning eventually to the use of the tin can to supplement that of the glass jar.
In England, where as much interest had been displayed in Appert’s discoveries as in his own country, the tin can had been in use for some years. An English translation of Appert’s book appeared in 1811, a second edition in 1812, and an American edition in the same
year. Already in 1807 T. Saddington had been awarded a premium by the London Society for Arts for his work on bottling, and he probably learnt of Appert’s process during his travels abroad. In 1810 Peter Durand and de Heine took out patents on the process, but in the former case it was adapted for preserving “food in vessels made of tin and other metals.” The potentialities of these inventions aroused the interest of Bryan Donkin who was a partner in the firm of John Hall, founder of the Dartford Iron Works in 1785. Whether he acquired either of the earlier patents is not known, but he appreciated the potential value of Appert’s discovery for his firm.5
After various experiments, Donkin, in association with Hall and Gamble, set up a factory for canning food in met...