Tuesday 12 February 2019

The Least Appetizing Meals in the World?

Catherine, thank you for hosting us here at A Covent Garden. I enjoyed writing about menageries when I stopped here in 2017 for Mendacity & Mourning, and on this visit, Justine has delved into the culinary history of the regency period and what appeared on the dining tables of the rich, poor and the in-between classes. Hint: Nothing went to waste!

The Least Appetizing Meals in the World?

Epicurean Delights, from head to tail, in Regency Cookbooks and Menus

In our novella The Most Interesting Man in the World, Bingley is an extremely enthusiastic consumer of all manner of Regency-era dishes, including but not limited to: venison, ragouts, parsnips, sausages, creamed potatoes, apple compote, Gorgonzola, meat pies, and cream cakes. He also occasionally takes a sip or two of brandy, but only when he must. Other than the apples, which he eats because they remind him of Jane, he eats no fruit and no green vegetables. We also see and hear about sweet treats such as tarts, ices, various puddings, whipped syllabub, and ginger biscuits. But how true to life is Bingley and Darcy’s diet as described in the story?

The answer is that some of it is historically accurate, but not all. People of Bingley and Darcy’s social class truly did eat many of these things, usually with a healthy dose of cream mixed in just to make sure they got arteriosclerosis if they lived long enough. 

Ingredients: the same and different, near and far

The English Regency-era diet was more restricted than ours today, not least because it was, for the most part, locally sourced and thus seasonally dependent. There was no produce imported from Spain or North Africa, for example, as there is in the UK today. It was too expensive to transport many foodstuffs except for the smallest, most easily preserved, and most exotic kinds very far, especially given the lack of refrigeration. French cooking was of course of interest to wealthier people, and Italian pasta also made frequent appearances in the form of macaroni and vermicelli. Upper-class kitchens had ingredients from all around the British Empire, including such items as soy (mushroom sauce with galangal and spices) and tea from India, ketchup (a catch-all word for sauces inspired by East or Southeast Asian condiments), and Jamaica pepper. Coffee and chocolate were imported and readily available, as well as other foods from the New World. Greenhouses were not uncommon, and sometimes they were used to grow fruits and vegetables that were not native to England from imported seeds. One famous example is the pineapple, which readers of historical fiction will know was such a rarity that hostesses could rent themto use as centerpieces, passing them along until they rotted and finally got eaten. 

But the Regency diet was more varied than ours in that it included many ingredients that people in the Anglo-American world rarely eat now. During the early 19th century, English people ate every edible part of every animal and plant because to do otherwise would be wasteful, just as people do in less affluent countries and regions of the world now. Why throw away a perfectly good chicken’s foot, or grind it up for cat food, when you could eat it with some sauce and enjoy the chewy ligament and get some needed fat from the skin? Recipe books are full of animal parts most of us no longer eat, such as heads, organs, and umbles (entrails, especially of a deer). Regency-era people ate a lot of sweetbreads, which are the thymus gland and pancreas of a calf or lamb. Cookbooks are also full of animals and plants that today’s city-dwellers have neither heard of nor thought to eat: hares, pheasants, snipe, lamprey eels, etc. They also preserved foods that we rarely do because we instead can, refrigerate, or freeze them. People pickled things like grapes, walnuts, green apples, and pork in substances such as vinegar and liquor; they dried fruit and vegetables and made sausages out of just about everything. 

To market 

Food shopping could be a crap shoot, or maybe something more like Russian roulette, especially for city dwellers who did not grow or raise any of their own food. Regency-era household-management reference books for women often contained long sections about how to choose the best items at market so as to avoid purchasing spoiled food that would make family members sick. For example, The Housekeeper’s Domestic Library; or, New Universal Family Instructor in Family Economy, Containing the Whole Art of Cookery in All Its New and Fashionable Varietiesby Charles Millington, 1805, offers some tips for identifying a nice piece of veal:

In the days before there was inspection of meats and other foods, it was up to consumers to make sure the food they purchased was not rotten, dirty, or spoiled. Making the right choice could be a matter of life and death.

Once the ingredients were purchased, it was time to cook. But, as we might expect in a very hierarchical society, of course not everyone ate the same things.

Who ate what?
As in the present day, what people ate was to a large extent determined by their social class and income. We can get a sense of what particular people ate from looking at cookbooks designed for people of those different classes. The books also provide us a window onto the many things people consumed then that probably seem extraordinarily unappetizing to most of us now. 

