The Gouty, Flatulent, Meat-Bloated Aristocrats Who Never Stopped Eating

Image: Wellcome Collection

The term “good food” is weighted—foods that are good are healthy, nourishing, and often expensive. “Bad” foods are cheap, disposable junk. Historically, rich people have been the arbiters of which foods are good and which foods are bad, while also acting as the gatekeepers for who has access to good foods.

I began watching The Great British Bake Off, a wholesome show about good English cooking, because I loved Sue Perkins’s 2008 docuseries, The Supersizers Go. On Bake Off, Perkins is a punny cheerleader, rooting for contestants to succeed in recreating old-fashioned British recipes. In The Supersizers Go, she and food writer Giles Coren are less enthusiastic about historical English food. They roll their eyes through nearly every period of British culinary history, dressing and living like the aristocracy of the time as they eat mountains of bad food that rich people once considered good. When I first watched the series, seeing modern people halfheartedly attempt to mimic the pomp and circumstance of the ruling class cracking sarcastic jokes about their foppishness at every turn was a fun way to collect bits of trivia about historical weirdness. But after re-watching the series on the heels of seeing Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a movie in which working-class people fight to the death for rich people’s scraps, it’s hard to see wealthy people’s dinner tables as anything but showcases for all the resources they’ve kept from everyone else.

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The Supersizers Go began with a single, one-hour documentary called The Supersizers Go Edwardian. It was a response to the 2004 Morgan Spurlock documentary Supersize Me, in which Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s for an entire month. It was a joke: If Spurlock thought McDonald’s was excessive trash, he should take a look at the Edwardian Era, when the English elite showed off their wealth through all-day feasts of the richest foods imaginable, throwing away what they couldn’t eat despite the fact that at the time, 23 percent of those living in urban working households could not afford basic necessities like food. Hosts Perkins and Coren are guided through their week of Edwardian eating by cookbooks and historians, dressing the part and keeping track of the havoc the excesses of the era, with diets heavy in meat and light on vegetables, would wreak on their bodies.

The one-off documentary eventually became a two-season, 12-part series in which the pair ate according to the standards different periods in British history, from WWII rationing in the first episode all the way back to the early-modern Elizabethan period. The series originally aired on the BBC, and when I first watched in 2014, it was included on Hulu. These days, Supersizers only exists for Americans as grainy YouTube videos. But for viewers who can put up with the poor video quality, watching the episodes chronologically according to time period is an engrossing look at the ways English tastes were shaped by the exorbitant amounts of wealth amassed by colonization and privatizing land while hiking up food taxes. In the Elizabethan Era, the earliest time period covered by the series’s first season, English aristocrats who had yet to be introduced to the fork were still amateurishly dumping New World spices haphazard into pots of boiling animal entrails. But by the Edwardian era, their meals were an elaborate, never-ending banquet of complicated, intricately-prepared dishes that had about as much to do with nourishment as a mink coat has to do with staying warm.

For example, in Edwardian England, an upper-class couple sat down to a breakfast spread of porridge, sardines on toast, curried eggs, grilled cutlets, coffee, hot chocolate, bread and butter with honey. For one o’clock lunch, their private chef would have served sauteed kidneys, mashed potatoes, macaroni au gratin, and boiled pork tongue. Afternoon tea meant coconut rocks, fruit cake, Madeira cake, toast with butter, and hot potato scones. For dinner, the wealthy could expect oyster patties, sirloin steak, braised celery, roast goose, potato scallops, and vanilla soufflé. Watching Perkins and Coren try to shovel all these meals into their bodies along with endless glasses of claret is akin to watching a goose be tube-fed for foie gras.

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In the middle of the episode, Perkins is forced to endure the five-course lunch of asparagus, fried Irish sprat, lobster tower, eggs in aspic, salmagundi, smoked salmon cornet, rice pudding, macarons, and champagne wealthy Londoners would have eaten on a 90-minute train ride from London to Brighton. As she eats her pudding, she begins to cry.

“You know the stories of women who just wouldn’t come down for breakfast or lunch because they lived almost in fear of the tyranny of what awaited,” she says. “The endless plates of food they would just push around their plates. After a week it does get you, you just think, ‘Oh when do they stop?’”

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The didn’t stop, apparently. According to the Supersizers, history is full of gouty, flatulent, meat-bloated aristocrats who never stopped eating. They enclosed land so that they could gobble up all the animals and hiked up taxes on staples like wheat for the poor in order to keep their own tables brimming with food they didn’t even want. They feasted during the English food riots of the eighteenth century. As famine left 90 percent of France without enough food, the rich sat on display for public feasts, forcing cake into their bodies until they vomited. When they are not gorging, Perkins and Coren fill their days with the occupations of the wealthy, sports, hunting, playing the harp, all amusements designed to fill the hours between feeding times. In The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England, author J.H. Plump writes that during the early modern period, England became “a consuming animal with boundless appetites, to follow fashion, to emulate his betters, to seek social advantage through spending, to achieve vertical and social mobility through possessions.”

