Around the Table: Library Chat

Welcome to the latest Around the Table and return to the Recipes Project Library Chat! Today we travel to the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal. I am delighted to speak with Dr. Mary Yearl, Head Librarian at Osler Library. Please note that you will soon find a version of this post on the McGill University Library News Blog, Library Matters.

1. The McGill Library has many items of interest to our readership, particularly in the Osler Library of the History of Medicine and the Cookbook and Menu Collection housed in Rare Books and Special Collections. Could you provide a brief overview of the library’s holdings and research strengths?

The Osler Library was designed by Percy Nobbs to house Sir William Osler’s books and his remains. Here one sees the library in the Strathcona Medical Building, where it opened in 1929. This room was reassembled in its current location in the McIntyre Medical Building in the mid-1960s.

The nucleus of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine is the collection of nearly 8,000 titles left to the McGill Medical Faculty by Sir William Osler when he died in December 1919. The holdings are mainly, but not exclusively, medical. The library is also home to editions of foundational works in the history of science and to a number of literary and theological books collected by Osler. The majority of our items are printed, but we also have sizeable collections of archival materials, artifacts, and some pieces of artwork.

B.O. 53, Assyrian Medical Tablet. Containing such advice as, “‘the emerald plant’ in best beer thou shalt give him to drink,” This Assyrian medical tablet from ca. 700 BCE provides recipes to treat an unnamed eye disease.

Osler’s own collecting with respect to recipes favoured works from England written or published in the 16th and 17th centuries. That said, there are also works in French, German, and Latin, and the earliest item is an 8th-century BCE Assyrian tablet on various treatments for an unspecified eye disease. Of the items that have been added more recently, the 19th and 20th centuries are well represented.

The real wealth of recipe-related items at McGill can be found outside of the Osler, within the Library’s division of Rare Books and Special Collections. The Cookbook and Menu Collection was established in the late 1960s and consists of over 3,800 titles. It is composed primarily of Canadian, American and British material. The bulk of the collection is from the twentieth century, though there are significant nineteenth-century holdings including a long run of editions and revisions of Mrs. Beaton’s Book of Household Management. In addition, there are some eighteenth-century books.

The collection includes a considerable number of ephemeral items containing recipes and produced by flourmills, sugar refiners and other food manufacturers. Cookbooks created by church organizations, women’s clubs, and other community groups form another significant part of the collection. In addition, there are a number of books devoted to home economics. Also within the Rare Books and Special Collections division is the recently-acquired Doncaster Recipes Collection, consisting of culinary and medicinal recipes mainly from the late-eighteenth through the first half of the nineteenth century.

2. Can you highlight a few of your favorite recipes-related items?

François II de Rohan. Medical Recipes and Health Regimens Including Receptes De Plusieurs Expers Medecins Consernantes Diverse Malladies and Other Texts. ca. 1515. Several of the recipes in this manuscript refer to a “Master Bernard,” whose identity is but one of many questions we hope to answer through scholarly research. Note the combination of fine artistic detail and practical medical information.

Without hesitation, our current favourite item is manuscript of medicinal recipes from ca. 1515, recently acquired with an eye towards honouring Sir William Osler as we commemorate the centenary of his death. We are in the early stages of planning a scholarly edition and are truly enthusiastic about the many directions we can go with this work. The work is marvellous aesthetically: it is a deluxe presentation copy with a velvet cover and fine illuminations, given by the Archbishop of Lyons François II de Rohan to his brother, Charles de Rohan-Gié. The manuscript bears clear signs of having been read, with marginal “nota” and the occasional “nota secretum” indicating that this work was not merely admired for its beauty, but was also appreciated for its contents.

Another interesting one is B.O. (Bibliotheca Osleriana) 7591, which in many ways is a standard late medieval recipe manuscript, a copy of John of Burgundy’s Practica phisicalia. This in itself is not remarkable, but in a blog post that appeared in the Osler Library’s former platform, De re medica, Patrick Outhwaite observed that B.O. 7591 had in common with Wellcome MS. 406 the removal of information about male sexuality.

Another local favourite is manuscript B.O. 7586, best known to us as “The Book of the Head,” which is the subject matter of the text bound with Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla super librum Job. This 15th-century manuscript is part of a larger work that would have offered treatments for all sections of the body, but a deliberate choice was made in this case to include only recipes to treat ailments of the head.

