I started working on food history in 1996. People often smirked when I mentioned it. It seemed like a little topic, something that wouldn’t help answer the big questions about human identity and experience. Yet eating is one of the few universals: thinking about how differently it has been organised across time and space provides amazing insights into class, gender and ethnic identities. With the choice of ‘Food in History’ as the theme for this year’s Anglo-American Conference, food history has finally come of age. A wide range of periods were covered, from classical antiquity to the Arab spring, and everything in between. Some people discussed a particular food, such as milk or bread. One intriguing paper (by Rebecca Ford, University of Nottingham) was even more specific, focusing on the social and cultural geography of watercress in nineteenth-century England. But ‘Food in History’ was given a wide scope, going far beyond discussions of food and recipes, in ways that showed the possibility for telling all sorts of cultural and political stories by understanding what we eat, with whom, how we shop for it, and the routes it has had to travel to reach us.
The 2013 Anglo-American conference, which took place in London on 11-13 July 2013, was a fascinating mix of periods, styles and types of food history and social history more generally, ranging from reconstructing historical loaves of bread to food and national identity, from chocolate and coffee to alcohol and milk, from gardens to therapeutic diets, feast to famine. This report is inevitably impressionistic, first because of the number of parallel panels, but also because of the absolute wealth of fascinating information. I’ve mainly focused on the ‘aha’ moments and what struck me as most interesting in the talks I attended.
Three of those papers considered institutional food. Ilaria Berti from Università degli Studi di Genova spoke on ‘Eat sparingly of all kinds of fruit’, discussing the differences between norm and praxis in British Army soldiers’ diets in the West Indies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There was a very high death rate and a significant incidence of illness, mainly reflecting a lack of fresh food in the diet and a high consumption of salted and preserved foods. Indeed, the government of the day actually asserted that salted meat was preferable to fresh. Scottish physician Andrew Halliday recommended increasing the consumption of fresh food from two days to four, advising that in addition to being less monotonous, more fresh food might increase discipline, since it would avoid the soldiers becoming obstinate and unmanageable due to an excess of salt.
Their unwelcome behaviour could also have been because the salt increased their thirst, therefore led to them drinking more – and the habit was to add brandy or rum to the water! In the event, the local government only followed the medical advice to provide fresh food daily when fever broke out or scurvy became common, but this move was frequently cancelled by the Treasury.
Susannah Ottaway from Carleton College considered ‘Food and the eighteenth-century workhouse’. Her question was whether the workhouse should be viewed as punitive or charitable – as a pauper Bastille or a pauper palace? In contrast to the prevailing impression of undernourishment, her investigation of the records reveals the relative generosity of food provision in such institutions. According to various dietaries, meat was consistently served at least three or four times a week, although in some areas it was traded off for cheese as an alternative protein. Bread was eaten twice a day, replaced sometimes by oatmeal in the north of England. Broth and beer were also frequently served, as well as milk in the north. Extra allowances included tobacco, tea and sugar, reflecting the humanisation of the workhorse.
In times of sickness food was increased, particularly cheese and sugar, and porter was distributed to women. Inmates were often part of food preparation or serving. Food deprivation was sometimes used as punishment, such as for refusing to work or bad behaviour. Food represented around 60-70% of overall workhouse expenditure, so these institutions were major purchasers in the area, and there was a significant degree of corruption and mismanagement. Furthermore, the generosity of provision has to be understood in light of the fact that the workhouse committee contained a large number of traders, who benefited from the purchasing, so in fact humane reasons were not necessarily paramount.
Jeremy Boulton from Newcastle University (who is working on the Pauper Lives project) built on this with an examination of the records of St Martin’s workhouse, one of the largest in Britain with between 400 and 900 inhabitants at various times. After calculating an estimate of calorific values, he claimed that the diet was at least adequate for life, but not enough for the hard work to which people would be subjected in the workhouse. The bulk of the calories came from bread, flour and peas, as well as beer or ale. Although comparison is difficult, he asserts that people would have been eating more or less the same foods as outside the institution, but the nutritional value obtained outside would have been higher. Tim Hitchcock pointed out that this situation might have reversed by the end of the eighteenth century, by which time wages had declined significantly; and that the workhouse might also have been a better place for women, because they tended not to eat as much food as males in a patriarchal household where food was short.
Inhabitants of the workhouse were given seasonal treats, but with the exception of Christmas/New Year these occurred in June or July when the intake was at its lowest. Tobacco was provided, although not at a level that would have been likely to match consumption outside, and would either have represented a pipeful for most adults or more for a smaller proportion of regular smokers. Lastly, the cash allowances and payments that were given in return for many tasks or when inmates had to leave for a day indicate that there was the possibility of a significant alternative economy in food and drink (particularly gin) smuggled in by ward nurses and returning inmates.
