My youngest was about to turn five and I suddenly became very interested in Victorian children’s parties, of course. We know the Victorians were the original Goths, with their dark clothes and near-fetishization of death through elaborate mourning rituals and codes. How did they feel about the celebration of life?
Through a little searching, I found a child’s novella called The Birth-day Visit to Holly Farm  by Susan Bogart Warner, wherein a girl turns eight and is immediately showered with presents when she wakes up, and is taken to a farm field with a picnic packed for a “birthnight tea” with a friend and her governess.
The only mention of birthdays in Beeton’s is historical. She gives a history of the Greek dinner party, and adds that “a birthday, too, was an excuse for a dinner; a birthday, that is, of any person long dead and buried, as well as of a living person, being a member of the family, or otherwise esteemed .” She does not mention specific occasions for throwing a birthday dinner in her time, but she does comment in the same passage on the British predilection for having parties: “Douglas Jerrold said that such is the British humour for dining and giving of dinners, that if London were to be destroyed by an earthquake, the Londoners would meet at a public dinner to consider the subject.”
I understand that sentiment. I think I look for any excuse as well. I wonder if birthdays were such commonplace affairs that there was no need to really explain to the reader how they happened? I imagine you celebrated according to your means and desires, much like today. There was no need to lay out an elaborate code, such as with calling cards or mourning dress.
I made an interesting accidental discovery by flipping through Beeton’s as I was planning this birthday dinner relating to children’s parties: negus. Negus was a popular wine-based party punch referenced in several early Victorian novels.
Negus appears in a couple of forms in a charming “collection of receipts” called Oxford Night Caps (1847) by Richard Cook. There is a recipe for white wine negus, calling for calf’s foot jelly, which I imagine is somewhat like a boozy warm Jell-o drink, a cold white wine negus, and a port wine negus, which is what is offered in Beeton’s. By the time the recipe is recorded in Beeton’s, negus had apparently become passé. She notes: “this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than any other .”
I wondered if she meant it had become a children’s drink, or if adults drank it there to stave off the potential boredom of watching a bunch of children gavotte or attempt to play whist. Could children really be guzzling cups of fortified wine, asked your author, clutching her modern American pearls?
Answer: looks like it. The Churchman, a British quarterly dedicated to Christian thought that has been published since 1879, has a story in its 1 July 1882 edition about charitable treatment of poor children at Christmas. The author writes, “She concocted a glass of steaming negus, much to the delight of the children.”
Negus is very easy to make. Most recipes call for rubbing sugar on the peel of a lemon, which I figure is ye olde zesting, since sugar often came in lumps or loaves. I chose to just zest the lemon instead. Beeton’s never mentions zest, but peel only, and this rubbing technique. Then you add sugar, juice, and watered-down port, and simmer slightly. It called for grated nutmeg as well (surprising, I know), but I threw in a couple of mace blades instead, since I don’t care for the way grated nutmeg feels in liquid when you drink it.
My guests both enjoyed the warm negus. One said that the only drawback was, despite the fact that the concentration of the booze was theoretically weak, was that “you just get trashed instantly.” Don’t drink this if you have anywhere else to be or have higher math to do. Heretic that I am I was enjoying my beer so much I opted not to have a glass.
I did give the children about an inch of negus in mugs so they could try it, and told them it was a child’s party drink from 150 years ago. It is one thing to tell children something about how the old days were, but I thought it would make an impact on them if they tried a little. “BLECH,” declared my older daughter. “Tastes like alcohol.” Well, yes. They quickly abandoned it in favor of the goat cheese I had set out for an appetizer.
The majority of the work was allotted to the Soup a la Julienne , which involved julienneing a bunch of vegetables (something I freely admit I suck at, since I do it so rarely) and then simmering the fuck out of them until it hardly matters which shape they started in. It contained carrots, turnip, onions, leeks, and celery.
The soup also called for generic “lettuce” added, which, I have had soup with kale, watercress, or other greens in, but I could not see adding perfectly nice lettuce to the pot, so I used sturdier chopped napa cabbage. Another thing I did not feel like tracking down was sorrel and savory, which a more run-of-the-mill supermarket does not carry, so I grabbed some parsley and a smidge of tarragon from the backyard. The soup is served over bread. I cubed some peasant bread and sprinkled it on for those who could eat gluten, and it absorbed the flavorful broth very nicely.
The soup was springy, much like the cock-a-leekie, and reminded me of a very particular veggie soup you will get in a small cup at Thai or Vietnamese restaurants that comes free with the lunch special. I liked the combination of flavors, but it was nothing too extraordinary, and not worth all the julienneing. I was disappointed when I discovered the next morning that my scullery maid had swilled too much negus and fell asleep rather than putting the soup away.
I also mashed sweet potatoes , which behaved just like you would expect them to. I served these with a lobster curry  over rice. I was kind of intrigued by this, since it’s not what you usually expect to see in an Indian-style curry. I bought a large frozen lobster tail and cooked it as it instructed, and then simmered the chunks in the curry. This is where things went wrong–it made the lobster bits tough. I should have stirred them in at the last minute instead.
I topped a gluten-free chocolate cake with an almond icing  that was much like marzipan. I liked the clash of the old with the very new–a 150-year-old frosting recipe atop a gluten-free cake mix was very pleasing somehow, and it went over well. The interesting part to me was that the frosting contained egg whites, and once you top the cake it goes back in the oven for a bit and it cooked on the cake.
I have no idea if it was a traditional Victorian birthday meal, but everyone had a good time and enjoyed trying something new. I will have to try the negus again next fall for a grown up party, no matter that Beeton thinks it’s a kiddie drink.
To every pint of port wine allow 1 quart of boiling water
¼ pound sugar [I added a half-cup]
Grated nutmeg to taste [I used 2 mace blades]
As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it. Put the wine into a jug, rub some lumps of sugar (equal to 1/4 lb.) on the lemon-rind until all the yellow part of the skin is absorbed, then squeeze the juice, and strain it. Add the sugar and lemon-juice to the port wine, with the grated nutmeg; pour over it the boiling water, cover the jug, and, when the beverage has cooled a little, it will be fit for use. Negus may also be made of sherry, or any other sweet white wine, but is more usually made of port than of any other beverage. [Of course I simmered it all in a saucepan.]