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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 April 2007

I've Suddenly Lost My Appetite

Hi all! It’s Spring Break here, so I’m afraid this will be a rather quick and dirty post. I once blogged about food adulteration in Industrial England, but I don’t think anyone wants to revisit that nightmare again. Yuck. So here is some information about the progress of food preparation and sale in England during the nineteenth century. (All information comes from that lovely, thorough book Food in History by Reay Tannahill.)

Until the Napoleonic wars, land use in England wasn’t managed for efficiency. Rather, farming and division of lands were determined mostly by tradition. But blockades during the wars made British production of meat and grain a priority. Britain declared war on "unutilized land," and in doing so, forced many peasants and small farmers out of the country. Livestock had once been free to roam on open land where peasants could also raise a few crops or livestock of their own. But in the interests of efficiency, open land was fenced and hedged.

This change in land use soon met up with the industrial revolution and forced even more rural people to migrate to the cities. So how to feed all these hordes of people? Before this, food had been raised locally and eaten locally. There was no reliable way to preserve and ship food in mass quantities. Potatoes were hardy and easily transportable, and were sold on city streets by baked potato vendors, but the great potato famines caused serious shortages. Bread was therefore the staple food of most city dwellers and was bought from bakers (who apparently kneaded great quantities of dough while half-naked and dripping sweat into their product. Ewwwww!).

Bread isn’t exactly an ideal food as far as vitamins and minerals go, especially if it makes up eighty percent or more of your diet, but bread became even less nutritious after the 1840’s. Old-style mills crushed the wheat germ into the flour, giving it almost all its nutrients, but also preserving oils, which caused the flour to spoil quickly. A new mechanical milling process popped the germ out to be sieved off, allowing grain to be milled into fine, white flour, and also allowing the lower classes to sink into a mire of scurvy, rickets, and a general lack of good health.

Milk was a problem too, as it had to be produced in close proximity to its consumers. Local London cows had once grazed in the parks and green spaces of the city, but crowding soon forced them into dank alley sheds. The sickly cows produced thin, nasty milk that was often topped with hot water for sale as "Warm from the cow!" Canning and shipping techniques weren’t perfected until the 1850’s with the invention of condensed and sweetened milk. Unfortunately, condensed milk was usually made with skim milk and lacked vitamins and fats. A whole generation of city children were raised on this type of milk, resulting in (more) epidemics of rickets and other diseases.

Canned meat was developed during the Regency, but canned food was actually MORE expensive than fresh food for many years, so consumption was confined to wealthy travelers and explorers. But as passenger ships began using more and more canned food, canning became a big industry, though there was a minor glitch. Canners believed that the key to preservation lay in getting all the air out of the can. Unfortunately, the key was actually heat. When manufacturers began putting out new GIANT cans of meat that couldn’t quite be heated through during the canning process. . . putrefaction ran rampant, and it took decades for canned meat to recover its reputation.

So does all this make you hungry? Though I’ve addressed the foods of the lower classes here, the truth is that all this affected the rising middle classes in the cities also. Still, not many middle-class or impoverished city dwellers make it into romance novels. And, frankly, there’s nothing very romantic about London food in the nineteenth century, but I’m still fascinated by it. It’s sort of like reading The Jungle all over again! Bon appetit!

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5 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'm actually fascinated by the cook shops of Georgian and Victorian cities. So many people lived in tenements without cooking facilities, so they had their bread baked and their meat roasted in shops that existed just for that purpose.

I saw something very similar in the medinas of Morocco. Almost every block had a bakery, where dough was dropped off and baked loaves picked up. It was very cool. Very communal.

7:57 AM  
Anonymous Judy T said...

I confess, this post took me on a trip down memory lane, when I lived in Thailand. As long as I live, I'll never forget walking in Bangkok and passing a little restaurant where a woman sat with a hug pot of soup (at least that's my guess, as I definitely did not eat there). Be that as it may, I watched in fascination and then horror as she patted the dog at her feet and then stuck her hand in the soup to stir it. What a memory! Just for the record, I'll never be sorry I was blessed with the opportunity to live there. It was an incredible experience.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Even in the 21st century, things haven't changed very much when it comes to food preservation and safe standards.

Once in Athens, I saw goat carcasses (which were crawling with maggots), hanging from hooks in the sunny front windows of the butchers' shops.

Somebody bought one and the butcher simply shook the bugs off an wrapped the meat in clean white paper.

I am hoping the purchase might have been by a generous pet owner who had a grateful dog.

Thanks, Vicki, for a post that reminded me of that travel experience! ;-)

8:59 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Salmonella in green leafy veggies is certainly a food contaminant of modern times and rich countries.

In the past centuries and in poorer countries, fresh fruit and veggies were/are normally consumed close to the source, so the problem didn't/doesn't exist.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:56 PM  

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