A world of connections in a kitchen cabinet. Image of the "Food Stories" home page via the British Library.
Do you know when curry came to the United Kingdom, or what was the first product to be sold with the aid of a bar-code scanner in a supermarket? How sugar beets were traditionally harvested, why Chinese restaurants took off in Britain, or which famous historical figure spurred the invention of canned goods? Or are you wondering why you should care about such trivia at all? To all these questions, the British Library has answers.The UK's national library and one of the world's largest research libraries, the "BL," as it's apparently known, seems to have made the transition from preserving dusty manuscripts to making information available online with ease and grace. With its "Food Stories" section, just one of many intriguing interactive online resources, the library creates an animated tour of the U.K.'s food culture over the last century -- a culture that touches many others around the world, and bears numerous resemblances to that of the U.S. -- that is full of fascinating tidbits and oral-history interviews.
Tales from Farmers and Immigrants
From a Norfolk farmer describing his work harvesting sugar beets with a horse and cart in the 1950s (as the cart drove down the rows, "you'd pick up a beet with a hook, hold it in your hand, chop, and throw it") to a supermarket manager talking about how the chicken's lack of appeal as an animal has made it so popular as a food to a Hong Kong immigrant reminiscing about the early days of Chinese restaurants in Britain (they filled a niche in a period when late-night eateries were scarce), the interviews and related materials explore the ways in which food relates to identity, cultural diversity, the environment, technology, farming, shopping, travel, and many other aspects of life.
For societies that have grown far from the production and even processing of their food (when's the last time you visited a butcher's shop? much less a fishmonger?), getting a glimpse into the past offers more than just an exercise in nostalgia. Imagining a not-so-long-ago world in which pizza and salami were exotic (really!) provokes gratitude about the rich variety of choices available to eaters today -- and contemplation about the massive global trading network, and all its environmental impacts, required to give us such a wealth of options.
Other segments consider how the past continues to have an (often negative) hold on the present -- how eating habits developed in a time when people were more active now contribute to obesity rates, or how agricultural subsidies created to meet post-World War II food shortages have ended up harming farmers in developing countries.
Why Our Food Choices Matter
"We are what we eat -- literally. As we consume food, it becomes part of us, sculpting away at the physical shape of our bodies. But food also binds us to others," the Food Stories introduction reads. "Food takes us back in time, linking us to the recipes and rituals of previous generations. Food ties us to our families, to our wider communities... the choices we make can have a profound impact on the environment, on health, and on the welfare of others."
All that in a pack of chewing gum (the first item sold with a supermarket scanner, back in 1974), a plate of curry (a recipe for which first appeared in a British cookbook in 1747), or a can of tuna. It was, by the way, Napoleon Bonaparte who offered 12,000 francs to whoever could preserve food for his army, spurring a clever Parisian chef to discover that food sealed in tin containers would last a mighty long time.
More about food culture:
What is American Food? A Green Eating Manifesto
Slow Food Comes to the UK, Finally
Seven American Foods with Regional Availability
Rhubarb In The City: A Cultural Tradition Worth Bringing Back
Agriculture Needs a Fundamental Rethink in the 21st Century
Local Food Rebuilds Small Town (And Inner-City) America
Local and Seasonal Food: The Spaghetti Harvest