Waste Not Want Not: Leftovers – the Afterlives of Early Modern Food

By Amanda E. Herbert

Grey mould (Botrytis cinerea) on strawberries. Credit: Macroscopic Solutions. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Grey mould (Botrytis cinerea) on strawberries. Credit: Macroscopic Solutions. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

As part of Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a $1.5 million Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’ll be working on a new book, Leftovers: the Afterlives of Early Modern Food. In this book I aim to explore the instability of food in this period.  This was of course literally true, as it was easy for early modern food to go bad.  But early modern food was also intellectually and philosophically unstable.  What food meant, what it tasted like, where it came from, how to put it to its best use, its moral and cultural symbolism: all of these were in constant flux. The book project will consider things like food preservation, food charity, artificial or faux food, the British colonisation of dishes, and the recycling and reuse of food containers, all of which will offer some insights into the ways that early modern women and men treated and thought about their food, and how these reflected the practical as well as the philosophical food insecurities of the past.

Today I’ll offer a glimpse into the project through one evocative example: faux or artificial foods, which enabled early modern people to reimagine what they ate.  Much has been made over early modern food follies at feasts, and for good reason; some of these, whether they existed in the historical record or only in the imaginative one, were remarkable.  My favourite of these is from Robert May’s Accomplish’t Cook, first printed in London in 1660. 

Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1665).
Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1665).

May, a British chef who trained in France and served in elite British households, designed food entertainments for higher-status women and men.  These edible entertainments worked to manipulate diners’ senses of reality and fantasy. One of May’s most well-known food performances instructed cooks to take a whole deer and roast it, cut a hole in it, and fill ‘his body… up with claret wine’. The hole was then to be stoppered with ‘course paste’ [thick dough] and the cook was to place ‘a broad arrow’ into the dough on the roasted deer’s side. During the dinner entertainment, May explained, ‘order it so that some of the Ladies may be perswaded to pluck the Arrow out of the Stag, then will the Claret wine follow as blood running out of a wound’.   

This juxtaposition of what was real and unreal – an animal, which likely had been hunted with bows and arrows, was then butchered, cooked, and presented so that diners could imagine themselves back at the site of the kill, but in such a way that they could then immediately eat the (cooked) deer and drink its (wine) blood – would surely have offered early modern women and men a strange sense of slippage.  Were they valued guests, enjoying an elaborate meal in elite society? Or were they vicious, impulsive, and animalistic? Given the opportunity to reimagine themselves, their meal, and their relationship to it as consumers, May assured his readers that they would evoke not horror or confusion, but senses of ‘admiration to the beholders’.[1]

For home cooks, artificial foods could take on different forms of re-imagination.  Many such acts of culinary creativity were undertaken out of necessity, lack of resources, or thrift.  A recipe in an anonymous c. 1720 manuscript cookbook included instructions for how ‘to keep Mushrooms without Pickle for sauce’, which was really a guide to making mushrooms (common all over Britain) taste like truffles (typically imported). Readers were told to ‘take large Mushrooms peel them & take out all the inside, lay them in Water some hours then stew them in their own liquor…with a little Mace & Peper’. This process was to be repeated ’till they are quite dry’. As a result, the author claimed ‘they eat very well thus & look like Troufles’.[2]  A 1740 recipe book created by a Mrs. Knight explained how to make ‘artificial venison’ by beating ‘a rump of veal or a large shoulder of mutton…[with] a rolling pin’ before seasoning it ‘with peper & nutmeg’ and soaking it for ’24 hours in sheeps blood’.[3] This supposedly produced the richness, gaminess, and flavour that early modern people associated with venison (a food intended only for the elite) but utilised ingredients that would have been available to most middling-sort people (veal, mutton, spices, and sheep’s blood).  

Faux foods – whether they were constructed purely for fun, or purely out of need – changed the ways that early modern people perceived what they ate.  It’s certainly possible to see these substitutions as efforts on the part of middling-sort people to mimic the wealthy, or to pretend to eat beyond their means.  But we should not ignore the imaginative resonances produced by these fantasies. When an early modern person ate fake venison, false truffles, or even took in the spectacle of a roasted deer bleeding wine onto a table, did they know that it was not real? Were they merely enjoying the sensation of the forbidden or unavailable food, or were they truly fooled? What was old food, and what was new?

