Clarissa Dickson Wright’s A History of English Food is, in almost equal measure, enraging and engaging. Engaging because it is so full of interesting facts and old recipes, all related in Dickson Wright’s resonant, no-nonsense manner and suffused with her love for food. Enraging partly for the same reasons: it is called a history, but the tone is sometimes irritatingly non-historical. No historian would put themselves into a book as much as Dickson Wright does here, let alone come up quite so often with theories based on nothing but her own Columbo-like hunches. (‘I can’t help wondering’ and ‘how different history might have been’ are endless refrains.) Sometimes she is so goofy that the reader doesn’t know whether to weep or bellow with laughter. The sentence ‘I can’t imagine any of the guests that day could have guessed that in less than twenty years the Battle of Bosworth would see the end of the Middle Ages’ has shades of Python’s ‘let us go forth and fight the Hundred Years War’.
She starts in 1154, with the accession of Henry II, and then progresses chronologically, linking the food people ate with wider social history. We follow the English from their earliest dishes (bacon and eggs, of course) through the changes that came about from outside influence: the Crusaders brought back spices;