Food, Politics, & Society: social theory and the modern food system – out now!

I’m excited to say that the co-authored book that my Birkbeck colleagues and I have been working on has now been published. Thank you, University of California Press, for shepherding us through the process and producing such a handsome volume. Thank you, too, to my wonderful colleagues: Alex Colas, Jason Edwards, and Sami Zubaida. They generously brought me into their team to develop and teach the course for students in the Politics department that gave rise to this book project.

We are having a launch at Birkbeck (London) on December 13th. Eventbrite has all the details. Tickets are free, but it will be helpful to know numbers, so please sign up if you can make it. I hope to see you there!


Historic cooking class in London

I’m very excited to have been asked to give a talk and run a workshop at the forthcoming Just Festival Westminster, taking place in London from 10th – 21st June 2015.

First, details of the workshop:


David Reykart. Detail from Still lIfe with Lobster (c. 1620-30). In Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

14th June, 15:30 – 18:30
This workshop is a combination of a short illustrated talk and a hands-on cookery session. Inspired by Barbara Wheaton’s amazing classes on approaches to reading historical cookbooks, I’ll give a brief presentation on some of the ways we can think about texts and images that help to draw out the maximum of information and historical context. Then, the class (12-15 people) will divide into small groups. Each group will be given a C17th or C18th recipe that I have redacted for the modern kitchen, and the ingredients and equipment to prepare it. Once we’ve all cooked, we’ll eat and discuss the food together, seeing what a hands-on approach to research and a convivial environment can do for our understanding of the food, cooking and eating of the past.

Next, the talk:

Fatal Effectf od Gluttony: A Lord Mayor's Day Nightmare

Fatal Effects of Gluttony: A Lord Mayor’s Day Nightmare. Lithograph by M.G. (1830), at London Metropolitan Archive.

13th June, 11:00 – 12:00
It’s not only Magna Carta’s 800th birthday this year – it’s also the 800th anniversary of the Lord Mayor’s Show! The City of London is producing a lavish book about the whole event, which will be published to coincide with the 2015 Show in November. This talk builds on the research I did for a short piece in that book, giving me the chance to tell a few of the stories I didn’t have room for there, and talk about the food and the pageantry in a bit more detail – illustrated with some fabulous images found in the London Metropolitan Archives.

You can take a look at the whole programme here, where you will also find links for booking by Eventbrite: Just Festival Westminster. I do hope I’ll see some familiar faces – as well as make some new friends at either or both of these events.

Space food anniversaries: the first sandwich in space

Commemorative corned-beef sandwich on display at the Grissom Memorial Museum (image courtesy of

Last week the world commemorated fifty years since the first space walk. Today we should be rejoicing in the less known – but for space food enthusiasts far more significant – 50th anniversary of the very first Earth food-as-we-know-it to appear in the United States’ space programme: a corned beef sandwich.

On 23rd March 1965 Command Pilot Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom and Pilot John Young spent almost 5 hours in orbit in Gemini 3, successfully testing various aspects of manned space flight, including the food. Yet they came down to Earth with a bump, becoming the subject of excited news headlines and furious discussion at a US Congress House Subcommittee hearing that resulted in an official reprimand for John Young. What could possibly have happened?

Wolfie’s Restaurant & Sandwich Shop, Cocoa Beach, Florida (image courtesy of

At least part of the answer lay in the food.The astronauts obediently sampled the securely packaged ‘official’ hot dogs, brownies, chicken legs and applesauce they had been provided with, washed down with germicide-protected water and orange juice. But then, to Gus Gissom’s surprise, John Young produced from his pocket some illegal contraband – a fresh corned-beef sandwich from Wolfie’s Restaurant in Cocoa Beach, smuggled to him immediately pre-flight by Walter Schirra (another astronaut who was not flying that day). They gave it a taste, commented on the food smell (notably absent from the ‘real’ space food), and shoved it back in a pocket as it started to crumble. It was over in less than half a minute. The repercussions were felt all the way through the Apollo missions.