[1] Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1660).

[2] Anon., Cookbook, W.b.653, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[3] Mrs. Knight, Mrs. Knight’s receipt book, W.b.79, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Waste Not, Want Not: Feeding the British Home Front: Women’s Interconnectivity in the Second World War

By Kelly A. Spring

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the start of food rationing in Britain during the Second World War. On 8th of January 1940, the British government instituted a system of food controls, which was all-encompassing for the home front population. Items such as meat, cheese, tea and butter were put on the basic ration, while other foods such as tinned goods, rice and cereal could be purchased through a points system, whereby individuals received 16 and later 20 points per month to spend on these foods. Goods were assigned so many points by officials in the Ministry of Food, depending on availability of supplies, offering consumers a measure of flexibility in their diets beyond the basic ration.[1] Ration amounts fluctuated throughout the war as supply levels rose and fell according to shipping losses from U-boat action, domestic agricultural outputs and the needs of the military.

Queue for food rations, London, 1945. Image credit: Wikimedia commons.

The nature of the restrictions and their pervasiveness in society required everyone to use food resources wisely to feed the home front. But it was primarily to housewives that the nation and the government turned to make the ration programme a success. Through food rationing propaganda, officials called on married women to use their cookery skills to sustain their family’s consumption needs under the food controls. Such propaganda suggested that women, who could effectively provide nutritious meals to their loved ones by stretching limited consumables, were fulfilling the idealised domestic role in wartime.[2] However, in reality, not all housewives took up domestic roles with gusto, nor did they act alone in the battle on the kitchen front. Other women within the home and in the community often assisted housewives in their task of providing meals in the domestic environment. As a result, women’s responses to the food situation were much more diverse in scope and complexity than the image of the ideal housewife would lead us to believe.

The weekly ration for two people, UK, 1943. Image credit: Wikimedia commons.

My paper, ‘Feeding the British Home Front: Women’s Interconnectivity in the Second World War’, presented at the conference, ‘Waste Not Want Not: Food and Thrift from Antiquity to the Present’, explored the links between sustainability and women’s roles in wartime Britain. Using oral interviews, my research demonstrated that through associations both within and in connection to the home, women utilised their interconnectivity with other women to successfully sustain the consumption needs of home front families in a time of conflict and food insecurity. My paper illuminated the multifaceted work of grandmothers and single women in conjunction with housewives to facilitate and maintain the food levels in the home during the Second World. Overall, this paper provided a more nuanced understanding of the intricate structure of women’s food interactions. It showed that the British food rationing programme relied not simply on housewives’ individual efforts, but it depended on the cookery interactions of a community of women, who creatively pooled their culinary knowledge and resources to successfully maintain the food security, health and nutrition of a nation at war.  

[1] For a discussion of the points system and the foods included in it, see: Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World War (London: Pimlico, 1971), pp. 141-142. 

[2] Kelly A. Spring, ‘“Today We Have All Got to be Fighting Fit”: The Interconnectivity of Gender Roles in British Food Rationing Propaganda during the Second World War’, Gender & History, 32/1, March 2020, pp. 1-27 (early view online February). 

Waste Not Want Not: Molasses in Colonial America – More than a Waste Product?

By Mimi Goodall

Molasses is the dark brown, sweet, sticky goo that is known today for its robust flavour. It gives a depth of taste to gingerbreads, toffees and fruitcakes. It does not have the immediate tongue-numbing sweetness of powder sugar; rather, it has a denser, fruitier mouthfeel. However, sugar and molasses are related foodstuffs. When sugar cane juice is refined to make powder sugar, it is boiled repeatedly and it crystallises as it cools. The more times the juice goes through this process, the whiter the resulting crystals appear. Molasses is the viscous residue that is the ‘waste product’ of refining.[1] Yet it has historically been left out of the story of the rise of sugar consumption across the Atlantic world.

