Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellency, members of the Board of the Erasmus Prize Foundation, and distinguished company here assembled,

It will come as no surprise to you to hear that the award of the Erasmus Prize 2003 constitutes for me the greatest honour which could be paid to me to mark my 30 years work in the field of food history.

Of the three main careers I have followed, that in the Royal Navy culminated in a letter of thanks from someone in the Admiralty, courteous but not exhilarating.  My career as a diplomat came to an end with another letter, again courteous and complimentary but less than exhilarating, from the Personnel Department of the Foreign Office. Now, in my third career, as a writer and publisher in the field of food history, I have done very much better. Although I have won several important literary prizes, there is nothing in my past experience even remotely comparable with the present Award. I see it as the best possible finale to three decades of diligent but enjoyable work. I say ‘finale’ not because I am giving up food history; it will always hold a secure place in my affections and occupy much space on my desk and bookshelves. No, the reason is rather that, as I approach my 80th birthday, my own period of pioneering work and major undertakings in this field has come to an end. Indeed, with effect from next year, such writing as I do, except for revisions and additions to The Oxford Companion to Food, will be focused on a different and more frivolous subject, namely the screwball comedy heroines of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.

Thus the honour paid to me today, for which I give heartfelt thanks to the Foundation, could not have come at a more appropriate time. The same is true if one thinks of it, as I emphatically do, as an honour paid to the whole body of food historians who have in effect been my colleagues for these 30 years. In the essay which the Foundation has kindly printed for this occasion I have sought to explain why food history has hitherto lacked the sort of academic and official recognition which it deserves. Now, by its imaginative action today, the Foundation has gone far to remedy this situation, and to invest food history with a standing and respect which it previously lacked. The effect will be lasting; and the time was ripe, for the efflorescence of food history studies in recent decades has been such as to earn recognition of the highest kind.

It is of course not just the study of food history itself which benefits, but all the numerous kinds of food studies in which so many different people are engaged. Food, if I may state the obvious, is of fundamental importance to all human beings and merits a central place in the work of biologists, nutritionists, anthropologists, sociologists, archaeologists, economists and historians – and all these without even counting the farmers, orchardists, fishermen and the billions of people for whom cooking is a daily activity. That this centrality and these connections have often been overlooked reflects a well-known human tendency: to see the trees but not the wood.

How appropriate it is that corrective action should be taken under the aegis of Erasmus, who viewed the world in wide focus and with great clarity. Mark you, this clarity may sometimes have been clouded. Much of my own writing has been about fish and seafood, and I am well aware from his colloquy ‘Concerning the Eating of Fish’ that he did not care for fish himself, nor wish others to eat fish. In the dialogue between a fishmonger and a butcher, which constitutes the colloquy, the butcher emerges victorious. His rhetoric is overwhelmingly powerful, as when he denounces fishmongers thus:
‘If you only injured the body, this could be endured; but since different foods spoil the mind, you corrupt the very mind itself. Just gaze upon your fish-eaters; do they not look like fish, pale, stinking, stupid and mute?’

This denunciation would seem to be inexplicably extreme if one was not aware of the context (Erasmus’ opposition to the fasting, fish-eating, days of the Roman Catholic Church) and of the streak of humour and humorous exaggeration which pervades the colloquy. It does not represent a real departure from Erasmus’ strong belief that courtesy is necessary for effective discussion, a belief which I share.

In any case, while there are matters on which I have to differ from Erasmus, I like to think that there are several other links between us. One is that he lived for a while in the Netherlands, and so have I and my family. In retrospect, the years which we spent in The Hague seem like a Golden Age. Another is that he was and I am a Humanist. The third is perhaps not very substantial but gives me pleasure. Less than a quarter of a mile away from my home and workplace in Chelsea in London there used to be the home of the English theologian Sir Thomas More, on the bank of the river Thames. The visits which Erasmus paid to him in 1499 and in later years were of great significance for both men. It would have been very strange if they had not chosen, in a break from their spiritual discussions, to take a walk by the side of the Thames; and this walk would have brought them remarkably close to the spot where I composed this speech of thanks.

Before I finish, I wish to identify one of the good causes to which I plan or hope to devote part of the munificent prize money. This is the Sophie Coe Memorial Fund, to provide for an annual main prize and other awards for outstandingly good essays about food history. This was set up, to commemorate a much loved and remarkably gifted food historian, in 1995. It has already proved its efficacy in encouraging others, especially younger scholars, to write up the findings of their researches. My wife and I were closely involved in setting up the Fund and in ensuring that it would be administered free of cost, by volunteers, so we are especially eager to give it further support.

I conclude with a general expression of gratitude to all who have helped me and worked alongside me, including many people here present, not least my wife Jane and my daughters three. I hope that they and all the others will feel that the effulgence of the Award shines brightly on them as well as on myself.