What is the essence of the book?
As a nation it is doubtful that many of us Brits pay much heed to the origins of our beloved dishes such as fish and chips and the full English breakfast let alone consider what social markers these foods are loaded with. But this state of affairs will change once you read Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain (Atlantic Books). Pen Vogler explores the social history of both old (think tripe) and ‘new’ (enter the avocado) eatables and what their consumption reveals about our class background (or at least our perceptions of it). Seven sections cover everything from how we take our meals to food fads. British culinary institutions like the Cornish pasty are dissected and some of the forgotten delectables from our past like Saloop are explored. With droll titles like ‘Fish knives: and other ways of being cutting’ it’s hard not to be captured by the opening words of each chapter that takes you on an invigorating ride through the ups and downs of British social culinary history.
About the author
Pen Vogler is the author of Dinner with Mr Darcy and Dinner with Dickens. She edited Penguin’s Great Food series, writes and reviews on food history for the press and has recreated recipes from the past for BBC Television.
Who will like it?
Food history buffs aside (it’s a given that you will love this book) Scoff will appeal to anyone with an interest in everyday life. There are a lot of historical references in the book but you don’t need to be on first name terms with Hannah Glasse, Robert May or their ilk to find this book fascinating. There are plenty of modern (and often very witty) anecdotes to keep you entertained. And if you happen to be an expert in the field of food history there is still plenty within its covers to pique your interest.
Who won’t like it?
On the other hand, you are someone who scoffs at the mere mention of the word class or who believes anything written on social (and especially class) history is purely aimed at those who want to better themselves then this isn’t going to be the book for you (although you’re unlikely to be reading this blog if that is the case).
What do I like about the book?
In terms of readability Scoff is more like a novel rather than the work of non fiction. That’s not to say it dumbs down or mocks any of the areas covered (it most certainly doesn’t do either of these things). The book has been painstakingly researched and is adroitly written. Only an author of Vogler’s caliber can segue so smoothly from tripe to venison. There are some neat nods to literature which I loved. Every reader should be able to relate to most of the subjects covered. Vogler delivers the facts as they are without any judgement attached. This is not a guide to ‘how to be more middle/working class’ and there is no wrap on the knuckles waiting for you should you disagree with some of the observations. Scoff is entertaining and thought provoking in equal measure – a thoroughly engaging read and one I couldn’t wait to return to after I had been forced to put it down (for the essentials like eating, toilet breaks, interacting with my family over the festive period etc…). It certainly made me reassess how I have viewed certain foods in the past. As Vogler aptly concludes:
‘We are, rightly, proud to be a culinary ‘melting pot’, but in reaching for the exotic, the international, the new, we risk overlooking or undervaluing what is under our noses.’
If any book can persuade you to re-evaluate the foods we take for granted in Britain then Scoff is it.
Would I cook from it?
This isn’t a cookbook but Vogler has modernised the old recipes for you to have a go should you wish to do so (the original source is also included for comparison, which is a lovely touch). The nettle soup is definitely on my list once the inclement weather has passed.