Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Georgian Poor and Food Adulteration

(Before we begin - food adultery is something else, and not under this blog's purview.)

While the wealthier classes of the Georgian and Regency periods were climbing on up through the cunning deployment of dinner parties to raise their social status, the vast majority of people were naturally unable to follow suit. Tea, sugar and white bread was in fashion for all classes – trouble was, the poorer you were the more likely it was that any foodstuffs you bought would be heavily adulterated, to make it go further or give it the appearance of higher quality. Bread could be whitened with exciting things like alum (also known as hydrated potassium aluminium sulphate - yum), lime, chalk, or ground animal bones, and could not have been very tasty – but hey, it was white. Ish. This would be eaten with a little cheese, or what meat could be afforded – usually salted. Fish was an option, too, but was considered far inferior to meat – oysters, now ironically a symbol of wealth and taste, were incredibly cheap and common, especially by the coast.

A healthy balanced diet

Drinking options were not much healthier. Tea – always in short supply except for the very rich – could be dried out and re-darkened with healthy additives such as… lead. Even beer, a longtime English staple, was often darkened and flavoured with treacle to make it appear better in quality. Basically, choice of drink for the very poor – particularly in large towns or cities – was limited to possibly-tainted tea or alcohol. Polluted or unsafe water was nothing new in England, but previously the standard drink had been beer – full of sustaining calories, not too alcoholic, and even a source of some vitamins from the grains used to make it. Weak, sometimes lead-poisoned and as sugary as could be achieved, tea was not exactly a healthy substitute unless you could afford to buy the best, and few were wealthy enough for that. There was also the seductive lure of gin – strong and cheap, it was more or less the drug of the day.

Gin Lane, William Hogarth 1751

Although Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ was a none-too-subtle exaggeration, it had some basis in truth. You could buy enough gin to get you ‘drunk for a penny,’ (perhaps fifty pence in today’s money – Venetia Murray suggests multiplying by fifty as a very general idea of what money in Georgian times would be worth at the time her book High Society was published – 1998.) and ‘dead drunk for twopence.’ Around 1750 it was estimated that one in fifteen houses sold gin – and that’s a lot, by any standard.

Recipe selection for demonstrating food eaten by poor Georgians was a tricky one – I have no particular desire to eat chalky bread or drink lead-flavoured tea with possibly-off milk and sugar. (Some sacrifices are too far; I really hate sugar in tea.) I had a look through the simpler recipes in cookbooks that make claim to economy, instead, and there is a definite porridgy theme – a call-back to when pottages of grains or dried peas were the staple instead of ‘white’ bread.

From Hannah Glasse 'The art of cookery', 1774

Here’s one using barley – this sort of food was very much for filling the gaps, and was sometimes sold as a kind of street-food, as it could be cooked in advance and reheated quickly. I’m fairly sure Mrs Glasse meant ‘put your wheat into a sauce-pan’ with water, but being an intrepid and literal-minded blogger, I did try it without first.


 It tasted a bit like a cross between popcorn and nuts – but rather hard to eat. Experiment conclusive, then – always boil the barley even if the recipe doesn’t say so. The second try was far better – I boiled the pearl barley hard for a good twenty minutes (and it could have done with more – maybe half an hour’s simmering would be more effective). Then a blob of butter, a spoonful of sugar, and some ground nutmeg, plus the drained barley.

Not a historically-accurate nutmeg grinder - 
a small grater would have been more the thing.

 It tastes… fine? However, the barley is a strange texture – not helped by my attempt being still a little chewy – and the only flavour came from the butter, sugar and nutmeg – unhelpful for those who couldn’t afford them. Still, give this one a go for the taste of an authentic Georgian snack or breakfast. Just wash it down with a few tumblers of gin if it’s not to your taste.

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