Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Reframing the Victorians : Culinary Culture of the Victorian Era

To begin with, the labouring class being the most unfortunate members of society not only had to deal with problems of overpopulation, corruption and deaths, but also the severe lack of food. Especially in Literature, the theme of food reveals a lot about the class, nature and strength of a character. Generally, the proletarians were those who were often seen as a burden to society, the fact that they couldn't afford to provide sustenance for their families, as though they had caused their own downfall, perhaps through unwillingness, disability and/or illness. I aim to research domestic culture within the Victorian era and how different classes lived during this movement.

In most Victorian homes there was a scullery, a scullery was a small room at the back of a home used for carrying out dirty household duties such as washing up, preparing vegetables and doing laundry. Typically a female maid, sometimes even a young girl would be in charge of these tasks around the home. The scullery was said to be kept away from the main kitchen area so that food was not infected by the soiled water and also for the reason that the smells of food being prepared would not drift into the main house. During the Victorian era, kitchens would be considered as the main source of comfort in the home, so typically of a Victorian novel, “Much of the plot, especially at Wuthering Heights takes place in the kitchen.”
In the main kitchens , the head cooks of the household would use a cooking/oven range to prepare meals for the upper class , and the working class would also use cooking range (if they could afford one) to mimic the complicated dishes that were eaten by the bourgeoisie, for example , huge roast meats and piled high plates of sweetmeats. The cooks would use copper pans and pots to prepare both vegetable and meat dishes , copper was a good material used to make kitchen appliances as it would heat quickly and also cool down easily. The oven-range would have a built tank for water on the opposite side used to boil water, for everyday usage, both domestic and personal use, as seen below.


Of course there were no pre-packaged, ready-made meals available for the working class, therefore daily meals would greatly depend on factors such as personal income (if they were employed) and the cost of food. Empathising with the working class, was a chef of the Queen named Francatelli who noted in his recipe book (for the working class) “My object in writing this little book is to show you how you may prepare and cook your daily food, so as to obtain from it the greatest amount of nourishment at the least possible expense.” The majority of working class would endure any employment available, strenuous jobs such as cleaners and labourers as a means of surviving and being able to provide for their ever expanding families. Working extensively long hours would obviously result in excruciating hunger to which the food they had access to, would not nourish them properly. This could be seen in an article where critics agreed that “going on the Oliver Twist diet would guarantee radical weight loss and rapid descent into illness.” Obviously the diets of working class were not sufficient for their bodies, particularly an undeveloped child’s body, and therefore did not provide them with enough energy for the labour they performed.

The labouring class would ravish many basic foods such as vegetables (often spoiled), leftover pieces of meat including pork, bread, milk, gruel, flour and sugar. Although their portions of meat were limited, the working class would attempt to produce substantial meals that could satisfy their starvation, including meat pies, a dish that merely incorporated the residue of previous foods such as scraps of vegetables, strangely enough a refreshment that could be considered a delicacy today. Meat pies would also be considered a suitable dish for the working class as they wouldn't be able to stop working to have the luxury of feasting at a lavish dining table laden with masses of food. We could agree that a meat pie sounds somewhat nutritious as it includes a variety of foods however, a less wholesome meal was a flour soup which was stomached by the masses. Flour soup was produced from a simplistic recipe consisting of salt, hot water, flour and butter, an extremely basic dish that simply filled the void of hunger and was not in any way beneficial to the human body.

A brief topic that appealed to me was the supermarket Sainsbury’s, being an employee of Sainsbury’s I was unaware that it was one of the major chains of rapidly growing shops during the Victorian era. The founding of Sainsbury’s was around 1869 where John J Sainsbury’s and his wife opened their first store in London where they began to sell food essentials such as fresh provisions, tea and sugar. John J Sainsbury went on to define his stores as “Quality perfect, Prices lower” therefore convenient for the working class at this time.

As we all know, food is a basic right for any human of any era and some of the dishes cultivated by the Victorians have become some of the most popular dishes today, including Christmas cake and Bubble and Squeak. Many novels lack the real importance of food in terms of human development, for example when nourishment becomes limited, we begin to see how the mixture of personal misery and lack of food cause both physical problems like weight loss. This is seen when, “Catherine is challenged by her husband to choose between him and Heathcliff, and she refuses, and ceases eating for days.” Apart from her love life, Catherine’s stubborn nature and disregard to everything, leads her to question the normality in her life, food being no exception.

In another way, the upper class enjoyed a more luxurious life through access to the best of everything including savouring their delicious feasts of exquisite meats, fresh vegetables, jams and a selection of mouth-watering desserts. This could be seen in Madame Bovary, “Emma, as she entered the room, felt herself immersed in warmth, a mixture of the scent of flowers and fine linen, the smell of roast meat and the odour of truffles,” simply the epitome of the upper class world, Emma feels comfort from everything familiar and luxurious surrounding her, reinforcing class consciousness and the blatant materialism of the bourgeoisie. For the upper class the extravagance of food and dining was a great way to showcase their wealth, and quite often they would allow food to waste, leaving no sympathy for those who were desperate for just a mere portion of their meal.

Works Cited

Brandon, Ruth. The People's Chef: Alexis Soyer, A Life in Seven Courses. Chichester, West Sussex, John Wiley & Sons, 2004.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (25 Jan 2007).
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Penguin Classics; Revised edition (December 31, 2002).

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