Century of swelling cities
During the 18th century, English life started to breed the frantic, money-fuelled materialism that we are familiar with today. As landowners forced peasants off their land, freeing up the opportunity for commercial farming, the industrial revolution was taking hold. Consequently there were huge population shifts, as vast numbers of people moved from the countryside to the towns. Cities swelled, stretching out to incorporate both dilapidated slums and elegant new vistas. Britain was developing a consumer culture, and city life throbbed with activity. Glinting shops, market stalls, cattle traffic, puppet shows, dog fights, fops, prostitutes, and pickpockets, all packed out the streets. Street vendors sold everything from scissor grinding and matches to oranges, hot gingerbread, and love songs. It was an age of gambling on both a large scale (on the stock market) and a small scale (in domino games or cockfighting). As a result, fortunes were frequently made and lost overnight.
It was also a century of great technological innovation, and the activities of the kitchen were affected just as much as society at large. Rolled sheet iron produced improved kitchen utensils, superior fire grates, and modern novelties like the clockwork spit. In earlier times cattle were killed at the beginning of winter when fodder ran out. Therefore meat had to be salted so that it was preserved during the winter months. In the 18th century, however, the English adopted new winter feeding methods, which enabled fresh meat to be available all year round. Improved seeds from Holland brought new varieties of fruit and vegetables to England, while better transport allowed fish to be brought inland fresh from the sea, and regional foods - such as cheddar cheese - to be enjoyed all over the country.
English favourites and flavours from abroad
Although the Whig aristocracy employed French chefs, the swelling ranks of middle England liked their simple, plain fare, enjoying roast and boiled meats, pies, and puddings. Roast beef became part of the construction of a British national identity, in opposition to the fancy sauces of France. The invention in the late 17th century of a muslin cloth for steaming, fed England's obsession with puddings - previously, a cook would have had to obtain fresh animal guts in which to steam her pudding. And the English had an enormous appetite for puddings, whether stuffed with meat or game, or oozing with butter or custard.
Whilst the poor depended increasingly on bread and cake, the wealthy were enjoying such delicacies as vermicelli and macaroni from Italy, curry, pilau rice and mango pickle from India, and even turtle soup containing freshly imported turtles from the West Indies. They grew exotic fruits in their hothouses, and kept ice-cream in their ice houses.
Spirits such as gin and brandy were extremely popular.
The government had given enormous financial backing to the distilling industry at the beginning of the century, having realised that the production of spirits offered a solution to the problem of the corn surplus. Spirits were hugely profitable and were produced in abundance. Consequently they were dirt cheap, and as gin and brandy shops spread like rashes over the cities' poor districts, the incidence of alcoholism among men, women and even children became appallingly high.
This age of indulgence led to widespread health problems, with a high incidence of gout, diabetes, heart and liver disease. And many foods were secretly or unwittingly made with poisonous ingredients. Pickles were made green, sweets multi-coloured, and cheese rind red, all with the use of copper and lead. Pepper was mixed with floor sweepings to bulk it out, and alum (a toxic mineral salt) made bread whiter. Even copper and brass pans were dangerous - when mixed with acidic food, they produced a poisonous layer of verdigris.
Throughout this period booksellers churned out popular recipe books, fully aware of the commercial viability of recipes linked to prestigious chefs. Unfortunately many of the books were thrown together by money-making charlatans who had simply filched their material from existing publications.
With the growth of the middle classes during the course of the 18th century, there was an increasing demand for books designed to save the lady of the house from the tedious duty of instructing her kitchen maids. So recipe books such as The Art of Cookery were directed at the servants rather than the mistress, and were written in plain and accessible language.