There were lots of reasons given for all the fuss. The US space programme was notoriously paranoid about crumbs, making a bread-clad sandwich seem the height of irresponsibility. It also seems to have been a question of control: in a billion-dollar mission with the eyes of the world upon it, there wasn’t much room for a sense of humour, and individuals simply couldn’t be allowed to introduce additional, unauthorised ‘human’ risks. If sanctioned, a contraband sandwich could be just the tip of a very significant iceberg. Most of all, perhaps, it was the contrast in the Cold War era headlines. There is a wide gulf between the heroic potential in “Cosmonaut (USSR) achieves first space walk” versus “Astronaut (USA) eats first space sandwich” – despite its subsequent significance to food historians.

For more on this incident see my 2010 article for Endeavour, on this site under ‘Publications’, and at


Dining with Thomas More

Dinner at Thomas More's house. Episode 2 of BBC TV's adaptation of Wolf Hall, minute 20:47. First shown: 9pm 28 Jan 2015. © BBC

Dinner at Thomas More’s house.
Episode 2 of BBC TV’s adaptation of Wolf Hall, minute 20:47. First shown: 9pm 28 Jan 2015. © BBC

Thomas More’s reputation for asceticism is clearly reflected in the BBC’s new adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. In episode 2 Stephen Gardiner mutters over a dull and sparse-looking dinner at More’s house that there is absolutely no danger of the household Fool’s excitable behaviour resulting from too rich a diet; shortly afterwards, on the boat journey back to Westminster, he complains to Thomas Cromwell how hungry he is. In contrast we hear that Cardinal Wolsey, even as he travels towards his final downfall, asks his loyal servants urgently to send him quails. Food imagery is used to nice effect to tell us most of what we might need to know about the natures of these men—and the nature of their enmity with one another—on multiple levels.

Likewise, in More’s own island state of Utopia, food-related imagery operates as an effective satirical device and a means of pointing to the everyday realities of life in a better society. Descriptions of communal dining and the collective harvests brought home by city and country dweller alike point the reader to the possibilities of a society in which every citizen contributes to both the production of its sustenance and its enjoyment. Straightforward social and cultural themes such as good husbandry and good eating—including a clear indication of what the right dietary choices are and what they say about people—ground the fiction, underpinning the radical with the commonplace and thus making Utopia a reasonable account of what might be possible.

But Utopians are not the hair-shirted ascetics More himself is often depicted to be. While at pains to point out they chiefly value the joys of the mind, they also pursue the enjoyment of good health, and “the delight of eating and drinking, and whatsoever hath any like pleasantness, they determine pleasures much to be desired.” (83) Individual bodily gratification, experienced without gluttony and excess but with an enjoyable “delectation” in both food and drink, contributes to the fitness and happiness of the body politic. (81-82)

By contrast, the vain and worldly, more impressed with wealth, title and display than simple pleasures and good human fellowship are unable to eat well. Subject to poor taste and bad judgement in their food (as in everything else), they are likely “to accept bitter or sour things for sweet things”. (81) The Utopians’ exploitation of the Zapoletes as mercenary soldiers is partly justified by descriptions of their uncivilised eating habits: “abhorring from all delicate dainties”, they live in ramshackle houses, foraging and hunting rather than cultivating the land. (101) Similarly their bondsmen (or slaves) are said to have an innately corrupt nature, reflected in their willingness to undertake animal slaughter. (64) Though they might enjoy eating meat or fish prepared at a safe distance from the city, no Utopian has blood on his or her hands.

While Utopians eschew boisterous behaviour and excessively sumptuous fare, their communal dinners are not the sparse and joyless affairs served up by More in Wolf Hall. The dining room is designed to be calm and orderly, with due reverence given to the elderly, but children and adults mix at the tables and lively conversation is encouraged. The food is far better than anything one could prepare at home, and within the Utopian order, pleasure and engagement of all the senses is essential. Indeed, “No supper is passed without music. Nor their banquets lack no conceits nor junkets. They burn sweet gums and spices or perfumes and pleasant smells, and sprinkle about sweet ointments and waters, yea, they leave nothing undone that maketh for the cheering of the company. For they be much inclined to this opinion: to think no kind of pleasure forbidden whereof come no harm.” (67)

Whatever the truth of dinner at Thomas More’s house—and whether he allowed himself or his guests this kind of sensual gratification at dinner time or not—I find it very encouraging to consider that from the moment the term utopia was coined it required full exercise of all of the pleasures of the table.


