George Orwell and Food

So I’m reading a book called ‘Poor Economics’ by Banerjee and Duflo about how and why people in poverty make the decisions that they do. I’ve been wanting to read it for awhile and am so glad I now have the time because I think it’s fascinating. I’m in the first chapter which looks at food and nutrition in relation to the impacts it can make on lives and income. Anyway, there was a quoted passage from a book George Orwell (of Animal Farm fame) wrote about the typical working class life in England in the early 1900s called ‘The Road to Wigan Pier.’

“A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into; the other functions and faculties may be more godlike, but in point of time they come afterwards. A man dies and is buried, and all his words and actions are forgotten, but the food he has eaten lives after him in the sound or rotten bones of his children. I think it could be plausibly argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion. The Great War, for instance, could never have
happened if tinned food had not been invented. And the history of the past four hundred years in England would have been immensely different if it had not been for the introduction of root-crops and various other vegetables at the end of the Middle Ages…

The basis of [a common Englishman’s] diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes–an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. ”

So the Poor Economics book mentions that for about 20 cents a day (this is dependent on where you live of course) people can have a 2000 calorie a day diet with 10% protein, by basically eating only eggs and bananas. The problem is that people of course would get bored of eggs and bananas, just like they get bored of eating rice everyday, so when a little extra money comes their way they’re going to splurge on more expensive exotic foodstuffs instead of the things that would give them better nutrition and energy. And to read a socialist writing describing the same thing in England 100 years ago is so interesting to me.

180 comments for “George Orwell and Food

  1. Robert Reynolds
    February 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Nicole –
    You have a long walk ahead, so pick up a copy of “1492” and read about the influence Columbus had on food across the entire world. For instance, famine in Ireland in 1492 until the introduction of potatoes – which are interesting a rather complete food – hence the development of monoculture in potatoes – leading to root rot – and back to famine again.

    So Orwell is correct about psychology, but perhaps does not give adequate attention to food source/availability – and the totally manipulative role of global corporate agriculture.

    When you get to Spain – which has 27% unemployment at the moment – please observe eating behaviors for us… Bob

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