From Nelson’s apple to beef wellington: how war changes the way we eat | Food


I love wars (of the past, obviously), but military history leaves me cold. Arrows over maps, troop movements, strategies: often I can’t even remember whether a troop means one person or a bunch of people, and the strategy always seems to be the same (go round the back). It stands or falls by the same set of circumstances (whether or not they noticed you were going round the back).

But the one thing that animates the battles is when people talk about food – in the first instance, how hungry everyone was – because it’s such a universal. I can’t imagine having my leg blown to pieces, then stitched back together with a bit of bone missing, but I can definitely imagine having had nothing but a berry for four days. It’s an element of thrill and volatility, that an army on its knees can have one hot meal and instantly recover its dominance.

Each side’s rations says something about their quintessential nature, otherwise it can look like a lot of interchangeable doomed people who history will prove could have found better uses for their time than blowing each other up. And food is an incredible propaganda tool. Once you associate Wellington with a delicious fillet of beef in pastry – even though we have no proper evidence that it happened this way and wasn’t invented years later in New Zealand – you think of him as a man who knew a thing or two about winning. Losers eat turnips and don’t have a pastry chef.

Food in the English civil war tended not to be personalised – we don’t have pommes a la Pym – but the sides were highly differentiated by the fact that one was hedonistic and the other was not. Cromwell – austere, famous for banning mince pies – left nothing of culinary note but dourness. The gourmet explosion of the Restoration managed to post-date its values on to the Cavaliers. We think of them following “all manner of rare receipts for preserving, candying and cookery”, as Hannah Woolley wrote in her recipe book The Queen-Like Closet. But that wasn’t published until 1670; the soldiers of the civil war, two decades earlier, were eating mainly grubs and weevils.

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The American civil war, the first to be fought with travelling photographers, is distinguished by unspeakable carnage, but elevated by the fact that one side was clearly the more just. But how, if the Union were both the victors and the emancipators of slaves, have the Confederates even got a look-in, when it comes to romantic testimonies? Partly, they have the Daughters of the Confederacy to thank, a poisonous movement dedicated to throwing up cheap-ass public sculptures that celebrate slavery and continue to sow rancour to this day. But they also have their recipes, such as Jefferson Davis pie and General Lee cake, named after mustachioed gentlemen who were the first president of the Confederacy and the commander of the Confederate States army, respectively. Extremely rich and sweet dishes – Davis’s is a pudding full of nuts and syrups and dried fruit; Lee’s is a layered lemon cake very like Delia Smith’s – these were so decidedly unmacho that they truly divert attention from the main business of the Confederates: enslavement and death. They also conjure up a sense of southern luxury that somehow puts you in mind of civilisation rather than inequality, as with feasting everywhere. I never think Henry VIII was shoving roasted animals into his gob whole at the expense of his famished subjects; I just think: “What a fun and successful guy.”

Compare that with warriors who had just an apple named after themselves – Nelson, Loammi Baldwin of the American war of independence – and you have quite a different battle story: major hardships in which combatants were stripped of every excess and reduced to eating things off trees. (This is preferable, though, to the two things no one ever wants to eat during a war – your horse, and another human.)

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Canning ruined everything, if you’re looking to combat for romance: everything was the same shape, measured out by calories as if men were machines. There was no point even plundering your enemy’s food since it would just be tongue in another language. All those cute little details – the French baguette having been invented so Napoleon’s soldiers could carry bread down their trousers – disappeared once sense and innovation had prevailed. Arguably this should have been a sign, even by the first world war, that we had advanced our way out of all the things that make warfare fun, and were into the plodding, tedious business of efficiency.



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