J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

“Meat became available to the masses”

The 21 Nov 2001 issue of the New Yorker, with the theme of food, includes an article (not freely available online) about historians at Hampton Court Palace in London recreating a dinner served to George III and his family on 6 Feb 1789. The king was just recovering from his earliest bout of madness, and that day was the first time that his attendants let him resume using a knife and fork.

Along the way reporter Lauren Collins says:
During the Georgian era [in England], meat became available to the masses. Farmers learned to produce fodder (turnips, swedes, and clover) that could sustain their cattle through the winter. The average ox sold at Smithfield Market in 1710 weighed three hundred and seventy pounds; by 1795, it had reached eight hundred. . . .

Seafood was plentiful, too: an account book shows that thirteen varieties, from salmon to smelts, were requisitioned in a month at [the royal palace at] Kew. A barrel of oysters cost five shillings. Cod was ordered “crimped”—the fishmonger would score it to the bone, while it was still alive, to give it a firmer flesh.

For reasons of hygiene as well as of fashion, the Georgians mistrusted raw fruits and vegetables. Cucumbers, lettuce, and celery were served stewed. Tomatoes—known as “apples of love”—had been in England since the sixteenth century, but people didn't start eating them until around 1800.

Still, the Georgian palate was sophisticated, especially in its marriage of sweet and savory flavors, evident in such delicacies as pistachio ice cream. The grocery list for Kew in February, 1789, includes hams (379 1/4 pounds), anchovies, “vermicelly,” “Paramazan cheese,” isinglass (gelatinized dried fish bladder, for clarifying beer), and sago (the pith of palm stems, for milk puddings). Many Georgian dishes would strike contemporary taste buds as almost Christmassy.
The American diet was probably plainer, but ample. Observers agreed that the common American was in better health than the equivalent European. The lower population density meant less disease, and the more equal distribution of wealth and greater demand for labor meant more people could enjoy adequate daily nutrition.

For studies of what early New Englanders ate, I recommend the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife volume Foodways in the Northeast.

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