Margaret Parnell, Manuscript commonplace book, rough account book and notebook in pencil and ink, including five pages of home abortion and contraception recipes. Ontario [various places], ca. 1908–1913. The abortifacient and contraceptive recipes recorded in this commonplace book from Ontario, ca. 1908–1913 contain many ingredients that were either identified as poisons (ergot) or which are known as such (sugar of lead), and also includes the curious, “gun powder + whiskey + take freely.”

Many of the less explored recipes come from daybooks, journals, and other sources of vernacular medicine. I was recently reminded of a short section on recipes that appears in a notebook kept by a woman from Ontario in the early years of the 20th century, which we recently acquired but have not yet catalogued. “How to get rid of kids” is the start of a few pages of recipes on abortion and contraception. Fertility recipes are an important part of the history of medicinal recipes, and to see such a stark title is a somewhat ironic reminder of the utter humanity behind the pen. Despite the shock of the initial title, however, the recipes themselves are practical, if poisonous (e.g., a contraceptive douche that contains sugar of lead). Beyond these few pages, the commonplace book is as mundane (and interesting for this) as might be expected, also including household accounts, a list of books, and an inventory that includes a breast pump.

Other items we appreciate because they reflect our attempts to tell the history of medicine as practised locally. Some of our recipes come from patient notes. For instance, in a record book kept by Theodule Nepveu, who practised in a variety of towns around Quebec in the first half of the twentieth century, we find a “regime alimentaire” outlining permitted and prohibited foods for those with colitis. Nepveu’s record book is not spectacular in the way that the François II de Rohan illuminated gift is, but the information it contains is no less important. To start, one might examine a doctor’s comments about diet to draw conclusions about what foods were available, and which his patients were likely to have access to. Or, as with the commonplace book of the woman from Ontario, it is the ordinary practicality that makes the contents extraordinary.

3. What tips can you offer to help users find collection items with recipes via your catalogue or finding aids?

This is not intended to be a trick question, but at the moment it rather feels like one. At McGill, we have had two catalogues for quite some time. The “classic” catalogue is heavily used by those of us who work with rare materials, but it is going away on 1 May 2019 so we are all in the midst of a steep learning curve even as we are still waiting for some advanced features to be made available in the new WorldCat Discovery catalogue. For those who wish to search the original Osler catalogue, the Bibliotheca Osleriana is easily found online. For archival sources, there is now an integrated archival catalogue, through which one can search all archival holdings at McGill. Another place to find recipe-related items is in the McGill Library’s collections within the Internet Archive, discussed below. With regard to searching those resources, though, it is a good idea to click “search text contents” rather than only searching the metadata.

Even though most of our material is catalogued, we would advise anyone with questions to reach out to us (osler_[dot]_library_[at]_mcgill_[dot]_ca) to see if there might be more.

4. Does the McGill Library offer any digital resources to off-site researchers?

MS 251, Practicall Physick of Roger Lickbarrow, mid-18th century, contains medicinal remedies for a wide range of complaints. The contents are ordered by type of ailment. The page shown refers to “diseases of the belly” and has “French pox” as well as “nocturnal pollution” near the end. Other sections are devoted to “womens diseases” and “childrens diseases”.

We have a small number of items that have been digitized, but enough that we have created an Osler Library collection within the Internet Archive.

We are making an effort to increase the digital resources available to off-site researchers. In addition to highlighting items to prioritize for digitization, we are figuring out the best workflow for digitizing items straight from cataloguing where feasible. Finally, we do digitize materials on demand. There will be some delay depending upon the queue in the digitization lab, but we regard user requests as one way of making our materials available to a wider audience.

5. Does McGill offer any fellowships or travel grants for researchers who want to go to Montreal to use your materials?

The Osler Library offers three research grants and one artist residency. For those seeking to use materials within Rare Books and Special Collections, there are three available grants.

Thanks, Mary, for chatting with me! If you’d like to see your library or archive collection featured on the Around the Table Library Chat, please email Sarah Kernan.

Tales from the Archives: ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures

Everything seems to be unseasonably in bloom in England at the moment–blossom, daffodils, snowdrops, crocus… It is beautiful, to be sure, but horrible for us hayfever sufferers who are walking around with blossoming noses and eyes.

The Recipes Project now has over 700 posts in our archives. (Thank you to our wonderful contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes!) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be overlooked. So the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers, making old material new once again.

