Troy Bickham. Eating the Empire: Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Reaktion Books, 2020. Pp. 285. $35.00 (cloth)
Journal of British Studies
Engagingly narrated, Troy Bickham's Eating the Empire: Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain explores the ways in which eighteenth-century British subjects consumed their empire by ingesting a range of imperial commodities. Based on state trade, taxation, and customs records; shopkeepers' accounts, trading cards, and insurance policies; personal diaries; newspapers, essays, pamphlets, and political tracts; cookbooks; travel guides; and medical treatises; and the rich visual culture of
... visual culture of the long eighteenth century, Bickham argues that people across the British Isles encountered, and thus engaged with, imperialism almost every time they nibbled, sipped, snorted, or inhaled a range of increasingly available and affordable ingestibles. Accessibly written, Eating the Empire provides an introduction to Britain's imperial consumer culture through the lens of food, drink, and other stimulants. Bickham demonstrates that British cuisine came to be shaped by the products imported from the empire over the course of the eighteenth century. Bickham reveals the ways in which the eating habits of Britons changed throughout the 1700s as it became commonplace to consume foods from India, the Americas, and the West Indies. In eating their empire, Bickham argues, men and women from across the socioeconomic spectrum marked themselves as civilized, patriotic, cosmopolitan imperialists who used food to signify their status, their political leanings, and their global knowledge. Full of interesting detail and a pleasure to read, Bickham's account of the central place of ingestible products in Britain's expanding imperial culture joins a range of other scholarship that has sought to take "the culinary turn" and place food at the heart of British social, cultural, economic, political, and imperial history. The first half of the book explores how the British encountered the empire through imperially traded commodities, focusing on what Bickham usefully terms ingestibles: tea, coffee, sugar, and tobacco. It demonstrates the ways in which these exotic products became domesticated, evolving over the course of the long eighteenth century from foreign luxuries to staples Journal of British Studies 59 (October 2020): 889-931.