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Distributed for Reaktion Books

Eating the Empire

Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Eating the Empire

Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain

When students gathered in a London coffeehouse and smoked tobacco; when Yorkshire women sipped sugar-infused tea; or when a Glasgow family ate a bowl of Indian curry, were they aware of the mechanisms of imperial rule and trade that made such goods readily available? In Eating the Empire, Troy Bickham unfolds the extraordinary role that food played in shaping Britain during the long eighteenth century (circa 1660–1837), when such foreign goods as coffee, tea, and sugar went from rare luxuries to some of the most ubiquitous commodities in Britain—reaching even the poorest and remotest of households. Bickham reveals how trade in the empire’s edibles underpinned the emerging consumer economy, fomenting the rise of modern retailing, visual advertising, and consumer credit, and, via taxes, financed the military and civil bureaucracy that secured, governed, and spread the British Empire.

288 pages | 85 halftones | 6 1/4 x 9 1/4

Art: Art--General Studies


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"What Bickham, a Texas historian, shows throughout this congenial study is that the British had begun to define themselves in this period not just through the canons of political liberty, the polemical hubbub of the coffeehouses, and the tankards of tongue-loosening country ale but also through the cultivation of a larger sense of discernment about where their victuals and intoxicants came from, and what ramifications they spread through society. . . . The superseding of rancorous crapulence as a social manner by the ritual civilities of tinkling teacups in the British cultural paradigm would prove as much to their credit as, eventually, was the abolitionist movement."

World of Fine Wine

"Entertainingly written, with blessedly little historiographical jargon, amusingly illustrated with a wealth of contemporary caricatures, this book allows you to ponder the interpenetration of consumption and social action. Great stuff."

Tom Jaine | Asian Affairs

"Everyone is wondering what the corona pandemic can teach us about ourselves and the world we live in. Maybe the answer is in a new . . . book on British food habits in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. . . . Although Bickham had no idea about the virus when he wrote his book, he draws a vivid and suddenly up-to-date picture of how people's everyday lives intertwine across worlds and time zones, when goods are constantly crossing borders."

Politiken (Denmark)

"As Bickham explains in his introduction, this book is less an examination of food than it is of 'foodways,' or the use of food to better understand society. His book is a model study of the subject, as he uses cuisine and the sociocultural elements surrounding it to detail the many ways in which the British Empire was present in the everyday lives of 18th-century Britons. . . . Bickham's insightful analysis of such a wide-ranging subject makes his book a highly recommended addition to all libraries with concentrations in early modern British history, British imperial history, and the history of consumerism."


“Richly illustrated with visual materials: well-chosen satires, political engravings, and trade cards. The narrative that runs throughout this publication is convincing and elegantly composed. Well-crafted and painstakingly researched, in the hands of this authoritative scholar, readers will find Bickham's Eating the Empire approachable and informative. Clearly, Bickham’s work suggests the trajectory of food studies and is an important contribution to the fields of political and culinary histories. There is much to learn from Bickham’s scholarship and, moreover, Eating the Empire is an enormously enjoyable read. This reviewer is eager to see where his research leads and awaits a second helping.”

Reviews in History

"Well researched and a highly enjoyable read, Eating the Empire is a good place to start for those seeking an introduction to Britain’s commodity culture, its imperial dimensions, and the range of stimulating products that increasingly came to define the practices of 'civilized' consumption in the British Isles over the long eighteenth century. Bickham’s beautifully illustrated text is chock full of interesting tidbits and fun asides while still engaging themes that are central to the historiography of this critical period of British imperial history."

Journal of British Studies

"Eating the Empire is a delicious soup, which brings humble and familiar ingredients together into a satisfying and nutritious meal. By studying the foodways of the British Isles during the long eighteenth century, Bickham shows how ordinary men and women encountered and appropriated the Empire, Europe, and the Enlightenment and developed a national cuisine that was both local and global."

Erika Rappaport, professor of history, University of California, Santa Barbara, author of "A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World"

"The nature of food and eating is so central to social experience, and this book succeeds in saying something new in a lively scholarly field, showing an admirable grasp of both the broader background—Britain and the Empire—and the specific details about a range of foodstuffs."

James Walvin, professor emeritus of history, University of York, author of "How Sugar Corrupted the World: From Slavery to Obesity"

Table of Contents


Part I: Encountering, Acquiring and Peddling
1 The Empire’s Bounty
2 The New British Consumer
3 Advertising and Imperialism

Part II: Defining, Reproducing and Debating
4 Defining a British Cuisine
5 An Edible Map of Mankind
6 The Politics of Food


Selected Sources
Photo Acknowledgements

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