Illustration: Kate Hazell

Wilson's gravy: the curious history of brown sauce tells you all you need to know about the English

The humble HP was originally made to squeeze profit from the sundries of empire.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...
January 30, 2020

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 precisely because it was such a naked and characteristic bid to capture the common touch. “Just think, here I am, the lad from behind those lace curtains in the Huddersfield house…” he told the Daily Herald, after narrowly winning in 1964.

What’s sauce for one political goose is not necessarily sauce for a different political gander. In 2017, it was revealed that Donald Trump ate his steak well-done and covered in ketchup. The comment was a gift to newspapers like the Washington Post, who at that point were exhausted by his legitimate faults and were now finding cheer in sneery details about how tacky he was. “As if the entrée would be accompanied by a sippy cup,” wrote food critic Tom Sietsema.

But what these publications fail to understand is that Trump was eating his steak the way millions of his fellow Americans did. Mocking him for it was only further drawing a line between Trump’s “us”—the red-blooded Americans who like ketchup, goddamnit—and “them,” the urban elite who turn their nose up at it. You are what you eat, and—plutocrat as he may be—the president tried to connect to the working class by eating ketchup.

Table sauces exist to add a flavour that is lacking in the food itself. Any cook will tell you that adding salt, fat, acid and heat will improve any dish: but what happens when you don’t have the butter to melt in the frying pan, the lemon to squeeze over your greens, or the extra time to caramelize those onions down to a shining, sweet mass? So much of making a dish delicious boils down to money and time—both of which HP’s target audience lack. The more flavour you need to add after cooking is representative of the amount of collateral you’re able to spend on the dish itself. By this equation, you can conclude that the sauce with the most spices belongs to the class with the least resources. Or, to put it simply: brown sauce belongs to the people who need to quickly—and cheaply—liven up a plate of beans and potato waffles.

Perhaps that’s why, even today, it has a bit of a tawdry reputation. The Guardian likes to mock old browny every now and then—in 2015, the newspaper called it “peculiarly British in its lack of culinary sophistication.” You can almost chart the ideological changes of the Labour Party—both who it is for and who it alienates—by Wilson’s urge to embrace brown sauce, and the media’s instinct to throw it away.