Unsurprisingly, this month I was inspired to look for various flowers in our archives. What inspired me most was the sole entry on crocus–which, in this case, does not even refer to a flower! I’m going back to Tara Albert’s post from 2014.


Two ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures in Seventeenth-Century Southeast Asia

by Tara Albert

The life of a seventeenth-century Catholic missionary in Asia could be arduous. Many newly arrived missionaries documented their difficulties with the local climate, food, water, and troublesome insects. Above all they fretted about the unfamiliar illnesses that plagued them, and which could bring their endeavours to a premature end. Their letters are peppered with references to concerns about health, and with requests for and advice about available remedies. Preserved in the archives of the Société des Missions Étrangères in Paris is a copy of such a letter, sent in 1692 by missionaries in the Society’s seminary in Siam (Thailand) to their confrères working in Tonkin (Vietnam) (AMEP vol. 850, pp. 152-64). The letter is typical of its genre, containing news, requests for information, pious sentiments, and advice. It also contains intriguing and unusual paragraph – described as a ‘recette’ in the archive’s descriptive catalogue – concerning the use of two curative substances. Breaking off from some unrelated news, the authors suddenly decide to advise their colleagues that:

Crocus metallorum is made from prepared antimony, and if it is infused in grape wine it makes emetic wine, so this crocus is taken solely for purging and evacuating from above and below; it is used for almost every sort of illness, as long as the patient still has enough strength. The dose is from 18 to 30 grains, which is given to the strongest. It is neither heated nor boiled, nor mixed with anything else, it is simply swallowed in wine, or in water, or with sugar, or with a fig – indeed it doesn’t matter with what as long as it is swallowed. Cinchona is a bark from a tree which comes from the New World: an excellent and near infallible remedy to cure all sorts of fevers which are not accompanied by oppressions or inflammations of the chest: it was an English doctor who recently brought these barks to France. We think we sent you the method to use this in the last year, but just in case we’re sending it again this year. (p. 160).

The inclusion of this paragraph raises a number of questions about missionary medicine. In my previous work, which explored conversion to Catholicism in Southeast Asia, I discussed how missionaries often presented themselves as healers in order to convince people of their spiritual powers. This ‘recipe’, however, points to another set of issues which merits further investigation, relating to missionary engagement with medical developments and controversies in Europe, and about missionaries’ interests in using relatively ‘new’ techniques and materia medica on their mission fields.

The first cure – crocus metallorum – is a preparation of a substance which has been discussed before on this blog: antimony. The discussion of its use in this letter is almost an anti-recipe: the remarkable effectiveness of this remedy was such that the composition of the delivery mechanism was unimportant. Indeed the initial illness of the patient hardly mattered – this was a true cure-all. The use of antimonial cures had been extremely controversial throughout most of the seventeenth century. Following a décret of the Sorbonne’s faculty of medicine, and an arrêt of the Parlement of Paris in 1666 permitting their use, they became increasingly sought after.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London La calcination Solaire de L'antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.  Wellcome Library, London
Credit: 
La calcination Solaire de L’antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.
Wellcome Library, London

The second remedy is also a miracle cure of sorts: the ‘near-infallible’ bark of the Cinchona tree, a source of quinine, effective against malarial fevers. No mention is made of the rival missionaries who were associated with this remedy in Europe: the Jesuits, who played an important role in its dissemination. We know from other letters that French Jesuits had supplied some of this bark to Missions Étrangères priests in Siam in the 1680s.  But this letter – which had earlier mentioned the tensions between the two societies – only mentions the ‘English doctor’ credited with introducing the substance to France. This is most probably a reference to Robert Talbor, whose secret recipe for a fever cure based on Cinchona had been revealed in a book published in 1682, shortly after his death. The letter promises that a fuller account of the means of preparing this bark will be sent to Vietnam. I have yet to find this account, but it would be interesting to compare the method to the Talbor recipe, and to Jesuit recipes of the same period.

Both substances held great promise:  they seemed to be extremely efficacious and had become famous, even fashionable in France in the last decades of the century. The use of both medicines by royalty had undoubtedly added to their appeal, and encouraged their acceptance by the medical establishment. Louis XIV had been successfully treated with antimonial wine; Talbor’s cinchona remedies were also credited with saving the life of the king’s son. Yet both remedies were also controversial. Naysayers continued to raise doubts about their efficacy and safety, and about the probity of those who would prescribe them. In many ways they represented new approaches to medicine, championed by those who sought to isolate universal remedies and infallible cure-alls. It seems that members of the Société des Missions Étrangères embraced these approaches, and helped to introduce these ideas to their mission fields.