This story is well-known. Sugar begins life as a rare luxury but with the rise of slavery and the slave trade, the increase in production enables prices to fall and consumption to rise, reaching mass levels sometime towards the end of the 18th century. Before this point, it’s thought that ordinary consumers did not have much access to sugar.

However, there was, in fact, a strong base layer of consumer demand much earlier on. This demand served as encouragement for the industry’s take-off and the concomitant exploitation of thousands of human beings. Molasses is at the heart of it. Understanding the consumption of molasses puts agency back into the hands – or rather the mouths – of ordinary consumers. Molasses wasn’t a waste product, it was a driving force in sugar’s rise to ubiquity.

Molasses. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Molasses as Commodity Money:

Molasses wasn’t expensive. It features often in account books documenting the spending habits of non-elites. Looking at these account books reveals that molasses was often used as a form of payment. Colonial America was dramatically short of coinage and therefore outside of the port, exchange was enacted through a system similar to barter, known as commodity money. Records documenting these instances of barter are what enable us to understand more about who was actually consuming molasses.

Take for example the Clarke Family of New Jersey. The Clarkes emigrated from England to New Jersey in the 1680s. Ann Clarke created a recipe book that her husband and son subsequently repurposed as an account book and diary relating to farm practices, which is now in Princeton University Library. It shows that the Clarkes paid their labourers in commodity money. The most detailed accounts range from 1701-1720, during which time we see payments in sugar, molasses and in a variety of what I call ‘sugar products’ – this included beer, cider and rum. All of these alcoholic drinks were brewed using molasses or sugar. To give one example, in 1714 Benjamin Maple was paid for his weaving – work worth 2 pounds 5 shillings in monetary terms – with 2 gallons of molasses, 2 gallons of cider, hogs fat, turnips, and rye. 

There are more account books in the American Antiquarian Association, including that kept by Robert Gibbs in the 1680s. Gibbs was a Boston merchant and grocery store owner, who had longstanding arrangements with the local people who supplied his shop. The most interesting is Goody Gavate, a cake maker. Gibbs gave her molasses, ginger, sugar and flour in exchange for the cakes that she made out of these ingredients. Gibbs then sold these cakes in his shop and thus molasses continued to circulate within the economic system.

Cakes are especially interesting when we think about people’s proclivity for sweet things. Recently, I spoke to New York Times journalist Anahad O’Connor who writes about contemporary sugar consumption. He explained to me that the current scientific consensus is that sugar is not addictive on its own, but that the combination of sugar and fat create feelings of physical dependency. Human beings seem particularly susceptible to this combination. Breast milk, for instance, contains a uniquely high proportion of fat and sugar. When molasses was combined with fats to make cakes, puddings, biscuits, and breads it created an especially palatable end result – one which consumers sought out.

Conclusions:

These examples show that molasses was a form of sugar that was readily available to consumers across the socio-economic spectrum. Sugar products weren’t only goods to be aspired to; rather, they were component parts of many consumers’ diets. Ordinary colonial American men and women developed a taste for sweetness and their reliance on the calories found in sugar early on. Molasses encouraged ordinary consumers’ proclivity for sweetness. By the time tea and coffee arrived and white sugar became cheaper, their palate was already a sweet one.

In detailing this, I’m pushing the story of consumption backwards in time. Sugar and molasses were far more widely available far earlier than has been recognised. There was a strong demand for sugar in the 17th century, which would have served as encouragement for the development of the industry and the rise of slavery in the following one.

William Clark, ‘Slaves Cutting the Sugar Cane’, from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (London, 1823). Plate IV.

[1] Molasses is vital to the production of rum, which took off after 1720 but elsewhere, and for an earlier time period it has been considered to be a waste product.

Waste Not, Want Not: Transforming Waste into Food – Skimmed Milk

By Lesley Steinitz

Fancy some pig’s wash with your granola? In the late nineteenth century, the ‘pig’s wash’ – a euphemism also for vomit – was skimmed milk. It was so-named because it had been the sour leftovers after the cream was skimmed off milk left out overnight in the dairy. Although some ‘skim’ was used to make cheese and feed poor agricultural workers, it was so disgusting that most of it was fed to pigs. Skimmed milk remained disgusting in the minds of consumers even after dairies were mechanised, from the 1880s, once it had changed materially into a fresh sweet liquid. It sold, at best, for a quarter of the price of whole milk, but philanthropists couldn’t even give it away to the poor.

