‘A Modern Dietician’s Nightmare’: 18thC Living Conditions Part 2

Following on from Grotty, Smelly, Smoky: 18thC Living Conditions Part 1


Research suggests that the average level of nutrition was low and that a substantial proportion of the population subsisted on diets which fall significantly below the standards recommended by modern-day nutritional experts. In other words, the food consumed during this period was “a modern dietician’s nightmare”.

The rich ate a bulky though unbalanced diet. There was a high intake of protein but few vegetables, as these were thought to cause melancholy and flatulence, and little fruit, white meats, milk, whey, butter, eggs, and cheese. Thus, many of the more affluent in society ran the risk of Vitamin A, C & D deficiency. However, for those who could afford it, there was a great variety of food-stuffs available. The French traveller, Henri de Valbourg Misson when writing in his memoirs agreed with this:

The English eat a great deal at Dinner; they rest a while, and to it again, till they have quite stuff’d their Paunch. Their Supper is moderate: Gluttons at Noon, and abstinent at Night. I always heard they were great Flesh-eaters, and I found it true. I have known several People in England that never eat any Bread, and universally they eat very little: They nibble a few Crumbs, while they chew the Meat by whole Mouthfuls. Generally speaking, the English Tables are not delicately serv’d. There are some Noblemen that have both French and English Cooks, and these eat much after the French Manner: But among the middling Sort of People, they have ten or twelve Sorts of common Meats, which infallibly take their Turns at their Tables, and two Dishes are their Dinners; a Pudding, for instance, and a piece of roast Beef: Another time they will have a Piece of boil’d Beef, and then they salt it some Days beforehand, and besiege it with five or six Heaps of Cabbage, Carrots, Turnips, or some other Herbs or Roots, well pepper’d and salted, and swimming in Butter: A Leg of roast or boil’d Mutton, dish’d up with the same Dainties, Fowls, Pigs, Ox-tripes, and Tongues, Rabbits, Pigeons, all well moisten’d with Butter, without larding: Two of these Dishes, always serv’d up one after the other, make the usual Dinner of a substantial Gentleman, or wealthy Citizen.

still life of food and hunted game
Alexandre-François Desportes (24 February 1661 — 20 April 1743)

Tobias Smollett, Travels through France and Italy, 1766 writes:

I have likewise two small gardens, well stocked with oranges, lemons, peaches, figs, grapes, corinths, sallad, and pot-herbs. It is supplied with a draw-well of good water, and there is another in the vestibule of the house, which is cool, large, and magnificent. You may hire furniture for such a tenement for about two guineas a month: but I chose rather to buy what was necessary; and this cost me about sixty pounds. I suppose it will fetch me about half the money when I leave the place. It is very difficult to find a tolerable cook at Nice. A common maid, who serves the people of the country, for three or four livres a month, will not live with an English family under eight or ten. They are all slovenly, slothful, and unconscionable cheats. The markets at Nice are tolerably well supplied. Their beef, which comes from Piedmont, is pretty good, and we have it all the year. In the winter we have likewise excellent pork, and delicate lamb; but the mutton is indifferent. Piedmont, also, affords us delicious capons, fed with maize; and this country produces excellent turkeys, but very few geese. Chickens and pullets are extremely meagre. I have tried to fatten them, without success. In summer they are subject to the pip, and die in great numbers. Autumn and winter are the seasons for game; hares, partridges, quails, wild-pigeons, woodcocks, snipes, thrushes, beccaficas, and ortolans. Wild-boar is sometimes found in the mountains: it has a delicious taste, not unlike that of the wild hog in Jamaica; and would make an excellent barbecue, about the beginning of winter, when it is in good case: but, when meagre, the head only is presented at tables. Pheasants are very scarce. As for the heath-game, I never saw but one cock, which my servant bought in the market, and brought home; but the commandant’s cook came into my kitchen, and carried it of, after it was half plucked, saying, his master had company to dinner. The hares are large, plump, and juicy. The partridges are generally of the red sort; large as pullets, and of a good flavour: there are also some grey partridges in the mountains; and another sort of a white colour, that weigh four or five pounds each. Beccaficas are smaller than sparrows, but very fat, and they are generally eaten half raw. The best way of dressing them is to stuff them into a roll scooped of it’s crum; to baste them well with butter, and roast them, until they are brown and crisp. The ortolans are kept in cages, and crammed, until they die of fat, then eaten as dainties. The thrush is presented with the trail, because the bird feeds on olives. They may as well eat the trail of a sheep, because it feeds on the aromatic herbs of the mountain. In the summer, we have beef, veal, and mutton, chicken, and ducks; which last are very fat, and very flabby. All the meat is tough in this season, because the excessive heat, and great number of flies, will not admit of its being kept any time after it is killed. Butter and milk, though not very delicate, we have all the year. Our tea and fine sugar come from Marseilles, at a very reasonable price.