[Page references are to the 2008 OUP paperback edition of Utopia. See: More, Thomas, Francis Bacon, and Henry Neville. Three Early Modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis and the Isle of Pines. Translated by Ralph Robinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.]


Rediscovering the Mirliton – Charles Fourier’s favourite tart


IMG_7482When you read any of Charles Fourier’s utopian tracts you can’t help noticing what an important part sugar plays in his idea of the perfect world. He constantly refers delicious cakes, jams and sweets, and does it with such relish that it feels obvious that his future world, Harmony, was the perfect place for anyone – like him – with a very sweet tooth.

One of the cakes he mentions most often is the mirliton, and everyone who has written on Fourier’s theory of gastrosophy mentions them too, equally casually. But one day I asked myself – what exactly IS a mirliton? And where can I get one? In fact, why am I not eating one right now as an essential element in my research? I started to ask for them in bakeries all over Paris, and other towns I visited in the south, and made the not entirely original discovery that the best way to feel extremely foolish about your apparent lack of mastery of the French language is to ask a pâtissier about a cake he’s never heard of: rest assured that it’s never him, it’s you!


It became clear that if I wanted this essential taste of Harmony in my life I had to find a recipe and make one myself. The Néo-physiologie du gout par ordre alphabétique, ou Dictionnaire général de la cuisine française ancienne et moderne (Paris: 1839) obliged, with not just one recipe, but a basic recipe and two variations. This in itself was very exciting, as one variation was for Mirlitons de Rouen and one for Mirlitons à la parisienne. If you have read about Charles Fourier’s formative years you will know that in 1789 he made his first trip to Paris, via Rouen, at the age of 18. Clearly this visit, at such a significant time in his own development and in the social and political history of France, had a major influence on the rest of his life, thought and writing. For me, it’s intriguing also to wonder if the mirliton was another significant yet somehow hidden discovery on that trip, and speculate that the lighter, puffier mirliton of the Parisian recipe only added to his enchantment with that city.

So, what are they like? I’d say, with Fourier, they are miraculous, and a true taste of paradise: fluffy, dainty, light as air, beautiful to look at, delicious to eat. Watching them through the oven door as they rise at unlikely speed to an impossible height completely explains their name – a non-edible mirliton being somewhere between a kazoo and one of those party blowers that hoots as it unfurls a long flat tongue when you blow into it. For every reason I reckon the mirliton, baked to be as light and sweet as Harmony demands it, is long overdue for a major comeback.



Ingredients (for about 30)
4 eggs – 2 whole, 2 separated
120g (4 oz) icing sugar
90g (3 oz) meringues (hazelnut is very good) – crushed
½ tbsp orange flower water
pinch of salt
60g (2 oz) butter – melted
800g (1¾lb) fine puff pastry
Icing sugar and Demerara sugar for finishing

Pastry moulds/tart tins 5cm wide and 2cm deep
Fluted pastry cutter 7cm diameter.

Pre-heat oven to medium hot, 180°C-200°C / 350°F-400°F.

IMG_2372Melt the butter and allow it to cool. In a bowl mix together the two whole eggs and 2 egg yolks and stir in the icing sugar, crushed nut meringues, orange flower water and the pinch of salt. Mix in the cooled melted butter. Beat the 2 egg whites into soft peaks and fold them in to the rest of the mixture.

IMG_2366Roll out the puff pastry to a thickness of 6mm (2/8”), and cut into 30 or so pieces with a 7cm (2 6/8”) fluted pastry cutter.

IMG_2367Gently place them in lightly buttered moulds 5cm (2”) wide and 2cm (6/8”) deep.


IMG_2375Fill the pastry cases with the mixture.

IMG_2377Sift icing sugar over them to give a light dusting over the whole surface, and sprinkle a few grains of Demerara sugar on each one.


IMG_2379Bake in a medium to hot oven, with even bottom heat, for about 10-15 minutes. The pastry and the filling will puff up to an unlikely-seeming height – if they don’t, adjust the oven temperature and stand your filled trays on a hot metal tray or baking stone.


Serve hot or cooled on the day of baking. They don’t really need any embellishment but if you want to plate them as a dessert they are good with some fruit coulis (raspberry or blackberry) on the side.


For a more printable version of the recipe, look on the Recipes page.


