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Beef and Liberty: Roast Beef, John Bull and the English Nation.
Ben Rogers
London: Chatto & Windus, 2003.
£17.99, 183 pages, ISBN 070116980X.

David McBride
University of Nottingham


The study of food nationalism has received a great boost with the arrival of Oxford and Columbia graduate Ben Rogers at the table. Depicting the way in which the Englishman identified himself in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in opposition to his French counterpart, Rogers has identified how national cuisine played a major role in national identification. And in the case of the English, they identified themselves by their beef.

Beef and Liberty presents a historical analysis of English cultural history and shows how beef served as one of the driving forces behind English nationalism. Rogers takes his reader on a journey into the towns, homes and kitchens of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, documenting the manner in which roast beef and the images of the butcher, the bulldog and John Bull defined the masculinity of England. During these centuries, when England was constantly battling against the French, English nationalism reached peaks, and this nationalism was largely expressed by the English through their relationship with their beloved beef. As Rogers claims, "after language, food is the most important bearer of national identity" [p. 3].

Throughout the book, Rogers examines the way the English perceived and defined themselves, notably through their traditional meals and cooking techniques, which highly differed from those of their arch nemesis, the French. To claim that English perceptions of the French were not the most flattering would be an understatement. Whereas the patriotic Englishman thought of himself as a masculine brute who took great pride in his stout and ale and his massive portion of beef smothered in gravy, the Frenchman was ridiculed as an effeminate character who sipped his wine and toiled with increasingly refined cooking techniques. English people were opposed to the changing methods of French cuisine, claiming that the French were retreating from their national customs, something that no red-blooded Englishman would ever consider. Rogers's rendering of English views of the French paints a xenophobic scene, and his evocation of the stubborn mindsets of both the English and the French makes for entertaining reading.

During the eighteenth century and the many battles fought between the rival countries, French cuisine began to appear in England. Xenophobia towards the French increased amongst English patriots. Besides, they despised the upper-class Englishmen who had developed a strong liking for French food and the sophistication that they associated with it. Rogers shows that food was used to represent a separation of classes within English society. He also shows that the patriots' nationalism was simultaneously a display of love for their country and a response to the fear of changing times. He describes the eighteenth century as "beset by an almost hysterical sense of corruption and decline [...] Where they should have been setting a good example to their inferiors, Britain's ruling class had succumbed to Gallic values and foreign luxury" [p. 50-51]. The rise of the English patriot in the face of the potential decline in the English character would become the driving force behind what Rogers refers to as "food chauvinism."

As well as serving as a rallying cry for British nationalism, art became a way for the patriots to show their contempt for foreigners and their food. Rogers introduces us to one such artist, the celebrated William Hogarth, whose eighteenth-century satirical paintings were among the most famous of his day. He embraced English cuisine and was appalled by the French, and Rogers describes him as an artist in the mould of previous English artists who drew on popular culinary prejudice. There was a certain unity amongst English artists in the way they portrayed themselves and the French in their paintings. Often, the well-to-do, snobbish Frenchman was depicted as trying to trick the less intelligent Englishman and to make him feel inferior, faced with the sophisticated ways of the French. But of course, the Englishman would have the last laugh, usually by physically manhandling the Frenchman and embarrassing him openly in the town square. Because he ate beef, the Englishman was always stronger than his adversary.

One of the most interesting features of the book is Rogers's description of the way the image of the butcher (and later that of John Bull) became a symbol of eighteenth-century British society. The butcher represented the stereotypical common Englishman. The image of the butcher worked on different levels, whether he held the lead role in celebrations and festivities or provided direct contrast with the French and British aristocracy.

Rogers's presentation of John Bull is also particularly amusing. That archetypal figure could be a bulldog, a bull, or a half-man, half-bull figure, and defined the British patriot both at home and abroad. John Bull's rival was the thin, scheming Frenchmen. While John Bull was commonly tricked by the French, he was depicted as living free, and his way of life was seen as a much better alternative to that of the French. John Bull was the ideal patriot, and could be used as a figure who would protest against corrupt British politics, or, when needed, as a simpleton who obediently followed his leader's commands. Depending on the circumstances at the time and the message that an artist wished to convey, John Bull was a common figure in satirical, nationalistic art.

This book also highlights a certain irony: two centuries ago English patriots detested French cuisine because it defied their national traditions, and the English stayed true to their heritage; today, the English have strayed from their ways and it is the French who have-to a degree-returned to a more traditional cuisine, trying to resist the setting up of too many McDonald's restaurants in their country. While this illustrates a reversal in attitudes, Rogers makes it clear that there is still a degree of food chauvinism and contempt held by both the British and the French in regards to the others' cuisine. The French ban on British beef following the B.S.E. crisis has drawn much resentment from the British who treat the ban as a cold slap in their nationalistic faces. However, it did little to diminish their sense of pride in their beef. Rogers includes a letter printed in the Daily Telegraph following France's unexpected exit from the World Cup, where the reader blames France's surprising demise on not having eaten British beef for the past four years [p. 183].

Rogers's book is an amusing work, with a good balance of historical facts and anecdotes, written in a humorous and pleasant style. The most appealing characteristic of the book is the way it depicts the immense xenophobia manifested by the English patriot and the undying belief he held in his own beef, that could draw so much contempt towards another nation's cuisine. The abiding nationalism Rogers presents is outrageous and prompts much laughter, but it also highlights the whole-hearted love that the English patriot could feel for his country. The satirical pictures showing food chauvinism are well described by Rogers, whose research into the subject is well documented. Beef and Liberty: Roast Beef, John Bull and the English Nation is a quick and enjoyable read, and-let's face it-how many books have you read that establish a connection between roast beef, xenophobia, gravy, and war?

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