Then and Now

I received my first lesson in food snobbery when in my early twenties in (of all places) a Bernie Inn in Reading. I had asked for tomato sauce in which to dip my chips and had received, to my surprise, a fresh tomato salsa while a gaggle of waiters had a giggle at my expense. I assumed that the lesson was, ‘Tomato sauce and ketchup bear no relationship, don’t ask for the one when you mean the other.’ This made me wonder why something so tasty and so popular should have so deeply offended those employed to enhance my eating experience.
Some foods are a valued delicacy while others are a social embarrassment but it’s difficult to keep track, because between then and now, their popularity has been quite a moveable feast. In fact there are a number of foods that have undergone remarkable reversals of fortune.
On the upward trajectory of the rocket of popularity is the lobster, the cockroach of the sea. In colonial times they were so plentiful, they washed up in Massachusetts Bay in shoals over two foot deep. As they could be procured with such ease, to be seen to procure one was a source of shame and they were deemed only proper food for apprentices, prisoners, slaves and the poor. In fact, some of the Massachusetts servants revolted and had it written into their contracts that they would not be forced to eat lobster more than three times a week. The more wealthy might purchase lobster in its more acceptable form, that of ground up fertiliser.
Meanwhile, oysters have been yo-yoing their way through history and are once more ascending towards the hand that powers them. In pre-Roman times, they were eaten in Britain when nothing better was to be had. Then the Romans arrived and farmed and exported them, raising them to a luxury food. With the withdrawal of the Romans, oysters once again floundered and disappeared from culinary history, only to reappear in the 13th century when they featured in the manuscripts of Richard II’s master chef. Their popularity as a luxury food continued until the industrialisation in the late 1800s made them inexpensive and they were reduced to poor man’s meat. Oysters were often sold in the street as fast food and in pubs where they, with a pint of stout, would form a working man’s evening meal. They were an inexpensive source of protein and the ratio of beef to oyster in the Victorian favourite, steak and oyster pie was a certain measure of the wealth of the household in which it was prepared. Even Dickens commented in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ that ‘Poverty and oysters always seem to go together’.
By the mid 19th century, the natural oyster beds of England were exhausted and they once again became the property of the wealthy. They are still on the ascent as oyster bars continue to open in London
Caviar is also currently chugging its way up the ascent of the luxury roller-coaster ride. In medieval England, sturgeons and their caviar were reserved exclusively for the King. The fall from grace occurred in the 19th century when sturgeon were the most common fish in North America and a caviar industry was founded on the shores of the Delaware river. Its sudden, ready availability made it a cheap, throwaway commodity and it was often to be found served gratis in bowls on bars, to encourage the locals to buy more booze. By 1910 the stocks of sturgeon were almost extinct so its desirability increased exponentially.
So why do foods veer from junk to juicy and from luxury to loathsome. Has the caviar of today a more delectable flavour than the caviar of yesteryear? Have lobsters become more tasty and oysters less revolting than they were a hundred years ago? (I apologise but personal taste intervenes). I don’t think so. So what are we paying for? It would appear that we are merely paying for the privilege of proving that we have the capacity to pay.
So should you ever order ketchup in Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant only to have the man himself emerge from the kitchen wielding a cleaver, take comfort in this. Were a blight to destroy the tomato crops of the world, menus would be rewritten and this delectable, piquant and rare luxury would be served from dwindling stocks priced at fifty pound a teaspoon.
And he would not even have the good grace to blush.

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