Peach melba, as all the world surely knows, was invented in the early 1890s by Auguste Escoffier, the French chef of the Savoy hotel, for the superstar Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba. At a dinner thrown to celebrate her triumph in Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House, Escoffier presented Nellie with fresh peaches – her absolute favourite – served over ice cream; later, he would amend the recipe by adding raspberry puree. Even today, the Savoy still serves it in one of its restaurants (or at least, a variation of it), the dish sitting between the mont d’or cheese and the petits fours on its £175-a-head tasting menu.
But as the food historian Pen Vogler writes in her satisfyingly replete new book, Stuffed – how it lives up to its title, bulging temptingly with information like some broad-in-the-beam sandwich in a New York deli – in his own time, Escoffier’s strawberry puddings were as likely to cause a stir as those made with peaches. Fraises imperator, concocted for Kaiser Wilhelm II on his yacht the Imperator, began the rumour (untrue) that Escoffier had tried to poison the emperor in retaliation for his time as a prisoner of war in the Franco-Prussian war, while fraises Sarah Bernhardt, a confection of ice cream, strawberries marinated in sweet wine and pineapple that was named after the celebrated actor, was said by the Daily Mail in 1912 to be a veritable “poem” of a pudding, excelling even the heady delights of peach melba.
The Anglo-Saxons thought radishes a cure for depression, while Victorians expected anchovies to be a loud Venetian red
Before the days of polytunnels and year-round imports, strawberries were, of course, a special fruit, their season short and their rare sweetness tinged with patriotism (Britain has a long history of strawberry breeding, its nurserymen eventually stealing the thunder of French colleagues interrupted by the Revolution). Having begun her chapter on strawberries with Escoffier, Vogler spools backwards and forwards in time in an effort not only to account for the things that once made them so prized, but also to explain why they might, these days, taste less good than of old. It’s research that is detailed and vividly told. By the time she’s done, you’re unlikely ever to think about strawberries in the same way again, whether you’re spreading Tiptree’s Little Scarlet on your toast, or gorging on fat Dutch fruits that have survived intact for rather longer in your fridge than seems wholly natural.
Vogler hasn’t called her book Stuffed to signal the amazing array of facts she has gathered – though on this score it is, indeed, brimful (I’m in awe of her reading). The word can mean utterly screwed as well as swollen-stomached in the post-buffet sense, and thanks to this it’s entirely apt for a study of British food in good times and in bad. One word of caution, though. While Vogler’s dogged truffling takes her from the enclosures of the 15th century (and even before) to the rise of the supermarket, her approach here is to focus on individual ingredients (bacon, turnips, herring) and a few key dishes (pumpkin pie, Christmas pudding), rather than to work up a single, chronological narrative – a method she likens to a Chinese banquet, steaming bowl after steaming bowl arriving at the table. On the downside, this means her overarching argument (if she has one) gets a bit lost. But on the upside, it liberates the reader to jump around. Naturally, I read the chapter about Yorkshire pudding first, though it only appears at Stuffed’s halfway point.
Vogler’s discoveries are often relevant. With our fads and fetishes, our cheats and our changing concerns, we go in circles. Dickensian gruel and 21st-century oat milk are, for instance, basically the same thing. But she’s too much the collector of the wondrous and the arcane, the weird and the funny, to worry excessively about resonance; some things are just interesting in their own right. The Anglo-Saxons thought radishes a cure for depression and that artichokes in wine could deal with body odour. Victorian consumers expected their anchovies to be a loud “Venetian red” (perfectly safe, unless lead was involved), while the green of their gherkins was brightened with copper. In the days when Englishmen still ate carp – only in the 20th century did this sly freshwater creature fall out of fashion as supper – their muddy taste was alleviated by anglers keeping their catch in “moist moss”, where it could survive for a while out of the water, “to cleanse the flesh”.
I thought I knew everything about Yorkshire puddings, that most patriarchal of dishes (their incredible popularity in the 19th century was thanks, at least in part, to the fact that such an accompaniment helped cooks to eke out the beef joint, the better to ensure plenty for the man of the house). But Vogler has so much more to tell us, not least that before such an accompaniment’s appearance on the scene – Hannah Glasse was the first to call it Yorkshire pudding, in her 1747 bestseller The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy – people liked to eat their beef with plum pudding. (This sounds rather good to me, a bit like partnering cold ham with chutney.)
In a conclusion, in which she tries to draw things together and to look to the future, Vogler worries away at 21st-century food poverty. Somehow, though, it feels like her heart isn’t quite in it. She seems much happier quoting Charlotte Brontë or Izaak Walton than Michael Pollan or some parliamentary select committee; those who want to read about ultra-processed food should go elsewhere. In the end, Stuffed is dusted, metaphorically speaking, all over with icing sugar: a delicious and tempting thing, in spite of all the talk of plague and cruel landlords.
And yes, like its predecessor, the bestselling Scoff, it offers the occasional recipe (Vogler, who loves to cook, just can’t help herself). You put it down and even as you’re still thinking about factory farming or sugar plantations, you’re considering whizzing up some havercakes – AKA Yorkshire oatcakes – in your food processor. As she instructs: very good with butter and honey for tea, and even better with eggs and bacon for breakfast.
Kitchen Person: Notes on Cooking and Eating by Rachel Cooke is out now (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £20)
Stuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain by Pen Vogler is published by Atlantic. (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply