Bee Wilson is a food writer and historian. Her most recent book was First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (Fourth Estate), about the psychology of eating and how we can change our diets. She writes (on food and other subjects) for a wide range of publications including the London Review of Books, the Guardian, The New York Times and Borough Market Blogs. She is the chair of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.

Londoners, rich and poor, all used to eat the same food. Now we have astonishing diversity, but nothing left in common.

Around 1850, if a visitor arrived in London and wanted to eat food distinctive to the city, it would be easy. This was the world’s most rapidly industrialised city. Its population was more than three times that of New York City and five times that of St Petersburg; its food supply was more eclectic and adulterated than anywhere in Europe (microscope analysis showed that it was impossible to buy mustard in 1850s London in a pure state).

Yet every Londoner in 1850 still ate the same bread. As George Dodd noted in his panoramic book The Food of London in 1853: “A Loaf of wheaten bread is a London staple; [a worker] demands it as well as a peer”. Everyone knew that the standard loaf of London was a ‘quartern loaf’ weighing around two kilos, much bigger than a modern loaf. Despite London’s modernity, bread was still made by hand, kneaded by a man “straddling and wriggling on the end of a lever or pole”. George Dodd found it strange that “in the greatest city in the world, we have nothing that can be called a bread-factory”. Germans in London, such as the chemist Frederick Accum, found London bread to be poor quality – routinely adulterated with alum, a chemical to improve the rise. But compared to modern British supermarket bread, it was still a hearty, crusty loaf, made from a slow-acting ferment of boiled potatoes mashed with yeast. There were 2,500 bakers making and selling this quartern bread in London in 1853. It was the most basic way for a Londoner to satisfy hunger; a single flavour and texture uniting rich and poor.

If someone asked us for ‘London bread’ today, where would we direct them? Would we offer them the chewy-warm bagels of Brick Lane or the flat moreish chapatis of the Indian restaurants on Drummond Street, near Euston? If we took them to Borough Market, we could feed them loaves lovelier and purer than those Victorian quarterns. There are now artisanal bakers in London who make sourdoughs of better quality than London bread at any time in the past: ovals of rye and wholemeal, long sticks studded with currants and hazelnuts, domes of sturdy white sourdough with concentric floured circles on top. But at £4 and upwards for a loaf, we couldn’t honestly pretend that such bread is a true London staple. For most of the eight million who live and work in London, ‘bread’ means an industrial sliced loaf bought from the local supermarket: flabby, hardly proved and packed with additives – the same unsatisfactory bread found everywhere in Britain.

There were 2,500 bakers making and selling this quartern bread in London in 1853

Perhaps the biggest change in London food over the past 200 years is that it has become so diffuse, from the Vietnamese restaurants of Kingsland Road to the Full English eaten at formica tables at E. Pellicci on Bethnal Green Road. It is hard to say what constitutes a quintessential taste of the city. Even in 1853, George Dodd felt that the food of Londoners was “so infinitely varied as to meet all the caprices of taste”. London already had spicy curries from India and green tea from China. Thanks to the steam revolution, global delicacies were available to those with the money to buy them. Railways brought pineapples from the West Indies, lemons from Sicily and oranges packed in oblong boxes (London had a passion for oranges then, eating 100m a year, a quarter of them sold through street sellers and theatres and the rest sold by shopkeepers). In the fruit warehouses of Botolph and Pudding Lanes, there was a profusion of exotic and domestic produce in heaped-up pyramids: “grapes, chestnuts, pineapples, citrons, hazelnuts”. But when it came to seasonal produce, the whole city ate in sync. Sellers put notices in The Times to announce that Jersey pears had just come into season or that East Lothian potatoes had arrived.

There used to be a common language of food in the city, whereas now we have incoherent Babel of many cuisines, often exciting but hard to decipher. Take sandwiches. Around 1851, according to Henry Mayhew, the great social investigator, 436,800 sandwiches were sold on the streets of London every year, but all of them were ham. It was a hard life for the ham sandwich sellers, whose customers stumbled drunk out of taverns and West End theatres. “I’ve been bilked by cabmen”, complained one ham sandwich seller, who told Mayhew that cabmen sometimes offered to fight him for a sandwich instead of paying for it. The sandwiches – which cost a penny – always consisted of boiled ham, sliced as meagrely as the seller could get away with, slapped between two slices of quartern bread with some mustard. This was another London staple. Fast forward to 1992, and sandwiches were more beloved than ever in this workaholic city, with 3m of them sold in a year from a single branch of Marks and Spencer, in Moorgate. Unlike in 1851, the ham for the sandwiches was not boiled by hand by the person selling them, but assembled in far-away factories by unknown workers. The London sandwich is now many things, from the damp sand-wedges sold in Boots or Pret a Manger to the more distinctive offerings such as Vietnamese banh mi in Broadway Market, or the bacon butties at Hawksmoor or St John.

Fish and fowl

London was once a city with clearly defined tastes. Where Paris was a place of poultry and melons, London was a metropolis of herrings and gooseberries. Londoners were fish-mad. In the summer, you could take a riverboat to Greenwich to eat a whitebait dinner. In 1849, 9.8m eels were sold at Billingsgate market – nearly four whole eels for every man, woman and child in the city. That year, Billingsgate also sold 250,000 barrels of fresh herring with 100 herring to the barrel, and 100,000 barrels of salted red herrings with 500 to the barrel (20 red herrings per person), not to mention all the bloaters from Yarmouth and mackerel and live cod and salt cod and oysters and whelks – the latter were sold cheaply from stalls, cooked in liquor. It’s still possible to get stupendously good fish in London, from the posh oysters at Bentleys to the fresh haddock and chips of the East End. But seafood has become a minority taste. Jellied eels now mainly persist for tourists eager for a taste of authentic olde London, and how often, if at all, do you see a whelk? The default cheap protein of the city is now chicken, sold in myriad fried chicken shops in the poorer parts of town.

