Eating and Cooking in Victorian America

laid-table-1436952-mThe series I’m working on right now, the Cattarina Mysteries, is set in Victorian Philadelphia. Because I’m a foodie and an antique cookbook collector, I naturally like to talk about mealtime in my novels. But in order to write about food in historical context, research is required. A LOT of research. Here are some of the more interesting things I found out about Victorian foods and preservation methods while tripping through history:

1. Raw tomatoes were thought to be poisonous. During the mid to late 1800s, raw tomatoes were still considered unsafe to eat and potentially poisonous. Because of this, recipes of the day usually feature them in a sauce or condiment. Victorians thought that if you cooked them long enough and diluted them with vinegar and other spices, tomatoes would be safe to eat. Ketchup, anyone?

2. “Refrigeration” before ice was scary. Before electricity, we had old fashioned “ice boxes.” Men would carve large blocks of ice from lakes, haul them to town, cover them in sawdust, and bury them or keep them in an ice house. Come summer, the blocks were smaller, but intact, and very dirty since they contained lake sediment. These were then sold to townspeople on ice trucks. Ah! But ice boxes and ice delivery were only just beginning in the 1840s and a family of modest means, a family like Edgar Allan Poe’s, probably wouldn’t have had the money to buy one of these new contraptions and pay for regular ice delivery. So families like these might have used something called the “cooling cupboard.” This was a small wooden cabinet with cut-outs or slats lined with wire mesh (to keep out the flies and rodents). A housewife usually hung or positioned it in the shadiest part of her kitchen. And cellars were an absolute necessity for keeping salted meats, pumpkins, apples, and the like.

3. Fresh eggs could be preserved. Really. I read about a method of preserving FRESH eggs that involved covering them with lime and submersing them in a bucket of cold water for use MONTHS later. Yuck!

4. Very few things “came in a can.” In the early 1840s, tinned foods were specialty items. Because cans weren’t massed produced yet, they had to be handmade. One piece of research said that the average tinsmith could produce 100 cans a day. So the early Victorian housewife would still be buying all of her produce fresh (or growing it herself).  She might, if she had the budget, buy a small tin of oysters, as they were quite popular at the time. There were also many safety concerns about early tin cans, and many people got sick from eating their contents. Aside from the lead they contained, these cans had a hole in the top (to let steam escape during the boiling process) that was then hand soldered shut. If the seal broke, bacteria thrived.

5. Cheese variety was limited. Sure, Victorians had cheddar since it had been brought over from England a hundred years earlier. But many of the cheeses we enjoy today, like mozzarella, emmentaler, brie, and the like hadn’t even been heard of by the early Victorian family, much less sampled. Why? Number one: cheese making was a small, local affair and usually undertaken by a farmer or dairy owner. Mass production methods weren’t invented until the 1850s. Number two: cheese variety greatly depended upon the immigrants who brought their tastes and techniques with them. Swiss cheese didn’t come to America until some time in the 1830s when Swiss settlers moved to Ohio. So the kind of cheese Victorians ate depended upon the local immigrant population.

6. Before we had cook books, we had “cookery books” filled with receipts. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll just give you a link to my favorite cookbook. It’s Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery, printed in Philadelphia, 1840. Edgar Allan Poe’s mother in law, Muddy (Maria Clemm), may have used such a book. Check out the recipe for Pepper Pot soup, a very common soup usually sold by African American vendors as a cheap street food. To make it, you start with four pounds of trip and four ox feet… Gulp.

I hope you enjoyed this little snapshot of Victorian food preparation. When you’re eating that can of chili or fresh mozzarella and tomato salad today, think of how far we’ve come!

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