Monday, March 21, 2011

Eating in London Before Refrigeration

As in every aspect of Victorian life, there were books to tell you how to go about eating. W.B. Tegetmeier's "Manual of Domestic Economy", published in 1858 suggested that the very poor spend nearly all their money on bread, but a little meat should be eaten every day and it should not be saved for Saturday night and Sunday. The cheapest meats from the butcher were cow's cheek, sheep's head, liver, ox heart and sometimes pig's head. A labourer should eat nearly 2 lb. of bread a day (nearly, you hear?) and a boy above ten years of age, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 lb. Every member of the family should have 2 pints of new milk daily. With plenty of bread and milk, there would probably be health and strength and no doctor's bills. If you were very poor, you were not to spend money on tea, but keep it for milk. "Tea is a very dear food." If you are less poor, drink tea only on Sundays and special occasions. He deplored waste; vegetable peelings, gizzards, heads and feet of fowls were to be used in soups. (The smell of fish was common in the houses of the poor, but Tegenmeier didn't mention it.) I don't know how these poor people could afford his book, but I am sure they were required to do so.

Wives of working men shopped at street markets. If they had been domestic servants, they would know how to cook. Otherwise, "something easily prepared" was preferred. I'm sure none of their mothers taught them anything?

Without refrigeration, it was necessary to buy fresh foods often. Even staples such as rice and flour could, in time, fill up with vermin. A middle class woman might be able to afford ice for some occasions. The rich often had ice houses, where ice from the rivers was cut in the winter and stored, surrounded by straw for insulation. That would be nice in country homes, but London ice must have come from the Thames, which was filled with sewage. It took a while before it was realized that cholera came from sewage cubes, as it had been blamed at one point in time on cucumbers.

Butcher's boys called at homes in the early morning, at the servant's door certainly, to take orders. They returned a little later with the meat in baskets or on trays atop their heads, and I doubt they had food handler's cards. Jewish butchers were recommended by Eliza Acton because of the hygiene laws enforced by the Sanhedrin. Sounds good to me! You could get fish from a "wet and dry fishmonger". Wet fish was the fresh; dry was the smoked, and kept longer. Some fish arrived live, but "skinning eels while alive is as unnecessary as it is cruel." A cod's head was good eating, but you were not required to eat the eyes.

Fruit and vegetables were, of course, seasonal. The Army had access to tinned food since 1820, but the public did not often purchase food this way because of the difficulty of getting at the food. The can opener was not invented until 1858. Soldiers, of course, had knives and weren't afraid to use them.

Food was often adulterated with preservatives, some of which were eminently dangerous. Bread often contained chalk to whiten it, potato flour since it was cheaper and alum so inferior grain could be used. Bakers often kneaded the bread with their feet. Copper cookware often made people ill. It was safer if coated with tin, but that wore off with the enthusiastic scrubbing needed and pans had to be recoated regularly.

Mrs. Beeton's ubiquitous etiquette book set out Bills of Fare for each month, including table settings. If you wanted something from down the table, you were either to ask someone else to dish it up for you or do without. Unfortunately, Mrs. Beeton included the cost for each meal in her book, which the Lady of the house had to know backward and forward, making it hard for the cook to scrape off excess money for herself.

Eliza Acton published a cookbook which promised plain English recipes, but from there she branched off into a poor Swiss fondue and curries, as well as a West Indies "tomata". Her "Mayor's Soup" recipe said to stew two sets of moderately sized pig's ears and feet, from which the hair had been carefully removed,for five hours. Another recipe for the same soup uses "half a fine calf's head with the skin on". You may want to consult my source, the fine Victorian London by Liza Picard, for further recipes. Many thanks to Liza Picard!

The green text links following will allow you to have your very own copies of Mrs. Beeton's Books at a rather steep price.

Mrs. Beeton"s Household Management. A Complete Cookery Book with Sections on Household Work, Servants" Duties, Labour-Saving, Laundry Work, Etiquette, Marketing, Carving and Trussing, The Art of "Using-Up" [and much more]. OUTSTANDING COPY

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