Review of Stuffed: A Historical Look at British Cuisine and Challenging Times – a Delightful Read
The creation of the melba, known worldwide, can be credited to Auguste Escoffier, a French chef at the Savoy hotel in the early 1890s. He crafted this dessert for the famous Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba, after her successful performance in Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House. Escoffier delighted Nellie with freshly picked peaches, her favorite fruit, served with ice cream. Over time, he improved the recipe by adding raspberry puree. Today, the Savoy continues to offer a variation of this dish on its £175-a-head tasting menu, placed between the mont d’or cheese and petits fours.
However, according to food historian Pen Vogler’s new book, Stuffed, Escoffier’s strawberry puddings were just as noteworthy in his time as those made with peaches. The book is packed with tempting information, reminiscent of a stacked sandwich in a New York deli. There were two specific strawberry creations that caused quite a buzz – Fraises imperator, created for Kaiser Wilhelm II on his yacht, and fraises Sarah Bernhardt, an ice cream and strawberry dessert named after the famous actor. The Daily Mail even described the latter as a “poem” of a pudding, surpassing the deliciousness of peach melba.
In the past, before polytunnels and imported strawberries became available year-round, strawberries were considered a special and limited fruit. Their season was short and their sweetness was seen as a symbol of patriotism, as Britain has a history of strawberry breeding that overshadowed French colleagues who were impacted by the Revolution. In her chapter on strawberries, Vogler references Escoffier and explores the past and present in an effort to understand why they may not taste as good as they used to. Her research is thorough and compelling. After reading, one’s perception of strawberries may be forever changed, whether enjoying Tiptree’s Little Scarlet on toast or indulging in large Dutch strawberries that have somehow survived longer in the fridge than expected.
Vogler’s book, titled Stuffed, does not aim to showcase the vast amount of information she has collected – although it certainly does so (I am impressed by her extensive research). The word “stuffed” can refer to being completely overwhelmed, but also to having a full stomach after a meal, making it the perfect choice for a study on British cuisine throughout history. However, readers should be cautious. While Vogler’s thorough exploration takes her from the 15th century to the rise of modern supermarkets, her approach focuses more on specific ingredients (such as bacon, turnips, and herring) and key dishes (like pumpkin pie and Christmas pudding), rather than following a chronological timeline. She likens this method to a Chinese banquet, with each dish arriving at the table one after another. This may cause her overall argument (if she has one) to become somewhat obscured. However, it also allows readers to freely skip around. Personally, I started with the chapter on Yorkshire pudding, even though it only appears halfway through Stuffed.
Vogler frequently makes discoveries that are applicable. Despite our changing interests and trends, we tend to repeat ourselves. For example, Dickensian gruel and 21st-century oat milk are essentially the same. However, Vogler is more interested in collecting strange and amusing things, rather than worrying about their significance; some things are simply interesting in their own right. The Anglo-Saxons believed that radishes could cure depression and that artichokes soaked in wine could combat body odor. Victorian consumers preferred their anchovies to have a vibrant “Venetian red” color (as long as it didn’t contain lead), while the green color of their pickles was enhanced with copper. In the past, when Englishmen still ate carp (although it fell out of fashion in the 20th century), they would keep their catch in moist moss to improve its muddy taste, allowing it to survive out of water for a period of time to “cleanse the flesh”.
I believed I had a thorough understanding of Yorkshire puddings, a dish with strong patriarchal associations. Its popularity in the 19th century can be attributed, in part, to the fact that it helped cooks stretch a beef joint to ensure there was enough for the man of the house. However, Vogler shares even more information with us, including the fact that before Yorkshire pudding became a popular accompaniment to beef, people would often eat their beef with plum pudding. This combination sounds appealing, similar to pairing cold ham with chutney.
The author, Vogler, attempts to bring everything to a close and consider future implications, but her focus remains on food poverty in the 21st century. However, it is evident that she is not fully invested in this topic. She appears to find more joy in referencing literature from Charlotte Brontë or Izaak Walton rather than discussing Michael Pollan or a parliamentary select committee. Those seeking information on ultra-processed food should look elsewhere. Ultimately, Stuffed is sprinkled with figurative icing sugar, making it a delightful and enticing read despite the mentions of plagues and harsh landlords.
Similar to its previous version, the popular book Scoff, this one also includes a few recipes (Vogler, who has a passion for cooking, couldn’t resist adding them). As you finish reading it and continue contemplating about issues like factory farming and sugar plantations, you might find yourself tempted to make some havercakes (also known as Yorkshire oatcakes) using your food processor. As Vogler recommends, they are delicious with butter and honey as a snack, but even more satisfying when served with eggs and bacon for breakfast.
Rachel Cooke’s new book, “Kitchen Person: Notes on Cooking and Eating”, is now available from Weidenfeld & Nicholson for £20.
Pen Vogler’s book, “Stuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain,” is available from Atlantic for £22. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional shipping fees may apply.