22 December 2020

Cooking Sections, Empire Remains Christmas Pudding, 2017. Made and served at Delfina Foundation.

Delfina Foundation is pleased to republish online this seasonal chapter from our 2019 book, Politics of Food, by former UK associate artists Cooking Sections. Published alongside our festive season edition of our Family Lunch: Home Delivery.

‘Buy Empire Every Day!’ shouted posters to pedestrians in London. Although the British Empire had metastasised since the end of the sixteenth century, it was not until the 1920s that this propaganda machine became an institutional form of advertising. By 1933, the Empire Marketing Board had billboards at 1,800 sites in 450 towns and cities in order to establish a sense of responsibility towards overseas residents of Empire, as well as to encourage the British public to become ‘responsible consumers’ at home. Forty million people had to be persuaded to change their habits, to choose Caribbean over Californian tinned fruit.[1] Racist, sexist and culturally stereotypical, these depictions revealed to the British public the significance of their new role in ‘civilizing, modernising and developing’ the colonies.[2]

Politics of Food (2019). Edited by Dani Burrows and Aaron Cezar. Co-published by Delfina Foundation and Sternberg Press. Photo Tim Bowditch. Courtesy Delfina Foundation.

Responsibility for the economy was no longer just a matter for the government, but was transferred to citizens’ consumption habits as well. If you don’t buy and the national project collapses, it will be your responsibility. Although the Empire Marketing Board spent £1.1 million in advertising between 1926 and 1932, the lack of market research data prevents an empirical assessment of the actual success of the campaign.[3] What is certain is that – unlike in Britain – Empire propaganda in the dominions aimed to impress residents rather than sell them the produce of Empire.[4] That some of these places are still associated with certain foods is proof of the widespread mental shift the Empire Marketing Board facilitated, present even today in the marketing of Barbadian rum, Jaffa oranges, or Ceylon tea. Not yet de-colonised, more importantly these places have yet to become ‘un-colonised’ in Karen Salt’s terms; they have yet to experience a radical erasure and undoing of any traces of Empire.[5]

First Oranges from South Africa – 1903 First Sultanas and Currants from Australia, artwork by R.T. Cooper produced for the Empire Marketing Board, 1926-1934

Not only did the Empire Marketing Board produce patriotic posters and graphic propaganda, their Film Unit also commissioned some of the first British documentary films, like Basil Wright’s Cargo from Jamaica (1933) and Windmill in Barbados (1933), which were originally intended to document the Panama disease in bananas and witches’ broom disease in cacao trees.[6] However, the films instead portrayed the connections between exploited workers and overburdened markets, as well as building typologies like the sugar windmill, creating a picture that was ambiguous in its praise or criticism of the brutal circulation of new commodities. The introduction of the moving image to consumerist nationalist propaganda was initially suggested by Rudyard Kipling, and was heavily influenced by previous films like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922).[7] Britain needed to insist on her economic supremacy in a geopolitical configuration marked by emerging competition from the USA and Soviet Russia; it had to master ‘the art of national projection’ both at home and abroad.[8]

But the moving image was not enough to assimilate the elsewhere and the other. To ensure every household would have (and crave) steady access to imperial produce, the consumer locus of Empire was envisioned in the form of ‘Empire Shops’: retail spaces that sell British goods from home and overseas. They were meant to accustom British residents to foodstuffs from the colonies and to teach them both how to consume them and how to regard such territories as the inextricable hinterland of British welfare.[9] Although none of the shops ever opened, they would have sold sultanas from Australia, oranges from Palestine, cloves from Zanzibar and rum from Jamaica available and familiar in the British Isles. Conveniently embedded in a discourse of racial superiority, these goods also offset the responsibility of the imperial economy onto individual consumption. In Anne McClintock’s terms, Empire Shops and imperial advertising can indeed be regarded not only as sites of commodity fetishism and the material circulation of capital, but, more importantly, as places deeply embedded in commodity racism.[10]

Cooking Sections: The Empire Remains Shop, Delfina Foundation offsite exhibition, 2016. Photos: Tim Bowditch

In 2016, we opened the first Empire Shop in history. Instead of selling produce from Empire, The Empire Remains Shop was a public platform to speculate on the possibility and implications of selling the remains of the British Empire in London today. Over three months between the Brexit vote and Donald J. Trump’s election, it employed food as a tool to question current forms of power and dismantle geographies, origins, and abusive exchanges across the present and future of our postcolonial planet. Rather than selling easily consumable and practical goods, it explored economic counter-narratives and handled inconvenient encumbrances. The Empire Remains Shop was located at 91–93 Baker Street, London. The chosen site for the shop window neighboured Edgware Road, now ‘swathed in shisha smoke and exhaust fumes from expensive sports cars: the long-established heart of London’s Middle Eastern community; to the west [of the shop], Marylebone is a district left ghostly by “overseas investors” accruing valuable properties they will never occupy’.[11] The neighbouring building at 268–270 Edgware Road is where the offices of the Home and Colonial Stores first opened in 1883. Under the slogan ‘Better, More Exotic and Half a Penny Cheaper’, their stores constituted the private precedent of what would later become a governmental programme.

