Waste Not, Want Not: Interpreting Thrift through Victorian Food Writing

By Lindsay Middleton

When you use ‘thrift’ in conversations today, the word carries connotations of frugality and, perhaps, tightfistedness. In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, however, the meaning of ‘thrift’ was being reinvigorated. Cookbooks and etiquette guides such as Samuel Smiles’s Thrift (1875) told their middle- and working-class readers to return to thriftier ways of living. By doing so, people would supposedly be morally superior, living without wastefulness and making society more efficient. Food was one of the ways readers could adopt thrift into their lifestyles, and as Smiles said: ‘[h]ealth, morals, and family enjoyments are all connected with the question of cookery. Above all, it is the handmaid of Thrift’ (Smiles 1876: 370). Speaking at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference, my paper explored how thrift and food preservation were framed within Victorian food texts. Looking at three recipes from cookbooks and three from periodicals – published between 1866 and 1895 – I structurally analysed recipes to examine how they use words, space on the page, different textual forms and food technologies. Changes between these characteristics can be compared to reach wider conclusions: for instance, the way innovations in food preservation influenced cooking times.

C19th silver soup tureen. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What my paper showed, was that recipes were engaging with thrift and preservation and attempting to bring them into the Victorian home. Furthermore, both of these topics were intertwined in the debates of the time. The recipe for ‘Gravy Soup’ found in Charles Buckmaster’s Buckmaster’s Cookery (1874) uses a tin of preserved meat, boiling it to make soup. Tinned meat circulated in Britain from 1813, when Donkin and Hall supplied it to the Navy, and it was slowly adopted as a domestic ingredient from that point. A scandal in 1852, however, concerning 264 rotten cans destined for the Navy, meant the public were suspicious of canned meat when Buckmaster was writing. Despite public concern, tinned meat was fast becoming a valuable food resource, as British livestock quantities were failing to feed an ever-growing population. Buckmaster’s way of convincing readers to try the soup is to appeal to the middle-classes, who could have afforded his book and were involved in setting trends. He declares that ‘prejudice against preserved meat can only be gradually overcome by the middle and upper classes eating it’ (1874: 106) and suggests serving the soup in a decorative tureen. This elevates ideas of thrift and preservation away from the notion that people who were thrifty had to be, because they were poor. By making thrift a fashionable thing that appeals to the middle-classes, Buckmaster implicates it in the class relations of the time as well as discussions of food supply, demonstrating that thrift and food preservation were integrated into Victorian current affairs.

Other recipes demonstrate that thrift was framed using nutrition, economy and self-sufficiency. A satirical story published in All the Year Round in 1874, the periodical edited by Charles Dickens and then Charles Dickens Jr., shows that thrifty foods were so ubiquitous they were being used for entertainment. In the story, the female narrator describes her cooking-school instructress making mutton croquettes from a leftover joint. The tutor misses the point, telling students to use the finest cut of mutton and expensive ingredients. The narrator scorns this approach, advocating that people should properly adopt thrift in their kitchens. I compared this recipe to one for croquettes in Eliza Warren Francis’s How I Managed my House on Two Hundred Pounds a Year (1864) which uses the last scraps of meat available. Though the recipes stand in opposition to one another, they each convey the same message: thrift was to be encouraged. These recipe authors address a range of people, different physical spaces, and use different textual spaces to demonstrate that thrift and preservation were issues that occupied a myriad of spaces within Victorian society.

Victorian reformer, Samuel Smiles. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What delivering this paper at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference showed, was that the Victorian recipes I studied were revitalising ideas of thrift and economy that had been around for centuries past. The other papers determined that these ideas were in no way new, but were often refashioned at times of societal change. By making thrifty foods fashionable and a matter of morals, the Victorians were attempting to discourage wastefulness, so that Britain could adapt to changes such as increasing industrialisation and a still-growing population. Throughout history, then, an analysis of these ideologies through the lens of food can be a window into the realities of the past.


