“…banal forms of nationalism and a sense of national identity are likely to strengthen rather than weaken over the next ten years.” (Malesevic, 2013)
A couple key nationalism theorists provide validation of food’s potential for stirring nationalist sentiments. In his Banal Nationalism (1995), Michael Billig raises the everyday backdrop of our lives, which he sees as being sprinkled with national symbols. He argues that quotidian images, signs, phrases, flags etc. which represent a nation’s values and identity provide sort of glaze, if you will, over the broader concept of nation. It’s worth blending Malesevic in here — in beginning of his Identity as Ideology (2006), he notes that identity has become an”indispensable ingredient of every human being”and that “nationalism remains the most potent source of state legitimacy.” Thus, food folds its way into nationalism: branding of food, histories of food, specific recipes or versions of recipes, etc. all can flavour how a person sees, represents, and defends their national identity. This post will assess a few recent programmes and notable events soaked in food-related “British identity” and banal nationalism. Bon Appétit.
Supermarket nationalism: ‘British beef’ in England vs. ‘Scottish oatcakes’ in Scotland
A Scottish national identity can be seen in how products in supermarkets are labelled. It is much more likely to find a product labelled ‘Scottish’ in Scotland, than it is to find something labelled ‘English’ in England. South of the border, ‘British’ is often the word used for the products. This is proved simply by doing a search on Google images. When searching for ‘English’ and ‘Lidl’, only products labelled ‘British’ appear, as ‘British beef’, ‘British potatoes’ and so on. If you do the same with ‘Scottish’ and ‘Lidl’, several products pop up labelled ‘Scottish’ and often have a remarkably sized Scottish flag on them as well.
These findings comply with the differences between the English and the Scots when asked if they identify more as British or Scottish/English. When Brits were asked this question in 2007, 47% of the English felt more English than British, whereas 38% felt more British than English. In Scotland, as many as 77% felt more Scottish than British, and only 14% felt more British than Scottish (Bechhofer & McCrone 2014: 311). Thus, it can seem that, at least until recently, Scots have had a stronger Scottish identity than the English have with English identity. This can be one of the explanations for the differences of product labelling in the two nations.
Lee and Copus have also suggested that the emphasis on ‘Britishness’ in England partly is due to a deliberate policy of suppressing English political identity in favour of being British. (Bechhofer & McCrone 2014: 313). According to them, the British state could not survive such an expression of national identity.
No matter the reason for the national differences in product labelling policies, the importance of ‘Scottish products’ to Scots was highlighted when famous Scottish cake and biscuits company Tunnock’s decided to remove the Scottish Lion Rampant from their packaging (Alexander 5/1/2016). The company also started calling their cake ‘The Great British Tea Cake’. This angered many Scottish nationalists, who understood this as Tunnock’s were abandoning their Scottish identity. Many even called for a boycott of the company. This incident shows that there is a form of ‘supermarket nationalism’ among Scottish nationalists – labelling of Scottish grocery products as being Scottish with symbols representing ‘Scottishness’ seems to be an important part of their national pride and identity. ‘Britishness’ is, to them, undermining this identity.
Nationalism in BBC Cooking Shows
In his Imagined Communities (1983), Anderson describes national consciousness forming as a result of people across a wide range of physical space being able to consume the same information and stories. The novel and the newspaper aside, societies now have film and television to inform their nation-view. In BBC cooking programmes, such as MasterChef, Jamie’s Great Britain, Great British Bake Off, and James Martin: Home Comforts, one finds all sorts of banal nationalism. “British” recipes and local ingredients are often chosen and chefs will sometimes provide a story about the dish’s roots in British history. Often the kitchen backdrop will be designed to “look British” and will include Union Jacks. Recipes that have existed in the UK for over 50 years, but have origins in another nation generally keep their “not-British” identity, while their flavours can inform “new British” cuisine. Watch any episode of a food programme on the BBC and one could compile a list of instances of banal nationalism. Moving beyond, however, this topic illuminates questions about who is British if one is using food to define identity.
