Hello, friends. Today, I want to point you towards a super-interesting public-health article that analyzes (in broad strokes, obviously) the rural working-class Victorian diet. I don’t know about you but when I think of Victorian cuisine, my first thoughts are of Mrs. Beeton, or else of Victorian celebrity chefs likes Alexis Soyer and Charles Elmé Francatelli. The food is elaborate, involved, constructed: blancmange. Meat boiled forever. Dessert sculpted into the shape of a giraffe.
Or else I think of the hungry poor, who ate whatever they could (ill-)afford: any vegetables they could scrounge, some stale scraps of meat if they were lucky, a lot of cheap bread. As a result, I tend not to think of Victorian food as healthful or appetizing. I had always assumed that the Victorians were much like us: the rich tended to overeat and suffer from diseases of affluence, while the poor remained undernourished.
But this article, by Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham, proposes a very different picture: a “superior” diet of fresh meat, fish, vegetables, and seasonal fruits. It argues that by 1850, improvements in farming technology combined with new transportation (bringing fresh food into urban centres) to create an adult life expectancy that “matched or surpassed our own”, and a distinct “health and vitality… [that] that powered the transformation of the urban landscape at home, and drove the great expansion of the British Empire abroad”. Apparently, the average rural Victorian labourer worked hard (and walked as many as 6 miles to and from work), ate a ton (4000 calories a day!), and enjoyed extremely good health as a result.
I haven’t yet read any responses or analyses to this article, but I’m intrigued. There are plenty of gaps – what of the rich, what of the poor, what of the new middle-classes who sat at desks all day? – but I’m willing to buy the case they make for the diets of the labouring classes – at least, in times of plenty. What do you think?
(Thanks to Mark’s Daily Apple, where I first saw the article linked.)