There were of course many ways of making money from food. Rebecca Ford of University of Nottingham told us about ‘The watercress girl and the watercress garden: Cultural landscapes of watercress in the nineteenth century’. She took a view of food as a cultural object, in which produce, place and people intertwined. Watercress was widely available and could be easily gathered by individuals, both for their own consumption and for sale. The development of the railway network allowed cress growers to move further out of the city, and at the same time the street vendors grew in both number and visibility, certainly in London.
Watercress, washed and grown in pure water, came to symbolise the purity of the countryside, from which city dwellers were becoming increasingly divorced. The watercress girls featured frequently in morality tales, particularly as children looking after sick parents or taking the place of an absent father. The purity of the product gave female sellers – romanticised as poor but happy rustics – an erotic allure. The picture was filled with contradictions, however: they were virtuous and honest, but close to nature and perhaps unbounded by social conventions; their wares could be purified by water, but water itself can also be contaminating if it is not pure.
Virtue was also a concern for Bruna Gushurst-Moore of the University of Plymouth, who spoke on ‘Gardens, foods, medicines: Foods of the sickroom in nineteenth-century America’. She stressed the idea of familial responsibility and ‘every man his own doctor’, which applied from the garden to the sick room in the provision of both herbs and herbal remedies. Proper care was prudent, pure and reflective of propriety. Rather than reflecting a relationship between medical and moral – echoing Steven Shapin (whose keynote is considered in another post by Rachel Rich), who claimed that in doing what was good for you, you were doing what was good – in nineteenth-century America the reverse was true: moral righteousness consisted in physical fortitude and robustness. Right thinking and action not only led to physical health: both were seen as the same.
Health was closely associated with hearth and home, and the ability to provide one’s own food and medicine was seen as living industriously within God’s bounty. Furthermore, sickroom food was a critical component of the proper restoration of health. The ideal food was liquid, easily digested and nutrient dense, such as milk porridge, panada, egg nog or raw beef tea. While in professional medicine there was no association between the individual and virtue, thus the moral probity transferred from the person to the ingredients, the emphasis in the US remained on using ‘the weapons of our country’ and the importance of self-provision.
Domestic virtues were also the concern of Rachel Rich of Leeds Metropolitan University, who took as her theme ‘Mealtimes and domesticity: Victorian women and the shape of the day’. Like Ken Albala (whose keynote is discussed in a second post on the conference), she views cookbooks and domestic advice manuals as literature rather than as evidence of practice. The focus of her research is timekeeping and the ways in which middle-class housewives are given advice on food but also time management. Time was a precious commodity that must not be wasted and timekeeping was a moral consideration. However, women’s time works in a slightly different fashion to factory-led time and is more fluid.
Meals created order in a day, moments of togetherness between work and leisure; they were used as timetabling devices and were a crucial factor in allowing sets of people to come together in a social network. Nevertheless, timekeeping devices at home were not often reliable, so synchronisation was not possible. Time was not only linear but there were multiple and overlapping temporalities, reflecting the various rhythms of household activities but also occasions like Christmas. A good housewife had to expect the unexpected and shield her husband from stress within the home stemming from the unpredictability of the outside world, but at the same time there was a tension between setting regular times for meals and having to be ready for everything. Dinner was the main event and the most stressful for the mistress of the house, as even household meals acted as dress rehearsals for the regular dinner parties that she was expected to hold. Almost all the domestic advice books stress the need to get up early, and their continual emphasis on punctuality implies that in fact people weren’t living up to the advice!
Finally, as food was a universally accessible luxury, it was affordable in some form to everyone and therefore was present at all significant events. Sarah Fox of the University of Manchester’s theme was ‘“The usual cheer”: The role of food in early modern childhood’. Food was used to celebrate the safe arrival of the infant as well as to medicate the mother. Alcohol was employed as well to wash or rub the newborn, lending religious overtones of being fortifying and life-giving to its practical astringency. In addition, there is plentiful evidence that women toasted the new arrival as well as men and christenings had a particular reputation for drunken behaviour. The new parents’ provision of alcohol for such occasions perpetuated their network of social obligations.
However, the food that featured most prominently in eighteenth-century birth celebrations was cake, specifically the ‘groaning cake’ prepared by the mother before her confinement. This was strongly associated with social customs like putting a piece of cake under your pillow to dream of your future husband, or that all attendees must partake to avoid bad luck. The sharing of food gifts symbolised the contract between the newborn and its community, but there was also a medicinal aspect – carraway, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg were used in cakes but also in remedies for the mother and infant.
The role of food in this kind of event was reflective of the female-associated culture of care rather than the male professional culture of cure, a uniting theme in many of these papers.