Eat, Drink & Be Merry? The Politics of Food & Drink: Science & Technology

Marian J. Barber's picture
November 15, 2022
Texas, United States
Subject Fields: 
Animal Studies, British History / Studies, Colonial and Post-Colonial History / Studies, South Asian History / Studies, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology

Please join BIES, the British, Irish and Empire Studies program at the University of Texas at Austin this coming Tuesday, November 15, at 12 noon Central, 6 p.m. GMT, for the ninth session in our virtual speaker series, "Eat, Drink and Be Merry? The Politics of Food and Drink." The theme is Science and Technology, and we'll be hearing from two Northern Ireland-based scholars, Ashok Malhotra and Conor Heffernan. Malhotra teaches at Queen's University Belfast. The title of his talk is "Laboratory Surveillance: Dietary Experiments on Rats in British India, 1925-27." Heffernan is on the faculty of Ulster University. His talk is entitled "'For Mash Get Smash’: Technology, Modernity and Mashed Potatoes in 1970s Ireland."

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The speakers offer more on their subjects:

Malhotra: "In the year 1925 the Indian Medical Services researcher Dr. Robert McCarrison at his Deficiency Diseases Inquiry Unit at the Pasteur Institute, in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, conducted a large-scale experiment with rats. The experiment lasted 140 days and saw seven groups each consisting of twenty rats confined to separate large cages. Each group of rats were given diets that were supposed to be typically consumed by seven different races within India. According to these experiments those who consumed the diets of the so-called martial races such as the Sikhs, Marathas and Pathans weighed the most and were the most content groups of rats. The two worst performers were the rats provided with the Bengali and the Madrassi diets, with these group of rats reported to have become emaciated, restless and weak by the end of the experiment. This paper argues that in the experiment the laboratory functioned as a space where India’s ethnic and social diversity could be surveyed, categorised and managed, without having to deal with actual Indians. The results inferred those races, not belonging to the martial races, could be “improved” by simply changing their diets in line with those consumed by the Sikhs, Marathas and Pathans. McCarrison’s experiment further promulgated the
notion that a healthy diet could be the panacea for improving supposedly 'lowly' Indian races, as well as a potential means to manage dissent and

Heffernan: "In the early 1970s Erin Foods announced a revolutionary breakthrough which would change the nature of Ireland’s most important food, the potato. Through a freeze-drying process Erin had perfected instant mashed potatoes. No longer would people have to peel, boil and mash their potatoes. Instead all they needed was to add milk or water to a packet of ’Supermash’ and the meal would be ready in minutes. Marketed to struggling housewives, lonely farmers and trendy moderns, the food played on ideas of modernity and scientific progress. As the talk discusses, Supermash’s introduction to Ireland was harmed by internal disputes with farmers, poor weather and poor publicity. Intensifying problems were British manufacturers who flooded the market with cheap potatoes and even cheaper instant mashed potatoes. Standing at the intersection between nationalist, scientific and international histories, this talk highlights the problems of modernising food in a decidedly unmodernised Irish state."

Questions? Please contact BIES staff at


Contact Info: 

Marian J. Barber, PhD, Assistant to the Director, British, Irish and Empire Studies, The University of Texas at Austin