Taste of Empire

The book maneuvers as deftly as possible through this densely interconnected subject. Sorting chapters by meals allows for a certain focus, though it's still such a vast topic that every so often the scope is overwhelming. (After a few passages tracing trading routes that were "swapping Malabar pepper for cowrie shells in the Maldives and using those to buy rice in Burma to take to Malabar, where the harvest was small," it might be worth cross-referencing a little.)

Why The Story Of Southern Food Is As Much About People As Dishes But even when it's imposing, it's absorbing. This is, at heart, a story about how, "having eradicated the peasantry at home, Britain had acquired an enormous peasantry abroad." Empire is a beast that grows as it feeds, whether it's the desire to remake England or merely to make an English profit. Proto-industrial factories in Newfoundland dried salt cod for sailors on increasing numbers of overseas voyages; canning developed to create exports between British colonies. It's a feedback loop on a staggering scale.

And though the book's more concerned with the past than the present, that loop has timely echoes. Among other things, as scientists worry we'll fish the ocean dry within a generation, it's striking to imagine that only three centuries ago, the Newfoundland shore was so teeming with cod sailors were "hardlie ... able to row a Boate through them." (The cost of empire is apparently perpetual.)

There's a certain academic remove that can make Collingham's discussion of particularly unsavory aspects (violence against Native nations and African slaves in particular) seem a little distant. Generally, the she's more concerned with specifics than implications, and that distance becomes more obvious in passages about, say, the agricultural economics of the slave trade in Senegambia. But The Taste of Empire is so direct about the impact of colonialism that the overall effect of the tone is that Collingham is simply assuming a sympathetic reader — for her, just describing the spread of expedient crops at the cost of culinary identity, or the British ration that replaced sovereign agriculture in Australia, is enough.

And even with that careful measure, the book is fascinating reading, and its central point is more than clear: Britain's many hungers shrank the world in ways that are still nearly impossible to untangle. The "[British] right to consume" speaks for itself, with food as a symptom of the need to constantly define who was part of the Empire, and who was a product of it. (Perhaps the book's most telling recipe — out of some real gems — comes from a 1926 newsreel in which a "traditional" British Christmas pudding is made with ingredients from a dozen nations.)

It's a world the size of which the Lathams could never imagine, but that's part of the point: The empire of taste knows how invisible an empire is from the inside. (Chances are, after this, you'll never look at your grocery list the same way.) Whether you're a foodie or a history buff, this should be a satisfying read; sometimes the best way to history's heart is through its stomach.