A Victorian Dinner

dessert food in tray
Image from Unsplash, taken by Richard Iwaki

Do you eat avocado toast? Because if you do, there will be people out there who will label you as soon as you confess. Do you eat ramen? How about swordfish steak? Do you eat tofu? How about truffle oil in your omelet aux fines herbes? Food can come with more labels than ‘best served hot’.

Throughout the ages the difference between the peasant’s pot and the lord’s table was always there. However, in Great Britain during the nineteenth century, there were new differences and complications.

As the events of ‘Out of the London Mist’ were unfolding, households were coming to grips with new foods and ideas. Curries had been popular in Great Britain for over a hundred years at this point, and were becoming more widely eaten as the men and their families returning from Colonial India brought back a nostalgia for the food they had enjoyed. Along with curries, fish and chip shops started opening, often credited to Eastern European immigrants. Markets now had such exotic stuff as bananas as well as the familiar onions and turnips, and the grocer now had stacks of meat in tins from far off Australia and South America.

Along with the new foods appearing on the tables, new social distinctions were causing confusion. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the Middle Classes of doctors, lawyers and business men expanded massively. Suddenly there were polite households, desperate to keep up to high standards but completely unaware of how to run a household with servants. Housewives in the new, brick-built villas of the expanding suburbs were faced with a swathe of social difficulties. How does one ‘leave a card’? How should one pack a picnic? What are the duties of the second housemaid?

Instruction manuals on cooking and housekeeping proliferated as women who once would have stayed at home and cooked the stews and puddings that fuelled the working class were suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into a more supervisory role. The most famous of these was the weighty Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. It was originally published in 1861, and by the time of Out of the London Mist it had a huge following and had already gone to many editions. Along with clear, logical and precise instructions for how to clean a bedroom and how to lay a fire are cleaning tips (mirrors should be cleaned with gin and an old silk handkerchief), morality (‘Charity and Benevolence are duties that a mistress owes to herself as well as to her fellow creatures’), etiquette (‘in giving a letter of introduction, it should always be handed to your friend, unsealed’) and several hundred recipes.

I love reading recipe books. I don’t necessarily use them, and no-one should expect fine dining from me, but I love the social history behind the food. Along with such recipes for dishes such as a toast sandwich (yes, a piece of toast between two slices of bread), an Indian Dish of Fowl (cold, cooked chicken seasoned with curry powder and sautéed and served with fried onions) and Collared Calf’s Head (I always skip that one) are recipes for sumptuous desserts, elegant entrees and some very intriguing recipes for liqueurs.

Mrs Beeton was aware that most of her readership were middle class and quite content with plain cooking with a cook and a housemaid. Lady Clara grew up in such a household, and the meals that were served to John Farnley were very middle class in nature with mutton featuring heavily. However, housekeeping books always include the aspirational and Mrs Beeton included plans for formal dinners of the sort that John Farnley would have found familiar.

A suggested formal dinner for October, for six persons, starts with Hare Soup, Broiled Cod a la Maitre d’Hote, and Haddocks with Egg sauce. The entrees are Veal Cutlets garnished with Green Beans and Haricot Mutton. The second course is Roast Haunch of Mutton, Boiled Capon and Rice and Vegetables. Finally the third course would be wheeled in with Pheasants, Punch Jelly, Blancmange, Apples a la Portugaise, Charlotte a la Vanille and Marrow Pudding. After all that culinary splendour, there would be coffee, fruit and liqueurs before the ladies left the room and the gentlemen enjoyed their port and cigars. I have stomach ache just thinking about it.

Of course you would not have a full plate of each dish placed relentlessly in front of you. Instead you could take some of each or just have a portion of one of the offerings. Even so, it was a hefty amount of food laid on the table. Mrs Beeton was much more realistic with plain family dinners. One October menu starts with ‘the remains of a codfish flaked and warmed in a Maitre d’Hote sauce’, followed by cold mutton and salad, veal cutlets, rolled bacon, French beans and potatoes and followed by an arrowroot blancmange with stewed damsons. That would be much kinder to the household bills, though still extremely substantial.