You’re Invited! Brunch at the CLGA

Today, Michael Pereira of the Canadian Lesbian + Gay Archives shares some of the outstanding items in their Toronto-based collections, including a wide range of recipe books. A version of this post will also appear on the CLGA blog.

Michael Pereira

When it comes to meals, brunch is the queerest of them all. I may not have the empirical evidence to back up this claim, but I would bet that brunch is itself a queer invention. It’s not quite early enough to be breakfast nor does it have the requisite midday feel to be lunch. It’s boldly in-between. It foregoes traditional boundaries and crosses widely agreed upon lines—just like the queer folk among us.

It was clear to me  where I needed to look when asked to feature the Canadian Lesbian + Gay Archives’ collection of cookbooks. With heavenly hybrids of breakfast and lunch fare, brunch is the most versatile meal of them all. It’s also a perfect opportunity to pop open your finest (or cheapest—we don’t judge) bottle of champagne before 11am! Catch your local drag queens and kings for drag brunch at a queer-friendly cafe, restaurant, or early-rising bar on a Sunday morning for a different kind of spiritual experience.

Fig. 1. Illustration from Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking (San Francisco: Congregation Sha'Ar Zahav, 1987). Image courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 1. Illustration from Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking (San Francisco: Congregation Sha’Ar Zahav, 1987). Image courtesy of CLGA.

 

The CLGA is the world’s largest independent LGBTQ2+ archive. Established by The Body Politic’s editorial board in 1973, it maintains a vast collection of records, artifacts, artwork, periodicals, and books generously donated by members of our communities that are available for the public to learn from. Our collections have been meticulously archived largely by and for LGBTQ2+ people, many of whom dedicate their time on a volunteer basis. The cookbooks featured here are held in our James Fraser Library, named in honour of the late James Fraser, an early member of the Canadian Gay Liberation Archives who logged over 500 hours of volunteer service in just one year.

 

Fig. 2. Cover of Lou Rand Hogan, The Gay Cookbook (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1965). Image courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 2. Cover of Lou Rand Hogan, The Gay Cookbook (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1965). Image courtesy of CLGA.

 

You can find cookbooks that range from informative to campy by a wide range of authors in and out of drag. This includes:

  • The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book by Alice B. Toklas (1954)
  • Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking by Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (1987)
  • But Can She Cook? by Christopher North (1993)
  • Healthy Eating Makes a Difference: A Food Resource Book for People Living with HIV by Sheila Murphy (1993)
  • Be Gay! Eat Gay!: The Gay of Cooking by The Kitchen Fairy (1982)
  • The Gay Cookbook by Chef Lou Rand Hogan (1965)
  • Cookin’ With Honey: What Literary Lesbians Eat edited by Amy Scholder (1996)
  • La Gay Gourmet by Carl Mueller (1983)
  • The Drag Queen’s Cookbook & Guide to Sensible Living by Honey van Campe (1996)

Fig. 3. Covers from Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking (San Francisco: Congregation Sha'Ar Zahav, 1987); Be Gay! Eat Gay! The Gay of Cooking (Laguna Beach: Fairy Publications, 1982); Honey Van Campe, The Drag Queen’s Cookbook & Guide to Sensible Living (New Orleans: Pontalba Press, 1996). Images courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 3. Covers from Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking (San Francisco: Congregation Sha’Ar Zahav, 1987); Be Gay! Eat Gay! The Gay of Cooking (Laguna Beach: Fairy Publications, 1982); Honey Van Campe, The Drag Queen’s Cookbook & Guide to Sensible Living (New Orleans: Pontalba Press, 1996). Images courtesy of CLGA.

 

So call up your besties, try-out some of the recipes that follow, and have a gay ol’ time!

 

“Kaffi’s Corn Bread” from But Can She Cook?

Don’t be afraid to get a little corny for your brunch party! A fabulous line-up of drag queens pose for glamour shots alongside their favourite eats in this cookbook published in support of Casey House Hospice, established in 1988 as Canada’s first stand-alone hospital for people with HIV/AIDS.

