The Taste of Empire

How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World


By Lizzie Collingham

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A history of the British Empire told through twenty meals eaten around the world

In The Taste of Empire, acclaimed historian Lizzie Collingham tells the story of how the British Empire’s quest for food shaped the modern world. Told through twenty meals over the course of 450 years, from the Far East to the New World, Collingham explains how Africans taught Americans how to grow rice, how the East India Company turned opium into tea, and how Americans became the best-fed people in the world. In The Taste of Empire, Collingham masterfully shows that only by examining the history of Great Britain’s global food system, from sixteenth-century Newfoundland fisheries to our present-day eating habits, can we fully understand our capitalist economy and its role in making our modern diets.



‘A view of a stage as also of the manner of fishing and drying cod at Newfoundland’, in Hermann Moll, A New and correct map of the world, laid down according to the newest discoveries (Canada, 1709–1720). Bridgeman Images.

Detail from ‘The Kingdom of Ireland’, in John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (Thomas Basset and Richard Chiswell, London, 1676). Cambridge University Library.

The Seal for the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, 1802. Photo © Granger/Bridgeman Images.

‘Sugar refinery’, in Jean Baptiste Du Tertre, Histoire Générale des Antilles Habitées par le Français (1667). Library of Congress, Washington DC.

John Raphael Smith after George Morland, ‘The Slave Trade’, 1791. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Richard Houston, ‘Morning’, 1758. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

‘Glaud and Peggy or The Gentle Shepherd’, after David Allan, 1808. Yale Center for British Art; gift of Janet and James Sale, Yale.

Trade card of Hodson, tea dealer. The Trustees of the British Museum.

Alice F. Huger Smith, ‘The sheaves are beaten with flails’, ‘Her little log cottage was as clean as possible’, ‘Gibbie and the oxen’, ‘A rice field “flowed”’, ‘The girls shuffled the rice about with their feet’, ‘Pounding rice’ and ‘Fanning and pounding rice for household use’, in Elizabeth Allston Pringle, A Woman Rice Planter (Macmillan, New York, 1913).

George Sala, ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’, undated. Yale Center for British Art; transfer from the Yale University Library and the Yale University Art Gallery.

John Lewis Krimmel, bar room dancing. Library of Congress, Washington DC.

The Indo-Chinese opium trade: the stacking room at an opium factory at Patna. Private collection/photo © Liszt Collection/Bridgeman Images.

James Ward, ‘Cottage and farm buildings’, undated. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

‘Man outside a hut in the gum fields, holding loaves of bread’, Northwood brothers, photographs of Northland. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Frank Cyril Swannell, ‘Oil claim Survey camp at Kishe-neh-na Creek: cook frying venison’, East Kootenay region, British Columbia, 1904. Courtesy of Royal British Columbia Museum, British Columbia Archives, Canada.

Sir Charles D’Oyly, ‘A punca bearer’, undated. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

George Baxter, ‘The Reception of the Reverend J. Williams at Tanna the Day Before He Was Massacred’, 1841. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

‘Tea Leaf Rolling’ trade card for Nectar Tea Co., nineteenth century. Private collection/© Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images.

‘The Old Room in Slumland’, nineteenth century. Private collection/Bridgeman Images.

‘Victims of the Madras Famine’, 1877, photograph by Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Private collection/Bridgeman Images.

A River Plate Meat Company butcher’s shop. Private collection.

Margaret Trowell, ‘The African countryside as it is today and as it might be’, in A. R. Paterson, The Book of Civilization, Part II (Longmans, Green and Company, London, 1935).

RAF cooks at their open-air kitchen at an advanced landing ground, Western Desert, North Africa, c.1941. Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

‘Britannia and Jonathan’, Punch, 27 December 1856.

‘Can label for Ye olde English Plum Pudding’, St George Preserving and Canning Company, 1940s. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Colour plates

‘The fishing industry, Newfoundland’, in Jules Ferrario, Le Costum Ancien et Moderne (Bramati G., 1820s–1830s), Vol. II, plate 36. Private collection/The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Images.

‘West Indies–boiling sugar’, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Washington DC.

Agostino Brunais, ‘A Linen Market with a Linen Stall and Vegetable Seller in the West Indies’, 1780. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

‘A Family Being Served Tea’, by unknown artist, c.1745. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

‘Figures in a Coffee House’, attributed to Joseph Higmore, c.1725 or 1750. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

William Simpson, ‘The village well’, 1864. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

William Alexander, ‘Chinese sailor smoking in his junk’, 1795. The Makins Collection/Bridgeman Images.

