Food during COVID-19
‘One talks only of what one has eaten, could eat, would eat.’ - Edmond de Goncourt, 1871
At the start of our lockdown we all panicked a bit, and food flew off the shelves more quickly than it could be restocked. Whatever the crisis, it makes sense that we go straight to our basic needs. Covid has been part of our world for about 3 months now, and it has already become a cliché that middle-class people bake sourdough bread when they are working from home. I haven’t got there yet, but it is true that I have baked more since March than in the whole rest of my life put together. By some distance. And just lately I have combined my research on George III’s menus with my newly honed kitchen skills. Since September, I’ve been working on a project looking at the European roots of British cooking. This research is based on an analysis of George III’s menu ledger from Kew Palace (c.1788-1801). Working with Adam Crymple and Lisa Smith, I have been discovering how much meat and how many spices were consumed by the royal family, their attendants, and the staff of servants who shared their home. I’ve also been analysing cookbooks from the eighteenth century, to discover how similar the royal diet was to the diets of British subjects (my answer to this question is: surprisingly similar!)
With encouragement from the British Academy, who are moving their Summer Showcase online this year, I have been experimenting with baking eighteenth-century pies. We had been selected to be one of the fifteen projects to have an exhibition at the summer showcase, and were going to work with a caterer to produce beef pies for visitors to taste, as part of a sensory exhibition which was also to have featured the aromas of an eighteenth-century royal kitchen. Instead, it will be me and my webcam, baking a Raised Beefsteak Pie, one of several pies served to the King at Kew. As an experiment last week, I baked a Cheshire Pork Pie, from Hannah Glasse’s 1747 recipe. This is made of pork, apples, nutmeg, and sugar, with a generous amount of butter and white wine. On the whole, my family did not enjoy eating it; they agreed it was lavish, but found it too sweet for a twenty-first-century palate.
My time in lockdown is teaching me not about hunger or deprivation, but about how to maintain my love of good food during a period of turmoil. As a food historian, I have had the time and space, while working from home, to get into historical cooking, which I have never done before. Like a lot of people in lockdown, I am torn between loving the time I have to cook, and feeling frustrated that I am stuck cooking at home, in this endless loop of cooking, eating, washing up… People who feel like this are lucky. We are the ones with access to good food. The virus might appear to be blind to our human differences in some ways, but mostly its social effect is to reveal more starkly than ever the fault lines between the rich and the poor, the secure and the precarious, those with access to great ingredients, and those just trying to get by.
For four months in 1870-71, towards the end of the Franco-Prussian war, the City of Paris was besieged. A siege is a different kind of lockdown, but then as now the struggle of the ‘haves’ proved very different from the struggle of the ‘have-nots’, and food is one of the best ways to spot the difference. During the siege, the city’s inhabitants suffered greater or lesser degrees of hunger, depending on how rich they were. But everyone shared in the food anxiety that comes from dramatic situations. Like in our current crisis, there were probably all sorts of rumours flying around; unlike in our lockdown, their city really was encircled and their supply chains cut-off. In Paris, during the siege, wealthy citizens ate the animals in the zoo. Like Parisians during the siege, British people are experiencing lockdown in ways determined by social position prior to the event, far more than by new factors created during the crisis; our eating habits are as good a place as any to observe that.
In Paris during the siege people ate whatever they could get, including horses, cats and even rats. But as Rebecca Spang has argued, when they ate the animals in the zoo, meals were served up using exotic meats to prepare canonical French haute cuisine. You can see what a meal could have looked like from the example of a frequently-cited Christmas menu from 1870. Food habits changed and adapted, but anyone who could, tried hard to maintain standards of good taste. In fact, exotic meat was seen as a status symbol, and when the elephants from the zoo were killed, Spang suggests that butchers charged exorbitant prices, but also that once they ran out of elephant meat they labelled horse meat as elephant meat so they could go on charging those prices.
It makes sense to me that in a crisis people work hard to keep being able to eat what they know, or even to eat better, as a kind of solace. Food is about more than nourishment; it’s also about comfort and about community. In her article, Spang shows how siege-time food shortages brought people together: ‘Silences imposed before the siege… would be no more. Juliette Lamber recorded in her journal that she and a friend with whom she had feuded… were once again on speaking terms, brought together by the act of purchasing canned sardines.’ And for all our own stories of hoarding and panic buying, we also know that neighbours have looked out for one another, and teachers have packed up and delivered free school meals so pupils would not be at risk of hunger.
The history of food and eating habits teaches us that food matters. Food is so much a part of who we are: our ethnic and religious communities, our class aspirations, our family lore, and our personal choices are all woven into the tastes and smells of the kitchen. So, if you are baking more during the siege, enjoy it. But if your comfort food is mac and cheese, or a microwaved curry, or any other thing that makes you happy to eat, that is exactly what you should be having right now, regardless of what you see on social media.
Rachel Rich is a Senior Lecturer in History. Her interest is the cultural and social history of modern Europe, with a particular interest in class and gender. Her research has focused on food and eating habits and, currently, women's timekeeping practices in nineteenth-century France.