The project began with the recipe for an Empire Christmas Pudding, a well-known ‘gastronomic paradox’: the most English of dishes made from the most un-English of ingredients.[12] Written in 1928 by King George V’s chef André Cédard – the dish is composed of seventeen ingredients from seventeen different places of origin. Currants from Australia, raisins from South Africa, cinnamon from India, cloves from Zanzibar, apples from Canada. More than a recipe, the list of ingredients operates as a map. The Empire Remains Christmas Pudding is the first project developed for The Empire Remains Shop.[13] It traces the changes in the postcolonial food market by exploring the economic strategies and forces at play today. Every Christmas since 2013, we have tried to source the same ingredients with the same origins from supermarkets in London (follow the recipe illustrated to make your own).

Cooking Sections, The Empire Remains Christmas Pudding, 2017. Modified poster, original artwork by F.C. Harrison produced for the Empire Marketing Board in 1928

The Empire Remains Christmas Pudding makes evident that if foodstuffs were once promoted according to their source, today food products are rather ‘packed in the UK’, ‘milled in the UK’, ‘produced in the EU’, or use ‘sugar from a range of countries’. New economies of origin do not promote a sense of place but the erasure of it. In some cases, particularly for dried fruits, it is more economical to simply change the supplier according to national conflicts, weather events, etc., without telling customers. In the case of Guyana (formerly British Guiana), profitable sugar cane fields along the banks of the Demerara River are associated with uniquely sweet golden crystals. Today, however, brown sugar is branded by Tate & Lyle as ‘Guyanese-inspired’ instead of ‘from Demerara’. Guyanese sugar is included when fluctuations in global pricing are convenient; at other times, Demerara-inspired will suffice. In such cases, place is only important when it evokes a ‘glorious’ landscape from the past – as happens in the marketing of Caribbean rum, with images of lushness, hedonism and piracy.

The regulatory shift in the 1990s gave supermarkets control over sourcing, distributing, packaging and marketing, allowing them to supersede traditional geographies and sovereign powers.[14] Within the context of post-Brexit anxiety over supply shortages of Southern European vegetables, big chains have reinvented the ‘local/national’ by disguising internationally variable bulk produce through branding for fictional, British-sounding farms.[15] The trust consumers put in brands promotes a lack of transparency, but the dissolution of origins produces a contemporary logic that has shifted from Made In to Made Nowhere.


[1] Stephen Constantine, Buy & Build: The Advertising Posters of the Empire Marketing Board, London: Public Record Office, 1986, p. 3.

[2] Uma Kothari, ‘Trade, Consumption and Development Alliances: The Historical Legacy of the Empire Marketing Board Poster Campaign’, Third World Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1 (January 2014), p. 44.

[3] U. Kothari, ‘Trade, Consumption and Development Alliances’, op. cit., p. 45.

[4] Felicity Barnes, ‘Bringing Another Empire Alive? The Empire Marketing Board and the Construction of Dominion Identity, 1926–33’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol. 42, no. 1 (January 2014), p. 66.

[5] Karen Salt, ‘Holding Space: a conversation an action a strategy’, lecture at PARSE Conference, Gothenburg, 16 November, 2017.

[6] Colonial Film, ‘Windmill in Barbados’. See: http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/6734.

[7] Peter J. Atkins, ‘Food and the Empire Marketing Board in Britain, 1926-1933’, 8th Symposium of the ICREFH, Prague, 30 September – 9 May, 2003.

[8] Colonial Film, ‘Empire Marketing Board’. See: http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/production-company/empiremarketing-board.

[9] Susanne Freidberg, ‘Supermarkets and Imperial Knowledge’, Cultural Geographies, vol. 14, no. 3 (July 2007), pp. 321–342.

[10] Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, New York: Routledge, 1995, p. 129.

[11] Hettie Judah, ‘Startling Public Installation Critiques Britain’s Imperial History’, ArtNet, 17 August, 2016. See: https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/londonpop-up-shop-critiques-englands-imperial-history-609824.

[12] Kaori O’Connor, ‘The King’s Christmas Pudding: Globalization, Recipes, and the Commodities of Empire’, Journal of Global History, vol. 4, no. 1 (March 2009), pp. 127–155.

[13] A project developed at Delfina Foundation as UK associates on the Politics of Food programme in 2014.

[14] Freidberg, ‘Supermarkets and Imperial Knowledge’, op. cit., pp. 321–342.

[15] The ‘fake farm’ branding strategy uses rural, historic, or natural references to reassure shoppers of the original quality in internationally sourced bulk produce: Nightingale Farms (for Spanish and Moroccan tomatoes), Suntrail Farms (for imported oranges, lemons and avocados) or Woodside Farms (for German, Dutch, or Danish pork). Indeed, Woodside Farm does exist somewhere in Britain, but its real owner is suing Tesco for appropriating the name of his farm without sourcing produce from him.

* Text from: Burrows, D. and Cezar A. (eds.), Politics of Food, Sternberg Press, 2019, pp. 34–26. A version of this essay was first published in Cooking Sections: The Empire Remains Shop, New York: Columbia University Press/Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2018.

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