Frank Holl, ‘Peeling Potatoes’, c.1880. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.

Interior of James Knight’s butcher’s shop in Christchurch. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Two Maori Women preparing dinner at Ohinemutu, Rororua. National Library, New Zealand.

‘Coolies. Demerara’, Photographs and Clippings of the West Indies, 1890. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

‘Coolies on board ship. Recently arrived in Demerara’, Photographs and Clippings of the West Indies, 1890. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Labels from tins of meat made by the James Gear Co., Wellington, New Zealand, 1890s. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.


‘Bring food!’ shouted the small boy who had taken on the role of the white district officer.

In a village in north-eastern Rhodesia, a group of Bemba boys were playing at being Europeans–one of their very favourite games. The main actor was lounging in a tangle of branches and bark rope, which stood in for a chair. During the course of the game he repeatedly called out for food until one of his playmates–who was acting as a servant–objected.

‘You can’t ask for food again,’ he whispered, aghast. ‘We’ve only just brought it to you.’

‘You know nothing about Europeans!’ his ‘master’ immediately replied. ‘That is just what they do all day–just sit and call, “Boy! Bring me food.”’1

The Bemba, who ate only one meal at the end of the day, regarded as childish the European habit of constantly breaking off from an activity to take tea or some other refreshment. This scene, witnessed by Audrey Richards, an anthropologist who lived among the Bemba for several years in the early 1930s, stands as a metaphor for the relationship of Britain to its empire. ‘Bring me food’ became a persistent demand.

This book tells the story of how Britain’s quest for foodstuffs gave rise to the British Empire. Each chapter opens with a particular meal and then explores the history that made it possible. Why were a Frenchman and a glamorous Afro-Portuguese woman sharing a pineapple in West Africa in 1698? How did a team of surveyors prospecting for copper in British Columbia in 1901 come to be eating Australian rabbit? What configuration of circumstances led a group of Afro-Guyanese diamond miners to be cooking an iguana curry in 1993? Every chapter tells an individual story, but they all link up in a narrative that reveals food as a driving force of empire.

From the sixteenth century, when the British started to venture out across the oceans, they went in search of food. West Country fishermen began bringing cargoes of salt cod back from Newfoundland in the 1570s, and in the next century East India Company carracks unloaded millions of pounds of pepper and spices at London’s East India docks. Before then, food imports had catered for the wealthy, who drank Burgundy wines with their heavily spiced meals and poured Italian olive oil on their salad greens. In the sixteenth century, the dried figs and currants, citrus fruits, almonds and spices that English merchants acquired in Antwerp in exchange for woollens accounted for only a tenth of all England’s imports. But over the following centuries foodstuffs went from playing a negligible role in England’s trade to centre stage. By 1775, half (by value) of all the goods Britain imported were foodstuffs, and West Indian sugar had ousted linen from first place as the most valuable of all the country’s imports. In fact, with a value of over £2.3 million, West Indian sugar was worth more than all the manufactured goods arriving on Britain’s shores.2

By now, food imports were no longer just for the rich. In fact colonial groceries had been thoroughly integrated into the diet of the entire population. Caribbean rum was the favourite Irish tipple, and everyone from street sweepers to gentlewomen enjoyed an afternoon cup of China tea sweetened with West Indian sugar. Britain sat at the centre of an impressive trading empire, and foodstuffs helped to turn the wheels of commerce. The Atlantic slave trade relied on supplies of maize and manioc grown in West Africa; the slaves working on South Carolina’s plantations grew rice that the British traded with northern Europe for the timber and pitch needed by the shipbuilding industry. Trade and sea power were mutually dependent.3 The merchant marine was an invaluable source of experienced seamen in time of war, and the Royal Navy protected the trade routes. The tax revenue generated by the import of commodities from around the globe in turn financed the building of warships.