Meg Dods' Haggis

A haggis made with sheep’s lights and suet, and stuffed in a sheep’s stomach, according to Meg Dods’ 1833 recipe

Besides all the obvious challenges of making a haggis (not least obtaining all the ingredients) it is surprisingly difficult to settle on a recipe. Although the basics are so well known as to seem unchangeable – oatmeal, sheep offal, pepper-based spicing – the briefest look at historical sources reveals subtle and not-so subtle variations in the basic meats and the relative quantities of everything, which make a huge difference to the end result.

In The Taste of Scotland (1970) Theodora Fitzgibbon suggests using Lady Logan’s receipt of 1856. Despite the author being a “Lady”, several of the details point to this being a basic, economical, peasant-level haggis. For one thing, Lady Logan proposes using an equal quantity of toasted oatmeal to sheep parts – 2lb oatmeal, 1lb mutton suet and 1lb assorted offal – and a lone onion. Secondly, although she suggests venison liver as a possible refinement, she sticks with the use of the sheep’s suet and lights, including the strong-flavoured lung, and the stock derived from its cooking. Finally, her casing is a sheep or lamb’s stomach, which of course gives a very strong tripe element both to the smell of the cooking and the taste of the final dish. Her instructions are simple and to the point: chop and mix the whole lot up (presumably in a bowl), season with pepper, cayenne and allspice, stuff the stomach, sew it up, prick it, and boil it.

Margaret (Meg) Dods, on the other hand, in the 5th edition of her Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1833), suggests a somewhat more refined and extravagant dish. For one thing, she specifies beef suet and beef stock, which would diminish the strong lamb flavour. For the same quantity of meat as Lady Logan, she also suggests adding at least 4 whole onions (raw) plus a dozen small ones (scalded), and only a couple of cups of toasted oatmeal. For further refinement (and, we can read between the lines, less strong sheepiness in both taste and smell) she proposes substituting the lights with kidney and tongue. In addition to the pepper, cayenne and allspice seasonings, she adds the acidity of lemon juice or vinegar. By specifically instructing us to mix it on a board, and to add the liquids only once the stomach is stuffed, she ensures a much lighter texture. Taking refinement even further, her Royal Haggis is cooked in a veal caul, again far less pungent than the sheep’s stomach, and has anchovies, parsley, mushrooms and Madeira as additional flavourings.

Although haggis is thought of as a quintessentially Scottish dish, it was well known in England until well into the nineteenth century not only in its “Scottish” form but in regional variations. Although English recipes include all sorts of ingredients found in other members of the pudding and sausage family that haggis belongs to – eggs, sweeter spices like nutmeg, or even sugar in Northern England – sheep offal and fat, chopped small, and stuffed in a bag have been its common features for more than 500 years. In his English Huswife (1660) Gervase Markham describes a “Haggas or Haggus” whose ingredients (oatmeal, blood, and liver from a sheep, calf or pig) make it sound much more like that other Scottish (and British regional) classic:  black pudding. Hannah Glasse’s 1767 treatment in the Art of Cookery may reflect English country practices in Shropshire and Gloucestershire, but at the same time brings us closer to Meg Dods: Glasse’s “Scotch Haggass” is made of the lights, heart and chitterlings – of a calf.

Haggis turns out to be a wonderful illustration of what happens when any dish is adopted as a national classic, as it is in Scotland. Meg Dods opens her recipe for “our good love, the Scotch haggis” by likening its spirit to that of other national dishes – the French ragout and the Turkish pilau among them. It has obviously long had a strong association with Scotland, the land of sheep and oatmeal, but it has equally been part of the English identity, and this seems long forgotten – even sacrilegious to suggest. English haggis? Impossible! I grew up in Scotland, with black pudding for lunch in my Falkirk primary school, and the smell of haggis regularly wafting down the stairs from the dining room of my Edinburgh secondary school, and whether we liked it or not we all knew this was special, Scottish food. The less other people liked it, the more proud of it we could be. Later when I moved to London it became clear to me that most people I met had never tasted – and were disgusted by the very idea of – a haggis. But it turns out that here in the UK we actually all share the culinary heritage of haggis. Maybe you just need to catch the reek of it at an early enough age to be able to find it delicious.