Bread for the poor
Poorer families in the city had the least varied and least nutritious diets. They usually ate coarse bread and butter as their staple food, supplemented with broth, vegetables that stored well such as cabbage or potatoes, and sometimes a bit of bacon if they were lucky, but very little other meat. They might have eaten some fresh fruit or vegetables in season, if they could afford them. It was no wonder that so many poor people were malnourished and unhealthy. Families in the country, though, would have had more variety depending on what they grew or raised themselves. Whether in the country or the city, poor people did not have much need for or access to recipe books. Most were illiterate and got their recipes from an oral tradition rather than from books.

More variety for the middle classes
It is with middle class families’ culinary practices that things start to get more interesting. These families enjoyed more variety and higher-quality ingredients, and had the luxury of being more concerned with how food was going to taste, too. 

Rather than relying only on what was at the market, middle-class families even in the city sometimes kept small gardens of their own to provide variety and freshness. Household management texts often included information about how to instruct a gardener in keeping a kitchen garden, matching the seasonal produce from the garden with recipes for dishes appropriate for a particular time of year. 

Ladies’ cookbooks offer us some insight not only into individual recipes, but into how the dishes were to be served together to make a pleasant meal. Consider The Lady’s Assistant for Regulating and Supplying the Table: Being a Complete System of Cookery, by Mrs. Charlotte Mason, a Professed Housekeeper, Who had upwards of Thirty Years Experience in Families of the First Fashion. Mrs. Mason offered ideas for family menus, or “bills of fare,” of between five and eleven dishes.

“Collops” refers to slices of meat, usually bacon, and udder is pretty self-evident. It is hard to tell from this menu which season the meal is appropriate for, because spinach and peas both might have been canned. 

A seven-course meal for the family, once again featuring greens that might have been fresh or preserved, and two kinds of meat, including brisket that was pickled and then boiled for good measure:

And an eleven-course meal:

Notice that there are three sweets in this meal. Jaune Mange is a form of blancmange, a milk pudding thickened with isinglass (a collagen from fish swim bladders) that could be served, like Jell-O, in shaped moulds. Jaune Mange is tinted yellow with the addition of orange juice and eggs.

Hashed calf’s head likely strikes terror into the hearts of today’s readers, but in the spirit of wasting nothing, calf’s head appears frequently in Regency-era cookbooks. Mrs. Mason’s book gives instructions on how to prepare calf’s head boiled, hashed, stewed, roasted, collared, and served in a turtle’s shell in a dish called Mock Turtle. Here is one example of how to cook a nice calf’s head soup:

The head would still have contained the brain, tongue, and eyeballs. Imagine that staring up at you from the dinner table. 

Readers interested in learning more about dishes made from what may strike us as unlikely animal parts might wish to take a look at Mrs. Mason’s recipes for forced (stuffed) cocks-combsand a lovely ragout (finely-chopped meat stewed with vegetables) of pig’s feet and ears

You may have noticed that many of the dishes include more herbs and spices than we might have expected, given English cuisine’s reputation for blandness. Some recipes in these cookbooks even include garlic. More common flavorings, though, as seen in the recipes above, were onions, marjoram, cloves, thyme, pepper (both black and cayenne), celery, parsley, laurel leaves, cinnamon, mace, ginger, mint, tarragon, chervil, and horseradish. It is also common to find recipes calling for lemons, Seville oranges, currants, and shallots, as well as anchovies and oysters for flavoring.

Opulence for the very wealthy
Middle class fare, as we have seen, was all about taste, and not so much about presentation. That changed when it came to food that people in the highest echelons of society ate. The upper classes went to absurd lengths to eat the rarest, the most precious, and the most elaborately prepared foods as a way to display their cosmopolitanism, wealth, and good taste.

The Prince Regent and other very wealthy people might have eaten dishes like the ones described in The Imperial and Royal Cook: Consisting of the Most Sumptuous Made Dishes, Ragouts, Fricassees, Soups, Gravies, &c., Foreign and English: Including the Latest Improvements in Fashionable Life, by Frederic Nutt, Esq., 1809.

Consider how many ingredients, steps, and skills went into producing Nutt’s Chartreuse, which is a mixture of meat and vegetables prepared in a mould, in this case lined with bacon.

Similarly, here is an example of a very complex dish with rare ingredients: a salmon stuffed with an eel, anchovies, eggs, and butter, and served with truffles and morels. Fit for a king, perhaps, but also sounding rather like a turducken or gooducken.

