By Vidya Venkat
Those rallying for British nationalism and a concomitant Brexit are forgetting that 'British culture' today is a nebulous idea.
If people are what they eat, then there could be nothing uniquely ‘British’ about the Brits. When the news of the Brexit vote started coming in on Friday, June 24, my mind instantly went back to an ethnographic study of the popular UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, which I had done five years ago as a student of anthropology in London.
Bronisław Malinowski, a 20th-Century anthropologist, argued that culture functioned to meet the needs of individuals rather than society as a whole.
Meaning, in an age of globalisation following a history of colonial cross-assimilation, Britain can hardly have an 'authentic culture'.
In the study, I had set out to decode the Malinowskian “imponderabilia of everyday life” of the average British citizen. Bronislaw Malinowski, the father figure of British social anthropology, had famously used immersion in the everyday life activities of the Trobriand Islanders in Papua New Guinea to understand their culture. I too had followed on his footsteps, only I chose to study the Brits instead. And what better way to explore their culture than study their food habits? What I discovered during the research shatters the myth of a unique British culture, which the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage often gloats about.
My “field of study” was the Sainsbury’s supermarket store in the posh London Borough of Islington. Being a popular store and one of the largest supermarket chains in the UK, it provided an ideal sample as to what Britain ate. This was where I had been initiated into the ritual of supermarket shopping in the UK, an experience that was vastly different from the more modest affair of grocery shopping in India. The field that I had chosen bore a symbolic significance too, in that the project was intended to be an exercise in understanding the material culture of the erstwhile coloniser. As an Indian student finding my way around London for the first time, my effort to unravel the “other” — in this case the British people — was rather instructive in how the process of colonisation had not only impacted the colonies but — in reverse osmosis — the coloniser as well.
The first time I walked into this Sainsbury’s store, I was awestruck by its sheer size. It had a floor space of 36,000 square feet. Never before had I come across such a variety of food items representing a multitude of world cultures. I could count more than a hundred different types of cheese and butter alone! The store, I noticed, had a separate World Food section stocking everything from Chinese herbs to Indiantikka.
^ Queen Elizabeth meets some shoppers during her visit on Tuesday to Sainsbury's supermarket in London's Cromwell road, on March 6, 1985. It was believed to be the Queen Mother's first visit to a supermarket. | The Hindu Archives
My flatmate Michael Houlgate, who was English and had a fondness for food, was my trusted research informant for the project. He was from the English countryside and not a Londoner and I thought that added value to the research question that I was seeking to answer about ‘authentic British culture’. For what I saw in London could not have faithfully captured everything that was British. Michael had been shopping at supermarkets for groceries ever since he remembered.
A walk through Sainsbury's will reveal, with its bevy of imported foods, how much of foreign culture colonialism has forced the English to assimilate
It was around 11 a.m. on a Wednesday and the store was teeming with shoppers. At the entrance was a stack of newspapers with cigarettes and mint stocked beside. The store beyond was divided into long rows of shelves stocking meat and fish on one end, then fruits, vegetables and flowers; followed by toiletries, milk and eggs, cheese and butter, breads, confectionary, et al. Products sourced from Britain carried a ‘Taste of Britain’ logo on them, but such items appeared to be fewer when compared to imported food. At the end of the shopping trip, I couldn’t help notice how much of what I saw on the shelves of the store was either imported from outside or local variants of food influenced by other cultures. The only food items at the store that could qualify for being called British-sourced ‘local’ food were milk, poultry, potatoes, or meat items such as beef, pork and turkey, and salmon.
^ The Cornish Pasty, originating circa the 17th Century in Cornwall, might be about the few English dishes that can be traced back to England. | Special Arrangement
Thus, my initial conception of the Sainsbury’s store as a symbol of British food and culture began to fall apart after several visits. I also realised how the mental barriers of “us” and “them” that I had erected could not be maintained, because not only had my own relationship with “the field” changed through an unconscious process of assimilation into London culture but also because what was supposedly ‘British’ did not necessarily originate within the geographical confines of the country.
When I asked Michael as to what an authentic British meal would comprise of he laughed and said, “Oh! Bangers and mash maybe. But people of this generation no longer eat what you might consider ‘authentic’ British cuisine. My grandmother does, but I don’t.” Michael then directed my attention toward the videos of Jamie Oliver in which he traces the origin of what many consider British food today to immigrant cultures from all over the world. Fish and chips, the popular road-side food item that you can find in every nook and corner of London and other parts of Britain, originally came from Jewish communities. Hash browns, the popular ‘British’ potato dish, are said to carry strong influences of the Swiss origin Rosti, or a variant of the potato French fries. Even steak, the popular beef roast eaten in Britain, is said to have French origins.
^ In 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declared that "Chicken Tikka Masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences."
What I understood through my fieldwork was how the idea of a local English culture had been marginalised by macro-processes of the global food industry. To borrow a term used by the anthropologists Rapport and Overing, modern-day supermarkets are ‘zones of transit’ where culture is produced on the move and actions performed within this space can’t be understood in isolation from the larger processes of globalisation determining them. Therefore, I turned to secondary literature on the subject of food, globalisation and culture to construct the broader canvas within which I was to locate my British subjects. It became clear to me that what we today understand as British food and culture is a product of both globalisation and colonialism. No wonder then that the Indian recipe chicken tikka is so popular across Britain that many English families even include it in their daily meals.
In the post-Brexit world, where sentiments around the need to preserve ‘British culture’ have gained importance, what with Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party claiming freedom from Europe and the unwanted influence of ‘immigrants’ in their land, it is worth asking what is the uniquely British thing about Britain that they are now seeking to preserve. The whole idea of a unique British culture is indeed nebulous. The historical process of colonisation, led by Great Britain, has resulted in the country assimilating a great deal from the food and cultures of the countries they interacted with, with the result that today it has warped their own identity. In fact, the English peoples themselves are originally of Anglo-Saxon origin, of Germanic tribes that migrated to the British islands.
^ Fish and Chips is well-known as a British staple delicacy, along the likes of Bangers and Mash. But the dish has been found to have Jewish origins. | R. Ravindran
Anthropologist Paul Rabinow notes in his ethnography on Morocco as to how fieldwork is about “the comprehension of the self by the detour of the comprehension of the other”. In attempting to locate the culturally mediated and historically situated self of the ordinary British citizen in the continuously changing world of meaning created in a globalised supermarket store, I too had comprehended my cultural self. I realised how my regular excursions to the store had encouraged me to experiment with Italian pasta sauces, Thai red curry, Middle Eastern hummus and other exotic foods which I did not eat back at home. They were the newfound luxuries that had become part of my life as a student in London. What had therefore started as a pursuit of cultural ‘otherness’ had led me to discover that I was after all united with the ‘other’ through a common gastronomic gluttony, an expression perhaps of the common humanity which Malinowski had discovered among the Trobriand islanders he was studying.