Lesson 55

6 months, 2 weeks ago Yeadon's Art Lessons 0

Reflections on National Identity

National identity is propped up by a false yet reassuring sense of the continuity of tradition. Our traditions are rarely as old or as ethnically harmonious as ‘tradition’ might imply.

With terms such as Frog, Kraut, Macaronis and Roast Beef, we see food used as  derogatory nicknames for stereotypes of national identity and even of regionally identity, as in terms such as Scouse. Food is central to our understanding of National Identity, as with the ‘national dish’. Food, its customs and its origins can also reveals many contradictions.

Fish and chips, our national dish – for instance – was introduced to the East End of London by Jewish immigrants in the 19th century, chips being French, of course. Curry has been a part of the English diet for longer than fish and chips. (An antique list of recipes found at Downside Abbey in Somerset, contains the oldest mention of curry in Britain, in fact the earliest recipe in English dates 46 years before this cookbook of 1793 which lists ingredients such as curry powder, sugar and other spices widely available at the time but which passed through Bristol because of the slave trade). Even the macho eating of hot vindaloo features in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Vindaloo being of Portuguese origin from Goa.

Whilst batter puddings were also known in the south of England as well as in Yorkshire, ketchup is derived from the Chinese sauce ke-tsp. The classic English Breakfast of bacon and eggs originated in America.

Even the whole of Scotland was reinvented in the 19th century by Sir Walter Scott and Queen Victoria. After years of cruel repression by the English following the Jacobite Uprising, Scotland became a Romantic tourist destination. The Highland Games are not ancient but Victorian, becoming popular through Royal patronage. Haggis was eaten in ancient Greece and Rome, and the first reference to haggis in Britain was in Lancashire, probably brought over by the Vikings. Whiskey was invented in Italy. The kilt is Irish (the word kilt being Danish), the word Tartan is derived from the French ‘tiretain‘ in reference to woven cloth. The traditional British Christmas is also a Victorian invention. The Christmas tree has its pagan origins in Germany and was made popular in Britain by Prince Albert, and the turkey is an American!

It also might be noted that Morris dancing – the seminal English folk dance – was originally introduced into England from Moorish Spain and Islamic North Africa by British sailors. The Morris also retains some of the sailors’ dance movements. Interestingly, Islamic Spain is also the origin of the Spanish ‘national dance’, the Flamenco.

Our assumptions about what is quintessentially British or even European are usually erroneous. British culture stems from a distant and diverse past and is the product of a multiplicity of cultures and traditions brought about by invasion, trade, theft, colonialism, Empire and immigration.


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