The Sun Never Set on the British Empire, or Its Food

Simon Winchester in The New York Times:

BookRecently in our household it was stir-up Sunday, the invariably chilly late autumn afternoon when all gather in the kitchen to give the last ritual touches to the making of this year’s Christmas pudding. The fragrant, brandy-soaked mess of fruits will have been readied in its great earthenware bowl, to be steamed in the Aga’s lower oven for 12 full hours. But before then everyone will place a firm hand on the big wooden spoon and together give the mixture a ceremonial last turn, always east to west in honor of the wise men coming to Bethlehem, to add a final dash of quite another kind of spirituality to the booze-sodden ingredients.

The old cookbooks — as Lizzie Collingham reminds us in her joyously delicious account of Britain’s gastronomic influence on the world — employed Christmas recipes like this to offer children a geography lesson. The currants, we were told, were Australian, the raisins from South Africa, the suet from New Zealand. Demerara sugar was shipped in from Barbados, the eggs came from chickens in the Irish Free State. The cinnamon was from Ceylon, the cloves from Zanzibar. There was Malayan nutmeg, Cypriot brandy, Jamaican rum. Only the bread crumbs, the flour and the porter came from home, from England. My mother would buy all these ingredients each Christmas season, invariably at the closest thing to a supermarket in the London suburb where I grew up — which was called, appropriately, The Home and Colonial. It was one of a chain of grocery stores so familiarly central to English life of the 1950s that it came to be memorialized in poetry. John Betjeman, known for his sentimental odes to the ordinary, wrote of his Welsh sylph Myfanwy with a still-remembered stanza: “Smooth down the Avenue glitters the bicycle,/ Black-stockinged legs under navy blue serge/ Home and Colonial, Star, International,/ Balancing bicycle leant on the verge.” Few here in America could imagine the Safeway or the Piggly Wiggly to be deserving of such verse or such sentiment.

More here.