The William Cobbett Cookbook

This blog was meant to be about the recipes of William Cobbett and so it will be but I want to take a short deviation about the way we eat our food now.

As long as I live, may I never read another restaurant review. There are two minor problems with them. One is the slavering attention to detail of a meal that may be appallingly expensive and will certainly be over in something less than 2 hours. The other is that the review is more and more likely to be written by Trip Advisor( a company now valued at over $6 billion) and for general whiny tones of self entitlement trip advisers are hard to beat.

The big problem though is that they separate food from its sources- where its produced and how (and no, restaurants that give you the name of the farmer and the animal that’s been turned into chops, don’t provide more than a nod to filling this gap). But also what it cost the producers, the labourers, the land- and most most most important in the case of meat and fish- the animal itself.

Its food as momentary pleasure, turned into a grim ritual of nothingness. But its also daft at a time when food is going through one of its periodic phases of public politicisation. We’re in the food bank era. We’re being told that there will be- not may be- world wide food shortages in the coming decades. And in the UK the criminalisation of some parts of the food supply chain is being revealed, appalling mouthful by appalling mouthful.( that’s the chain that brought us horsemeat and unidentified meat in processed food).

The missing ingredient in much of this is our independence or self sufficiency. We consume our food without any say in its provenance apart from paying for it, or not paying for it.

Now enter William Cobbett. The author of Rural Rides, the inventor of Hansard, the supporter of American Independence, the radical reformer of Parliament, the opponent of paper money( and also the opponent of Wilberforce and a supporter of slavery) knew how to cook, how to brew beer, make bacon and bake bread. In 1822 he published Cottage Economy, a handbook of independence for the rural poor. Astonishingly it includes recipes for polenta and pesto (he’d lived in America and learnt about corn/maize there). But it mainly goes into tremendous detail on beer making and pig rearing with the purpose of allowing agricultural families to live well enough to be free.

It’s a political book. He points out that to keep a pig, to grow some of the ingredients for beer, to keep rabbits and sow turnips and mangel wurzels, land needs to be shared more- the great landowners must help the poor. He also realises they are most unlikely to do so.

So our politics of food is about 200 years old. Today we need to yank the writing about food off the lifestyle pages and into pamphlets and into politics. We are, after all, what we eat.

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