From the perspective of nutritional chemists, this was a waste of a valuable source of protein at a time when dietary deficiency was a grave political concern, linked to worries about the fitness of the workforce and its implications for industrial productivity and military security. This waste therefore spurred innovation among commercially-oriented engineers and chemists at the turn of the twentieth century.

Chemists devised noxious industrial-scale chemical processes which transformed skimmed milk into near-identical protein powders. These contained around 90% milk protein and 5% phosphates, and were off-white, insubstantial, odourless and flavourless. They didn’t resemble food in the slightest. It’s instructive to compare how the two most advertised brands in Britain, Plasmon and Sanatogen, were advertised.

Plasmon’s adverts presented it as a cheap nutritious food, using numbers and pictures to signify its protein’s muscle building power. To persuade people to cook with it, they ran cookery competitions, published recipes, and persuaded famous people – notably the vegetarian health writer and sports champion Eustace Miles – to do so. However, these efforts backfired. Plasmon and Miles were lampooned regularly. The Evening Post derided Plasmon as an uninviting food made by ‘nutrient necromancers’, while the Daily Express declared that this ‘food of the future’ did not satisfy the social and cultural expectations of food as something to enjoy and share.[1] Only Plasmon Oats and Cocoa, where Plasmon was mixed with familiar foods, remained popular.

Although it was near-identical, Sanatogen was positioned primarily as a nerve nutrient thanks to its phosphates (which are present in high concentration in the nerves and brain). Sanatogen therefore addressed another dominant health concern, ‘nerve weakness’, often referred to as the new disease category of neurasthenia. It was therefore not simply a food, but a ‘food-drug’, something that was ‘taken’ like a medicine before meals, rather than as part of them. There were no recipes, simply instructions on how to prepare a dose. With advocates including MPs, doctors, respected writers and aristocrats, and adverts with inspiring quotes from Shakespeare and Goethe, this was an aspirational product which sold for twice the price of Plasmon. You can still buy Sanatogen today.

At much the same time, engineers devised mechanical preservation methods. Their machines sprayed milk, skimmed or whole, onto steam-heated spinning metal rollers where it condensed instantly, forming a powder.[2] (While dried milk had been produced during the nineteenth century, the slow heating methods tended to cook the milk and caramelise its sugars, so it could only be eaten if it was disguised mixed in other foods.) Manufacturers, competing on cost, largely could not afford to advertise their dried skimmed milk. Exceptionally, Cow & Gate published recipes using it, but I’ve yet to find any in ordinary cookbooks, though when fresh milk was scarce in wartime, newspapers suggested using dried instead. Consumers were largely oblivious to the nutritional benefits of this ingredient and to its abundance in industrially manufactured foods such as bread, biscuits and chocolate, and in canteens and institutions. There are few traces before 1920 of people using it domestically other than the full fat versions for infants.

These foods were not popular thanks to their intrinsic palatability, convenience or physiological effects, but instead reflected the cultural characteristics that advertisers linked to their nutritional claims. Expensive Sanatogen was aspirational because it was presented as a respectable medicine-like supplement used by the elites. Cheaper Plasmon was less successful because this peculiar food seemed ridiculous. For consumers, the even cheaper dried milk was an alternative infant food, but was thought to be unsuitable for adults. The positioning of these three similar products demonstrates that food choices are far more than a rational choice relating to nutrition and economy. Now protein powders and skimmed milk are popular commodities. The change in their popularity illustrates how food manufacturers wield considerable power over consumers by leveraging nutritional ‘facts’ alongside cultural values to suit their commercial aims.

[1] Evening Post, 11 July 1900, p. 2; Daily Express, 11 July 1900, p. 4.

[2] A. W. Scott, The Engineering Aspects of the Condensing and Drying of Milk, Bulletin, no. 4 (Glasgow: The Hannah Dairy Research Institute, 1932).