The empire that grew out of this trade is often referred to as Britain’s First Empire. It encompassed a wide variety of types of settlement–from fishing enterprises on Newfoundland’s shores and agro-industrial sugar plantations on West Indian islands to neat English farms in southern Ireland and forts manned by a handful of soldiers dotted along the West African coastline. The Atlantic trade dominated, although the East India Company, with its factories in India and China, was growing in power and importance. What brought these disparate entities together in a common framework under the umbrella of Britain’s empire was not the manner in which they were governed but how trade with them was regulated. The Navigation Acts stipulated that only British ships could carry their goods. For most of the eighteenth century the term ‘empire’ did not denote the possession of territory but the power to dominate trade. The first British Empire was an ‘empire of the seas’.4

Britain’s Second Empire emerged in the nineteenth century after the loss in 1783 of the thirteen mainland American colonies. This dealt the Empire a blow but in 1815 Britain emerged triumphant from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars with France as the world’s pre-eminent maritime power.5 The old closed mercantilist system was swept away by a fervent belief in the benefits of free trade.6 British territories expanded into India, Africa and even as far afield as Australasia, and a mixture of military force and financial investment ensured that Britain’s economic hegemony extended the nation’s power into China and South America. Even the United States was reintegrated into this informal empire until the 1870s, when its own process of industrialisation allowed it to pull away from the British sphere of influence. This restless expansion allowed Britain to harness the world’s resources.

The steamship and the railway moved unprecedented numbers of both people and goods across vast distances. Food was only one among the many commodities–textiles, dyestuffs, tin, rubber and timber–that flowed into Britain. But food imports from the commercial empire played an extremely important role as they became vital to the diet of the working classes upon whose labour the Industrial Revolution depended. By the 1930s, the wheat to make the working man’s loaf was supplied by Canada and his Sunday leg of lamb had been fattened on New Zealand’s grasslands.

In the tropics adventurers established plantation agriculture and imported slaves from West Africa and indentured labourers from India to provide a workforce. British migrants settled in the temperate zones and grew European foodstuffs on the land they appropriated from the indigenous inhabitants. In the process, the British eradicated entire native populations; they changed landscapes and agricultural systems, often destabilising other people’s access to food; they facilitated the exchange of crops between the Old and New World, reshaping their own and other people’s tastes in the process.7 The food web that was woven by these developments created a truly global system that connected all five inhabited continents, drawing in even the most isolated and far-flung corners of the planet. The Hungry Empire reveals the intricate interdependence of the Empire and its role in shaping the eating habits of the modern world.



In which it is fish day on the Mary Rose, anchored in Portsmouth harbour (Saturday 18 July 1545)

How the trade in Newfoundland salt cod laid the foundations of the Empire

Saturday 18 July 1545 was a fish day on the Mary Rose. The crew ate on the cramped gun deck, sitting wherever they could find room. Fish days were not popular; sailors referred to salt cod as ‘poor John’. But on this Saturday, the meal provided a welcome break from frantic activity as all 185 soldiers, 30 gunners and 200 mariners on board were busy readying the ship for war. That morning Nicholas Cooper and a couple of fellow cooks had climbed up to the sterncastle, passing crew members busy festooning the decks with anti-boarding netting. They had come to fetch the salt cod, which had been steeping in large vats of fresh water for the last 24 hours.1 The ship’s crew was divided into messes of six to eight men who ate together. Those men whose turn it was to prepare the food for their mess that day gathered on deck to collect their share of the fish. Each man was entitled to one quarter of a 24-inch salt cod.2 They tied the fish into cloth bags and secured them with a peg bearing the mark of their particular mess. The bags ensured that even though the fish disintegrated into flakes as it cooked, every mess received their fair share. The men piled the bags of cod into wooden buckets and the cooks carried them down the steep companionways to the galley, a pocket of light and warmth in the dank darkness of the hold.3

The depths of the ship soon filled with the smell of cooking fish as the bags were set to simmer in the larger of the galley’s two cauldrons. When it was ready, it was carried back up to the hungry crew on the gun deck. In each mess the fish was doled out in equal portions into the men’s wooden bowls and they set to eating with wooden or horn spoons.4 On fish days, every man was allowed four ounces of cheese and two of butter, and as the ship was in port, every man was also given a loaf of bread. This made a welcome change from the hard and worm-eaten ship’s biscuit that they had to make do with when they were at sea.5 They washed down the salty fish with gulps of beer. Their wooden drinking bowls were filled by a cook boy moving around the gun deck giving each man a portion of his daily allowance of a gallon of beer.

