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Constructing a Menu of the British Empire

Published: May 8, 2018

Bridget Keown is a PhD candidate at Northeastern University, USA

In the summer of 2016, I taught an undergraduate summer history class on the history of the British Empire.  Summer courses at my institution are concentrated, 8-week semesters that attract students from a large number of personal and academic backgrounds.  As a result the potential for class discussions, personal experiences, and diversity of learning experiences rises exponentially.  This was especially true in this class.  What became apparent to me quickly was that most of my students were entering the class with a very broad idea of empire.  Their comments and questions focused on global economics, on international trade, world wars and treaties.  And while these elements were all important to our study, my goal was to get students to see these broad concepts from the inside out, and to understand the lived experience of empire.  Thus, my challenge was to make empire real by engaging their imaginations, their emotions, and their senses.

I began by emphasizing personal details and sensory descriptions into my lectures, focusing on small details even in discussions of large-scale issues.  Our talks about  trade and immigration included discussions about the taste of spices and coffee, and what the realities of living in crowded, poorly ventilated conditions meant for those trying to survive in poverty.  We talked about structures of power by analyzing familial and community relationships--for example, the way colonial schools and forced inoculations altered the relationship between the native people and the colonial government, as well as between parents and children.  The empathy that these discussions promoted helped students engage with the history they were studying in a personal, emotional, and sensory way.

It was in this context that the idea for a Menu of the British Empire was formed.  At the time I was developing this course, the firestorm of criticism over the “British Colonial Co” restaurant in Brisbane, Australia, was filling my social media pages.  The restaurant, which opened in 2016 and closed in 2017, initially stated on its website that it was “Inspired by the stylish days of the empirical push into the developing cultures of the world, with the promise of adventure and modern refinement in a safari setting.”[1]  Though this wording would later be changed, critics rightly pointed out how such a restaurant went beyond white-washing history to glorifying genocide.  Not long before this, the “Saffron Colonial Restaurant” in Portland, Oregon made headlines for willfully ignoring the dark realities of empire.[2]  But, as I argued to the class, in addition to the extremely dangerous amnesia that such eateries display regarding the violence, cruelty, and exploitative policies of empire, they also show a colossal lack of appreciation for the rich and detailed history that could be found in a study of food of the British Empire.

Students were offered a chance to prove this with “The Food Assignment,” a 2-3 page paper that focused on any one dish or drink that was or is native to a location once part of the British Empire. The assignment was to include:

1)    Name and origin of the dish

2)    How it is prepared, generally (a recipe wasn’t required, but a description of the ingredients used, and how they were assembled was)

3)    Its history in relation to the British Empire

4)    An argument for why it should be included in a historically representative menu of the British Empire.

When these papers were all turned in, I compiled them into a single “menu” that was then handed out to the class for consideration and discussion.

The assignment turned out to be an enormous success, both in terms of student’s engagement and the resultant work they produced--and, surprisingly, there were no overlapping dishes.  Though curry was discussed several times, the historical context provided was unique in each paper, which further emphasized the potential of accessing imperial history through a study of food.  In their papers, students used individual dishes to consider large-scale issues, such as diet, consumption, economics, and structural systems of power; however, they also used these dishes to access lived experiences of empire, considering issues of hunger and taste, as well as how food had the potential to unite communities, or drive them apart.  For example, one student used his paper on Ugali, a Kenyan/East African porridge made of maize, to consider how the British institution of cash-cropping fundamentally changed the diet of the tribespeople in these areas, and how the artificial borders imposed on the land altered inter-tribal relationships.  Another student wrote their paper on how ‘pap’, a  corn-based porridge consumed in South Africa,  exemplified class and racial prejudices in the area: maize that was not used for livestock was sold to Black South Africans, an action that was justified by claiming the grain was a “traditional” food, rather than another example of systemic power imbalances.  Another student wrote about the problematic ways in which the British Empire has been remembered through a consideration of chutney. This paper traced the popularity of chutney in the British Army, specifically, and considered how it returned to the metropole, first as a delicacy before becoming “refined” to a point where it is unrecognizable compared to its origin.  It was this condiment that was claimed by the British as “traditional” chutney, erasing the native history of the food entirely.  One student shared his own experience of the legacy of imperialism through the rice and beans he enjoyed in his hometown in Belize.   From his evocative memories of the dish, he explained that as British economic and commercial influence grew in the area over the course of the 19th century, imported British crops and products, like rice and beans, became staples in the diets around Belize, fostering the development of a unique cultural identity that remains even after the end of empire in the area.

Ultimately, it was truly gratifying to see how excited students were to discuss their menu.  The document served as a marker for their progress over the semester, charting how broad and how deep their understanding of the history of the British Empire had become.  This project allowed them to utilize their knowledge and developing research skills, as well as their imaginations and empathy, to consider the British Empire from multiple perspectives, from the grand scale to the individual, human experiences of hunger and satiation. 


[1] For more information on this incident, see Rebecca Sullivan, “Queensland restaurant British Colonial Co accused of ‘gross racism’”: http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/food/restaurants-bars/queensland-restaurant-british-colonial-co-accused-of-gross-racism/news-story/e7289b8b212e6174fc41223ef334055a, Accessed April 15, 2018

[2] For more information, see Mattie John Bamman, “Controversial Colonial-Themed Restaurant Sparks Multiple Protests”: https://pdx.eater.com/2016/3/29/11325650/saffron-colonial-controversy-update-tracking-north-williams-portland, Accessed April 18, 2018

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