Food in the 21st century
This article was published in Arts in Leicester magazine on 9th February 2016. It has been transferred to this blog (the magazine having closed down.)
The people of Leicester today eat food from everywhere in the world. That is largely because the people of Leicester come from everywhere in the world. This has not always been true. If you walk through the centre of Leicester today, you will see several kinds of people: white Europeans from a variety of origins, Asians who came here from the Indian Subcontinent, Africans and Peoples from the Caribbean, some Asians from the far east, people from the Turkish region of Asia… our population is diverse in ethnicity and cultural heritages. Our popular is so diverse that no one group has a majority.
Well, you can see straight away that Leicester’s demography has important implications for its food. In our city centre there are many restaurants and specialist supermarkets catering for ethnic foods. In our outdoor market you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables from around the world. If you want to be gastronomically adventurous and try out the cuisine of other cultures, Leicester would be a great place in which to do that.
That is where we have got to today but it has not always been so. If we start to explore the history of out city’s eating, we will find that food has changed as the people living here have changed. This great feast of culinary cornucopias has not always been a feature of the Leicester community.
Even going back 50 years in time, we would find things to be very different. Let’s start with the end of the second world war. After the war, rationing was gradually phased out. People began to find more things to eat; the shops began to stock more varieties of food products and the contents of larders became gradually more elaborate. Where did people buy their food? A lot of people would have done their shopping in Leicester’s outdoor market. The market was established in 1229 by King Henry III, who allowed an already established fair to change its day from June to February. A permanent market has stood in the centre of the city ever since. The collection of stalls was given a roof in 1971 and even today the whole area is undergoing change and reconstruction.
Between the end of the second world war and the start of the nineteen fifties, cooks had it hard. Food was meagre, supplies limited and the choice of what most people eat was limited.
In the 1950s things began to change. Supermarkets opened, new food products were introduced and tastes began to change. One thing that changes what people were prepared to eat was foreign holidays. British people started to take packaged holidays in Europe and Spain and Italy were popular destinations. A thousands of British people descended on the fishing villages of the Mediterranean resorts, holiday-makers were exposed to radially new dishes – such as Pizza, Risotto, lasagna, Paella, – and when they got back they looked these foods in the shops and gradually they were introduced into the British diet.
Another thing changed the way people cooked: the rise of convenience foods. As supermarkets grew in number and as kitchen appliances became more affordable – particularly the refrigerator and later the freezer – housewives could buy and keep a much wider variety of perishable foodstuffs. I use the term housewives because in the 1950s it was women that did most of the work in the kitchen. Men did not start to cook at home until the 1970s and 80s. One company that changed people’s eating habits was Birdseye. Clarence Frank Birdseye II is credited with the foundation of the modern frozen food industry. He was a New York businessman whose pioneering work on freezing food led to the formation of the Birds Eye brand of food products. Fish Fingers became a staple of the British diet since their invention in Great Yarmouth in 1946 (although the term fish fingers first appeared in 1900.) Many other foodstuffs began to appear in the freezers of Supermarkets, including pea, carrots, potatoes and other vegetables and the consumption of these foods was promoted by television advertising.
During the period of the 1950s to 1970s, life in the kitchen became increasingly easy as the range of convenience and processed foods grew ever larger. Continental products such as pasta began to appear in the shops and English family developed a liking for dishes such as spaghetti Bolognese and pizza. Olive oil became a common culinary ingredient – though before the 1950s it was available only in chemists shops for the treatment of ear wax.
In Leicester the Indian community developed following the independence of Indian in 1947 and the Nationally Act of 1948. As the Indian community grew so did their shops and restaurants. In the 1960s there were many shops selling the kind of spices and vegetables that would be cooked at home and the number and range of restaurants increased accordingly. Today, many people would claim that Leicester is one of the best destinations in the UK for Indian cuisine. The various communities from the Indian subcontinent might seem to dominate the city but in fact there are a wide variety of ethnic restaurants, cafes and bars that existing today to serve the tastes of the people of Leicester.
The culinary world comes to Leicester
Most supermarkets these days have shelves or isles devoted to ethnic cuisine; curry sauce, as a lot of people know it, has become an established product for English people, both as a dish or as an addition to fish and chips. It has become commonplace for people to ‘go for a curry’ during a night out. According to the BBC, the UK has adopted ‘curry’ as one of its national dishes [BBC Food] and about 23 million in the UK eat curry on a regular basis. But what is curry? Other than a term wrongly applied to all Indian food. If we go back far enough in history, we find that the word ‘cury’ meant simply hot food, from the French word Curie, meaning to cook. The first recipe for curry (in England) appeared as early as 1747. since it began to appear in this country, curry is a term commonly applied to any spicy sauce that could be said to have been inspired by Indian cuisine.
In England, there was an explosion in demand for European cuisines from France, Spain, Italy and Denmark. This was fuelled partly by foreign travel and partly by the appearance of programmes about food and cooking on the TV. From the 1960s onwards restaurants opened that could offer international menus to cater for the increasingly varied tastes of English consumers.
In the early 1960s shops and supermarkets started to stock an odd food product made from milk and called yogurt (or yoghurt.) It quickly became popular and sales of the little plastic pots soared. A Swiss company called Ski was a major force behind the mass production of this stuff, offering it in convenient pots with the addition of sugar and fresh fruit.