In Which We Look at Adulteration and Brain Molds

In Which We Look at Adulteration and Brain Molds

Hello kind and proper ladies and gentlemen. I have been recently subsumed by work, but that situation seems to have a lid on it for the time being. I cannot believe it has been about a month since my last meal, so I will hit the highlights, since it is starting to fade in my memory a bit, unfortunately.

Now that the first quarter of this year is passed and it is properly spring in the Northern hemisphere, I feel like I can reflect on winter. I made an attempt to choose items from Beeton’s seasonal meal lists. Winter was fairly bleak in England for most people, from all accounts. Lots of preserved food was consumed, which could be done at home, or procured at a market.

In fact, Mrs. Beeton, who was, of course, in the business of selling recipes to housewives in serial form, acknowledges the availability of canned goods:

360. ALTHOUGH PICKLES MAY BE PURCHASED at shops at as low a rate as they can usually be made for at home, or perhaps even for less, yet we would advise all housewives, who have sufficient time and convenience, to prepare their own. The only general rules, perhaps, worth stating here,—as in the recipes all necessary details will be explained, are, that the vegetables and fruits used should be sound, and not over ripe, and that the very best vinegar should be employed.

It’s interesting to me that Beeton doesn’t really give a great reason for making them at home. At the introduction of Chapter IX. Sauces, Pickles, Gravies, and Forcemeats she mentions, as she often does, of the importance of choosing quality ingredients.

So, since Beeton is not explicit, it is fun to guess at a couple of reasons behind making one’s own preserved foods. The most obvious and easy to pinpoint would be a way to save food produced by the household, like eggs or fruit. This would matter less if you were a city mouse, and had your servants do regular marketing, unless you were one of those “screaming deal, I could not pass it up” people. I am one of those people. A giant flat of blueberries seems like a great deal until you get home…then what? Jam time!

The second is an issue that Beeton probably would have been aware of in the news, which was the investigation led by Arthur Hill Hassall into the adulteration of food stuffs produced outside the home, and how food production should be regulated, from 1850 on. Isabella did not embody the stereotype of the Victorian housewife, childlike and blindered. Quite the contrary, letters between Isabella and her husband Sam paint her as a shrewd businesswoman, showing that she was the one concerned with and capable of doing figures and ordering related to their publishing house, and that she was the origin of many of their profitable ideas.

Dr. Hassall’s investigations uncovered unsafe drinking water and the contaminants within; alum, lead, strychnine, chalk and more added to food to sell less or inferior-quality food for more money; and vermin and human or animal hair that could sicken people once ingested. The Lancet picked up the gauntlet in 1873 when the Adulteration of Food Act passed, calling for even tighter regulations and definitions of allowable levels of adulteration. No doubt this investigation, legislation, and the shocking abuses it revealed trickled down through the popular media and magazines. Was it safe to eat the store-bought jam? Maybe, maybe not.

The third reason may be similar to why people in wealthy nations produce handicrafts today: domestic pride, hobbyism, and a sense of satisfaction. Beeton knew that many women collecting her serialized Book of Household Management were leaning heavily on one servant, or (gasp) could not afford even one, and were doing a lot of work themselves, and were expected to adhere to that Cult of True Womanhood bullshit. In Barbara Welter’s famous article “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860″ (1966), Welter discusses one of the “virtues,” domesticity:

In the home women were not only the highest adornment of civilization, but they were supposed to keep busy at morally uplifting tasks. Fortunately most of housework, if looked at in true womanly fashion, could be regarded as uplifting.

Changing tack a bit, I will also say winter is also about citrus, loads of it, thanks to the Victorians’ wide reach with trade routes.

I decided to make Orange Cream [1463], which is a creamy gelatin, for dessert. Since my children are gluten-intolerant, and Victorians loved jellies, I decided to finally invest in a mold. The recipe calls for regular oranges, but I found some blood oranges on special and could not resist.

Blood orange

It was fun to make the jelly. I love juicing oranges, though I usually have little nicks on my hands in the winter due to hangnails and dryness.

Blood orange juice

The result was delicious, but I was amused to see that it separated out in the end.

Brane Jelly

The entree was not much to write home about. I was in the mood for fish, which usually means fried or smothered, as far as the Victorians are concerned. I chose smothering in the form of Soles [328] with Brown Mushroom Sauce [474]. I gently simmered the sole in milk until it was cooked, and then covered it in a mushroom gravy.

Yep, that is smothered.

Probably the most successful part of the meal was the Potato Rissoles [1147]. This involved boiling and mashing potatoes, combining them with fried onions and chopped ham…

Mashed potatoes with ham and onion

…forming them into balls…

…breading them, and frying the balls.

They were absolutely delicious with gravy. One thing that cracks me up about Beeton’s is that she was always describing things as “much improved” or “much increased” by adding mushrooms, some kind of sauce, or other flavor booster. In the case of this recipe, the “flavor of these rissoles may be much increased by adding inley-minced[sic] tongue or ham…” It is usually worth taking her advice, though.

I will reproduce the recipe for the rissoles. It was my first experience ever with lard, and if I made these again, I would probably use vegetable oil. I am not punk rock enough for lard. It will sit in my cupboard and menace me, I reckon.

Potato Rissoles [1147]


Mashed potatoes
salt and pepper to taste
when liked, a very little minced parsley
bread crumbs

Mode.—Boil and mash the potatoes by recipe No. 1145; add a seasoning of pepper and salt, and, when liked, a little minced parsley. Roll the potatoes into small balls, cover them with egg and bread crumbs, and fry in hot lard for about 10 minutes; let them drain before the fire, dish them on a napkin, and serve.

40 Responses to “In Which We Look at Adulteration and Brain Molds”

  • Blood oranges are fascinating and the jelly look delicious. The potato rissoles look fantastic!

  • The Under Gardener

    I’ve been reading about the adulteration problem from the horticultural perspective as well. It seems that seed suppliers in the UK were bulking out their seed packets with dead seed (shame) or giving the same seed several different names in an attempt to up sales each season. For example, Under Gardeners Peas would become Improved Under Gardeners Peas the next season or Superior Under Gardeners Peas. This gives the illusion that some sort of selection or breeding program had taken place.

    Love the brain jelly mold, very Dr Hyde, I would be tempted to add jelly snakes to the batch at Halloween – do you get jelly snakes in the USA?

  • Wow, it did not occur to me that it would affect seeds as well! I really take a lot of our guarantees for granted. And sometimes things are still not as guaranteed as they seem.

    When my youngest turned five last month, I sent brain jello to school for the treat, and I did include “jelly snakes!” In the US we call them gummy worms. I like your term better.

  • Lord, that brane jelly is truly horrifying. Victorian Zombie dinner. Hey! That would be a great dessert for a book club that reads Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

  • RE: lard

    You could invest in iron cookware and use the lard to season it. A lot of times, at least in the midwest, you can pick up ironware at garage sales and estate sales and auctions. Sometimes it’s in terrible, shape, but you can strip it down using oven cleaner in a plastic bag (cover it in oven cleaner, stick it in a plastic bag so the fumes don’t kill everyone) and then sand off any rust spots with fine grade sandpaper. Then clean it, dry it, and season it a few times with the lard. After it’s done, you can wash it with hot water and soap (wash it immediately after cooking) and dry it thoroughly. Reseason as necessary.

    Also make pie crust with it.

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