Rosie Boycott, chair of the London Food Board, has found that there are London schools with dozens of fast food places within a few metres of the gates. Often, they lower their prices at 3pm when the kids come out. In 2016, it’s possible for a London teenager to spend 70p on a portion of chips that con­tains 1950 calories, close to the total energy needed in a day. Many children in the city eat virtually no green vegetables, although many schools are trying to reverse this trend, with gardening and cooking clubs and improved school dinners.

Some say it is unrealistic to expect poorer London households to eat ‘five-a-day’ but this only shows what short memories we have. We used to eat many more vegetables than today. In 1958, the average British person ate around 400 grams a week of fresh vegetables, compared with a paltry 189 grams in 2011. The Victorian working-class London diet included a lot of greenery. On a Saturday evening, from six pm to midnight, workers went to one of the city’s many food markets to get provisions for Sunday lunch. George Dodds observed these customers buying, very cheaply, “potatoes in their dirty jackets, cabbages of monster size, greens in straggling bunches, onions in arm-long strings, peas and beans and scarlet runners, if they be in season and cheap enough; parsley and celery, mint and sage, carrots and turnips, rhubarb, broccoli, cauliflowers, asparagus (or, in cockneydom, ‘sparrowgrass’)”. Such pleasures are still for sale in London, but they are now associated more with middle-class farmer’s markets.

Plenty and hunger 

Londoners enjoy the worst and best food in Britain, perhaps in the world. For those with money, there are Ottolenghi salads more inventive, beautiful and health-giving than any to be found in San Francisco. The River Café in Hammersmith serves tagliatelle and white truffles more yolk-rich and luxurious than the Italian pasta that inspired it. Yet London also suffers worse rates of poverty and diet-related ill health than the UK as a whole. According to the charity Magic Breakfast, which organises breakfast clubs giving children protein-enriched bagels, more than 90 per cent of London teachers have reported children coming to school too hungry to concentrate. There are accounts of children eating breakfasts of leftover chicken nuggets, and of others who, living in tower-block flats too small for a dining table, eat nothing at all in the morning. In this most cosmopolitan of cities, Magic Breakfast encounters children who never tasted orange juice before they were given it as part of their free breakfast.

Another new phenomenon is the rise of the food bank. In 2013, Joanna Biggs reported on the Kensington and Chelsea food bank for the London Review of Books. The donations at this particular food bank included caviar, Green and Blacks chocolate (handbag-sized) and looseleaf Orange Pekoe tea as well as the more usual tins of tomatoes, baked beans and rice. Here the two Londons meet, albeit briefly. Some Kensington residents are so wealthy that a cupboard clear-out may produce caviar. Others are so poor they cannot afford rice.

bio-bean is a company that collects waste coffee grounds from King’s Cross, Liverpool Street and other big London train stations and converts it to biofuel

The most wonderful thing about the food of London, said George Dodds in 1856, was that “nobody does it. No one, for instance, took care that a sufficient quantity of food should reach London in 1855, for the supply of two millions and a half of human beings during fifty-two weeks. And yet such a supply did reach London”.  These facts seem all the more wonderful now that London needs provisions for eight and a half million. No one decided the total number of croissants and flat whites and bowls of porridge that will be needed in the city tomorrow to fuel sleepy office workers; but there they are. Yet sometimes this lack of planning is a drawback. London’s appetites generate a colossal amount of food waste: with better organisation, it could be reduced. bio-bean is a company that collects waste coffee grounds from King’s Cross, Liverpool Street and other big London train stations and converts it to biofuel.

Muddling through 

In the life and food of London, some things remain constant. There are always cab drivers and sandwiches and millions of hungry people all needing to be fed each day at often strange and unsociable hours. There are splendid markets and coffeeshops, butchers and street sellers. There are cups of tea and slices of cake. There are men in clubs eating chops and puddings. There is cheese. There are still – as in Shakespeare’s day – people whiling away the long summer evenings by the Thames with frothy pints of beer. But what there is not – and maybe this explains why we sometimes feel disoriented when deciding what to eat – is anything resembling a staple London food. Unlike Tokyo, a vast city held together by slippery threads of ramen, or Rome, which speaks a common language of pasta and pizza, London has no distinctive taste to call its own.

This is a city that has always felt confident in its ability to feed a diverse population without too much regulation. We never suffered the terrible hunger that Paris endured during its Siege of 1870–1 and so perhaps we became complacent about our food supply and its ability to self-correct. To some extent, the free eclecticism of London’s food has been a model for other great cities, from Melbourne to Hong Kong. Yet a laissez-faire attitude to food in London can no longer be justified. Child obesity levels in the capital are the highest in Britain, with one in five obese by the age of 11. Some London boroughs have finally started to act by turning down applications for new fast-food outlets within 400 metres of a school. Meanwhile, the Greater London Authority has part-funded Chicken Town, a new, healthier chicken outlet in Tottenham. These are small signs that London is realising that food is too important to leave to chance. For now, for all its diverse delights, it is a city in which rich and poor have no food to unite them.