Worcestershire Sauce and the Geographies of EmpireRoundup
tags: empire, colonialism, food history
Julia Fine is a Humanities Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks and the Folger Shakespeare Library. She researches and writes on the food history of the British Empire.
Had a Bloody Mary to drink at brunch? Ate a Caesar salad last week? Munched on deviled eggs at that party? All of these dishes, and many more, commonly are made with Worcestershire sauce. But behind this seemingly innocuous condiment is a much larger colonial history that touches on issues of authenticity, domestication, and Anglicization. Worcestershire sauce demonstrates the way that the British Empire was domesticated and connected through practices and practitioners of specialized eating habits.
A Brief History of Worcestershire Sauce
The common story of the origins of Worcestershire sauce goes like this: in the 1830s, the former governor of Bengal Lord Sandys returned to Worcester and talked to two local chemists, Lea and Perrins. He asked them to recreate his favorite sauce from Bengal. The duo agreed and concocted, according to food historian Lizzie Collingham, a sauce “so fiery that it made their eyes water.” Eventually, the extra barrels went into the cellar, and the pair forgot about them, leaving them to ferment. When they rediscovered their mixture, according to Collingham, “Lea and Perrins discovered that the concoction had matured into a pleasing spicy sauce… By 1845 they had set up a factory in Worcester, and by 1855 were selling over 30,000 bottles a year.”1
Many historians, from Collingham to David Burton, have retold this common account in their works. But it is unclear if this story actually happened, or was made up for the marketing benefit of Lea and Perrins, the company the chemists formed as they began to sell the condiment in the 1830s. One archaeologist calls this story “company lore,” suggesting, as seems likely, that this tale of far-flung colonial places and forgotten barrels of sauce was made up or embellished to benefit the company.2 Indeed, much of the historical scholarship about Worcestershire sauce relies on the accounts given in two books: The Raj at the Table (1994), a history of British Indian food that contains few in-text citations, and The Road from Aston Cross (1975), an industrial history commissioned by a previous owner of Lea and Perrins, which also has a paucity of citations. Even Lea and Perrins’s own employees have suggested that this story is a myth. According to a Seattle Times article, a Lea and Perrins’s spokesman said that this story “may not be God’s own truth.”
The sauce, of course, does have resemblances to the umami sauces, some of which are fermented, brought to England from Asia during the imperial era. While the taste and method may have been inspired by these sauces, it seems unlikely that this exact story with Lord Sandys occurred. Even in the 19th century, evidence seems to undermine Worcestershire Sauce’s alleged origin. As early as 1840, Lea and Perrins published classified advertisements in British newspapers discussing the “nobleman” who gave them the recipe.3 By the 1860s, this “nobleman” was identified as Lord Sandys; one article in an 1867 London Review wrote that “as it is not generally known who may be that incognito ‘nobleman’ to whom the votaries of the gastronomic art are indebted for the recipe of this excellent sauce, we may here take the opportunity of divulging it,” and then proceed to name Lord Sandys as the one who provided the sauce.4 It is unclear where they got this information, and various articles identify two different men as the “Lord Sandys” responsible.
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