The New Statesman

Food - Heal'some porritch

Bee Wilson Monday 4th February 2002
Food - Bee Wilson on the wealth of nations

Even its fiercest patriots could hardly argue that Scotland's reputation was founded on its wines, not even in the aftermath of Burns night. "Scotland, northern British country too cold for vine-growing", reads the exceedingly short entry on Scottish wines in the Oxford Companion to Wine. It is surprising, then, to find that Adam Smith, the great Scottish political economist of the 18th century, believed that Scottish wines had the potential to be delicious. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), he wrote: "By means of glasses, hotbeds and hotwalls, very good grapes can be raised in Scotland, and very good wine can be made of them." There was only one drawback: the wine would cost about 30 times as much to produce as equally good wine from other countries. Scottish wine was therefore a nonsense. In fact, the concept of making "claret and Burgundy in Scotland" was so absurd for Smith, as well as for us, that he used it to refute the notion conclusively that imports are always detrimental to a nation's wealth.

A clubbable man, Smith esteemed wine as much as he esteemed money - which is to say, quite a lot, but not to the point of hysteria. A country was rich, he believed, in so far as it had "wherewithal to buy wine", which was as certain a mark of wealth as the wherewithal to buy gold. Smith also believed that all duties on alcoholic drinks should be abolished, arguing that the result would be not drunkenness, but "a permanent and almost universal sobriety". His reasoning was that rich gentlemen, who could afford as much liquor as they liked, were hardly ever seen getting drunk.

Wine, however, is the province of Professors Scruton and Moore. Back, then, to food, a subject also close to the heart of The Wealth of Nations, which is stuffed full of it.

Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, a small seaside town, to a diet of oatmeal and salt herring. His father, a customs officer, died before he was born. The modest food served at his father's funeral may give some sense of the cuisine on which Smith was brought up. Accounts tell us that the mourners celebrated with 3lb fresh butter for the bread (cost: 14 shillings); 16 bottles of ale at £1 and four shillings; two pounds of "bisquet"; and "butter and eggs for the seed cake". Because of his father's premature death, Smith was brought up solely by his mother, Margaret Douglas, a woman of fortitude and frugality, and spent much of his adult life living with her; she hosted Sunday evening suppers for his Scottish economist friends.

But when he was 17, Smith had left home and Scotland to take up a scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford, where he experienced a kind of gastronomic and economic epiphany. On his first night in the dining hall, he fell into a reverie looking at an enormous joint of beef. Such a joint could never be seen in Scotland, given the poverty of the Scots. What causes, wondered Smith, had made such meat possible in Oxford? Thus began Smith's first meditations on the relative poverty and wealth of nations.

The Wealth of Nations discusses such delightful and concrete questions as whether there should be a tax on chocolate, how many kitchen utensils a person needs, and over the shipping of salt cod. Smith tells us about the "exquisite" pain of colic, a condition he suffered from himself, treating it with tar-water. He also has a rambling aside in praise of the potato, claiming, bizarrely, that the beauty of "those unfortunate women who live by prostitution" was due to most of them being Irish potato-eaters, not Scottish oatmeal-eaters.

Elsewhere, he gauges the wealth of a nation by the relative expense of butcher's meat and bread, and the question of how many poultry are kept. In poor areas, Smith argues, chickens are kept as "mere save-alls", to use up farmyard scraps. The French habit of rearing poultry extensively was therefore a sign of a thriving rural economy. It is possible that Smith had eaten some fine French chickens when he visited the salon of Baron d'Holbach in Paris, a weekly soiree famed for having "coarse but good food, excellent wine, excellent coffee, many debates, but no disputes".

It is unlikely, however, that Smith would have made a good dinner companion. Even his friends, such as Dugald Stewart, found him unworldly, unable to initiate conversation and "somewhat apt to convey his ideas in the form of a lecture". But he had compensating virtues, notably a plentiful supply of kindness - or, to use a more Smithian word for it, sympathy. At the time when Smith was a professor at Glasgow University, the poorer students were in the habit of buying sacks of oatmeal or pease-meal to serve as their food for the term. Even this meagre form of subsistence could be expensive, on account of local city taxes. Smith intervened to exempt the meal from duty, thus sparing the more poverty-stricken undergraduates. Smith, that diffident oenophile, was living proof that laissez-faire economics are not always heartless.

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