Oral histories of food production and consumption

Chicken sexing. Image courtesy of Ray Moore
Chick sexing. Image courtesy of Ray Moore

Our oral history collections explore the production, consumption, cookery and sale of food. They include interviews with chefs, restaurateurs, retailers and winemakers.

About the collection

In addition to collections which focus on the food industry, the history of food in work and domestic settings falls into most life story recordings held within the British Library's oral history collections.

What is available online?

  • Food: From Source to Salespoint was a major National Life Stories project that collected over 300 life story recordings from its inception in 1999. In 2011-12 an additional set of recordings were conducted with key British chefs and restaurateurs. The interviews chart the revolutionary changes which have occurred within Britain's food industry in the course of the 20th century.
  • Tesco: An Oral History, a National Life Stories project funded by Tesco, recorded 39 life story interviews with employees of Tesco between 2003 and 2007, of which 28 are now available online at British Library Sounds. It charts the rise of the supermarket retailer from an East End market stall to multinational giant. The archived recordings were used extensively in The Making of Tesco by Sarah Ryle.
  • Food Stories is an interactive learning resource aimed at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 geography and citizenship students. It allows the exploration of the oral history collections in more depth through interview extracts and transcripts. The recordings featured are taken from Food: From Source to Salespoint and the Millennium Memory Bank.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Food retail

  • An Oral History of Neal's Yard is a collection of five interviews with staff, customers and suppliers of Neal’s Yard Dairy, examining the 35 years of trading history of both Neal’s Yard Dairy, Monmouth Coffee Company and their direct and indirect networks. The pilot project was supported by the European Research Council-funded Food Futures proof of concept research grant at the University of Sheffield.

The wine trade

  • An Oral History of the Wine Trade, part of the National Life Stories Food programme, recorded life story interviews about the wine trade, both past and current. The project ran from 2003 until 2005 and was sponsored by the Vintners’ Company and the Institute of Masters of Wine.
  • An Oral History of the Wine Society is a collection of four recordings commissioned by the Wine Society in 2005, of people who worked for the Society.

Social history of food

Attitudes towards food and drink feature in many of the oral history collections held at the British Library, particularly in collections which offer a survey of British life:

  • Within the Millennium Memory Bank - the joint BBC and British Library project at the turn of the year 2000 - one of the themes of questions was 'Eating and Drinking'.
  • Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918 contains life story interviews with a cross-national sample of people born before 1918 in the UK. The interviews were conducted thematically, and included 'Meals and Domestic Routine'.

Further information

The National Life Stories Annual Review 2008-9 features information on Food: From Source to Salespoint.