The humble HP was originally made to squeeze profit from the sundries of empire. But, inevitably, it has become a symbol of class, status and taste—or lack of it...by Caroline O'Donoghue / January 30, 2020 / Leave a comment
The history of empire teaches us that people go to war over two things: God and spices. It makes sense, then, that the most controversial condiment in our kitchens is the one absolutely packed with the latter which has attracted the kind of reverence of the former.
I am, of course, talking about brown sauce.
This is a sauce with connotations. Mustard can mean anything from a yellow squeezy bottle at a New York City hotdog stand, to a stoutly middle-class tin of Coleman’s or a Piccadilly Wholegrain jar that is snapped closed with a metal hook and an orange airtight seal. Ketchup is more workaday, but you still get posh ketchups.
When you try to posh-up brown sauce however, you get chutney, which is the exact kind of reverse engineering that gave us HP Sauce in the first place. A Nottinghamshire grocer invented it in the 1870s as a cost effective way to make the spoils of the empire a little more mass-market, pouring in dates, tamarind, cayenne pepper, molasses and whatever other odds and ends from the colonies that could be melted down to a burnt, vinegary flavour we now know simply as “brown.”
Brown. Brown. Its very name tells you everything you need to know about it. Brown in some contexts could conjure images of burnt sugar, chocolate, and coconut skin. But brown in a British context means fading wallpaper, the threadbare carpets of government buildings, and the corduroy slacks on Michael Caine in Educating Rita. Brown is rationing, when all the primary colours were being hoarded by the US military. Brown is a 70s intellectual discovering pesto for the first time. Brown is the good-natured pragmatism of old Labour.
For a time in the 1960s, brown sauce was nicknamed “Wilson’s Gravy” after poet Mary Wilson—the wife of the Labour PM—told the Sunday Times that Harold’s “only flaw” was that he drowned his food in brown sauce. It’s a fact often repeated, a classic pub quiz answer, but the context isn’t as well known as the quote. Wilson’s love of brown sauce was a signal to working class Britain that he was one of them—of a piece with his humble-ish beginnings in Yorkshire and the accent he still had to prove it.
“Wilson’s Gravy” stuck…