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

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