Dining With The Victorians (Book Review)

by Sam Bilton on May 4, 2018 No comments

In my second interview with Emma Kay we discuss Dining with the Victorians (recently re-issued) and the impact they have had on our 21st century lives.

If More Than A Sauce (which I reviewed last week) made me feel warm and nostalgic then Dining with the Victorians is an altogether grittier read. That’s not to say it’s hard going or unenjoyable but perhaps it’s a little less of a rose tinted view of the past, albeit a fascinating one. We all know that there was a huge divide between the well-to-do and the poor during Victorias reign, but how this has been portrayed on television programmes and in film seldom conveys the true hardships suffered by a fast swathes of the population.

“There is a fascination with all aspects of the past, particularly in the chaotic times that we live in,” says Emma. “Food and cooking provides such a shared, collective activity which is reflective of so many periods in time, it is the one thing that remains consistent for us all. It is often romanticised from the perspective of family unity, glamourised by the great royal feasts of the past and revered for its evolution from fire pit to microwave. At every stage of history, food has been at the heart of all things, through the austerity of war to religious feasting and fasting, from the grand country estates to the urban workhouses. As society has evolved, so too has food, along with all all those incredible characters of the past and present, who have shaped the fashions and trends for eating and drinking, through invention, cooking and writing.”

Emma describes the gap between the rich and poor during the Victoria as ‘obscene’. Her book contains some heart wrenching facts like the survey undertaken at the King and Queen Street Board School in Walworth, London in 1886 which found that the majority of the children attending the school couldn’t even afford to pay a penny for lunch (although in today’s current climate this level of food poverty is sadly still not unknown). Or tales of children being sold or even killed because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them. Whilst some people did cling to the customs and traditions of the past (like employing ‘sin-eaters’ to attend a funeral – someone paid to eat food over a corpse therefore taking on the dead person’s sins), Emma’s book demonstrates how Britain quickly modernised during the 19th century. As she points out ‘In 1850, agriculture amounted to over 20 per cent of the total national income. This had declined to just 6.5 per cent by the time Queen Victoria died.’ It’s no wonder that our some of the rural traditions described in Emma’s most recent book More Than A Sauce have fallen by the wayside.

“The growth in nineteenth century factory and industrial work meant longer working days for many – further distances to travel to find better jobs,” explains Emma. “This altered the traditional meal-time pattern. Many families also chose to move to where the jobs were, leaving the old rural ways and traditions behind.”

The harsh realities of Victorian life for certain sectors of the population are clearly described but Dining with the Victorians is not all doom and gloom. The Victorian era heralded innovations in food like the invention of infant formula by Justus von Leibig in 1862. The modern kitchen evolved from the technological advances of the era which saw us moving from cooking over fire to the introduction of the first gas cookers (celebrated chef Alexis Soyer was one of the early adopters of this new technology at the Reform Club in London). Many innovations during Victoria’s reign would lead to the mass-production and the commercialisation of food and drink which still have an impact today.

‘Higher wages and the rise of the middle classes triggered the concept of holidays and the emergence of fast-food and snacks. It was also a time when public and commercial dining increased on a more sophisticated level,” says Emma. “People ate out more for pleasure, as well as necessity in urban areas. Good food became more accessible and cheaper.”

Each of the chapters is illustrated by recipes from the era taken from books, magazines and newspapers. So in the chapter on Childhood and the Victorian Family you’ll find a recipe for Treacle Water (‘a pleasant drink from young children’) and Cabinet Pudding. Some, like Lark Patties (yes, it does call for real larks), have not dated well but other like Crayfish Soup sound as delectable today as I’m sure they did then. To borrow a quote from the book ‘..strange food is even more pleasant than one’s own’, which explains why there is an enduring interest in the way our ancestors ate.

The legacy of the innovation which really took off with the Victorians continues in our daily lives. Increasing amounts of time are spent in front of electronic devices. Gone are the leisurely and more sociable mealtimes of the Victorian middle to upper classes (something lamented by the author who sees this era as ‘the beginning of the end of certain standards, values and morals and the decline of ancient traditions’).

“As the world seemingly rushes headlong into a new age where robots are destined to replace the human workplace, space travel becomes more common-place, farming unsustainable and the environment more fragile by the day, perhaps it might do to slow down and evaluate, rather than to keep progressing, replacing and destroying,” muses Emma.

Emma Kay is a food historian and author of five books, including one on Vintage Kitchenalia. She has a large collection of objects relating to the traditions and practices of the British kitchen which began when a friend bought her a Denby Greenwheat dinner service from the 1950s about 15 years ago. She has also just launched a range of historical food courses. For more information on her books and courses please visit her website https://museumofkitchenalia.com. 

Sam BiltonDining With The Victorians (Book Review)

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