Food in History

Senate House Library has just marked a first by supporting the 82nd Anglo-American conference of the Institute of Historical Research, which in 2013 takes as its theme “Food in History”. Books, pamphlets and the manuscript selected for display ranged from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries and showed different aspects of food. Manufacturing it comes from a Jamaican book advising on how to improve the manufacture of the related luxuries of muscovado sugar and rum, both derived from surgarcane. For trade there is a manuscript of English excise revenue from 1785, listing duties levied on hops, malt, coffee, tea and chocolate alongside non-comestibles throughout most of the eighteenth century. For the convivial aspect of food we selected John Timbs’s Clubs and Club Life in London, a standard nineteenth-century monograph with anecdotes of places where food was consumed communally.

            A monograph by an American journalist about German food shortages during the First World War and pamphlets about rationing in Great Britain during the Second World War deal with food in times of major upheaval. The picture is not entirely gloomy, as the pamphlet printed in French, Le Rationnement en Angleterre, points out: “rationing of foodstuffs has had at least one excellent result: the English have finally decided to follow the continental example and have become lovers of green vegetables.” But the English obviously had a lot of ground to cover in order to catch up with continentals in making food appetising, as shown by the two cookery books displayed. Gervase Markham’s English House-wife demonstrates that seventeenth-century cookery could be delicious, as for this recipe for apple pie (with typical pre-industrial lack of specificity about times and quantities):

“Take the fairest and best pippins, and pare them, and make a hole in the top of them; then prick in each hole a cloves or two, and put them into the coffin, then break in whole sticks of cinnamon, add slices of orange-pills, and dates, and on the top of every pippin, a little piece of sweetbutter; then fill the coffin, and cover the pippins over with sugar: then close up the pye, and bake it, as you bake pyes of the like nature, … and then strew sugar upon it a good thickness, and set into the oven again for a little space, as while the meat is in dishing up, and then serve it.”

In Marguerite Fedden’s How to Cook a Simple Meal (3rd edn, 1912), emphasis was very much on the simple: for example, boiled fish (sole ingredients haddock, warm water to cover, salt and vinegar); roast beef; fried potatoes; stewed mushrooms; rice pudding; macaroni cheese; boiled and scrambled egg; porridge. The booklet ends with instructions on how to make coffee and tea.

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