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

In This Review

The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World
By Lizzie Collingham
Basic Books, 2017
408 pp.
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Collingham has carved out a niche writing popular histories of global food politics. She builds her latest book around the claim that the pursuit of exotic foods drove centuries of British economic dominance. Pepper and other spices, cod, wheat, meat, tea, cocoa, sugar, rice, and other culinary delights, as well as drugs such as opium and tobacco, dominated British international trade. This interpretation is neither deep nor original, and it treads rather lightly over the dark sides of empire, including slavery and the suppression of industry outside the United Kingdom. Collingham even defends opium use in nineteenth-century China as a healthy habit. Yet she does show how much traditional English cuisine relies on imported commodities and tastes. The traditional Victorian Christmas table would be barren indeed without Chinese tea, New Zealand lamb, Jamaican rum, Portuguese port, West Indian sugar, North American wheat, and, to top it off, a plum pudding with dried fruits from a half-dozen foreign lands. Brexiteers, take note.