Nothing is quite so simple, of course. It is a mark of how much Vogler stimulates the reader that such thoughts spring to mind. This is a pleasurable compilation, scholarly but not dry, with sharp imagery, quiet wit and lively personal stories. A generous bibliography and detailed references encourage further discovery. She also includes original recipes – for spiced beef, brown bread ice cream, or quince pye (sic) – along with contemporary iterations which solve the problem of vague directions and imprecise amounts but also capture the “voice” of the original writer. In a recipe for khitchri, the instruction to use sufficient turmeric to “tint the rice a nice light yellow colour” takes us right into the Victorian Raj kitchen of Colonel Kenney-Herbet. Thankfully, Vogler does not include the recipe for “dumb cakes”, which “young women would make and eat at St Agnes Eve … to dream of whom they might marry. Suggested ingredients, besides flour, include salt, soot and your own wee”. Now, there’s something to épate la bourgeoisie.
Her observations about how our obsession with class exacerbates food inequality have only become more urgent, as during this pandemic the newly unemployed and the chronically underpaid line up outside food banks and the well-off shelter at home and wait for their groceries to arrive from Ocado – the supermarket delivery service named after, and “inspired by”, the avocado.
I can’t remember the last time I read a food book so interesting and so lively, let alone one that makes so many quietly political good points without ever becoming earnest or preachy. Let me add that it also comes with a recipe for parkin. What more could you possibly want?... The range of Vogler’s reading is extraordinary. If she quotes Dorothy Hartley, Florence White and other great food writers, she’s just as apt to steal scenes from Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. Scoff is the place to marvel at the fact that, long before anyone had ever uttered the words “lactose intolerant”, the English were keen on almond milk – in the 15th century, Dame Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, made her own, to be used during Lent when dairy was forbidden (and when the wealthy liked to pass off porpoise and beavers’ tails as “fish”) – and you will perhaps be amazed, too, to discover how jelly, of all things, slithered its way down the social ladder across the centuries.
Scoff is a superb book for snacking upon, with its short chapters devoted to gin or avocados or “bread and butter”, which Vogler notes was an afternoon tea dish in itself served ready-spread (a staple of my own childhood). She serves a buffet of obscure facts from historic cookery books, along with keen culinary readings of Austen, Dickens and the Brontës, who I’d never noticed wrote so much about food. Vogler’s style is warm, amused and personal, although she expresses a controversial loathing of fish and chips...
I don’t like everything about Scoff. The writing has the odd awkward moment — the use of the word “natch” for “naturally” is the prose equivalent of dad dancing. But this is a tiny fly in the soup. More importantly, I wish I could share Vogler’s optimism. In time, she hopes that readers will find the very concept of Scoff “antiquated and superannuated” — they will scoff at it. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that most people in Britain want a classless society. If they did, they would vote differently. I suspect that future readers will be buying the sequel.
It is a rare moment to catch Vogler scoffing. Mostly she circumvents any suggestion of being a latter-day Mrs Manners by making it clear that what concerns her is less about what to say when invited round to supper in Chipping Norton, and more about what the majority of Britons get to eat on a daily basis. She blames centuries of food snobbery for the fact that we have ended up in the topsy-turvy situation where words such as “fresh”, “local”, “home-made” and “healthy” signify the diet of the wealthy few, while everyone else gets to eat cake – shop-bought and ultra-processed and quite likely to kill you, in one way or another.
This excellent history is full of fascinating facts about the food we eat. I never realised that sandwiches and desks were invented at the same point in history. Nor that the English were cooking and eating macaroni pasta way back in 1390.
More tellingly, it pricks the pomposity of many of our social conventions surrounding eating. So I say feel free to gobble down your peas in any way you like — ideally on a fish knife, of course!
Vogler is sensitive to language, and she wields it brilliantly herself. Bons mots jostle with the kind of truth-skewering opinions that win reputations for restaurant critics. On shop-bought sandwiches: “No matter how sunny its crayfish and rocket or hummus and red pepper filling, it always gets suffocated by the dead hand of chilled sliced bread.” On small-plates dining: “I feel I’ve had a collage rather than a meal . . . the blessing is that it never takes very long.” On gin’s reputation for causing misery: “Any alcohol makes you weepy, if you drink it fast enough and have something to weep about.” On pork pies: “Delicious at the first bite, but a whole one is always a bit too much.”