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But these behaviors are hardly limited to the early modern period. The series is full of the bizarre backstories of the ways historical influencers shaped the ways rich people consumed. For example, in his travelogues, Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe wrote that he had stopped at an English roadside inn to be served a wedge of Stilton so thick with maggots he was given a serving spoon with which to scoop them up. Soon, novel inn cheese covered in bugs were a dietary staple for wealthy travelers who had consumed Defoe’s account the same way modern diners might eat up a James Beard Award nomination. The Regency rich would gobble maggots if another rich person told them to and then take their food scraps to the local poor as a pittance to keep the underclasses from getting murderously hungry. After a few hours, even watching Sue jokingly saw off a pig snout stuffed with truffles just to discard it, making fun of its gelatinous texture, made me angry at the divide between rich people refusing to eat and poor people begging for just a little more.

Perhaps that’s because last weekend, between episodes of Supersizers, I took a break to see Bong Joon-ho’s bleakly comic thriller Parasite, a movie about the ways that the class divide creates monsters of people just trying to avoid starvation. In the film, the out-of-work Kim family slowly cons their way into jobs as servants in the Park family’s upper-class household.

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Each time the impoverished Kims get an unexpected influx of cash, they eat. When the family is paid a pittance after spending days folding endless piles of boxes for a pizza restaurant, they buy bags of chips and tallboys. After the family’s son Ki-woo is hired as the Park family’s English tutor, the entire Kim family piles their plates at a buffet. An abundance of food is a metaphor in the film for a paycheck, a temporary means of keeping the wolf away from the family’s door. But these feasts are always temporary; there’s never enough work, never enough money, never enough food. Unlike the consistent, nourishing meals their mother Kim Chung-sook cooks for the Park family, the food they eat is junk, temporarily filling but ultimately insubstantial.

By contrast, the food in the Park home is “good.” Heaping plates of fresh fruit are served to Ki-woo as he tutors, a housekeeper offers Mrs. Park a homemade glass of nourishing plum juice when she’s feeling unwell. At the Parks’ mansion, even $2 packs of udon noodles are made better by the addition of hanwoo beef—a luxury cut from premium cattle on par with Kobe or Wagyu. For the servants, food is also weaponized; in one scene, the Kim family physically attacks the Parks’ equally impoverished former housekeeper with a pile of fresh peaches.

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But while the Kim family acts a parasite to the Park family, integrating themselves into their lives in order to sap resources, the Park family also consumes endlessly, taking much more than they could ever need simply because they can afford it. In one of Parasite’s final scenes, the Parks throw a last-minute party and arrange a feast at a moments’ notice complete with trays of fat prawns, meatballs nearly as big as dinner plates, dozens of bottles of expensive wine, and a pristine cake capped with clouds of white frosting. The matriarch of the family chitchats on the phone while she buys the food, not even hearing the cost. The servants prepare the feast for guests too preoccupied with the party to eat, and the Kims watch as the rich treat their excess like normalcy while blinding themselves to their employees’ huger.

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In America, our giant wealth divide has also created a dichotomy of full and empty tables. The gap between rich and poor is currently the widest it has been since the Census Bureau began studying income inequality in 1967. The richest 10 percent of U.S. households represent 70 percent of all U.S. wealth. In 2016, 41 million Americans went hungry, according to the USDA, and one in eight families reported having difficulty feeding all their members at least once over the course of a year. And the gap isn’t just starving people, it’s killing them. September 2019, the New York Times reported that “Almost three-quarters of rich Americans who were in their 50s and 60s in 1992 were still alive in 2014. Just over half of poor Americans in their 50s and 60s in 1992 made it to 2014.” Additionally, the data shows that the poorest 40 percent will likely die before their parents did. In the 2020 election, most democratic candidates promise healthcare reform and plans to institute a livable wage for all workers. Our tables have become so unequal that politicians are now running on the platform of keeping constituents alive.

Parasite is a thriller, and it frightened me mostly because it served as a reminder that, like most Americans, I am scared nearly all the time of the fact that two months of bad luck could leave my table completely empty. When I got home from the movie theater, Supersizers wasn’t fun anymore. All those tables overflowing with good food now looked uncomfortably parasitic: impossible to maintain without leaving someone else with all the junk.

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