While the crew ate, their superiors discussed their fate. Anchored alongside the Mary Rose in Portsmouth harbour was the flagship, the Henry Grace à Dieu. Here the king, Henry VIII, was in council with the Lord Admiral of the Fleet, Viscount Lisle, and the Mary Rose’s commander, Vice Admiral George Carew. A French fleet had set sail for England 12 days previously and was expected to engage the English in battle the next day. As the three men schemed, Lisle sketched a battle plan on the back of a document that happened to be lying on the table. It placed the Mary Rose, one of the fleet’s bigger warships, at the centre of the coming engagement.6

By the end of the following day, almost all of the crew of the Mary Rose were dead, drowned when she sank only a few minutes after going into battle. The gunners had just fired a round of cannon when a chance gust of wind caused the ship, overloaded with ordnance, to simultaneously turn and heel over. A Flemish survivor described how water flooded in through the open gun ports as the Mary Rose tipped beneath the waves.7 Most of the men were on the upper decks, where they were caught in the web of anti-boarding netting and taken down as she sank. At most 40 survived, perhaps only as many as 25, out of a crew of 415.8

The wreck has bequeathed to us one of the best collections of Tudor artefacts, including shoes and tunics, medicine vials and bandage rolls, carpentry tools, guns, bows and arrows, and the skeletons of 179 men, a rat and a dog. Six of the skeletons were found in the galley.9 Nicholas Cooper and his fellow cooks appear to have been busy preparing a tongue and some fresh beef when the ship went down. They were probably making a meal for the officers. Scattered across the galley floor were ten pewter plates belonging to the ship’s commander, on which the food was meant to be served.10 Divers found wooden bowls on the gun decks. It is from one of these that we know Nicholas Cooper’s name, because he had inscribed it on his bowl. On the orlop deck and in the hold below it, archaeologists recovered the vertebrae of cattle and pigs, as well as thousands of fish spines amid the remains of the casks and wicker baskets that once held them. These were the residue of the ship’s store of beef, pork and cod.11 Salt meat and fish, biscuit, beer, cheese and butter were cheap, durable foodstuffs that could be stored for long periods and transported over great distances without becoming (completely) inedible.

The Tudor military ration drew mainly on local food sources: under Henry VIII, England was self-sufficient in staple foodstuffs. The pork and beef on the Mary Rose would have come from English herds of swine and cattle; the cheese from Gloucester or Cheshire; and the butter would have been made locally from the milk of Hampshire’s dairy herds. But the fish was not a local product. Genetic analysis of some of the thousands of fish bones found in the wreck indicates that the cod had been caught in the northern North Sea and around Iceland. But one of the bones analysed was from a fish that came from much further afield, belonging to a genetic cluster of cod that lived off the north-eastern coast of the American continent.12 By the middle of the sixteenth century, the Tudors were clearly venturing thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean in order to secure a staple foodstuff. This reliance on faraway places to supply England (and later Britain) with food was to become a hallmark of empire.

The importance of the Newfoundland fish trade in laying the foundations of the British Empire is frequently overlooked. The focus is usually on the story of maritime exploration and the quest for spices. But it was cod fishermen from the West Country who were the first Englishmen to acquire knowledge of the Atlantic currents and winds that later helped those explorers who went in search of a sea route to the Spice Islands.13

The medieval Christian practice of abstaining from meat on fast days had given rise to thriving European fisheries. In the fourteenth century, the Dutch mastered the art of pickling their North Sea herring catch in salt, which enabled even those devout northern Europeans living far inland to forgo meat on Fridays.14 In the fifteenth century, pickled herring was eclipsed by Norwegian stockfish, air-dried cod that was distributed throughout northern Europe by the Hanseatic League.15 The League’s attempts to monopolise the North Sea catch drove the English to seek new fishing grounds. They found one on the continental shelf just off Iceland. The Danish authorities soon complained that the English who set up camp there in the summer months treated the island as though it were their own, digging ditches, putting up tents, even building houses, and assaulting competing Icelandic fishermen.16 While the Icelanders wind-dried their catch, the English at first simply salted the cod before piling it in the holds of their boats. But over time, they combined these two preservation methods, lightly salting the fish before allowing it to dry in the air. The end product was both tastier than Norwegian stockfish and could be kept longer.17

A substantial share of the English fishermen’s Icelandic catch was bought by Bristol merchants. Indeed, in the second half of the fifteenth century, Bristol emerged as England’s major fish entrepôt.18 This was because the city dominated England’s wine trade at the time. The Englishman’s tipple of choice was sweet ‘sack’ from the Iberian peninsula.19 The Spanish and Portuguese had little use for England’s staple export of woollen cloth: they preferred to exchange their wine for salt cod, which they regarded as a tasty and affordable alternative to meat.20 Thus Bristol ships would sail to Iceland to buy up salt cod, and then continue to southern Europe and as far afield as the Spanish Canary Islands and the Azores, to exchange the fish for wine.21 The city’s place at the heart of this trade in fish for wine made Bristol a centre of knowledge about Atlantic navigation.

