Had a Bloody Mary to drink at brunch? Ate a Caesar salad last week? Munched on deviled eggs at that party? All of these dishes, and many more, commonly are made with Worcestershire sauce. But behind this seemingly innocuous condiment is a much larger colonial history that touches on issues of authenticity, domestication, and Anglicization. Worcestershire sauce demonstrates the way that the British Empire was domesticated and connected through practices and practitioners of specialized eating habits.
A Brief History of Worcestershire Sauce
The common story of the origins of Worcestershire sauce goes like this: in the 1830s, the former governor of Bengal Lord Sandys returned to Worcester and talked to two local chemists, Lea and Perrins. He asked them to recreate his favorite sauce from Bengal. The duo agreed and concocted, according to food historian Lizzie Collingham, a sauce “so fiery that it made their eyes water.” Eventually, the extra barrels went into the cellar, and the pair forgot about them, leaving them to ferment. When they rediscovered their mixture, according to Collingham, “Lea and Perrins discovered that the concoction had matured into a pleasing spicy sauce… By 1845 they had set up a factory in Worcester, and by 1855 were selling over 30,000 bottles a year.”1
Many historians, from Collingham to David Burton, have retold this common account in their works. But it is unclear if this story actually happened, or was made up for the marketing benefit of Lea and Perrins, the company the chemists formed as they began to sell the condiment in the 1830s. One archaeologist calls this story “company lore,” suggesting, as seems likely, that this tale of far-flung colonial places and forgotten barrels of sauce was made up or embellished to benefit the company.2 Indeed, much of the historical scholarship about Worcestershire sauce relies on the accounts given in two books: The Raj at the Table (1994), a history of British Indian food that contains few in-text citations, and The Road from Aston Cross (1975), an industrial history commissioned by a previous owner of Lea and Perrins, which also has a paucity of citations. Even Lea and Perrins’s own employees have suggested that this story is a myth. According to a Seattle Times article, a Lea and Perrins’s spokesman said that this story “may not be God’s own truth.”
The sauce, of course, does have resemblances to the umami sauces, some of which are fermented, brought to England from Asia during the imperial era. While the taste and method may have been inspired by these sauces, it seems unlikely that this exact story with Lord Sandys occurred. Even in the 19th century, evidence seems to undermine Worcestershire Sauce’s alleged origin. As early as 1840, Lea and Perrins published classified advertisements in British newspapers discussing the “nobleman” who gave them the recipe.3 By the 1860s, this “nobleman” was identified as Lord Sandys; one article in an 1867 London Review wrote that “as it is not generally known who may be that incognito ‘nobleman’ to whom the votaries of the gastronomic art are indebted for the recipe of this excellent sauce, we may here take the opportunity of divulging it,” and then proceed to name Lord Sandys as the one who provided the sauce.4 It is unclear where they got this information, and various articles identify two different men as the “Lord Sandys” responsible.
Whether or not this story is made up, a question emerges from the continued emphasis on this origin, which continues today on the company’s website. Why were Lea and Perrins so interested in mythologizing the company?
Bringing the Empire to Worcester
Worcestershire sauce provides an excellent testing ground for a thesis laid out by Susan Zlotnick in her 1996 article “Domesticating Imperialism: Curry and Cookbooks in Victorian England.” Zlotnick writes that, “by virtue of their own domesticity, Victorian women could neutralize the threat of the Other by naturalizing the products of a foreign land,” and argues that “through association with the woman’s domain of the home and the kitchen” the curries are “converted from the exotic into the familiar.”5
Worcestershire sauce functions on a similar yet slightly different level. Lea and Perrins drew on the exotic Other through the references to its Indian heritage. In advertisements published in nineteenth-century British newspapers, the brand didn’t specifically mention India generally; however, it seemed to not have disputed the claim that the sauce was based on Indian condiments (and this history is now reinforced on the company’s website). In addition, many advertisements claim that the sauce was good for “curries,” a catch-all term meant to encompass South Asian cuisine.6 That the advertisers promoted this connection to curry suggests that they were consciously emphasizing the exotic and unfamiliar. And yet, the unfamiliar is quite explicitly brought into a familiar space by the sauce’s name. It is not called “India sauce,” but rather, “Worcestershire,” named after the place in which Lea and Perrins lived and worked. By naming the sauce after an English city, while continuing to invoke the alleged Indian connections, Worcestershire sauce is at once both exotic and familiar, safe yet exciting to the British eater.