Nice is not without variety of fish; though they are not counted so good in their kinds as those of the ocean. Soals, and flat-fish in general, are scarce. Here are some mullets, both grey and red. We sometimes see the dory, which is called St Pierre; with rock-fish, bonita, and mackarel. The gurnard appears pretty often; and there is plenty of a kind of large whiting, which eats pretty well; but has not the delicacy of that which is caught on our coast. One of the best fish of this country, is called Le Loup, about two or three pounds in weight; white, firm, and well-flavoured. Another, no-way inferior to it, is the Moustel, about the same size; of a dark-grey colour, and short, blunt snout; growing thinner and flatter from the shoulders downwards, so as to resemble a soal at the tail. This cannot be the mustela of the antients, which is supposed to be the sea lamprey. Here too are found the vyvre, or, as we call it, weaver; remarkable for its long, sharp spines, so dangerous to the fingers of the fishermen. We have abundance of the saepia, or cuttle-fish, of which the people in this country make a delicate ragout; as also of the polype de mer, which is an ugly animal, with long feelers, like tails, which they often wind about the legs of the fishermen. They are stewed with onions, and eat something like cow-heel. The market sometimes affords the ecrivisse de mer, which is a lobster without claws, of a sweetish taste; and there are a few rock oysters, very small and very rank. Sometimes the fishermen find under water, pieces of a very hard cement, like plaister of Paris, which contain a kind of muscle, called la datte, from its resemblance to a date. These petrifactions are commonly of a triangular form and may weigh about twelve or fifteen pounds each and one of them may contain a dozen of these muscles which have nothing extraordinary in the taste or flavour, though extremely curious, as found alive and juicy, in the heart of a rock, almost as hard as marble, without any visible communication with the air or water.

the front pages of the Art of Cookery
Title page and frontispiece to Mrs Hannah Glasse’s Cookery Book c. 1777 Scan: Contributor. Original: W.Wangford c.1777, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hannah Glasse, who wrote one of the century’s most popular cookery books, ‘The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy’, lists more than 160 different ingredients which were organized according to the months in which they were in season. As an example of the kind of food that one could eat at a well-stocked hostelry, if one could afford it, a bill of fare for the Bush Tavern, Bristol, listed well over 100 different items of food for Christmas 1790. Not all inns were as well provided as this, however, as the following damning report made by Charles Burney when visiting Saint-Omar, makes clear:

I was forced to put up at a miserable house in the suburbs, where I could get nothing to eat after my sea-sickness and total depletion, but stinking maquerel; a salad with stinking oil; and an omlet made of stinking eggs.

Not only was the food eaten by the poor, meagre and monotonous, but it accounted for most of the family’s budget. In England, at least, approximately two thirds of the income would be spent on food and drink, and the rest used for rent, clothing, fuel and boots. The common people could afford little meat and the bulk of their diet consisted of coarse quality brown bread made from rye or barley, whilst white bread made from wheat, although more expensive, became popular, and the spread of potatoes improved nutrition. Fruit and vegetables were eaten when in season and pulses and greens became more common. Although boring when compared to the food eaten by the middle classes, it would have provided the bulk of calories needed by a manual worker. It has been calculated that the average daily protein intake of the poorest 20% of the population was less than 2,000 calories i.e. 6 hours of light work or 1 hour of heavy labour. If this calculation is correct, one wonders how large building projects were ever completed. Of course, not all the poor were so restricted in their diet. Servants working in town expected to eat the same as their masters and mistresses, whilst those on large farms might enjoy a higher daily intake of calories by being allowed to share some of the farmer’s food. An unskilled labourer, however, was in a much more precarious position, and in years of dearth, he and his family might well go hungry. Of course, the country dweller could also resort to poaching rabbits, hares, pheasants and other game, and this must have helped fill many a poor man’s pot, although the penalties if caught, could be quite Draconian.

One must also remember that the quality of food could be extremely variable, ranging from the unadulterated and fresh to the adulterated, rancid, and rotten. Of course, it would be helpful if one could trust one’s food providers. Town dwellers, both rich and poor, were at the mercy of others, and at each point in the supply chain, from growth, harvest, slaughter, market, larder, pan to consumption, they had to rely on the honesty and integrity of the producer, wholesaler, vendor and cook. The following entries from James Woodforde’s diary give one an idea of the largesse that the local gentry enjoyed upon occasion, although it may seem excessive to us.

Parson Woodforde was invited to a dinner for six people on 28th January 1780, that included, a Calf’s Head; boiled Fowl and Tongue; a Saddle of Mutton roasted on the Side Table; and a fine Swan roasted with Currant Jelly Sauce for the first Course. The Second Course a couple of Wild Fowl called Dun Fowls; Larks; Blamange; Tarts etc. etc. and a good Desert of Fruit after amongst which was Damson Cheese.

Parson Woodforde was invited to dine with the Bishop of Norwich on 4th September 1783. This was a grander occasion than before with, of course, a lot more food. He writes:

There were 20 of us at the Table and a very elegant Dinner the Bishop gave us. We had 2 Courses of 20 Dishes each Course, and a Desert after of 20 Dishes. Madeira, red and white Wines. The first Course amongst many other things were 2 Dishes of prodigious fine stewed Carp and Tench, and a fine Haunch of Venison. Amongst the second Course, a fine Turkey Poult, Partridges, Pidgeons and Sweetmeats. Desert – amongst other things, Mulberries, Melon, Currants, Peaches, Nectarines and Grapes.

In Part 3, Disease Carriers and their diseases

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