The food politics of Brexit

Dr Alex Colás and Dr Jason Edwards discuss the crucial place of food and drink in the Brexit negotiations, and how they could impact domestic and international politics. They are authors with Jane Levi and Sami Zubaida of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System (University of California Press), which will be launched at a reception on 13 December. Find out more and book your free place here.

Whatever the outcome of ongoing Brexit negotiations, one conclusion is abundantly clear: food and drink are critical to this process, and more widely to both domestic and international politics. This is most obvious in relation to the UK’s food security. With just over 30 per cent in value terms of Britain’s just-in-time food supply coming from within the European Union, the UK’S food security is likely to be compromised. A recent authoritative report warns that Britain’s nutritional and political stability could be undermined by price volatility, sharpening inequalities and erosion of public trust following Brexit. Far from being an anecdotal sideshow, the effects of the divorce on Britain’s food economy are starting to become apparent in both the agricultural and hospitality sectors, so dependent on EU labor.

The consequences of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU go beyond the high politics of summitry, increasingly appearing in the everyday lives of UK residents, touching on issues like national and regional identities, public health, fisheries and agriculture, commodity supply chains, fast food workers, food standards and changing consumer tastes. Products like Stilton, Arbroath Smokies or indeed Scotch whisky, all currently listed by the EU as having Protected Designation of Origin or Geographical Indication, are expected to retain this status only if there is a UK alignment with European regulations, and will otherwise have to apply as a ‘third country’ producers. The great British institution of the Friday night curry is also affected by Brexit. During the 2016 referendum campaign, leading Brexiteers secured the support of the Bangladesh Caterers Association – a major organisation representing the sector – with the promise that leaving the EU and ‘taking back control’ of immigration would ‘save our curry houses’. Two years on, representatives of this emblematic sector of the country’s catering industry say they are disappointed that the final Brexit deal is likely to offer EU citizens preferential access to the UK labour market. News headlines have equally highlighted the public health and food safety dimensions of Brexit as farmers and consumers worry about the prospect of chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-treated beef or genetically-modified organisms entering the UK food chain through trade deals with countries outside the EU.

All of these concerns have an extensive history in British and continental politics. In our new book Food, Politics, and Society we take the long view and argue that in fact questions of food prices and international trade; cuisine and identity; state regulation of food and drink; or the public health and environmental consequences of different food regimes have been central to the development of western social theory since the eighteenth century.

Classical political economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and their eminent critic Karl Marx should to different degrees be seen as theorists of food politics. Food is key to Smith and Ricardo’s famous accounts of rent and comparative advantage, while the importance for Marx’s work of the agro-ecological concept of ‘metabolism’ has recently been expertly recovered by Marxian scholars. Closer to our times, theories of nationalism, the public sphere, class or gender have emphasized the centrality of food and drink to the reproduction of these social phenomena.

It is useful to place the ongoing policy debates and political disputes surrounding the food politics of Brexit in wider historical and sociological perspective because food and drink have been of critical importance to European geopolitics in the modern age. In the nineteenth century, ‘Gastronationalism’ played a significant part in the formation of national identity in major states like Italy and France, and the invention of national and sub-national food cultures remains a feature of politics across Europe (an activity, somewhat ironically, much supported by the EU). But modern national food cultures have been shaped by a more-or-less conscious mimicry or rejection of other food cultures. The traditional British distaste for garlic – a French predilection – developed at the same time as a public eating culture massively influenced by French ideas of culinary technique and table service. The ‘revival’ of British food over the last twenty years is in fact far more of an invention shaped by foreign food developments, such as the Slow Food movement originating in Italy.

At the same time, the struggle to define national cuisines within states has often mirrored deep divides along lines of class, gender, and ethnicity. Brexit is – or has become – more than a disagreement over the economic costs and benefits of EU membership. It has expressed underlying conflicts in modern British society, and these conflicts are reflected in contending visions of what British food is and should be. Post-Brexit, British Gastronationalism is likely to be reinvented once again. As one restaurant critic recently put it: ‘In a post-Europe landscape, we’ll drink only Denbies red wine from the vineyards of Dorking and eat fish and chips off fancy plates while listening to vintage Arctic Monkeys’.

Alex Colás and Jason Edwards teach in the Politics Department at Birkbeck College and convene the Birkbeck Food Group. Get free tickets for the launch reception on Thursday 13 December where discount copies of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System will be on sale.