Considering that Darcy was a member of the highest levels of society--perhaps among the top 400 families in all of England based on his income--it seems likely that many of the dishes he would have dined on at Pemberley or in town are similar to those in Nutt’s Imperial and Royal Cook. In contrast, as we have written him in our novella, Bingley has a taste for simpler middle-class fare like that found in Mrs. Mason’s book, a somewhat gauche preference that may expose his family’s roots in trade for all to see. Poor Bingley. No wonder he needs instruction from the most interesting man in the world.

If you are interested in finding more late 18th century and early 19th century cookbooks, check out the website Savoring the Past


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The Most Interesting Man in the World written by JL Ashton and Justine Rivard
What has gotten into Fitzwilliam Darcy lately? 
Charles Bingley, a jolly fellow who relies on his great friend’s impeccable judgment in all things, is determined to find out. What could explain Darcy’s ill humour and distraction? Or his uncharacteristic blunder of speaking Greek to a horse who only understands Latin? Not to mention that shocking book accident! Certainly, it has nothing to do with Elizabeth Bennet, the sister of Bingley’s own angel, Jane. Bingley is certain of it. 
What was really going on behind the scenes at Netherfield, Pemberley, and Darcy House, and just what did those men talk about over billiards and brandy? In this novella, Bingley sheds a little light on keeping company with the most interesting man in the world, and shares his own musings on puppies, his dreadful sisters, and the search for true love. Prepare to be shocked, delighted, and confused by a Charles Bingley the likes of whom you’ve never met before.

Author Bios:
Justine Rivard is a very serious college professor who has no time for frivolity or poppycock of any kind. She strenuously objects to the silliness found in this story and urges you to put the book down at once before it gives you ideas. You are invited instead to join her in the study for a lecture about her extensive collection of whimsical 18th-century animal husbandry manuals.

J.L. Ashton, on the other hand, is a very unserious writer of Jane Austen variations you might have read (A Searing Acquaintanceand Mendacity & Mourning) and collector of recipes she will never attempt. She encourages a general lack of decorum and has a great appreciation for cleft chins, vulnerably brooding men, and Instagram accounts featuring animals. Especially cats. Also foxes. 

The Most Interesting Man in the World Blog Tour ScheduleFebruary 11 /Austenesque Reviews/ Character Interview
February 14/Margie’s Must Reads/ Book Review
February 16/Just Jane 1813/ Meet the Authors  
February 18/Babblings of a Bookworm/ Guest Post
February 22From Pemberley to Milton/ Character Interview
February 24 /Diary of an Eccentric/ Book Review 
February 26 /My Vices and Weaknesses / Book Excerpt
February 28 / More Agreeably Engaged/ Guest Post


Amy D'Orazio said...

Thank you for this interesting article Jan and Justine! Thanks for hosting them Catherine!

Janet T said...

Hmmm, some of these recipes sound quite interesting, to say the least! Not sure I would want to try them, but...I would attempt to keep an open mind! Enlightening post, ladies! Thanks for hosting, Catherine.

Justine Rivard said...

Hope you enjoyed it, Amy. And yes, many thanks to Catherine for hosting our guest post.

Justine Rivard said...

Agreed, many of them don't sound very appetizing. But the recipes also remind me of how much pretty useful food we throw away. I guess useful is not necessarily the same thing as yummy-sounding though!

Vesper said...

I can't imagine this fussy eater trying most of these foods

Suzan Lauder said...

I learned to love eels in Spain so you can use them as forcemeat in any dish you want for me. Love that you have chosen such a quirk-infested technical topic for Mme. Gilflurt, as it suits her blog and your book equally well. See you at the next stop!

Anji said...

Thanks for such an interesting post. ladies.

There aren't many of the less commonly used cuts of meat mentioned that I've tried but I did eat chicken feet once at a Chinese restaurant, as it was a favourite dish of a Chinese friend. They'd been battered and deep fried, so you didn't get much of the flavour of what little meat there was on them!

We're lucky today to be able to enjoy the variety of foods, from all over the planet, that we do.

Justine Rivard said...

I'm a pretty adventurous eater, but I can't imagine eating most of it, either!

Marian the Librarian said...

Thank you for your blog. I am writing a Regency and included a brisket off the top of my head. Now I'm looking for confirmation that middle-class Londoners ate brisket. And there it is on the first page I read. On a menu no less!