Review of Pen Vogler’s Stuffed: A Journey Through the History of Food Tasting
In her new book, Vogler discusses how society in the British Isles has organized itself around two interpretations of “stuffed”. One refers to the feeling after a satisfying dinner, while the other describes being stuck in a difficult situation with no viable solution. This is the reality for many Britons who struggle with chronic food insecurity, resorting to inexpensive meals that may temporarily satisfy hunger but lack essential nutrients for overall health.
Vogler is concerned about the lack of shared understanding between the privileged and the deprived in regards to their levels of material wealth. She references the divide that became apparent during Marcus Rashford’s 2020 effort to provide free school meals during school breaks. While former shadow education secretary Kate Green supported the initiative, stating that it is the government’s responsibility to prevent child hunger, government representative Brendan Clarke-Smith argued against it, claiming that he does not support “nationalizing children” and believes that providing for one’s family is an individual responsibility, not the state’s.
According to Vogler, the division between British citizens and their food can be traced back to the 15th-century enclosure movement. This movement involved landlords enclosing common land that was previously used by cottagers to graze animals, gather food, and collect firewood. In exchange for the loss of these rights, villagers were given a small strip of land, insufficient for anything more than growing vegetables. This led to the decline of small-holding culture in Britain and the consolidation of food production into large, privately owned silos. As a result, the growing population lost their connection to their food. This also created an environment where agri-businesses competed to sell produce at the lowest possible cost, leaving Britons vulnerable to being deceived and cheated when it comes to their food. Unlike some European countries that still value small-holdings, Britons are at a disadvantage in this aspect.
To demonstrate this gradual decline, Vogler provides a series of in-depth case studies. For example, strawberries were initially viewed as a simple indulgence for peasants in the 16th century. However, the elite saw them as potentially harmful if consumed with too much cream, which was a common practice among hungry farmers. Over time, strawberries became more upscale and were considered a short-lived delicacy of high summer, appealing to female palates (with the belief that consuming too many could lead to effeminacy in men). In the 20th century, their association with Wimbledon elevated their social status, while the pick-your-own farmshop movement in the 1970s romanticized their connection to communal rural work.
Due to the use of polytunnels and a widespread transportation system, strawberries are now readily available from late March until autumn. However, there is an unofficial competition among producers to be the first to have strawberries ready for Valentine’s Day. These berries have become top sellers in many supermarkets, even surpassing basic items like bread and milk. Vogler highlights the various characteristics of this contemporary cultivar, such as its resistance to mildew, lack of flavor, and artificially vibrant color. Yet, she also expresses concern about the hidden issues within our food system that are masked by the alluring appeal of strawberries.
What exactly is the meaning of darkness and how can we invite light into our lives? Vogler acknowledges that the answer is not straightforward or clear-cut. As demonstrated in her book Scoff, published in 2020, she is skilled at exploring various sources to share captivating tales of historical food cultures. For example, during medieval times, parsnips were believed to aid in fertility, while artichokes soaked in wine were thought to eliminate body odour. Feeling depressed? Simply consuming radishes with salt and pepper can quickly improve your mood.
The challenging task of collecting these elements of storytelling to create a fair and secure food future is where things become particularly complex. Vogler asserts that progress will not be made until we, as individuals and collective entities like governments, agriculture corporations, energy providers, and transportation planners, join forces to not only benefit society, but also protect ourselves.