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Blogs Coffee House

Edible food: a triumph of immigration and globalisation

3 June 2014

12:43 PM

3 June 2014

12:43 PM

As usual I enjoyed Hugo Rifkind’s column in the Times today. His central point that fights, whether on Europe or Scotland or whatever, can’t be ducked forever and that complacency is fatal is all very sound. But that’s not what really caught my eye.

No, I was taken by his reminder that Roger Helmer, Ukip’s sword-bearer in the Newark by-election, reckons that Indian restaurants are the only good thing to have come from immigration and I remembered that, gosh, Mr Helmer is hardly alone in thinking that.

Pretty much anytime anyone writes about immigration commenters will chunter that it’s all very well for you swanky, hoity-toity media types to bore on about the wonders of your local oh-so-authentic Kazakh or Peruvian or Persian restaurant but what about the rest of us, eh? The rest of us being stout-hearted types who sup on salt beef and honest boiled-to-death British vegetables and don’t give tuppence for all this metropolitan crap. Who needs goat curry anyway?

Well, fine. Actually, not fine at all but let’s ignore that for a moment. It’s not as though interesting ethnic restaurants are the only thing Britain has gained from immigration but, just for the fun of it, suppose that were the case? Wouldn’t that be enough to make you hellish appreciative of immigration?

I think so. True, immigration is not the only thing that’s made eating in Britain a worthwhile adventure in recent decades. Foreign travel helped. Britons, having eaten well overseas, began to ask why they couldn’t eat well at home too. At least, not reliably well.

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It’s easy to forget how things used to be. I was reminded of this recently when reading some of Elizabeth David’s cookbooks. True, they were written in a time of post-war austerity but even so the extent of the privations endured by Britons makes for pretty grim reading. Unless you lived in London or a handful of other cities good luck finding olive oil (outside specialty shops a chemist might be your only hope). “British-made” spaghetti is not worth the trouble; search for the stuff made in Italy. Don’t be afraid of it; cooking spaghetti is really rather simple.

Remember: spaghetti was once considered a kind of luxury good. Then again, so were bananas. So, in fact, was edible food.

The discovery – or perhaps the reminder – that food can be a pleasure and not simply a necessity has vastly improved the quality of British life these past 40 years. It has been a long journey right enough, and, sure, it’s easy (even proper) to mock the Guardian’s obsession with quinoa (is it ethical?) but would anyone really want to go back to the bad old days when school food was stuff you ate all your life?

I suspect not. Immigration is only part of the story, of course. The invention of the shipping container played a part. So, more generally, did globalisation. So, of course, did Mrs David and a handful of other heroes.

But with all these fancy foreign restaurants came a revival of actually, quality, British food too. The revelation that food could actually be good – and, elsewhere, was expected to be good –  meant we rediscovered the best parts of our own food history. International influences brought us home, if you will, and it was often foreign chefs who led the way in championing great British ingredients and recipes.

That’s not a trivial development, actually. Eating for pleasure, not just for sustenance, is a pretty big deal. And not just in restaurants either; in other people’s homes too. That’s thanks to globalisation; that’s thanks to immigration too. Each of these has enriched our lives and made them better.

So, sure, bang on about curry houses all you like. Dismiss Britain’s food revolution if you must. Discount the pleasures of eating better if that’s your thing. Treat food as a trivial extra if you want. But don’t be surprised if some of the rest of us disagree and take the view that, actually, food is something it’s worth taking seriously.

It’s not the only benefit of immigration but even if it were the benefits of immigration would hardly be negligible or the kind of thing to be dismissed with such sneering, but unearned, superiority.

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