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Katherine Mansfield and food

This post was contributed by Aimee Gasston, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, whose research focuses on modernist short fiction, the everyday and the act of reading.Student Profile: Aimee Gasston

My project looks specifically at Katherine Mansfield and food, Virginia Woolf and furniture and Elizabeth Bowen and clothes, and considers everyday practices in relation to reading. I am interested in the ways that short fiction simultaneously fits around and encompasses everyday life – both its ergonomics and elasticity.

In January 2013, I travelled to Wellington to visit the Alexander Turnbull Library and attend a Mansfield conference being organised at Victoria University of Wellington. The Alexander Turnbull Library had recently acquired boxes of new material from the family of Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry. On reading that the new material included recipes, I was eager to go and look for myself and extraordinary research and conference funding from Birkbeck helped me to do this.

Photo1Tea

Jottings amid account books. The poem reads:
Tea, the chemist & marmalade
Far indeed today I’ve strayed
Through paths untrodden, shops unbeaten
And now the bloody stuff is eaten
The chemist the marmalade & tea
Lord how nice & cheap they be!

This was my first experience in any archive and it was overwhelming holding papers in my own hands which Mansfield herself had lived with, touched and written upon.

For my stay, I rented a bach in Wadestown that dated from the 1920s, when Mansfield was creating her strongest work. Each morning I wandered to the library down a steep, winding hill that afforded startling views of the ocean, and down past Tinakori Road where Mansfield was born.

Photo2orangesouffle

Mansfield’s recipe for orange soufflé

I got to see such a diverse range of materials – from postcards to friends, to notebooks, drafts of stories, as well as shopping lists and accounts with poems about food written in the margins. The material also included recipes handwritten by Mansfield, one for orange soufflé and another for coldwater scones, which, she instructs, must be eaten with ‘plenty of butter’. (For a modern interpretation of Mansfield’s orange soufflé, please see Nicole Villeneuve’s excellent Paper and Salt blog about literary recipes.) I had seen some of the material reproduced in publications but you don’t always get the full sense by reading transcriptions, so even seeing things I already knew about was fascinating.

I also came across a 1923 article in New Zealand’s Evening Post about depictions of meals in literature. This was an exciting find because it uses Mansfield as an example of ‘the inferior sex’ being unable to successfully write about food because they have acquired the ‘snack habit’. The argument of this surprising piece chimed so well with my developing thesis, which considered the short story itself as a type of snack – something you can pick up when you need it, something private, rebellious, sumptuous and (often) decadent.

Mansfield was a plump child and later, when she had contracted TB as an adult, increasingly emaciated. Her letters are full of comments about the food she ate as she travelled Europe in search of healthier climates, as well as comments about her weight. But this interest extends beyond that of an anxious patient – in Mansfield’s writing, food is everywhere. It punctuates both her fiction and her biographical writings, and often she conceives of literature in gustatory terms. This fascination is not only intrinsic to Mansfield’s ambition to relay her experience of the world using each one of her senses, but also evidence of her ravenousness for life. In her first collection of stories, In A German Pension (about which she came to be slightly embarrassed), there are pages and pages devoted to gluttonous eating – but the tone is satirical and there’s distance between Mansfield and her subject matter. So while there’s food everywhere, you don’t quite get the sense of tucking in and enjoying it yourself.

In the later, more mature works, food begins to appear at moments when individuals are negotiating for their own personal freedom and engagement with the world. So you find many more instances of eating alone and snacking in outdoor settings or outside of prescribed norms. Snack food was really beginning to come into its own at the beginning of the twentieth century, with fast food becoming readily available, and the modern short story as we know it came into existence at the same time. My research thinks about the way the instances of snacking in the stories parallel Mansfield’s own coming to terms with the short story as a fictional form (rather than something inferior to the novel or poetry) as well as her success in it. Seeing material relics from Mansfield’s own life has provided me with vital insights, which have shaped and informed this consideration of materiality in her fiction.

[Photographs by author reproduce material available in the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Wellington.]

Further references

  •  ‘Katherine Mansfield, Cannibal’, Katherine Mansfield Studies, Vol. 5, (Edinburgh University Press), Autumn 2013.
  • ‘Consuming art: Katherine Mansfield’s literary snack’, Journal of New Zealand Literature 31:2 Special Issue: New Zealand Cultures, October 2013.
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