In 1873, two American teachers, Abbie Ferguson and Anna Bliss, set out on a steamer from New York for the long journey to Cape Town. They had been hired as the joint founders and headmistresses of the Huguenot Seminary, a new girls’ school in Wellington. They settled in to the Boland Dutch-Afrikaans community – whose daughters were sent to Huguenot – easily, but found the diet trying. Writing to her family in Connecticut, Ferguson complained:
We live on mutton here. We have had beef here once since school commenced, but every other day mutton. We have roast mutton, mutton chops, mutton cutlets, mutton broth, mutton soup, and mutton frigadelle [sic], that is mutton chopped and mixed with bread crumbs and eggs and baked. You see we manage to get some variety…Still with so much fruit we do not mind the meat so much.
She and Bliss were amazed by the quality and variety of the Cape’s fruit, but Ferguson still longed for the steak and oysters of New England eating.
The most striking feature of this menu for contemporary readers is the predominance of meat, and particularly mutton. I’ll return to mutton and meat-eating (and the Seminary) in the future, but for now would like to consider, firstly, the significance of mutton in Cape cuisine, and, secondly, the Seminary pupils’ diet in the context of broader views on gender and food during the nineteenth century.
This was a diet closely linked to local produce. The Khoikhoi had kept fat-tailed sheep and traded these with European settlers since the seventeenth century. When the British took control of the Cape in 1806, there were about 1.5 million fat-tailed, non-woolled sheep in the colony. Merino sheep were introduced in the 1830s: there were 5 million sheep in 1855, 10 million in 1875, and 12 million in 1891.
Cattle stocks were lower and beef and cows’ milk more expensive as a result. The meat of choice in the Cape remained mutton: during the 1860 economic depression and drought people complained that ‘mutton was dear’. Travellers to the colony in the nineteenth century commented on the frequency with which they were served mutton at rural homesteads. Several commented on the toughness and fattiness of the meat, suggesting a link between the lack of sophistication of their meal and that of their hosts.
Beef was considerably more costly than mutton, and the pupils preferred the latter anyway. Dairy produce from cows was also prohibitively expensive: as in other households, the Seminary made its own vet (or sheep fat) by boiling the fat from sheep tails with a little salt, allowing the mixture to cool, and then shaping it into large cubes. The American teachers disliked vet and in 1874 bought a cow to supply milk – and by 1898, besides for a vegetable garden, a ‘large family of pigs’ and ‘200 fowls’, possessed ‘six or eight’ cows.
Eating mutton every day was not, then, unusual in the colony. The Seminary was a boarding school, and Ferguson and Bliss deliberately replicated the menus which their pupils would have had at home: at breakfast and supper, the girls drank tea and coffee, ate fruit, and, instead of butter, smeared sheep fat and moskonfyt on their bread; a typical lunch – the main meal of the day – consisted of soup, roasted, stewed, curried, or fried meat (usually mutton), three or four vegetables, rice, and pudding.
Their decision to fit into local eating customs rather than impose American habits was done partly to mitigate the effects of their pupils’ homesickness, but also because they believed this diet to be healthy. Both teachers noted how infrequently their pupils fell ill and their general strength and good health. I think most nutritionists – although concerned about the quantity of red meat and fat – would probably agree with Ferguson and Bliss. But – viewed in the context of international thinking on health and eating – this diet was deeply unusual for the period.
In Britain, most middle-class children and young women were fed a diet rich in bland carbohydrates, and very little else. Breakfast consisted mainly of porridge or bread and butter, and potatoes were served at all other meals. The novelist Compton Mackenzie remembered:
Nor did the diet my old nurse believed to be good for children encourage biliousness, bread and heavily watered milk alternating with porridge and heavily watered milk. Eggs were rigorously forbidden, and the top of one’s father’s or mother’s boiled egg in which we were indulged when we were with them exceeded in luxurious tastiness any caviar or pate de foie gras of the future. No jam was allowed except raspberry and currant, and that was spread so thinly that it seemed merely to add sweetish seeds to the bread.
While serving carbohydrates was cheaper than cooking protein and vegetables, this menu was also the product of Victorian thinking about fruit, vegetables and meat: vegetables were unwholesome unless well cooked, and fruit was ‘rather dangerous’ and only to be eaten occasionally, and particularly to relieve constipation. Meat also ‘disrupted’ delicate feminine digestive systems.
This was a view of food still strongly influenced by the ancient humoral system, which conceptualised the body as consisting of four ‘humours’ (blood, phlegm, and black and yellow bile) which needed to be kept in balance, and partly by diet. Some foods were believed to have particular influence over the humours: meat, spices, and highly-flavoured food for example, were supposed to ‘inflame’ the blood. The Victorians felt that easily ‘upset’ female bodies – and particularly young female bodies – should not be disturbed by too much meat and rich, flavourful food.
Of course, not all doctors and cooks advocated this, and not every Victorian family followed this advice. The Seminary’s pupils ate precisely the kind of food which some Victorian doctors deplored: it was meat- and fruit-heavy and characterised by spicy, tasty dishes. Huguenot’s menu – which met with the approval of the pupils’ parents – seems to indicate either that this thinking about food, gender, and health was limited to Britain, or that it was simply one diet promoted among many.
I think that this very brief analysis of Huguenot’s weekly menus demonstrates two things: firstly, the extent to which nineteenth-century diets were linked closely to local produce, and, secondly, that dietary fads were as much of a feature then as they are now.
Texts quoted here:
S.E. Duff, ‘Head, Heart, and Hand: The Huguenot Seminary and College and the Construction of Middle-Class Afrikaner Femininity, 1873-1910’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2006).
Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: Harper Perennial, 2003).
William Beinart, ‘Counting Sheep,’ in The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment 1770-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 9-17.
William Beinart and JoAnn McGregor (eds.), Social History and African Environments (Oxford: James Currey, 2003).
Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972).
S.E. Duff, ‘“Every Hope of a South African New Woman?”: From New Women to College Girls at the Huguenot Seminary and College, 1895-1910,’ in Girlhood: A Global History, eds. Jennifer Helgren and Colleen Vasconcellos (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010).
S.E. Duff, ‘From New Women to College Girls at the Huguenot Seminary and College, 1895-1910,’ Historia, vol. 51, no. 1, May 2006, pp. 1-27.
S.E. Duff, ‘“Oh! for a blessing on Africa and America”: The Mount Holyoke System and the Huguenot Seminary, 1874-1885,’ New Contree, vol. 50, November 2005.
Elinor G.K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
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