‘Gastronationalism’ is the idea that there are distinctive and authentic national food cultures that are threatened by the forces of globalisation. It is a myth. But as shown by debates on the politics of food and Brexit, gastronationalism can have powerful political effects.
The identification of a nation with the food it eats has played a significant role in forming and reproducing national identity. Once a marker of a public or civic identity; today food has come to be regarded as a cultural commodity to be consumed much like music, TV shows and video games.
Gastronationalism, in particular, is not simply the idea that particular kinds of food or drink are exclusive to certain nations, but that nations possess distinctive and authentic food cultures that need to be protected from foreigners.
The gastronationalist imaginary
Any serious scrutiny of the proposal that there are distinctive national food cultures soon sees it crumble.
Take Italian food, for example. There is no such thing as an Italian national cuisine. What we know as ‘Italian’ food today is a recent historical construct based on Italian cities and regions and the political and economic connections and conflicts between them.
In reality, around the world there are only kinds of food and styles of eating that relate to region and locality, and that are mediated in diverse ways by class, religious and ethnic identity.
However, the idea of a national cuisine has important effects on our political, economic, and cultural life. Eating and drinking allows us to identify with other people in the nation even when we will only ever meet and interact with a small proportion of them.
The rise of ‘British’ food
In Britain, the idea of a distinctive British national food culture has grown up only in very recent times, indeed in a period that largely coincides with the UK’s membership of the European Union.
Britain has come to distinguish its cuisine from ‘European’ or ‘Continental’ cuisine by forming its identity in relation not just to its European, but to its colonial other. In fact, British gastronationalism, like British nationalism, can also be seen as a product of imperialism. Britain as an imperial project was pulling England away from Europe a long time before Brexit.
Today, authentic British food is seen as multicultural, reflecting the importance of Britain’s colonial heritage. This hybridity has been consciously highlighted and celebrated without abandoning some conception of authenticity.
TV chefs such as Gary Rhodes and Rick Stein were not truly orchestrating the retrieval of an authentic historic British food culture, but inventing it for largely commercial purposes. Of course, they drew on elements of ‘traditional’ British cuisine, or more accurately, local and regional elements. But these were not the traditions of a singular British food culture.
Debates about food and Brexit have centred on questions of food trade, sovereignty, and safety. But it is important to recognise that these matters are tied up in the sentiments of gastronationalism too.
For example, there are reasonable objections to importing chlorinated chicken from the US, even though there is no evidence it is in itself harmful to human health. Of course, most people object just because it sounds awful; a symbol of a cruel, profit hungry, global agribusiness. But at base there is a visceral response to it because of a long‐standing fear of the food of others as polluted.
Fish and chips
As Brexit and the politics of food shows us, populism and gastronationalism go hand in hand.
Both fish and chips and chicken tikka masala give lie to the idea of authentic national cuisines. They both stem from ‘foreign’ food practices, practices themselves that are the product of food hybridities.
But it is the symbolic value of fish and chips and chicken tikka masala that are important, and there are two quite distinct narratives of Brexit and gastronationalism at play here.
Ethno‐nationalists seek the restoration of a cultural Britishness that is supposed to pre‐date our membership of the EU. For them, fish and chips is an authentically British dish, exclusive to these islands and the fuel of a glorious past.
Moreover, fish and chips allows us to be economically self‐sufficient. We have plentiful fish in British fishing waters and we grow potatoes in abundance.
Chicken tikka masala
In contrast, a chicken tikka masala Brexit might be thought symbolic of a hyper neo‐liberal Brexit.
Chicken tikka masala relies on importing rice and spices. It is advocated by those who want a ‘Global Britain’ contributing to the production of lucrative food commodities for both domestic and export markets, but also prioritising Britain’s trade and finance networks established under empire. We also need to allow entry to immigrants who know how to cook chicken tikka masala in order to be able to eat it.
The problem, of course, is that pinning down the cultural identity of any Leaver is challenging. After all, Nigel Farage is renowned for his love of curry.
Gastronationalism, Brexit and populism
Brexit has been widely portrayed as a manifestation of a ‘populist’ politics said to be sweeping the world. Whether this politics is indeed ‘populist’ is questionable, but it is a move away from the kind of nationalism that underpinned the postwar international order towards a nationalism of ethno‐cultural interests.
The populist rejects globalisation because of its corrosive effects on authentic national culture. However, the myth of authentic British values, or national culture, is about as vaporous as the myth of authentic British cuisine.
The irony here is that the EU itself has done much to encourage the myth of national food cultures and food authenticity that makes up gastronationalism. Now that idea – as part of the emergence of a nationalist populism that focusses on cultural identity and integration – threatens the future of the EU, regardless of the UK’s future relationship with it.
A longer version of this article was published in the Political Quarterly journal.