Fig. 4. “Kaffi’s Corn Bread,” from Christopher North, “But Can She Cook?” (Toronto: Bittersweet Press, 1993) 45. Photography by George Leet. Image courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 4. “Kaffi’s Corn Bread,” from Christopher North, But Can She Cook? (Toronto: Bittersweet Press, 1993) 45. Photography by George Leet. Image courtesy of CLGA.

 

“Oeufs Francis Picabia” from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book 

Fig. 5. Cover of The Alice B Toklas Cook Book (London: Brilliance Books, 1987) and Alice B. Toklas, photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. Images courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 5. Cover of The Alice B Toklas Cook Book (London: Brilliance Books, 1987) and Alice B. Toklas, photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. Images courtesy of CLGA.

Alice B. Toklas’ cookbook is a charcuterie board of the who’s who of 20th century art and culture in France. It includes recipes and anecdotes featuring Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and, as the name of this dish suggests, Francis Picabia. “The only painter who ever gave me a recipe was Francis Picabia and though it is only a dish of eggs it merits the name of its creator,” Toklas explains.

Break 8 eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, add salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan—yes, a saucepan, no, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, keep turning the eggs with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities 1\2 lb. butter—not a speck less, rather more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take ½ hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that perhaps only gourmets will appreciate.

 

The Cooking Fairy’s “Queerberry Crepes” from Be Gay! Eat Gay!

On a cold wintry morning wrap yourself up in the warm, tender love and care of these silky strawberry crepes.

Fig. 6. “Queerberry Crepes” from Be Gay! Eat Gay!: The Gay of Cooking by The Kitchen Fairy (Laguna Beach: Fairy Publications, 1982). Image courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 6. “Queerberry Crepes” from Be Gay! Eat Gay!: The Gay of Cooking by The Kitchen Fairy (Laguna Beach: Fairy Publications, 1982). Image courtesy of CLGA.

 

Michelle DuBarry’s “City Park Apple Tart” from But Can She Cook?

Any good meal must be topped off with a sweet treat. For dessert we have a recipe for a delectable apple tart from the legendary Canadian queen Michelle DuBarry.

Fig. 7. “Michelle DuBarry’s City Park Apple Tart,” from Christopher North, “But Can She Cook?” (Toronto: Bittersweet Press, c. 1993) 53. Photography by George Leet. Image courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 7. “Michelle DuBarry’s City Park Apple Tart,” from Christopher North, “But Can She Cook?” (Toronto: Bittersweet Press, c. 1993) 53. Photography by George Leet. Image courtesy of CLGA.

 

Bon Appétit!

That’s all we have on the menu today friends! Join us at the CLGA to feast your eyes on the rest of our collection and visit us at clga.ca for more information. You can sign-up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, too, to follow along as we continue to preserve and tell the stories of LGBTQ2+ people in Canada.

Regulations and Realities: Standardizing Diets in British Prisons

By Jess Clark

“The Penitentiary, Millbank” from The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862). Image courtesy of British Library, Shelfmark 6057.i.7, Public Domain
“The Penitentiary, Millbank” from The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862). Image courtesy of British Library, Shelfmark 6057.i.7, Public Domain

I was recently in the British Library, and among the sources that came across my desk was a small, thin text published in 1902: Manual of Cooking & Baking for the Use of Prison Officers. Compiled by Britain’s Prison Commission (est. 1877), it offered suggestions on selecting ingredients, preparing food, and serving different classes of inmates. As the preface noted, the text served to meet recommendations of the Departmental Committee on Prison Dietaries of 1899, stating that all prisons should receive the same guide “for everyday reference for the Cook and Baker.”

 

Four cooks in prison uniform standing in a line in front of buckets and baskets, at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, London. After P. Renouard, 1889. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collections.
Four cooks in prison uniform standing in a line in front of buckets and baskets, at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, London. After P. Renouard, 1889. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collections.

 

The text aligns with moves, from the early nineteenth century, to reform prison conditions in Britain in both local and convict institutions. As many historians have noted, institutional reform was a key focus of the period, with a broad range of writers and observers weighing in on optimal conditions of inmates. This led to increasing regulation and overseeing of Britain’s prison system, albeit in ways that didn’t necessarily guarantee prisoner comforts so much as set increasingly stringent policies. These attempts at uniformity extended to food, and directives in 1843, 1864, and 1878 recommended standardized prison diets comprised of “bread, gruel, potatoes, meat, soup and cocoa.” However, this was enforced in a piecemeal fashion, and not all local and convict prison officials abided by dietary suggestions.[i] By the late nineteenth century, reform initiatives like the Gladstone Committee of 1894-1895 continued to scrutinize British inmate diets. Members offered a number of suggestions, including revised recipes for dishes like “stirabout,” a gruel-like concoction of Indian meal (or maize), oatmeal, and salt that was reportedly refused by three-quarters of inmates.[ii] 

