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Posts tagged ‘Victorian Britain’

London Meals

Like many people, I spent this week glued to the news, following the riots in Britain. I have friends who live in the parts of London which witnessed some of the worst violence, and I was stunned how areas of London I know and love – areas which I think of as home – were transformed by the rioting and looting. Even Bloomsbury was not left unscathed: Gay’s the Word in Marchmont Street, one of the most beloved bookstores in London, had its windows smashed, rather undermining claims that the looters tended to leave book shops alone. (And such a pity they missed Alain de Botton’s daft School of Life next door.)

So when I read on Twitter that Broadway Market was a potential target for the rioters, my heart sank. When I moved to London to begin my PhD, I remapped the city according to the destinations I most loved: book shops, art galleries (so that was central London, South Kensington, Pimlico, the south bank, Whitechapel, and Dulwich sorted), and places to eat. I did this because I have a comically bad sense of direction. During a holiday in Ireland a few years ago, my friend Carina realised quickly that the best way of discovering the correct direction to walk in, was to go in the opposite way I suggested. If I turned left, it was almost certainly the case that we should have gone right.

Guided partly by the London Farmers’ Markets website, I came to know London through its markets, delis, and kitchen and food shops. I walked all the way to Notting Hill from Bloomsbury once (map-reading has never been a strength) and, disappointed by that farmers’ market, spent the morning at Books for Cooks and discovered possibly the best culinary invention in the history of humanity at a local deli: glass jars containing crème de marrons and vanilla-flavoured yogurt. When Charles Saatchi (re-)opened his gallery in the Duke of York’s Building, it gave me another reason to visit that part of Sloaney London: Partridges also sells those crème de marrons-and-yogurt concoctions (admittedly for £1.50 each, but with all that yogurt they’re practically health food).

At Broadway Market

If I was feeling uninspired on Saturday mornings, I would walk to the inevitable Borough Market through the eerily silent City, and buy coffee from Monmouth and a bacon roll – easy on the mustard, heavy on the brown sauce – and watch the stall holders set up before the tourist hordes arrived.

But my favourite parts of the city were further east. Broadway Market, near London Fields, trades on a stretch of road which has been used by merchants and travellers for around a thousand years. It’s ancient and at the same time, emblematic of the regeneration of Hackney, London’s poorest borough, but also, arguably, its most socially diverse. On Sundays it was a long walk through Clerkenwell, Old Street, Shoreditch, and Bethnal Green for breakfast at Columbia Road Flower Market – with coffee bought from what must be the city’s smallest coffee shop – a splurge at the second hand bookshop, and an attempt not to knock over any plants (I once caused, accidentally, an avalanche of Christmas trees).

My other guide was sent to me by my mother: the fantastic London Review of Breakfasts. It’s a website which takes breakfast Very Seriously Indeed. Listing cafes, greasy spoons, and restaurants from all over London, it considers not only what these establishments serve and how they go about doing this, but why. What I like about it most – other than its understanding of the psychologically restorative nature of breakfast – is its anti-snobbery.  Bermondsey’s Cat and Cucumber is given higher – and deserving – praise for its breakfast, than the branch of Whole Foods in Kensington:

It just doesn’t feel organic in the way I understand it. And frankly neither do any of the 26 varieties of killer tomatoes on sale, particularly the insipid orb that is part of my tepid, refectory-style ‘English Breakfast; on the first floor. The rest of this dry, fatty, Americanised assembly – grey-green scrambled eggs, semi-raw sausage, bacon jerky, white toast (‘no brown available’! In the temple of choice!) – requires five separate squirts of ketchup to render it edible. It is pathetic.

More of Broadway Market

No other collection of reviews is this relentlessly entertaining. My favourite remains of the Euphorium Bakery in Islington:

you started to tremble and had to content yourself with an egg mayonnaise sandwich on thick brown bread. It would have been an eggy, creamy delight, I think, if there had been any filling to delight in. But alas, a mere smear across the bread, a hint of a yolk and a whiff of white was all that was present. We wept. I craved a sympathetic glance from the staff. They were oblivious to our pain and announced that “that was how they made their sandwiches”. How they let themselves down. How they let us down. The pastries so perfect. The sandwiches so disappointing. My fan dropped to the floor, you rose from your chair, nearly careering into one of the many mothers with babies as you hastened to exit.

‘Pierre!’ I shouted, ‘Don’t leave me! I will make you an egg sandwich wearing nothing but a silk negligee whilst I recite passages from Voltaire!’

In short, the London Review of Breakfasts sets a standard not only for eating breakfast, but for living.

It’s particularly fitting that this website devoted to breakfast should be based in London. We know that mass urbanisation at the beginning of the nineteenth century caused changes in people’s behaviour. Quite simply, people lived and behaved differently in cities – where most of them were crammed into tenements and slums – than they did in the countryside. This change was caused overwhelmingly by the fact that the nature of work altered during the 1800s. Cities grew as a result of industrialisation. Factory employees, as well as the office workers who staffed the businesses that serviced these new industrial economies, worked longer and more regular hours than ever before.

In a predominantly agrarian society, work is determined by the weather and is seasonal – hours tend to be longer in summer than in winter, for example. In the factories and offices of Victorian Britain, the clock – and then laws governing how long people were allowed to work – ruled the working day, something Dickens satirised in Hard Times. Work began promptly at around seven or eight o’clock, and continued without stopping until the evening. Gas lamps and, later, electricity, meant that work could go on regardless of when the sun rose or set. Work was decoupled from nature.

The tiny coffee shop at the Columbia Road Flower Market

One of the first aspects of people’s lives to change as a result of these new working patterns was how they ate. In Britain, up until the early nineteenth century, most people ate a substantial breakfast at around ten or eleven o’clock (what we’d now refer to as brunch), and then dinner, the main meal of the day, in the mid-afternoon. In the evening, before they went to bed, they’d have tea with biscuits or a light snack. Supper was a late, savoury meal eaten by the wealthy, and usually after an evening’s entertainment.

With the coming of industrialisation, mealtimes changed and particularly according to the kind of work people performed. For the urban middle classes, dinner moved later into the day, partly as an indicator of the fact that they were wealthy enough to afford candles, gas, or electricity to light the meal. Luncheon and afternoon tea, served with cake and sandwiches, emerged to fill the long gap between breakfast and dinner. Further down the social scale, tea, served at the end of the working day, frequently replaced dinner. This tea – referred to as ‘high tea’ or ‘meat tea’ – included protein, usually potted meat or smoked fish, to assuage the hunger pangs of tired labourers.

The strange British snobbery around the names of mealtimes emerges from this period: it’s upper- and middle-class to refer to breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or supper), and lower-middle- and working-class to say breakfast, dinner, and tea. Breakfast, though, changed in the same way for workers of all kinds: it was eaten earlier in the

day, but remained fairly substantial.

Flowers at the Columbia Road Flower Market

Our eating habits are still evolving – and they’ll continue doing so, particularly as urbanisation continues. It’s estimated that seventy per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, and we know that this will have massive implications for how we live: from the way in which we plan our cities, to how we eat. It’s not simply a case that our food systems will have to accommodate the fact that food will have to travel further – or will need to be grown in cities – to feed us all, but our working patterns will change too. What and how we eat cannot be disentangled from where we live.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Mutton Every Day

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.

Further Reading

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.

Other sources:

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).

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.