The only vaguely British royal-themed food I’ve eaten was sorely disappointing mock turtle soup (at an Oxford College – where else?) and coronation chicken. I wanted to write something about coronation chicken this week: it’s one of those dishes which say a great deal about a country’s attitudes towards food – and the relationship between these attitudes and national identities – as a particular moment in time.
This salad of cold chicken in a curried mayonnaise was invented by Rosemary Hume – the business partner of the more famous Constance Spry of the eponymous recipe book – to commemorate the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. (Originally it was called poulet reine Elizabeth.) Before I continue, this is the original recipe:
Coronation Chicken (serves 6-8)
2 young roasting chickens
water and a little wine to cover
a bouquet garni
cream of curry sauce (see below)
Poach the chickens, with carrot, bouquet, salt, and peppercorns, in water and a little wine, enough barely to cover, for about 40 minutes or until tender. Allow to cool in the liquid. Joint the birds, remove the bones with care. Prepare the sauce given below. Mix the chicken and the sauce together, arrange on a dish, coat with the extra sauce.
Cream of curry sauce
1 tablespoon oil
2 oz. onion, finely chopped
1 dessertspoon curry-powder
1 good teaspoon tomato puree
1 wineglass red wine
¾ wineglass water
salt, sugar, a touch of pepper
a slice or two of lemon and a squeeze of lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons apricot puree
¾ pint mayonnaise
2-3 tablespoons lightly whipped cream
Heat the oil, add onion, cook gently 3-4 minutes, add curry-powder. Cook again 1-2 minutes. Add puree, wine, water, and bay-leaf. Bring to boil, add salt, sugar to taste, pepper, and the lemon and lemon juice. Simmer with the pan uncovered 5-10 minutes. Strain to cool. Add by degrees to the mayonnaise with the apricot puree to taste. Adjust seasoning, adding a little more lemon juice if necessary. Finish with the whipped cream. Take a small amount of sauce (enough to coat the chicken) and mix with a little extra cream and seasoning.
As any good English graduate will quote to you, the world is a text. In other words, any thing – any book, chair, poem, song, garden, hat, or film – can be read as a ‘text’: as a collection of signs, or symbols, which, according to material and historical context, will mean a variety of things. So a washing machine manufactured in the 1950s and bought by a white, middle-class family in Pinelands (a Cape Town suburb built along the lines of a ‘garden city‘) is not only a washing machine: it’s indicative of the impact of wartime innovations in technology on households; of rising post-war middle-class affluence; of the association of race and class in apartheid South Africa; of the slow move of women out of the home and into the workplace; but also of the reaction against women working and the social conservatism of the 1950s.
In this way, a recipe is a text like any other, and a particularly rich source for social, cultural, and economic history. Coronation chicken is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a dish designed to be eaten with one, fork-clutching hand. This is food that can be eaten in front of the television – and Elizabeth II’s coronation was a landmark in television history. Secondly, its inclusion of mayonnaise – something which still needed to be made by hand during the 1950s – nods to the massive influence of French cordon bleu cuisine on British cooking until, at least, the 1960s. Elizabeth David’s enthusiasm for the bourgeois cooking of Provence and other regions had yet to make an impact. In books like The Constance Spry Cookery Book, cordon bleu remained the standard for all forms of cooking.
And then there’s the curry powder. Although the Victorians and Edwardians embraced Anglicised versions of some Indian dishes – kedgeree and curry, most famously – it was only after independence in 1948 that Indian food became more widely available and popular in Britain. Admittedly, these Indian restaurants served a range of dishes which had been adapted to British tastes – they had thicker, richer gravies and were usually less spicy – but their growing popularity pointed to the fact that in post-austerity Britain, the population was enthusiastic to try exotic new flavours, if only in moderation (coronation chicken has only two teaspoons of curry powder). Indeed, the idea of curry powder is a foreign one: in India, any blend of spices is called garam masala and will vary from shop to shop, or household to household. What we call ‘curry powder’ is a mix of spices chosen by food companies. The curry powder which I use – Rajah (owned by Unilever) – contains, according to the box, cumin, coriander, and turmeric along with other spices.
As tastes have become more sophisticated, so have interpretations of coronation chicken. In a recent article in which she reworks the dish, Felicity Cloake makes the point that it’s been subject to a range of changes: curry powder has been replaced with freshly roasted and ground cumin and coriander (although in her recipe she keeps shop-bought curry powder for its retro quality); yogurt and chutney have taken the place of cream and of apricot and tomato puree; and fruit and nuts have made welcome appearances.
Possibly the greatest difference between coronation chicken prepared in 2011 and that which was made in 1953 is that cooks in the 1950s would have been more likely to use leftovers. The dish was designed purposefully to dress up potentially unappetising leftover food. Even if the original recipe included instructions for poaching chickens, the curried mayonnaise complements leftover roast chicken just as well. The accompaniment which Spry and Hume suggest also uses leftovers: a cold, dressed rice and cucumber salad.