Buckmaster, Charles. Buckmaster’s Cookery. London: George, Routledge and Sons, 1874.

Dickens, Charles, Jr (ed.). ‘Learning to Cook.’ All the Year Round, 12.306 (1874): 611-617.

Smiles, Samuel. Thrift. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1875.

Warren Francis, Eliza. How I Managed My House on Two Hundred Pounds a Year. London: Houlston and Wright, 1864.


Waste Not, Want Not: Physics and Fruitcakes

By Simon Werrett

In 1767, the Winchester writer Ann Shackleford gave a recipe for clear fruit cakes in her Modern Art of Cookery Improved (1767). A candied fruit juice should be placed ‘upon glass plates, or pieces of glass’ and dried in a stove or oven, ‘or by setting them in a window where the sun comes, keeping the window shut’.  In 1666 Isaac Newton bought a triangular glass prism and after darkening his room, he let in a beam of light through the window shutters and passed it through the prism. This created a spectrum of colours, and when Newton passed one coloured beam through another prism, with no change, he concluded that white light was made up of a series of fundamental colours.

Newton’s scientific experiment. Light dispersing through a triangular prism. Image credit: D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons.

What is the difference between these two performances? In one sense the answer is quite obvious – one is a cookery recipe, and the other is a famous scientific experiment. One is not very interesting – unless you like fruitcakes – and the other is a profound moment of human discovery. As Alexander Pope famously wrote, ‘Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light’. But there are many similarities. Both happened at home – Shackleford’s recipe would presumably be done in a kitchen and Newton did his experiment at home in Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, and in Trinity College, Cambridge. Both made use of glass items that were ready to hand (prisms were a toy and Shackleford was probably using pieces of old bottles or glasses). Both used a window to manage light, either in terms of generating a beam of light or to dry out the fruitcakes. Both Newton and Shackleford wrote accounts of these events so that someone else could repeat them.

In fact recent research by historians is revealing how early modern householders might not have viewed these two episodes as differently as we do today. People in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries viewed both Newton and Shackleford’s activities as ‘experiments’. Experimenting was something expected at this time of all good householders. Books of advice on ‘oeconomy’, or household management, encouraged ‘thrift’, which meant not so much saving money as finding a balance between buying new and making good use of the things one already possessed. Thrifty householders should make a point of finding out new uses for things and looking after them to ensure they could be useful for as long as possible. So men and women recorded recipes for cooking, cleaning, gardening, and making medicines which might be carried out by all the family. Contemporaries called this an experimental enterprise, because it involved trying out recipes, testing cleaning methods, trialling medicaments, and figuring out what you could do with old and broken possessions. In 1662, for example, the writer on oeconomy Hannah Woolley published a recipe book called The Ladies Directory, in Choice Experiments & Curiosities of Preserving in Jellies And Candying both Fruit & Flowers. Newton and Shakleford were both householders, and from this perspective of thrifty household management they were both experimenters. They were both finding out new uses for things (prisms, broken glass, light, fruit juice), and they both ‘made use’ of their homes (windows, sunlight) as a kind of experimental apparatus.

Kitchen ‘experiments’. Gerrit Dou, Woman Pouring Water into a Jar (c. 1655). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course we don’t remember Newton and Shackleford today as doing the same thing: far from it! Why is that? It seems that in the seventeenth century, some male householders decided to take these family experiments outside the home to new places like universities and academies where they argued that domestic know-how should count as a form of scientific knowledge. Science already took in things like mathematics and astronomy, but it was controversial to say that mundane everyday knowledge of the kind found in household recipe books should count as science. The seventeenth-century chemist Robert Boyle, for example, explored the optics of eggwhite bubbles and experimented with eggs, coriander seeds, distilled liquors, wine, beer, vegetables, jars of oil, and vinegar. Contemporary wags lampooned him for investigating the phosphorescence seen in rotting fish and meat because this wasn’t the sort of thing normally associated with doing science. Nevertheless, over time, men like Boyle divorced elements of domestic knowledge from their original homely settings and ‘experiment’ came to be seen as an exclusively scientific, and male, enterprise.