It was therefore no coincidence that the Venetian Zuan Caboto (better known by his anglicised name John Cabot) set sail from Bristol when in 1497 he went in search of a northern sea route to the Spice Islands. A group of Bristol merchants had already funded at least three western voyages to search for the mythical land of Hy-Brasil, said to lie beyond Ireland. They certainly knew that the seas in this part of the ocean were thick with cod. Moreover, some of these expeditions had almost certainly found land: they returned to Bristol laden down with salted and dried cod that it would have been impossible to dry on board ship.22 Cabot would have drawn on this local knowledge, and after only 35 days at sea, his expedition arrived on the north-eastern coast of Canada. He had ‘discovered’ not the hoped-for sea route to the Indies but the land the Vikings had called Helluland and that Henry VII now christened Newfoundland.23

Cabot’s discovery was much celebrated. The parsimonious king granted him a generous pension of £20 a year, to be paid from Bristol’s customs receipts. The Duke of Milan’s envoy in London wrote of sailors’ reports of seas ‘swarming with fish’.24 The cod were supposedly so abundant that they could be caught without fishing nets or lines by simply lowering weighted baskets into the water. The envoy claimed that there was talk that England would ‘have no further need of Iceland’.25 But the king was not particularly interested in the shoals of fish. His imagination was caught by Cabot’s claim that he would be able to follow the Newfoundland coastline until he reached Cipango (Japan), which he claimed was a source of spices and jewels. Henry was entranced by a vision of London as Europe’s new spice entrepôt.26

The king’s and Cabot’s dreams were not to be realised for another century. In the meantime, the Bristol merchants quietly got on with making the most of the riches that had been discovered.27 In 1501, Hugh Elyot sailed into Bristol harbour with the first recorded cargo of cod to arrive in Europe from North America. The 36 tons of salt cod were worth £180, which was equal to the annual income of a prosperous landed estate.28 However, despite the evidence of such bounty, in the early years of the sixteenth century only a handful of West Country fishermen ventured to Newfoundland. The low level of domestic demand–due to the fact that the English lacked the southern Europeans’ ability to transform the board-like fish into tasty dishes–meant that there was little incentive for English fishermen to choose the longer and stormier voyage across the Atlantic rather than the familiar journey to Iceland.29 The seas off Newfoundland were instead dominated by the Bretons and the Basques, whose home markets were greedy for salt cod.30

The reasons for English fishermen to participate in the Newfoundland venture became more compelling over the course of the century. When Henry VIII inherited the throne from his father in 1509, he was determined to recover the territory England had once held in France and began enlarging the English navy: the Mary Rose, completed in 1511, was part of his ambitious shipbuilding programme.32 The Anthony Roll, an illustrated inventory of his navy, records that by 1545 the king had used the wealth he had confiscated from the monasteries to build up a fleet of 58 ships from the five that he had inherited from his father. These were the beginnings of the navy that eventually played an important role in creating Britain’s seaborne empire.

The expansion of the Tudor armada substantially increased the demand for salt cod. The Anthony Roll suggests that at full strength, Henry’s navy would have employed about 7,700 men. If each of these was given a quarter of a salt cod on each of the two weekly fish days, then the annual naval demand in the 1540s would have amounted to over 200,000 salt fish.33


