The third episode of The Supersizers Go  was not as interesting to me as the previous two, simply because I knew a lot about how the Victorians ate already. I didn’t realize how much I knew until I’d watched the episode, but it’s all come down to us via Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and other period literature, not to mention Mrs. Beeton or even the American Fanny Farmer. Also, it doesn’t look like a whole lot changed between the Victorian era and the Edwardian period, which was covered in Edwardian Supersize Me . Still, those Victorians were sufficiently different from us in their eating habits to seem quite alien, but this was definitely the transitional period between the past and modern times.
The Victorians apparently still ate tons of meat. The “eww” cut of meat presented this time was a whole boiled calf’s head, complete with grinning jaw, prepared with much disgust and gagging by food writer Sophie Grigson, the designated home cook for this episode. Giles and Sue are partaking of said head in the screenshot above. (I’ve avoided posting a closeup of the calf’s head in case you should be browsing this site during lunchtime or something.)
The great meat pie (the coffin) still lived on too. Here Sue is serving a slice of game pie to Giles during Christmas dinner.
The Victorians did introduce a lot of food from the colonies - remember, this was a time when Great Britain was the uncontested world superpower. A lot of exotic fruits and vegetables graced their tables, and curries were introduced - even though the recipes were quite different from the original. Victorian curries were basically precooked stews to which powdered spices (curry powder) was added, mostly without prior frying in oil. (Nowadays most curry eaten in the UK is cooked using more or less Indian sub-continent or Southeast Asian recipes, and the stew-type of curry has virtually disappeared - but yet it was transmitted via 19th century Britain to Japan and continues to thrive there . Food history is odd, isn’t it?)
Dinner parties with showy food, preferably prepared by your own French chef, were the way to entertain and for the nouveau riche middle class (merchants who had made money from the expansion of the Empire and the Industrial Revolution) to try to make an impression. Queen Victoria and her large, rather stodgy family were their model for how to behave. A typical middle class family had six servants including a cook, a butler, and a ladies’ maid. Men of the house were at the office for most of the day, tending to the needs of the Empire. Ladies were tightly corseted in and expected to be decorative, demure and uninterested in sex (or food), though they were also supposed to run their households like small armies. Breakfast became earlier and dinner was later, to accommodate the new urban 9 to 5 working day.
New foods introduced during this time included gelatin-based items like jelly babies and jellied desserts, and canned (tinned) food like Spam-like canned pork and corned beef, not to mention Bird’s Custard, an eggless cornstarch (cornflour) based custard powder mix which is still a staple ingredient in the UK. (And with more food being manufactured outside of the home, food adulteration and contamination became a problem.)
As the series progresses, one common running thread is that people of the past ate a whole lot more of the animal. Nowadays most people - or at least those in English speaking areas - would cringe at the thought of eating the ears, eyes, snouts and so on of an animal, but ‘back in the day’ they ate and even enjoyed the whole thing. Even now, non-Anglo cultures still eat the ‘other’ parts of an animal quite enthusiastically (pickled pig’s ears as tapas in Spain, chicken feet in China, deep fried chicken cartilage in Japan, even head cheese) but it seems like English-speakers have gotten more and more squeamish about anything but the nice looking parts of meat.
Charles Darwin , one of the most famous of the scientifically curious Victorians, was even more adventurous about the food he ate. Ever curious, he tried things like roast squirrel, rodents, various birds (owl, hawk) and so on. Even candied maggots. (Some people are trying to bring back that spirit of culinary adventure …)
The Victorians also started taking up sport for leisure and health, especially bicycling. On the other hand, sugar consumption rocketed as cheap sugar flooded in from the colonies, and smoking tobacco was supposed to be good for you.
One positive thing about the Victorians was that at least a few of them such as French chef turned social reformer Alexis Soyer  did develop a social conscience, and tried to do something about the desperate living conditions of the poor. As in previous periods, the poor rarely ate any meat, and subsisted on a lot of cheap carbohydrates (epitomized by Oliver Twist’s bowl of thin gruel) and vegetables. It seems to me that this image of meat being something desirable and enriching is something that persists to this day in a lot of ways - most feasts and family gatherings still revolve around a large quantity of meat of some kind!
The most enduring legacy of the Victorians in terms of food culture may be Christmas. Things like the Christmas tree (imported by Prince Albert from his homeland in Germany), Christmas cards, Christmas stockings, kissing under the mistletoe, Christmas crackers, roast goose with stuffing (later superceded by roast turkey), mince pies and plum pudding were all started or popularized as Christmas traditions by the Victorians. With a few changes, this is still how Christmas is celebrated in the UK and in much of North America.
So…what did the Victorians leave us with? A willingness to try different foods, even from far-flung lands, a fondness for sweets, a twinge of social conscience? Not too bad. However, Sue did gain 3.2 kilo (about 7 lb) in a week despite her tightly laced corset.
Next week the intrepid Supersizers tackle the 1970s.
Served a la Russe, or in courses hot from the kitchen
(The Victorians and the Temperance Movement instituted strict licensing laws)