Strange Victorian Foods For The Poor
Pretzel Vendors in the 1880s
Many of the foods we eat today would be very strange to our 19th century forebears, but those of you who still have family around who remember the great depression, or who spoke to their great-grandparents may have heard if some of these foods. I'm still willing to bet some of these will be a surprise to you.
Many lower-income families lived in tenements without kitchens or even fireplaces, making cooking impossible. Street food—the original fast food—sold by vendors kept body and soul together – though much of the fare seems odd by today’s standards. Here are some of the weird foods you could purchase if you invented a time machine, and possessed a curious palate and a strong stomach.
Jellied eels originated on the East End of London during the Victorian Era. The dish was made with chopped eels that were boiled in a stock. The whole mixture was allowed to cool, causing the fats to set and congeal into a jelly. It was served cold. These can still be found in some parts of London and are considered a delicacy by some. I've never tried them.
Eels were imported from Holland, cut into pieces, and boiled. The juices were thickened with flour and parsley, and the whole thing seasoned with pepper and kept hot for sale. A portion of meat was served in a cup (the liquor separately). Customers could add vinegar if they chose. A scrape of butter cost extra. A customer had to eat his snack quickly, since the vendor needed the cup returned. If you were lucky, the vendor would dip the cup in a bucket of dirty water before service. Most of the time, he didn’t bother.
Hot drinks were popular in a world where drinking unboiled water was often risky. Saloop had been popular since the 1600s. It was a hot and supposedly nutritious, heavily sweetened drink made from ground orchid roots. Towards the latter part of the nineteenth century, the basis of the drink changed to sassafras bark, flavored with milk and sugar. Regardless, saloop was considered a delicious and starchy way to start or finish the day. If you were lucky, the beverage was made with the proper roots or bark, and not something like used tea leaves picked from the trash heap.
Sheep’s trotters are exactly what they sound like: feet from a sheep. The Victorians liked to boil them at home when they couldn’t afford other meat. If you were out and about, though, this fried sheep’s trotters would be served by pretty much every single food vendor out there, right alongside a ham sandwich. A bit chewy, a bit bony, but the Victorians thought they were delicious. These I have tried. They didn't taste of much, but to people who rarely got any meat I can see that they were a change from a constant array of cheap vegetables.
Calves head and feet
Our ancestors wasted nothing when it came to food. They used every scrap of meat and offal. Yep. Believe it or not, this was considered quite the delicacy.
According to a recipe in ‘The Accomplisht Cook’, this was how you cooked Calf’s Head:
Take a calves head, cleave it and take out the brains, skins, and blood about it, then steep them and the head in fair warm water the space of four or five hours, shift them three or four times and cleanse the head; then boil the brains, & make a pudding with some grated bread, brains, some beef-suet minced small, with some minced veal & sage…fill the head with this pudding, then close it up and bind it fast with some packthread, spit it, and bind on the caul round the head with some of the pudding round about it, rost it & save the gravy, blow off the fat, and put to the gravy; for the sauce a little white-wine, a slic’t nutmeg & a piece of sweet butter, the juyce of an orange, salt, and sugar. Then bread up the head with some grated bread; beaten cinamon, minced lemon peel, and a little salt.
Noticing a weird obsession with strange parts of the animal? The Victorians might have been obsessed with opulence and appearances, but they were also famous for being thrifty. In the Victorian Era, no part of the animal went to waste.
“Water Souchy” is a fancy name for “seafood water”. To make water souchy, you go out fishing or look in your ice box and scrape together whatever seafood you can find, throw it in a pot, boil it with a couple parsley roots, some old wine, and vinegar if you have it, and voila! Water Souchy. A lot of the time, the soup ended up tasting a lot like mud, and a degree of caution was essential to consuming the dish, as the cooks rarely ever boned the fish.
If broxy kind of rhymes with “pox” it’s purely coincidental…or is it? Meat was pretty expensive during the Victorian Era, but besides beans and eggs, it was the most readily available protein. Poor families who couldn’t afford better cuts of meat bought broxy from a butcher instead. Broxy was a butcher’s term for any kind of meat, usually sheep, that had dropped dead of disease. Since sheep carried lots of communicable diseases, including tetanus, salmonella, and ringworm, you’d probably drop dead too once you ate broxy.
Though technically not a street food, I had to include this one on the list. Tuberculosis – then called consumption – was rampant at the time. It was believed that the fresh, hot blood of a slaughtered animal would build up the sick person’s constitution, alleviating the disease. Consumptives would line up in the slaughterhouse with cups ready to catch the blood, which was swallowed right away. If you were lucky, the animal was dead when the collecting began.
Rice “milk” was made by boiling rice in skimmed milk. A cupful was served hot with a spoonful of sugar and a sprinkle of allspice. The dish resembled a very thin, watery rice pudding. Cheap to produce, it was often sold by female vendors from a metal basin over a charcoal fire. Once again, customers consumed the portion while standing in the street. If you were lucky, the vendor wiped off the spoon before you ate with it.
A bloater (common enough to be painted by Van Gogh above) was a salted herring, cold smoked whole – head, eyeballs, guts and all. Hence the bloating. Vendors would impale the fish on a long fork and “toast” over a flame to cook it before selling to customers who consumed the whole gamey, soft, flabby thing. If you were lucky, the fish had roe in its belly cavity. If you were really lucky, the fish fell off the fork, a stray cat stole it, and you didn’t have to eat it.
Regular cow’s milk was available in summer from vendors who had the animals on the street, udders ready to deliver. They also purchased skim milk from dairies for resale, carrying pails or milk cans in yokes across their shoulders. However, some customers preferred richer, more exotic beverages such as donkey’s or asses’ milk. A few women believed drinking this milk – or eating curds and whey (cottage cheese) – made them appear more youthful. If you were lucky, you got actual dairy – not a mixture of chalk and water.
Pickled Oysters, Whelks, and Periwinkles
Most types of shellfish were a cheap source of protien but, shellfish has a distressing tendency to go off quickly – hence the popularity of pickling to preserve the goods as long as possible. When shellfish was sold fresh, about half of the customers preferred to eat it raw and still alive as opposed to boiled. If you were lucky, the oysters, whelks, etc., were relatively fresh when they went into the pickling solution.