Worcestershire Sauce in the “Colonial Periphery”
But Lea and Perrins did not only market the condiment to those living in the imperial metropole. Rather, the duo actively advertised Worcestershire Sauce, almost from the time of its inception, in English-language newspapers published in colonial India, such as the Times of India. In these advertisements, the company presents Worcerstershire sauce to British imperial agents as having the ability to unite the empire’s periphery and metropole. For instance, in an 1846 testimonial published in the Bombay Times, one letter reads “Gentlemen– Your Worcestershire Sauce has gained great celebrity in Edinburgh, and is in constant use at this hotel.” The next letter reads, “Sir– When about to proceed to the West Indies in August Last, you favoured me with a bottle of Lea and Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce, on trial, before opening which I submitted it to the test of a four months’ voyage in the tropics, and on coming home in December it was opened in the latitude of the Azores, and found in the highest state of preservation.” The writer then goes on to say how his cook declared it to be the “best sauce ever put in his hands.”7 The juxtaposition between the man using the sauce in Edinburgh and the man bringing the sauce on a “voyage in the tropics” suggests that Worcestershire is appropriate and made for both those in Britain and in the “imperial periphery.” In the popular imagination, then, Worcestershire sauce could travel to India from Britain and back again — a taste of either the colonies or the metropole depending on how you viewed it.
The complex origin of Worcestershire sauce reveals the ways that imperial ideals and aspirations — both in Britain and the colonies — structured not only British food habits, but also the ways in which companies presented such foods to the public.
Worcestershire sauce suggests perhaps a case of “double domestication.” Not only was the sauce domesticated through the eponym of “Worcester” in its name, but also became domesticated into the British body, whenever a British subject, whether at home or abroad, ate the sauce. As Julie Fromer suggests in her dissertation on tea, it is only after a food becomes “English” that it can it be ingested into the body, which at the time was thought of as the site of national and imperial identity.8 In this sense, the geographical naming of Worcestershire sauce, when coupled with the sauce’s alleged Indian origins, allows the food — and by extension, the colonies — to be safely brought into the British body during a time when understandings of Britishness and the British Empire were rapidly changing.
- E. M. Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 149. Return to text.
- Kevin Lunn, “Identification and Dating of Lea and Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce Bottles on Canadian Historic Sites: Interpretations Past and Present,” Canadian Journal of Archaeology / Journal Canadien d’Archéologie, no. 5 (1981): 6. Return to text.
- For a brief history of these umami sauces in England, see: Amanda Herbert, “Colonizing Condiments: A (Very) Short History of Ketchup,” The Recipes Project, April 18, 2018; “Classified Ad Number 1,” The Observer, March 5, 1843. Return to text.
- Charles Mackay, ed., “Notes of the Week,” The London Review of Politics, Society, Literature, Art, and Science; London 14, no. 342 (January 19, 1867): 91. Return to text.
- Susan Zlotnick, “Domesticating Imperialism: Curry and Cookbooks in Victorian England,” Frontiers 16, no. 2–3 (1996): 53; 63. Return to text.
- “Classified Ad 3 — No Title,” The Observer, July 29, 1849. Return to text.
- “Classified Ad 1 — No Title,” The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, August 12, 1846. Return to text.
- Julie Ellen Fromer, “A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian Fiction and Culture” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2002). Return to text.