Friday, 17 August 2012

The Victorian Poor – Street Food and Philanthropy

Throughout the nineteenth century there was an outpouring of well-meaning instruction books and leaflets on cooking for the poor; many of which spectacularly missed the whole problem with poverty. As industrialisation marched on, more and more people crowded into the cities – limiting both their living space and their access to freshly-farmed food. Francatelli’s ‘A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes’ contained an earnest exhortation to his readers to invest in kitchen equipment which came to over £6 a year – a huge expenditure when income was uncertain. Any family able to take his advice was more than likely most comfortably off – and probably more than capable of working with their resources to stay that way. The ‘working classes’ covered a very wide variety of people – a skilled artisan might command a decent wage, and live quite comfortably – whereas a low-paid factory worker, or someone who struggled to find steady work might go hungry from one bad day’s profits, or a fluctuation in the price of staples like bread. The very poorest families might live in one room together with no place for an oven even if they could have afforded one. For these people, food had to be bought on the street, ready to eat – meat pies, eels, bread and handfuls of watercress from street-sellers were the sorts of things that might be found on a Victorian street, high-flavoured, and probably still adulterated, as it might have been a century before. The watercress in particular might seem healthy, but it had a high risk of being contaminated by filthy water, and eaten uncooked, could spread germs rapidly… such as water-borne cholera.

At least the pies were usually cooked?

Baked potatoes were still a cheap and filling option – they could be kept hot in pockets for hand-warmers, then eaten when they were cool – or when hunger became too much. The further South people lived, however, the more potatoes were considered fit only for pigs, and rarely overtook bread as the staple food, except in Ireland. Oddly, despite being cheap, filling and relatively nutritious, many wealthy commentators on the poor also disdained the potato as a ‘lazy food’ - easily grown and cooked, that is. The ‘deserving’ poor – as opposed, presumably, to the ‘undeserving’ – was a very Victorian notion, which may explain why the poor were expected to struggle, even when an easier option was available. Reliance on potatoes was seen as a sign of true poverty, and more than that – almost as a failing.

A lazy potato

If the poor were fortunate, however, they might live near a soup kitchen, such as Alexis Soyer’s in Spitalfields. Philanthropy was becoming more important for the wealthy and influential, and feeding the poor who were increasingly visible on city streets rapidly became a popular cause – although methods of doing so differed. The cooking advice that circulated was, as I mentioned earlier, not always practical, but it was an attempt that showcased simpler methods than used in the fashions of the rich.

From Francatelli's 'Plain Cookery Book...'

‘Cheap’ being relative, of course – eggs and butter were somewhat easier to get in the city as the century went on and railways became more widespread, but even a simple dish like this would have been out of the grasp of many of the very poor. The soup kitchens that were set up were limited, and couldn’t reach everyone – but they were at least one source for a hot meal – and because the food could be made in bulk, it was truly economical.  Sticking with Francatelli, I tried out a recipe for charity soup that he suggested a well-off household could afford to make and give away. Proportions, as ever, have been adjusted somewhat.

1 large leftover joint or carcass (I used a turkey carcass plus the leftover meat that was still attached)
Five or six carrots
Three large stalks celery
One large or two medium onions
Split peas, pearl barley or rice (I used about 200g pearl barley, since I had some left over from the other week, but lentils or a couple of handful of rice are also good for adding body.)
Fresh or dried thyme (a large handful fresh, two teaspoons full if dried)
1tsp ground allspice (or to taste – but be wary, as this is very strong – rather clovelike, which would probably have handily covered an unpleasant tastes.)

Not pictured: A lot of water.

If you are using an ingredient which need soaking, such as pearl barley or split peas, cover them with cold water now and leave until you need them. Break up the carcass so it fits into one or two large pots – mine required two, because it was enormous – then fill halfway with water or stock and add about half the thyme, cover, and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat to let it simmer, and leave for at least an hour. The tougher the meat you pick, the longer it will need. In the meantime, finely chop the onion, carrots and celery. Once the meat has cooked until falling off the bone, pour the stock into a separate saucepan and put back on a low heat to keep simmering. Separate the meat from the bones and chop into small pieces.

  There isn’t really any way to do this but the hard way.

Return the meat to the stock, and discard the bones, then add all other ingredients except the salt to the pot or pots. (Drain the barley or equivalent first.) Bring up the heat and cover again, and let simmer for about an hour and a half. Again – cooking times depend very much on your ingredients, so be flexible. Towards the end, taste the broth and add salt to taste. Serve in bowls with chunks of bread or dumplings, and a magnanimous expression.

I won’t lie to you – this is not highly-flavoured or exciting. It is immeasurably improved by stirring a spoonful or two of mustard in at the end, and would be more so if pepper or a little friend bacon could have been used for flavour - however, my test audience (three hungry teenage boys) certainly didn’t seem to mind a thing. Taste really wasn’t the point – it was a cheap way for a moderately well-off family to fulfil moral obligations, and for poorer families to fill up on when they had nothing else. Given that thought, it really doesn’t taste so bad after all.

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