In the last couple of years there has been discussion in various news articles and online blogs about the “contemporary multicultural Britishness” portrayed in Great British Bake Off. Last year, a Muslim woman was crowned best baker. Some were pleased with this, stating that it forced viewers to reconsider Britishness. Others have been less amused, accusing Great British Bake Off of trying to push a “multicultural agenda” onto viewers by intentionally choosing diverse contestants who do not represent the average Brit. Those once, and sometime still, considered “not British” are now on the Great British Bake Off stage, making sponges, puddings, and fairy cakes in aim of being awarded best baker. In being able to allow “non-British” people to show their Britishness by baking perfect scones, food plays a divisive role in defining national identity and challenges people to think about what it means to be British.
One final tidbit to think about is that many other countries have adapted their own versions of Great British Bake Off, tweaking the recipes, kitchen sets, etc. to fit their nation’s identity, whatever that may look like or mean. See more here and here.
Anglo-Indian Cuisine: A Multicultural Victory?
In 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook asserted that Chicken Tikka Masala had become “a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British customers” (Buettner 2008). This statement identified the South Asian dining industry as such a massive force that it had seemingly earned inclusion into British national identity.
Indeed, one can likely walk down most streets in Edinburgh and stumble upon an Indian-styled restaurant within a few minutes. As an industry that employs close to 70,000 people and reports an annual turnover of approximately £2 billion, South Asian specialities have eclipsed other ethnic cuisines in the UK. As of 2015, there are estimated to be 9500 “Indian” restaurants in the UK, whereas there are merely 4700 Italian establishments (Federation of Specialist Restaurants). Balti curry, first developed in Birmingham, is another example of an Anglo-Indian dish that is now considered “British” cuisine.
While many Britons enjoy “going for an Indian,” the vast majority of curry restaurants are actually staffed by Pakistani and Bangladeshi people, and though the British capacity to absorb and adapt external influences has extended to South Asian food, it may not have extended entirely to South Asian people. In a series of surveys conducted in 2009, Vadher and Barrett found that many second generation British Indians and Pakistanis considered themselves British mostly in a legal context, with their white British cohabitants constantly reminding them of their true ethnic identity through discrimination, racism, and jokes (Vadher & Barrett 2009: 444). As Cook celebrated multiculturalism in Britain with his speech about Chicken Tikka Masala, he may have assumed too much about the nature of ethnicity.
— Jordan, Simen, and Taylor
Do you usually choose products produced in the country you are buying it in when shopping at the supermarket? Why do you choose this way? Would you have a different pattern in your own country?
Do British cooking programmes make you feel more connected to Britishness?
Can food enable a people to breach the boundaries of ethnicity?
Are scones more British than Chicken Tikka Masala? / Why might people think scones are more British than Chicken Tikka Masala?
Can a food be a synecdoche for a nation?
Is national identity undermined when a nation’s “national foods” are not consumed by its citizens?
Alexander, S. 5/1/2016. ‘Cybernats Call for Boycott of Tunnock’s Tea Cakes for Ditching Scottish Lion’, The Telegraph [Online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/news/cybernats-call-for-boycott-of-tunnocks-tea-cakes-for-ditching-sc/
Anderson, Benedict. 2006 . Imagined Communities. London: Verso.
Bechhofer, F. & D. McCrone. 2014. ‘The End of Being British?’ Scottish Affairs 23.3: 309-322
Billig, M. (1995). Banal Nationalism. London: Sage.
Buettner, E. (2008). “Going for an Indian”: South Asian Restaurants and the Limits of Multiculturalism in Britain*. The Journal of Modern History, 80(4), 865-901. Retrieved February 28, 2016.
Federation of Specialist Restaurants. “Statistics & Data.” (n.d.). Retrieved February 28, 2016, from http://www.fedrest.com/marketresearch.htm
Malesevic, S. (2006) Identity as Ideology: Understanding Ethnicity and Nationalism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Malesevic, S. (2013). Future Identities: Changing identities in the UK – the next 10 years
Smith, A. D. (2001). Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Vadher, K., & Barrett, M. (2009). Boundaries of Britishness in British Indian and Pakistani young adults. J. Community. Appl. Soc. Psychol. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 19(6), 442-458. Retrieved February 28, 2016.