While most experiments happened at home in the seventeenth century, by the nineteenth this new profession of ‘scientists’ built specialised laboratories and insisted that kitchens, parlours and basements were no longer acceptable as spaces to investigate nature. Today we find it hard to imagine a time when cooking fruitcakes and studying light could be seen as a similar sort of inquiry. But for early moderns, household oeconomy encouraged making use of things to find out what they could do. That could mean exploring light or inventing new recipes for fruitcakes. Recognising this demands a new recipe for the history of science: if we want to understand experimenting, we’ll need to pay more attention to the home as a place where people studied nature, and we’ll need a bit more room for forgotten female writers like Shackleford.

Waste Not, Want Not: An Introduction to Histories of Food Waste, Thrift, and Sustainability.

By Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley

As awareness of global climate and humanitarian issues increases, a growing number of us are seeking ways to grow, buy, and eat food more sustainably – by, for example, using food sharing apps to prevent food waste, reducing our plastic packaging consumption, or switching to less meat-centric diets. In the world today, one-third of the food produced for humans is estimated to go to waste, with society throwing away ten million tonnes of food per year in the UK alone. At the same time, food systems contribute to 37% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. 

But how did societies think about food waste before these concerns earned a regular spot in the headlines? And what might we learn about the past – how people lived day-to-day, their beliefs, and the wider advances in industry – through this focus on food? This month’s thematic series, edited by Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley, explores the history of food waste, thrift, and sustainability from the early modern period to the present. The blog posts are based on a series of papers presented at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference at the University of Cambridge (September 2019), which brought together historians, sociologists, and industry experts to address these topical questions.

John Gilroy, We Want Your Kitchen Waste (1939-46). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Prior to the invention of artificial refrigeration, consumers themselves had to come up with thrifty ways to preserve food, which would otherwise quickly spoil or rot. Certain papers demonstrate how these kitchen experiments carried out by ordinary people (often women) might best be understood as scientific advancements. Others look at inventions in the packaging industry, from tin cans to plastic film, which have transformed the way that we eat today. ‘Thrifty’ foodways also demand particular attention in the context of conflict and war, when rulers used propaganda to enforce food rationing and new methods of collective cultivation on entire societies.

Moving from methods of preventing food waste to the food waste itself, several posts in this series explore processes that transformed waste products – like molasses from sugar or the ‘skim’ from milk – into viable and even desirable comestibles. The rise of veganism in recent years has seen similar developments, with companies transforming Aquafaba – the liquid gloop at the bottom of a can of chickpeas – into an egg substitute for baking, for instance. On the other hand, changing food habits have had the opposite effect: national consumption of offal (another ‘waste’ product) has declined dramatically in the past fifty years, from more than 50g per person per week in 1974 to only 5g in 2014.

Addressing themes of waste and sustainability in the history of food, these papers have made us think more about the historical relationship between cookery and scientific innovation, about the central role of food in wider social and political power dynamics, and about the enduring relationship between food and identity.

A particularly successful feature of the conference was the conversation it sparked between historians and present-day policy makers. Pioneering initiatives like History and Policy and Cambridge Sustainable Food can use knowledge of past food practices to better understand the advent of present-day food sustainability issues, to inform the direction of food initiatives in the future, and to engage the public with these consequential topics.

In what follows, some of our speakers reflect on the key themes from their papers.


This conference was hosted by Cambridge Body and Food Histories group, co-convened by Lucy Havard, Philippa Carter, and Kylie Chiu Yee Lu, and gratefully funded by Cambridge AHRC-DTP.  For a full list of our fantastic speakers follow this link!