Making a haggis

Sheep's pluck I mentioned at the beginning that making a haggis is challenging, not least because it is difficult to obtain the basic ingredients. You may have a butcher able and willing to find them for you. Ask him. You may find, as we did, that he will direct you to your local wholesale market, in my case, Smithfield. Based in central London, and open to the public on every weekday between 05.00 and 07.00, most suppliers do not have the whole animal. Don’t be put off by the ones that tell you it’s impossible to buy what you need. Look up at the signs over the heads of the vendors in the Central Market and notice Channel Meats, offal specialists: they will sort out your lights and stomachs; then pop over the way for sheep suet from Market Provisions.

The second challenge is actually doing it. The sight of the pluck of a sheep – its lungs, heart, spleen and liver all still attached with the windpipe at the top is not for the faint-hearted. And it’s heavy. Raw, its odour might be difficult to stomach; while cooking, it’s also a strong smell, though nothing like as pungent as the stomach casing, which is pure tripe, equally powerful raw, cooking or cooked. You really need to have good ventilation, and preferably (unlike me) have a kitchen that is actually a room, not an open-plan part of your entire living space. Even if you like haggis, you may not want to live with the smell of it for the 4-5 hours of cooking and beyond.

Meg Dods’ haggis recipe

I made the recipe using all sheep ingredients; it was strong and pungent, which I liked, but which was too much for some of my audience. Next time I would try using some of the suggestions Dods has for toning it down – certainly substituting lung for kidney, sheep suet for beef suet, and the sheep stock for almost any other stock I might have to hand. The alternatives are clearly marked below.


1-3 sheep stomachs (depending on size – if from a lamb, you will have enough stuffing for three)
1 whole sheep’s pluck: lungs, heart, liver, spleen, kidney
1lb sheep suet (or beef suet), minced
4 large onions, peeled and minced
12 small shallots, peeled and scalded in two changes of water
3/4 lb oatmeal, toasted in a medium oven for 2 hours or until golden
2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp salt
8 fl oz sheep stock (from the pluck cooking) (or beef stock)
Juice of 1 lemon

A strong needle and white thread


Toast your oatmeal.

Draining the pluck

Clean the pluck in cold water, pierce the heart and lungs with a knife, and boil it whole in a  large pan of water for half an hour. Allow the windpipe to drape over the side of the pan, and place a smaller vessel underneath it to catch the foam that will drip out of it as the pluck heats and cooks. After 30 minutes, remove the pluck from the pan. Cut the liver in half and return one half to the pan to cook for a further half an hour.

Meanwhile, you can mince (by hand or in a food processor) the large onions, suet, cooked heart, the half of the liver that is ready, and as much of the lung and other parts of the lights as you want, removing and discarding any hard or black-looking parts. As each element is ready, spread it out on a large board. When the second half of the liver is done, mince that and add it to the rest. Add the scalded shallots.

Now prepare your stomach bag or bags: sew up any gaps in the narrower end to make a secure pouch ready for stuffing. Get your needle and thread ready for the next stage, with a long length of thread. Strain and measure out your stock and squeeze your lemon.

Strew the toasted oatmeal over the other ingredients, add all of the dry seasonings, and lightly turn everything over with your hands to mix. Take your pouch and stuff it with the mixture, using your hand. When it is a little over 3/4 full, pour in the stock and lemon juice, then sew it up along the long side. Do not over-fill the bag: the contents need room to expand during cooking.

Place your haggis in a large pan of water, and pierce it a few times with a long skewer to prevent it from bursting as it cooks. Bring it to the boil and simmer for 2-3 hours, topping up the water as necessary. When ready, carefully drain the water from the pan and tip the haggis on to a large plate. I’d advise against trying to lift it out of the pan: not only is is heavy and slippery, but the casing is soft and stretchy, and breaks easily once cooked. You will need to treat the haggis very gently, “else your whole labour will be lost by its bursting.”

Take the whole haggis to the table, recite an appropriate poem, and pierce its skin with a knife. Spoon out the contents. Serve with boiled or steamed turnip (swede – the orange one) mashed with butter and black pepper, and mashed potato if you like. Whisky is permissible as an accompaniment, though I’d advise against pouring it into the haggis itself. Drink a toast to the haggis and yourselves. Enjoy.