I want to assess the influence the elite strata had on food, the spread of foreign food in Soho post war and whether there was a food renaissance. I will compare this to their impact in the eighteenth century when they made dining out fashionable.
To define the ‘elite’ I will use Ross McKibbin’s description: “They are the members of the extended royal family and senior functionaries of the court, the old aristocracy, the political elites… a good part of the gentry… numerically this class was small… but in social and political power it was very large indeed.” Even Edward Shils, the American sociologist, who was extremely critical of the upper classes in Britain, could not deny their influence on culture. He wrote in the 1950’s: “the culture which has now regained moral ascendency… is the culture traditionally inspired by those classes.” The question remains whether the elites experienced a decline or a renaissance in post-war Britain. Some argue that they had a rebirth because their ‘rituals’ influenced ‘cultures of other social groups in a society that was heavily urbanised and manifestly porous’.
In the nineteenth century the well-known chef Escoffier brought haute cuisine to London via the Savoy Hotel. He had some trouble doing this at the start, as eating out, especially for women, was neither fashionable nor respectable. He succeeded by using human advertising.
Lady de Grey was a “glamorous leader of society, extremely grand and extremely avant-garde”. She was “the first to hold a lunch party at the Savoy and once she had done it everyone else had to join in. It was like Coco Chanel having a tan.” In 1950’s and 1960’s upper-class cook Elizabeth David introduced food and recipes from the Mediterranean. Before David “in 1949 olive oil and wine and aubergines may have sounded expensive and exotic in the England”. David wanted to put a stop to people believing that there was a “commandment which says that meat must me served with two veg and potatoes.” Over time David’s books were “enthusiastically received” and she had a column in Harpers and Queen which spread the word about Italian cooking.
Elizabeth David travelled extensively around France and Italy to get inspiration for her recipes. When she was in Italy she was “itching to get home, to tell everyone that Italian cooking consisted of a good deal more than spaghetti with veal and tomato sauce”. Although rationing was still a problem this began Britain’s adoration of Mediterranean cuisine. Judith Walkowitz states that David “spearheaded the post war revolution in culinary taste in favour of the Mediterranean diet”. Another commentator (Mort) said that this new taste “was pivotal to Soho’s commercial renaissance during the late 1950’s”.
So the ‘elite’ (and specifically their media presence) were indeed influencing culture. Where you ate and what you ate was still seen as an indication of social status. The magazine Man About Town featured reviews of restaurants flagging up the restaurant culture that existed among the upper classes post-war. This would have spread to anyone aspiring to be the ‘man about town’ as well. As Sutherland writes, at the time, there was scarcely “a restaurant opened which did not do so in a flurry of publicity connected with one well-known name or another”.
It could be argued that this phenomenon is alive and well these days in the form of our ubiquitous “TV celebrity chefs”…
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