Food was very different in the East End of London. In the overcrowded slums, it was rare to find a family with access to the basic means to cook. Houses often were crammed with a different family to each room. Cold and draughty attics and dank, dark cellars were all crammed in with the rest of the house and shared communal washhouses and toilets at the end of the street. Food was bought elsewhere, usually from the street vendors. A halfpenny could get you some hot eels in broth or some pea soup. You could buy baked potatoes, whelks, oysters (then very much a staple of the poor), pies and cold meat from hundreds of street vendors. If you had a few pennies there were stalls selling nuts, fruit, pastries, coffee, tea, cocoa and cakes, all of varying quality. There were no food inspectors checking whether the food was safe. One of the regular sights were a herdsman selling milk fresh from a cow. At least then you could be sure of what you were getting and its freshness.

And on every corner there was a pub, and cheap gin was always available.

Less well known than Mrs Beeton, Alexis Soyer produced a shilling cookbook aimed at the working class. Soyer was a Frenchman who had moved to England and was a celebrated chef at the Reform Club. He was not, however, merely a celebrity chef. He advised the British Army on food and supplies during the Crimean War and took an active part in organising soup kitchens during the Irish Famine. His aim was to help those poorer people who couldn’t afford the veal cutlets that Mrs Beeton described. Instead he described how to make a hasty pudding, how to cook a cow heel for a good soup or stew and how to buy meat that, while not of the first quality, is still fit for eating.

Many of the East End would be unable to read the book, and they would have had no access to any sort of stove or fire to use for cooking, but it was a useful resource for those struggling in less straitened circumstances. Soyer described his meals clearly and methodically, always aware of the meagre resources available to the poor. One of his recipes seems very thin. ‘Poor Man’s Potato Pie’ which is sliced potato, laid in a dish with some suet or dripping, seasoned with salt and pepper and covered with pastry. Soyer suggested that perhaps some smoked herring could be added for flavour. For many of the people huddled in the streets where John Farnley pursued his brother’s murderer, even if they could afford the potato and fat and the pastry to go over it, the access to any form of fire that could cook it was out of their reach.

This is a snippet pulled from my research for Out of the London Mist, a steampunk novel set in Victorian London where there is more than just food barrows hiding in the East End in the London fog. – available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and all good online booksellers as well as from the amazing Three Furies Press

A London Peculiar

grayscale photo of street post with smoke
Image by Rory Bjorkman on Unsplash

My novel, Out of the London Mist takes place during a prolonged period of smog, or a London Peculiar. Over the centuries, London became known for its noxious, choking fogs that were sometimes called ‘pea-soupers’ as they were as thick as pea soup. Other countries around the world have suffered from smog, but London became known for them at an early date due to an uncomfortable set of circumstances.

The London Peculiar formed when fog settled and absorbed the fumes and soot of the myriad of fires that fuelled England’s capital. When London, or Londinium, was first built by the legions on the low-lying Thames estuary, and so subject to sea fogs, the soft woodsmoke was not such a problem. However, by the twelfth century, London was the largest city in England, with around twenty thousand souls. Not only did the population use open fires and flame filled ovens for heating and cooking, but many of them were busy with the industry and commerce that was fuelling London’s growth, including large scale iron and glass works. At the same time, wood became expensive as the demands of Edward I’s military expansion and castle building made a diminishing resource even scarcer. London turned to coal.

Woodsmoke is not safe, and, when mixed with the fogs that rolled in through the estuary, would not have been pleasant in concentration, but coal has its own hazards. Like wood, burning coal produces carbon monoxide that, when trapped in the fog, would be far from healthy. Coal, unfortunately, also produces such nasties as sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide becomes sulphuric acid when mixed with water, and fog is, essentially, water vapour. In the still conditions that produce a fog, the fumes of carbon monoxide, sulphuric acid and irritating soot particles, are trapped at street level. There is no escape. By the time of Out of the London Mist, London was a vast, sprawling city filled with workshops and factories and stuffed with tenements with only coal for heat and cooking. Fogs could be so dense that moving around the city was nearly impossible. Only the London Underground was likely to keep running.

