Dining After ‘Downton Abbey’: Why British Food Was So Bad For So Long

If you’ve ever watched the television show Downton Abbey, you’ve probably deduced that dining was a very, very big deal in the lives of the landed gentry of Edwardian England.

Much of the drama surrounding the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants unfolds against a tableau of the table.

Beaus jostle for the attention of the earl’s eldest daughter while eating elbow to elbow. An engagement is publicly renewed during the evening meal. The butler works himself into an exhausted tizzy trying to keep up appearances without enough footmen to serve dishes in “proper” style.

And the food itself? Turns out, it was “incredibly sophisticated,” says Ivan Day, one of Britain’s preeminent food historians. “The upper-middle classes and the gentry and the aristocracy — they saw food as a way of impressing people,” Day tells The Salt.

That’s hard to reconcile with the reputation that dogged British cuisine throughout much of the 20th century as boring, tasteless fare.

So what changed? The short answer: World War I.

Before the war, Britain had a robust food culture. As cookbooks of the era attest, middle and upper-class cooking standards were actually quite high, Day says. “Some of it was very technically dazzling and difficult to do.”

Cooks and their assistants, he says, were often quite skilled at very advanced cuisines. Take, for example, the “fancy ices” that were all the rage at the end of the 19th century. Ambitious cooks would use specialized copper and pewter molds to create elaborate ice cream delicacies in the shapes of swans, doves, even asparagus — all without the benefit of modern refrigeration.

“It was very much the duty of the hostess and her staff to put very good food on the table when her husband and guests were being served,” Day says. “And they were able to do it because there was a skill base that was very large, because so many people were employed as servants — and particularly servants in kitchens.”

Plenty of working-class Brits were domestic servants back then. When World War I came, a lot of these skilled servants — and their masters — marched off to the trenches. Many never returned. War-time disruptions made imported ingredients harder to come by. And those fancy ice creams? Banned — sugar and cream were both among the food stuffs being rationed.

“Our food culture got incredibly simplified, incredibly slimmed down — everybody was on an austerity program,” Day says.

Meanwhile, the aristocrats who’d fostered Britain’s food culture saw their power and influence diminish, as agricultural setbacks shrank their wealth, taxes hacked at their estates, and political shifts shook their comfortable perches near the top of the social order. The fact that they lost many of their sons in the war dealt a devastating blow.

“The people who were talented cooks worked for the nobility, the aristocracy and the gentry,” Day says. “And all the knowledge of the food was in those places. And once you knocked out that social layer … you lost that food culture. And everyone else below had kind of looked up to it. They were aspiring to be like that.”

British food culture had little opportunity to recover. Though the Jazz Age of the 1920s offered a bit respite from the gloom and doom, the economic crash of 1929 brought more belt-tightening. Then came the rise of fascism, the Second World War and the 14 long years of food rationing that didn’t end until 1954 — long after the war itself was over.

British food didn’t start to its long climb out of ignominy until the 1960s, when food writer Elizabeth David began advocating the virtues of fresh ingredients.

Now, of course, London is a center of culinary creativity.

It just took a century.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.