Cooking with Others, Learning with our Bodies


Courtesy of https://fabioparasecoli.com/blog/.
Courtesy of https://fabioparasecoli.com/blog/.

I am not a chef. I am just a moderately proficient homecook (you can check what I cook on my Instagram account @fparasecoli) I have not been to culinary school (although maybe… at some point…). I have never gone through any kind of formal process to learn about techniques, ingredients, or whole dishes. I have never been that good at following written recipes either: I scan them quickly, and then I do what seems right to me, based on my experience, my preferences, and my skills.

Nevertheless, I like cooking (and eating). At the end of a long day, if I have time I make one simple dish, just one, but enough to relax and focus my mind and body away from work and towards feeding myself and others. I fully realize I am very lucky to enjoy the luxury of cooking. I have time (I only work one job, and not a physically demanding one), resources (I can afford buying good quality, fresh food), and an overall positive relationship to food. I do not have a large family to cook for, and if I do not feel like making anything I can go out or order in. Care-giving is not an obligation. Spending time in the kitchen is a choice, and a pleasurable one. I am fully aware that’s privilege. Not everybody is in the same position, and it would be unfair to consider meal preparation – day in, day out – as morally or culturally superior. Or necessary to be a loving family member, or a good citizen.

My personal history explains a lot. My mother would often have people over for Sunday meals. And I don’t mean two or three. My sisters and I were asked to do small kitchen chores as children: beating the egg whites to a foam, peeling almonds, and such. I remember I felt very proud the first time I was asked to make the battuto for the Sunday tomato sauce. Using a sharp knife, I would turn a piece of cured pork fat, rosemary, garlic, and pepper, into a soft paste. As we became more independent, my sisters and I learned how to cook more and more, often under the remote guidance of my mother. When I was a teenager and stayed in Rome by myself while my parents were away on vacation. I would invite friends over and feed them dishes that I had seen my mother cook but I had never tried myself until then. At times i would read of exotic recipes, and try them out, figuring out ingredients and preparations. Once I made a meat stew with bananas and peanuts that I had read somewhere was typical in South America (where is South America was beyond my interest, at that time). When I was in London to improve my English, my landlady would make rice with coconut and shrimp, which she had learned from a Sri Lankan friend of hers. It seemed the epitome of adventurousness, at the time.

Whatever I made, however, was based on the movements, the smells, the flavors I had grown up with, mostly standing at my mother’s stove. It was not just about verbal guidance. It was rather the an immersion in the sensory environment of the kitchen, with its material objects and tools, the way they felt in my hand and needed to be used; the scents and sounds; the visual cues; the affective involvement in making sure that I was doing a good job. What is the right consistency of cookie dough? What does it have to feel like to the fingers so that it can bake properly? What is the smell that signals that the cookie is just right, not undercooked or slightly charred? What are the sounds that a tomato sauce makes, allowing us to know when it has reached the desired texture? Can we hear when the sauce has simmered too long, without waiting for the smell of burned food? As much as we can learn from recipes in the media (videos, podcasts, written texts) and as much as visual support may be useful in achieving a good result, the physical experience that it necessary to fully master a dish cannot be replaced.

In my experience, culinary memories and skills are profoundly embodied, as they relate to the sensory environment in which food preparation and consumption take place. They are also shared experiences, as the way we filter and understand what we cook depends on cultural and social frameworks, on relationships and personal connections (these are not always positives ones, of course, when learning how to cook is an imposition or a taxing duty for which one gets no recognition). Every time I am in my mother’s kitchen, even when I am not cooking myself but just chatting while she or others cook, I can’t help observing what’s in the pots and whether the dishes smell right. I am always happy to volunteer myself to taste anything. Over time, I have become able to embrace the same open attitude and to absorb embodied knowledge regardless who I cook with – friends, professional chefs, or just people in whose kitchen I happen to be. And I keep on learning, especially when I travel. I doubt I will ever stop.

For more on Fabio’s work, see: https://fabioparasecoli.com/blog/