The regular winter smogs took a terrible toll on the people of London. Far too many died during these events, and the death toll kept rising. Finally, there was the Great Smog of 1952 which lasted five days and is generally thought to have caused 12,000 deaths, either immediately or in the following few months. This was such a striking event that it led to the passing of the Clean Air Act, which limited what sort of fuel could be used within urban areas and meant a massive reduction in London Peculiars.

As the air quality around the world improves during the lockdown due to Covid-19, perhaps it’s as well to remind ourselves that the air we breathe isn’t always as wholesome as we think, and we should never take it for granted.

And meanwhile, back in the world of Out of the London Mist, the smog rolls around the East End, shrouding the horrible deeds within.

Check out Out of the London Mist on Amazon and other great retailers

Getting in a Tizzy

At the time of typing, it is eight days to go until Out of the London Mist comes out and is available in all good bookshops. Every now and then I feel like I’m doing a little dance of excitement.

I’ll be posting bits here and there in the next few days, just to keep from exploding with excitement. One of the awesome things about Three Furies Press is their graphics, so I’ll be sharing lots of those. In fact, I’ll share this one now.

Available for pre-order in all good bookshops including Amazon

I don’t want to give too much away, but there is indeed a Rabbi in the story, who plays a vital role.

The East End of London in the 1890s (and earlier) was overflowing with Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. History had not been kind to European Jews. They had been expelled from most of Western Europe in the Central and Later Middle Ages, as early as 1290 in England, after being persecuted and scapegoated for the various ills of the times, including the Black Death. They migrated into the underpopulated lands of Eastern Europe where they were particularly active in towns and promoted trade and industry. However as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries progressed, Poland, Galicia and Russia became less welcoming and violence and riots against the Jewish settlements became horrifically common.

England had been one of the first to welcome Jews back into their country in 1656, and many Jews fleeing the persecution in the East fled to London and other British industrial cities. They quickly became part of British life. It was a Jewish immigrant, Michael Marks, that founded the quintessentially British store, Marks and Spencer in 1884 in Leeds. Many sources credit Jewish immigrants with the creation of the British staple of fish and chips. Unfortunately, mass immigration led to a dreadful seam of anti semitism and prejudice, which still has traces today.

I am not Jewish, so it was particularly important for me to respect the Jewish faith and culture that is part of the story. I’ll own up to some checking of Wikipedia, but I also spent some time trawling through pages of cookery, history and folklore (gutenberg.org and sacred-texts.com are great sources for original works). I live in Leeds, where there is a relatively large Jewish population, and so I had already been lucky enough to pick up some ideas before I started to research. I was fascinated by the multilayered culture and the diverse traditions across the world and the tenacity of the people and their faith against the persecutions of history.

So rest assured, the names, myths, customs and food I have mentioned are, as much as I can make it, authentic to the time and the people. They deserve that respect, and it is the least I can do.


I am a bad lass. I’m so slammed with other stuff that I haven’t written anything for this. However, I think this piece from February 2018 works. Hugs and good health to all.

I look around, my mind is filled

With pots and cloths and clothes and things

The clutter that comes in bags from school

The scattered stuff the postman brings

A sock hangs off the angled chair

A cup is perched right on the edge

Fingerprints on walls abound

Cat fur lines the window ledge

But if you walk across the park

And head towards the underpass

Ignore the coloured painted tags

Step round the routine broken glass

Look up, a square of pristine sky,

Windwashed leaves are dancing free,

Nothing besides, that’s all I want

The sky, the leaves and, down here, me.