When I was leafing through my mother’s elderly copy of the Constance Spry Cookery Book (1956) – it belonged originally to a great-aunt – I read the introduction for the first time, and was struck by the way in which Spry linked the purpose of the recipe book – providing home cooks with clear, well-written good, delicious recipes – with its post-war social and economic context. Listing the changes in attitude towards food and cooking since the late 1940s, she adds:
Something else is new too: the immensely better and fairer distribution of food among all grades of society. This is due to a variety of causes, not the least of which was the rationing system at which we grumbled so incessantly and to which we so thankfully said good-bye. Remembering as I do the days of immensely long, boring, wasteful dinners, remembering too the starvation which was all too often at our very doors, I cannot forbear to remind you how much respect ought to be paid to food, how carefully it should be treated, how shameful waste is.
I think that the greatest achievement of Lord Woolton’s tenure as Britain’s Minister of Food during the Second World War was the way in which he not only eked out the nation’s food supply, but that he ensured that most Britons ate well. Food rationing was introduced on 8 January 1940 and at first included only butter (4 oz per person per week), sugar (12 oz), raw bacon or ham (4 oz), cooked bacon or ham (3.5 oz), and eggs (2). Meat rationing began in March that year, and, gradually, tea, jam, and cheese were also rationed. During the war, bread, potatoes, coffee, fruit, vegetables, and fish were not rationed, although supplies of these were very limited.
Food rationing did not end with the war: it continued until 1953. Bread was rationed for the first time between 1946 and 1948, and potatoes in 1947. In the same year, the fruit and alcohol for Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten’s wedding cake was donated by Girl Guides in Australia, South Africa, and Jamaica because of the strictness of the rationing system.
A combination of increased exercise and a limited diet relatively low in saturated fat and sugar meant that the health of the British population actually improved during and after the war. In fact, many Britons ate considerably better during the war than before: improved distribution and a relatively standardised diet meant that those who had been too poor – or even too ignorant – to eat well before 1939 now received regular, healthy meals. George Orwell’s description of working-class meals in Wigan during the 1930s is particularly evocative:
The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet.
Compare this to the Woolton Pie recommended by the Ministry of Food as a nutritious and thrifty (if not necessarily tasty) way of feeding a family:
Take 1Ib each of diced potatoes, cauliflower, swedes and carrots, three or four spring onions – if possible, one teaspoonful of vegetable extract, and one tablespoonful of oatmeal. Cook all together for 10 minutes with just enough water to cover. Stir occasionally to prevent the mixture from sticking. Allow to cool; put into a pie dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and cover with a crust of potatoes or wheatmeal pastry. Bake in a moderate oven until the pastry is nicely brown and serve hot with brown gravy.
This wouldn’t have made a particularly delicious supper, but it was much healthier and more filling than sweet tea and white bread with margarine. Again, this recipe made the best of leftovers and scraps. There’s a famous wartime propaganda poster which exhorts Britons to not waste food: ‘Better pot-luck with Churchill today than humble pie under Hitler tomorrow’.
Given the success of rationing in Britain, it’s not really surprising that so many green groups have suggested that it serves as an excellent model for limiting carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels. It’s even been argued that a return to a wartime diet would reduce the numbers of overweight and obese children in Britain. Although I think that these are creative and useful ideas, I’m concerned that they’re based partly on an idealised notion of life on the home front: that they don’t take into account the drudgery of cooking with such a limited range of ingredients (and how boring the food was); and the fact that many people did their utmost to get around rationing by growing their own food (good idea) and trading on the black market (not so good).
It’s particularly telling that the habits taught by rationing did not outlast the war. As Orwell made the point, low pay was only one reason why poor families in Wigan ate badly:
When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! … White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water.
I’m not sure that rationing will fundamentally alter people’s attitudes towards food and eating, but there are other lessons to be learned, and chiefly around controlling waste. In Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009), Tristram Stuart makes the point that in the United States and Europe, about half of all edible, safe food is thrown away. This is done mainly by supermarkets and food manufacturers, but households contribute as well. There’s no single way of reducing food waste – changing legislation on ‘sell-by’ and ‘use-by’ dates would be a start – but one strategy would be to encourage people to think more carefully about how they buy food: teach them that ‘buy one get one free’ specials tend to encourage waste, for example, and make the point that wasted food is, essentially, wasted money.
And this isn’t a totally unrealistic goal. After all, not very long ago, British households threw away much less food: 2-3 per cent during the 1930s, and 4-6 per cent two decades later. Moreover, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea all have successful programmes which have reduced the amount of food waste. The latter two have made it illegal for food to go to landfill, and all three have educated the public about the importance not only of throwing away as little food as possible, but of composting or recycling that which absolutely has to go. South Korea transforms its food waste into pigswill (something banned in Britain after the outbreak of mad cow disease). Stuart writes:
Koreans obey the waste recycling law largely because they have resigned themselves to the reality: that sending food into landfill is against their own interests and that of the planet they live in. They know about the disease outbreak in Britain, and they know about the ban on swill-feeding – and they conclude, as a result, that Europeans are blithely continuing their reckless, self-interested exploitation of the planet in the manner that has characterised them for centuries.
You wouldn’t throw money away – so why do the same with food?
Texts cited here:
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Secker and Warburg,  1959).
Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume, The Constance Spry Cookery Book (London: The Cookery Book Club, 1956).
Tristram Stuart, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (London: Penguin, 2009).
Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the Twenty-First Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).
Brian Harrison, ‘The Kitchen Revolution,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 139-149.
Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Michael Pollan, In Defence of Food (London: Penguin, 2008).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.