  • New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice pick
  • Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4
  • "Collingham writes about the British Empire from a unique perspective.... The history of West Indian sugar, African slavery, and American colonization is an oft-told tale, but Collingham takes mere mercantilism and expands and deepens its consequences."—Booklist, starred review
  • "Joyously delicious.... In her original and supremely captivating book, [Collingham] has cleverly recreated the fine details of some 20 meals, consumed for four and a half centuries in a variety of homes and ships and tented encampments far from the motherland.... In British terms, she is Henry Mayhew and Mass-Observation rolled into one--a stellar observer of the day-to-day and the mundane, a social historian of extraordinary talent."—New York Times Book Review
  • "The entwined histories of food and British imperialism...have been strangely overlooked in the decades of research since. In The Taste of Empire, Lizzie Collingham puts that neglect to rights, showing in a tour de force of synthesis that food was one of the driving forces of empire and helped form the eating habits of the entire modern world...Collingham's great achievement is to take [the empire's] food history out of the realm of cozy nostalgia and show it for the potent economic and political force it was."
    Wall Street Journal
  • "The Taste of fascinating reading, and its central point is more than clear: Britain's many hungers shrank the world in ways that are still nearly impossible to untangle.... Whether you're a foodie or a history buff, this should be a satisfying read; sometimes the best way to history's heart is through its stomach."—NPR
  • "Collingham...sees trade in sugar, spice, rice and tea as the reason the British were so keen to command sea routes dating from the 16th century.... The result is the stuff of lively cocktail party conversation among the geekiest of food lovers, right down to the occasional recipe for mock turtle, rum punch and (Hello, Bridget Jones!) leftover turkey curry."—Washington Post
  • "Lizzie Collingham's fascinating new book, The Taste of Empire, demonstrates that a cup of tea is never just a cup of tea--it is a history of trade, exchange, land-grab, agricultural innovation and economic change.... This is a marvelously wide-ranging and readable book, stuffed with engaging details and startling connections."
    Financial Times
  • "An original and thought-provoking book and for all the shocking accounts of the consequences of British appetites, a highly entertaining one."
    The Times (UK)
  • "There are many factors that drove Britain's centuries-long quest for world domination. But one of the biggest, argues historian Lizzie Collingham...was a taste for better, more exotic food, from India's pepper and tea to Barbados' sugar."—Time Magazine
  • "Usually it is assumed that Britain's empire appeared and then Britain's food trade-that vast tonnage of tea, flour, sugar, bully beef and Crosse & Blackwell pickle that swept across the seven seas-appeared to feed it. Ms. Collingham turns that idea neatly on its head. It was not so much the empire that began the trade, but trade that began the empire."—Economist
  • "An energetic and refreshing account of a little considered aspect of British history.... A remarkable achievement."—Guardian
  • "This is a wholly pleasing book, which offers a tasty side dish to anyone exploring the narrative history of the British Empire."
    Max Hastings, Sunday Times (UK)
  • "Collingham shows how the spread of different dishes shaped the modern world."—Entertainment Weekly, Best New Books
  • "Beyond gold and glory, an insatiable lust for foreign foods drove the juggernaut of British imperialism. So shows Lizzie Collingham in this rich economic history, drawing on annals military, mercantile and domestic to reveal the complex routes along with the fruits of the colonial fields and fisheries were shunted into Britain's dining rooms."
  • "Collingham's...historical vignettes and recipes...are equal parts fascinating and horrifying, in the way only pre-germ theory food handling can be."—Reason
  • "Deeply researched and highly readable, [Collingham's] book takes on the sprawling subject of how 450 years of British colonialism affected foodways the world over.... Engaging."—Globe and Mail (Toronto)
  • "Enjoyable for historians and gastronomes alike...Collingham has built a banquet of British history and culture that shows how the world's largest empire followed food to the pinnacle of its power."—Roanoke Times
  • "The Taste of Empire is a fascinating history of exactly how food shaped and informed colonialism, and vice versa.... Collingham explores these connections in compelling prose, making human stories central to her investigation."—Atlantic
  • "Fascinating.... Although Collingham does not flinch from the cruelties and brutalities of the empire, she refrains from the self-congratulatory finger-wagging indulged in by some modern historians."—Daily Telegraph (UK)
  • "This ingeniously constructed history shows that what we think of as personal appetites have largely been constructed by the machinations of empire. The Taste of Empire uses vivid snapshots of meals to tell the story of how Britain's quest for food drove its imperial ambitions. Collingham takes the reader on a powerful journey ranging from the sugary tea of Great Britain to the rum punch of Boston. Like Sidney Mintz or Margaret Visser, Collingham is a historian whose writing about food informs larger stories about human existence: about conflict and culture, about economics and politics. I was dazzled by Collingham's writing and her book also left me very hungry."
    Bee Wilson, author of First Bite
  • "The Taste of Empire has a hidden history: the menu, and how it changed the world. Lizzie Collingham has uncovered an epic that runs from domestic comedy to horror to the startling shifts that brought rice to America, maize to Africa, and tea to India. She makes it absorbing and utterly readable, mixing the huge economic story with exact and fascinating glimpses into past lives. You'll never see a biscuit tin the same way once you know how they were used in the Zulu Wars."—Michael Pye, author of The Edge of the World

On Sale
Oct 3, 2017
Page Count
408 pages
Basic Books

Lizzie Collingham

About the Author

Lizzie Collingham is an associate fellow at the University of Warwick. The author of three books, including The Taste of War and Curry, Collingham lives in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Learn more about this author