Who Invented the Ploughman's Lunch?

The picture is 'Still Life' by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, and I found it here. The link will take you to a site dedicated to Italian cheese.

My sniffiness about the social construction of history, in the sense of the invention of problems and traditions for particular purposes, was in full flow the other day. Then one of those small events that often correct me and make me feel a tad silly turned up, courtesy of a friend's somewhat loopy question about why English people call things that are a bit like Chutney pickle, while Americans call them relish.

The history of England is reflected in pickles. Branston's pickle, for instance, is just like England. It is a name for something adapted from an old recipe and reinvented in the 1920s, which was clearly influenced by British India, and earlier seventeenth century trades. It is now owned by a conglomerate that is usually found strapped to a supermarket, and is about to be menaced by an American hedge fund. It is delicious with cheese.

In English pubs, a dish called 'Ploughman's lunch' is often served. This consists of a chutney, some cheeses, and a pickled onion, and possibly some green leaf or other, with a hunk of bread. It has to be eaten with beer. It evokes a rural and solid past, a bit like field food of the sort that gets served up in mama dips in North Carolina which is wholesome even if it did emerge from slavery.

I'd always thought that a ploughman's was an old thing, a legacy of the seventeenth century, the sort of thing the six carpenters might have spoiled on a warm september day four hundred years ago.


Turns out that its modern form was invented by the Milk Marketing Board, or at least propagated thereby, in the nineteen sixties. That said, there is intriguing evidence that all is not as it seems and that the modernising body was just re-making a past broken by world war two and urbanisation. To understand this, you have to work out literary clues whilst drinking beer. This is the way things are in England, I guess.

What next, the discovery that hamburgers, pizza, chicken tikka and lasagne are all made of butter and sheepdips, or that MacDonalds orginally fried strawberries? Food timelines are silent on the issue.

I do love food history. Richard Cobb, famously, used to be able to talk about the history of revolutionary France by staring at the drains, but I prefer the table for my rambles.

O tempura, oh smores.....


Popular Posts