Author Interview: Lyssa Medana

Out of the London Mist is now available to pre-order at Amazon

Three Furies Press: Now I get to introduce a super sweet and amazing person. Lyssa Medana. Lyssa writes in different genres, so I will let her go ahead and introduce herself and tell us about what she writes. 

Lyssa: Hi, I’m Lyssa, and I’m a wife and mother based in Yorkshire, UK. I have far too much fun writing, which is a nice change from a fairly uneventful life. I don’t really have one type of genre. I have an idea for a good story, and then I go for it! I think the most important part is the story. Though I admit, vampires seem to appear whether I mean to add them or not!

TFP: So you do some horror writing then, but your new book is a steampunk genre. How was that different to write? What did you keep in mind when tackling this new genre?

Lyssa: I found it a challenge. I had never really written steampunk, it was something that looked amazing, but wasn’t something I thought I would be able to write. I read a lot of Jules Verne when I was young, which I think is a steampunk foundation, but up until now I stuck a lot to the horror and fantasy stuff where I felt safer. Then I saw a prompt for a steampunk story. I thought I couldn’t possibly write that, then I thought some more, and the next thing I had eight thousand words that were completely steampunk (look out for the novella Deepest Desire coming soon). I then found I had more of the story to tell.

The most important thing to me about steampunk is the sense that problems can be solved. If you read Jules Verne, or even some of the Tarzan of the Apes books, there is an incredible sense of people triumphing because of ingenuity and determination, that people can survive, succeed and flourish against all odds. I also thought it was important to keep a good atmosphere, with plenty of detail. 

TFP: This is so true, aesthetic is important in the steampunk genre. I would have never guessed you weren’t old hat at writing steampunk. One thing I wondered, was where the idea for aethers came from?

Lyssa: Embarrassing confession—I have no idea where the idea came from. I think there were some memories of reading ‘First Man on the Moon’ and similar, but I was just going about my business, wondering what I could possibly contribute to steampunk, and it hit me. I think it’s a good metaphor for the discoveries that were being made in science at the time, which were changing the way people were thinking. It’s like a new world opened up to them with powered flight and radio. Perhaps the aether stands in for that (in a very elegant casing!)

TFP: It’s a great analogy to our science as you say. In what ways would you say the London Peculiar, or the mist, plays a part in your story? It’s almost another character the way it’s written.

Lyssa: I think it plays a vital role. I hope I’m not sounding too deep, but the London Peculiar is almost symbolic. In our world, the smogs killed thousands of people, but were finally banished from London and other British cities by the Clean Air Act, which was made possible by a change in how we heated our homes. We were using natural gas or electric instead of coal inside the home, and the smog just faded away. In our story, the aether power could potentially replace coal and strip away the smog. 

TFP: And the mist has an important role to play in the story as well as being a cautionary tale and bit of history about clean air.

Lyssa: As a writer, I was very glad of the London Peculiar as it allowed me to hide some dreadful deeds in the East End of London. 

TFP: It was an important plot device. Were you aware of the different devices you were using? Like using the mist to hide some of the nefariousness that was going on?

Lyssa: I wish I could claim that I planned it, but it sort of evolved. I didn’t realise how important the mist would be until I got a little way in. I did some research, and it really was a corrosive, creeping hazard.

TFP: And the perfect way to hide things. We won’t give away any details, don’t want to ruin the story, but there’s a reason it’s titled Out of the London Mist! We really love this novel here at TFP and can’t wait to read more from this steampunk world. Thanks for joining us today, Lyssa! Where can we find you online?

Lyssa: It’s been a pleasure, thank you for inviting me. You can find me mainly on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/LMedana/ and I have a blog with regular flash fiction, writing challenges and the occasional book review, Always Another Chapter, which is here https://alwaysanotherchapter.co.uk/ I love getting feedback from readers, and it’s great to chat.

TFP: Thanks again for joining us! Readers, be sure to check out more from Lyssa Medana!