The Supersizers Go...Victorian

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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.

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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.

List of foods and recipes mentioned in this episode

Breakfast at home (Giles and Sue, at 8 AM)

  • Mutton cutlets
  • Fried potatoes
  • Smoked mackerel and anchovies
  • Omelette
  • Tinned meats (corned beef, Spam-like canned pork surrounded by gelatin)
  • Angels on horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon)
  • Pears
  • Oranges

Lunch (Giles at his club, at 1 PM)

  • Beef curry
  • Rabbit curry
  • Vegetable curry
  • Club claret
  • Bakewell pudding

Dinner at home (Giles and Sue, 8 PM)

First Course:

  • Fried sole in anchovy sauce
  • Mutton curry
  • Sherry

Second Course:

  • Boiled Calf's Head
  • Brains in butter and herb sauce
  • Fried calf's ears in tomato sauce
  • Carrots
  • Tipsy cake
  • Claret

Charles Darwin themed picnic (Sue and Giles at the Natural History Museum)

  • Roast squirrel with furry feet
  • Candied maggot

To drink during an afternoon of bicycling in Hyde Park

  • Stower's Lime Cordial

A snack after all that exercise

  • Fish and chips at London's first ever chippie (unfortunately they didn't show the name of the store)

Giles brushing his teeth

  • With charcoal and honey (toothbrushing was invented, but not toothpaste)

A social climbing dinner party prepared by a French chef

Served a la Russe, or in courses hot from the kitchen

  • A toast to the Queen

First course:

  • Red Deer a la Royale
  • French beans
  • Potato croquettes
  • Claret

Second course:

  • Pigeons a la Duchesse (pigeons stuffed with veal forcemeat, sewn back together, covered with bechamel sauce, fried, and covered with more bechamel)
  • Lambs tongue with spinach
  • Claret

Roast course:

  • Partidges with truffles
  • Chicken quenelles
  • Snipes on liver toast
  • Snipe heads (whole snipe heads...you were supposed to suck on them)
  • Champagne

Entremets:

  • Russian jelly
  • Claret jelly
  • Champagne jelly
  • Rice cake with almonds
  • Torte Frangipane
  • Fried salsify and eggs a la tripe (the savoury)

Giles eats street food

  • Mystery cooked meats, possibly contaminated

Sue serves the poor at a soup kitchen

  • Beef soup
  • Gruel

Tea and a séance (Sue at home)

  • Victoria sponge
  • Garibaldi biscuits
  • Macaroons
  • Indian tea

At the pub (Giles)

(The Victorians and the Temperance Movement instituted strict licensing laws)

  • A pint
  • A pie
  • Dog's Nose (a drink made of gin, cold ale and warm ale)

Sue and Sophie go shopping at Sainsbury's (first store opened in 1869)

  • Bird's Custard Powder
  • Heinz Ketchup
  • Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce

Victorian Christmas Dinner

First course:

  • Brown Windsor Soup
  • Potato Croquettes
  • Baked Cod's Head

Second course:

  • Cold Game Pie (made with 8 different kinds of game birds, plus ham, bacon, chicken, tongue)
  • Boiled Red Cabbage
  • Roast Goose and Stuffing

Third course:

  • Plum pudding
  • Bird's Custard
  • Furmity (a spicy porridge, also called frumenty)
  • Mince pies (with minced beef in with the spices and mixed fruits and nuts)

Supersizers Go recaps

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