To quickly recap what I said in the first post of this series, Krugman uses the presumed awfulness of English food from the early nineteenth century to the 1980s to support his thesis of bad equilibria in market economies, that is, that good things may never be supplied because they have never been requested. English food was awful, he says, because of early urbanization and industrialization.
“Victorian London already had well over a million people, but most of its food came in by horse-drawn barge. And so ordinary people, and even the middle classes,were forced into a cuisine based on canned goods (mushy peas!),preserved meats (hence those pies), and root vegetables that didn’t need refrigeration (e.g. potatoes, which explain the chips).”
In this second post I’ll simply tackle the question: Is urbanization a cause of bad food?
London certainly exploded in size in the nineteenth century, going from just over a million in 1819 (the beginning of the Victorian period) to seven million in 1901 (the end of the Victorian period).
Other nations, though, were also urbanizing. New York soared to four million. Paris went from 1 million in 1844 to 1.8 million in 1872. Edo (Tokyo) had had well over a million since the mid-eighteenth century. In 1800 Beijing and Guangzho had a million people. Istanbul was huge too, and had been for centuries, though, perhaps not reaching a million. By 1900, still in the Victorian period, Berlin, Chicago, Vienna, and St Petersburg also all had more than a million. Melbourne and Buenos Aires had half a million.
This list includes some of the most famed centers of gastronomy, including at the least Paris, Vienna and Istanbul; many would also want to put St Petersburg, Beijing, and Edo on the list.
From a historical perspective, this is scarcely surprising. Big cities have traditionally had the best food of their epoch, including Ancient Rome (a million), tenth-century Baghdad (probably half a million to a million), and thirteenth-century Hangchow (about the same). The reason is simple. Big cities are where the rich and powerful live. They have the power and the will to command (seize, grab, extract, or buy) the best food.
In short, urbanization does not generally produce awful food but the finest food of the epoch.
So even if we accept Krugman’s assumption that English food was awful, it’s not likely that this was because London was a big city.
What about industrialized? That’s for another post.