George Orwell’s Essay “British Cookery” is Officially Published 70 Years After It Was Rejected by the British Council (1946)

Image by BBC, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Voltaire once joked that Britain had “a hun­dred reli­gions and only one sauce.” In my expe­ri­ence, that sauce is a cur­ry, which was already a British sta­ple in Voltaire’s time. No doubt he had some­thing much bland­er in mind. Of course, it’s all hyper­bol­ic fun until some­one takes offense, as did George Orwell in 1946, when he wrote, against Voltaire­an stereo­types, about the mis­un­der­stood plea­sures of British food. His essay, “British Cook­ery,” was com­mis­sioned by the British Coun­cil, but they sub­se­quent­ly deemed that it would be “’unwise to pub­lish,’” reports the Dai­ly Mail, “so soon after the hun­gry win­ter of 1946 and wartime rationing.”

Not that it mat­ters much now, but the Coun­cil has for­mal­ly apol­o­gized to the deceased Orwell, over 70 years lat­er. Senior pol­i­cy ana­lyst Alas­dair Don­ald­son explains they are “delight­ed to make amends” by pub­lish­ing the essay in full, along­side “the unfor­tu­nate rejec­tion let­ter.” You can read it here at the British Coun­cil site. Orwell grants that the British diet is “sim­ple, rather heavy, per­haps slight­ly bar­barous… with its main empha­sis on sug­ar and ani­mal fats…. Cheap restau­rants in Britain are almost invari­ably bad, while in expen­sive restau­rants the cook­ery is almost always French, or imi­ta­tion French.”

Else­where, he con­cedes, “the British are not great eaters of sal­ads.” Indeed, he says, “the two great short­com­ings of British cook­ery are a fail­ure to treat veg­eta­bles with due seri­ous­ness, and an exces­sive use of sug­ar.” He does go on at length, in fact, about what sounds like a nation­al epi­dem­ic of sug­ar addic­tion. Such laps­es of taste are also what we would now label a nutri­tion­al emer­gency. He may seem to grant too much to crit­ics of British cook­ing. But this is main­ly by con­trast with spici­er, more veg­etable-friend­ly cuisines of the con­ti­nent and colonies. The kind of cook­ing he describes makes cre­ative­ly var­ied uses of stur­dy but lim­it­ed local resources (except for the sug­ar).

Orwell’s bru­tal hon­esty about British food’s defi­cien­cies makes him sound like a trust­wor­thy guide to its true delights. One of the truths he tells is that “British cook­ery dis­plays more vari­ety and more orig­i­nal­i­ty than for­eign vis­i­tors are usu­al­ly ready to allow.” The aver­age vis­i­tor encoun­ters British food prin­ci­pal­ly in restau­rants, pubs, and hotels, which, “whether cheap or expen­sive” are not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of “the diet of the great mass of the peo­ple.” This may be said of many region­al cuisines. But Orwell is devot­ed to a native British cook­ing which had, at the time, almost dis­ap­peared after six years of war rationing.

This cook­ing is rich in roast and cold meats, cheeses, breads, York­shire and suet pud­dings, pota­toes and turnips. The British diet is, or was, Orwell writes, eat­en by the low­er and upper class­es alike, under dif­fer­ent names and prices. Sea­son­ings are few. “Gar­lic, for instance, is unknown in British cook­ery prop­er.” What stands out is mint, vine­gar, but­ter, dried fruits, jam, and mar­malade.

Orwell him­self includ­ed a mar­malade recipe. (A hand­writ­ten note reads “Bad recipe! Too much sug­ar and water.”), which you can see below. Decide for your­self how much sug­ar to add.



2 seville oranges

2 sweet oranges (no)

2 lemons (no)

8lbs of pre­serv­ing sug­ar

8 pints of water

Method. Wash and dry the fruit. Halve them and squeeze out the juice. Remove some of the pith, then shred the fruit fine­ly. Tie the pips in a muslin bag. Put the strained juice, rind and pips into the water and soak for 48 hours. Place in a large pan and sim­mer for 1/2 hours until the rind is ten­der. Leave to stand overnight, then add the sug­ar and let it dis­solve before bring­ing to the boil. Boil rapid­ly until a lit­tle of the mix­ture will set into a jel­ly when placed on a cold plate. Pour into jars which have been heat­ed before­hand, and cov­er with paper cov­ers.

An increas­ing num­ber of peo­ple are cut­ting back or quit­ting near­ly every main ingre­di­ent in what Orwell describes as authen­tic British cook­ing: from meat to dairy to gluten to sug­ar to suet…. But if we are going to give it a fair shake, he argues, we must try the real thing. Or his ver­sion of it any­way. He includes sev­er­al more recipes: Welsh rarebit, York­shire pud­ding, trea­cle tart, plum cake, and Christ­mas pud­ding.

Orwell’s “British Cook­ery” wars with itself and comes to terms. He fills each para­graph with frank acknowl­edge­ments of British cuisine’s short­com­ings, yet he rel­ish­es its sim­ple, sol­id virtues. He writes that “British cook­ery” is “best stud­ied in pri­vate hous­es, and more par­tic­u­lar­ly in the homes of the mid­dle-class and work­ing-class mass­es who have not become Euro­peanized in their tastes.” It’s a kind of cul­tur­al nation­al­ism, but per­haps one sug­gest­ing those who want oth­ers to under­stand and appre­ci­ate a spe­cif­ic kind British cul­ture should invite out­siders in to share a meal.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell Explains How to Make a Prop­er Cup of Tea

Try George Orwell’s Recipe for Christ­mas Pud­ding, from His Essay “British Cook­ery” (1945)

George Orwell’s Five Great­est Essays (as Select­ed by Pulitzer-Prize Win­ning Colum­nist Michael Hiltzik)

Food­ie Alert: New York Pub­lic Library Presents an Archive of 17,000 Restau­rant Menus (1851–2008)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Elizabeth Hurst says:

    Amaz­ing news! I love when my favorite author can still sur­prise and impress after many years. I loved this essay as all anoth­er ones! I love writ­ing, and con­sid­er myself good at it, but some­times I real­ize I have a lack of poet­ic vibes in my essays. If you are inter­est­ed in what I’m talk­ing about, you can use go to and check out on your own. Any­way, George Orwell still rocks!

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