It was in this spirit, then, that Manual of Cooking & Baking appeared, in yet another effort to uniformly administer prison diets across Britain. The 1902 text outlines a relatively robust set of instructions on the selecting, cooking, and serving of food. First, cooks and bakers were responsible for attaining and inspecting ingredients. Beef, fish, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, bacon, fowl, vegetables, peas, beans, ice, sugar, tea, wheat, and oatmeal were to be examined and carefully measured for freshness, size or weight, and overall quality. Readers were then instructed on the official methods of cooking in H.M. Prisons, which consisted of “boiling, steaming, baking, roasting, stewing, broiling, and frying,” the latter three primarily confined to “Hospital or Sick-room Cookery” (45).

Female convicts at work in Brixton Women’s Prison. From Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862), page after 196. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.
Female convicts at work in Brixton Women’s Prison. From Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862), page after 196. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Having procured desirable ingredients and employed various cooking methods, what did prison cooks serve for inmates’ daily meals? From 1899, local and convict prison diets were divided into five categories – Diets A, B, C, D, and E – with food diversity and allowance increasing with each letter. The meanest of diets, Diet A, consisted of bread and either gruel, porridge, potatoes, or suet pudding.[iii] Diet B added cooked meat to the mix, as well as beans and soup. Diet C received tea instead of gruel, with breakfast and cocoa for supper. Finally, Diets D and E received similar foodstuffs but in greater quantities, as they applied to male convicts assigned to labour details.

The designation of diets depended on the length of stay of inmates: the longer the stay, the richer and more diverse the diet.[iv] The lack of variety and quality of food for short-term inmates was to dissuade “temptation to the loafer or mendicant,” who reportedly got themselves thrown in prison for the steady meals.[v] Meanwhile, long-stay male labourers received a seemingly varied diet: bread and butter, potatoes, fat bacon, cooked mutton, pea soup with pork, cocoa, and cheese. If we are to believe the cooking instructions, these dishes were prepared in sanitary conditions with acceptable cuts and ingredients, under the careful watch of a state-appointed cook or baker.

However, as we know, what’s written in guidebooks and prescriptive literature doesn’t always reflect the realities of life on the ground. Food functioned in the institutional setting as a mode of control and bodily regulation of incarcerated subjects, a trend that is clear in alternate accounts of prison life. For example, the anonymous author of 1877’s Five Years Penal Servitude by One who has Endured it described a common punishment for unruly behavior—“smashing the teapot”—in which an inmate’s tea was traded out for gruel until he regained his standing.[vi] During the Gladstone Committee, inmates complained of the nauseating quality of foods, which caused diarrhea and other digestive ailments. Meanwhile, following his release from Reading Gaol in 1897, Oscar Wilde described the systematic underfeeding of child prisoners. Such trends were supposed to diminish following the circulation of texts like Manual on Cooking & Baking, yet no doubt endured in some institutions.[vii] In this way, prison dietary guides speak to objectives rather than material conditions, laying bare potential disjunctures between recipes and realities.

 

[i] See, for example, Michelle Higgs, Prison Life in Victorian England (Stroud: The History Press, 2013), Chapter 7; and Sean McConville, A History of English Prison Administration (New York: Routledge, 2016) 303-305.

[ii] Higgs, Chapter 7; McConville, 313.

[iii] This diet replaced the “No. 1 Diet,” a category dating from the mid-century. It was a restrictive diet of gruel which, as historians note, could result in death if misapplied to short-term inmates doing labor. McConville, 306-307, 310-313.

[iv] Diet A applied to those serving seven days and under; Diet B came into effect after seven days; and Diet C came into effect after four months stay, for the remainder of an inmate’s term.

[v] Quoted in McConville, 690. Men, women, and minors received the same diets, albeit in different quantities with women receiving less food overall (save for Diets F and G, designed for female convicts and allowing two ounces of golden syrup with suet pudding for “those female convicts who desire it”).

[vi] Five Years’ Penal Servitude by One Who Has Endured it (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1878), 86.

[vii] Higgs, Chapter 7.