Tag Archive for 'William Kitchiner'

Reading About Arsenic and Regency Eccentrics

Reading About Arsenic and Regency Eccentrics

I have been reading some great stuff about the nineteenth century lately. One title was based on my interest in William Kitchiner after I made curry and started prying into his life a bit. The other book I stumbled onto at the library, entirely by chance.

The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, & Play, James C. Wharton, Oxford University Press, 2010.

The Arsenic Century

The Arsenic Century, my accidental find, is an exhaustive look at the extremely liberal use of arsenic in the nineteenth century, with a focus on England and Victorian London. The author, James C. Whorton, delves into every aspect of it: how it is produced, how it was detected, the awful “cures” people used, and he does not shy away from graphic descriptions of the sicknesses and deaths it caused. It’s (in large part) a fascinating history book that is sprinkled with science and riveting murder mysteries in the form of poisoning cases.

To this day, I think that is the association most people have with arsenic: murder by poison. In many instances it was deliberately administered to the unsuspecting with the intent of causing death, but in others, people were poisoning themselves by working with it to make artificial flowers, wallpapers, and dyes. I’d heard of “arsenic green” but was unaware that arsenical compounds were used to make a vast array of colors.

People living in this time were also poisoned by their consumer products. If making the wallpaper was making the manufacturers sick, naturally it was making the people whose homes it hung in sick as well. Candles, cloth, paper, and more contained arsenic. Arsenic was sold alongside other products in pharmacies and dry-goods stores, and was sometimes mistakenly dispensed as something innocuous like baking powder. Mislabeled arsenic at home lead to deadly meals.

One of the saddest stories Wharton tells is about adulteration of candy, which was a known problem during this period before strict food ingredient, labeling, and quality laws. Wharton tells us of a candy maker who sent his assistant off to buy a large sack of plaster of Paris so he could make a large batch of peppermint candies with a great deal of filler to extend his profits. When it was time to make the candies, someone in the shop went to fetch the filler from the back room and instead grabbed a container of arsenic (which was labeled, but only on the bottom). When the candy was distributed for sale, dozens were killed, and many more were sickened.

Another aspect of arsenic use I found shocking was that people elected to deliberately take arsenic themselves on a regular basis, and that there were commercial preparations containing arsenic that were sold and intended for use much like vitamins today, or as facial washes to eliminate skin problems. Writers and the press called these people “arsenic-eaters.” They were convinced arsenic in controlled quantities made people more energetic, plumper, and more vital, and there was a lot of anecdotal evidence from people and animals like horses working more efficiently and putting on weight (of course underweight at this time often signified poverty or sickness) in response to small doses.

Wharton includes tale after tale of death due to stupidity, carelessness, or honest mistakes from being surrounded by arsenic. The body count gets so high in some chapters, it’s almost laughable, in a morbid way. Considering how much Wharton fits into this very dense and fact-filled book, it’s a lively read.

So what does Beeton’s say about arsenic?

There is faintness, depression, and sickness, with an intense burning pain in the region of the stomach, which gets worse and worse, and is increased by pressure. There is also vomiting of dark brown matter, sometimes mixed with blood; and mostly great thirst, with a feeling of tightness round, and of burning in, the throat. Purging also takes place, the matters brought away being mixed with blood. The pulse is small and irregular, and the skin sometimes cold and clammy, and at others hot. The breathing is painful. Convulsions and spasms often occur.

I will admit to you that I am completely blanking on the name of the doctor who wrote most of the chapter in the BOHM on medicine and treatments, aptly titled “The Doctor.” There is a section devoted to arsenic, and they recommend treatment with “Emetics, Lime–Water, Soap-and-Water, Sugar and Water, Oily Drinks.” So, something that would make the patient vomit, or dilute the poison. Wharton lists several “cures” Beeton’s does not mention that could be just as deadly as arsenic, such as calomel or opiates.

Dr. William Kitchiner, Regency Eccentric, Author of the Cook’s Oracle, Tom Bridge and Colin Cooper English, Southover Press, 1992.

I have also been reading about one of my new favorite people, William Kitchiner, MD, who famously wrote The Cook’s Oracle. Tom Bridge and Colin Cooper English do Kitchiner justice in a terse volume called Dr. William Kitchiner, Regency Eccentric, Author of the Cook’s Oracle. At the outset, the authors admit that not a whole heaping ton is known about Dr. Kitchiner’s life, which makes for my favorite kind of biography, one that does not start seven generations back on a beet farm.

Kitchiner, denied the ability to practice medicine in London since he was certified in Glasgow, was most famous during his lifetime for his Committee of Taste, a small group of men who rotated based on their availability. The Committee were the taste testers for the recipes that would come to fill out The Cook’s Oracle [1817].

The routine was invariably as follows: invitations were sent, a response was expected within a day, guests arrived at 5 p.m. sharp and the door was promptly slammed shut and locked at 5:02. Dinner was served at exactly half-past nine, and when the clock struck eleven, guests were handed their hats, the end, GET OUT.

As a writer of books and music, an inventor of a stove and a sauce (Zest) meant to fight scurvy in the Royal Navy, and an educated man of taste, Kitchiner was acquainted with renowned people and invited them to his tastings. Famous writers, actors, and poets were often in attendance, and Kitchiner even hosted George IV when he was still the Prince Regent, who was attracted by the plain, practical dinners and interesting company.

Many modern historians agree that Beeton certainly would have had a copy of The Cook’s Oracle, probably even before she began compiling the BOHM. Sarah Freeman, in Isabella and Sam [1978], calls Kitchiner “prissy, demanding, dictatorial,” which is well-evidenced by his dinner party dictates, but also that The Cook’s Oracle was “the oldest book she definitely made use of–though perhaps the most modern in spirit.” Freeman writes:

Isabella was preceded by Kitchiner in very many essential respects: he was the first cookery writer ever to give accurate weights and measures; he included detailed marketing tables listing the seasonal prices of foodstuffs…and he emphasized economy rather than elegance, taking as his motto: ‘ORDER AND ECONOMY ARE THE BASIS OF COMFORT AND INDEPENDENCE.” [Emphasis Freeman's.]

I will personally vouch for Kitchiner here. When I get to what looks like one of his recipes, notable for their clear measurements and unambiguous instructions, I know that I have encountered something that will actually work.

Kitchiner had one bastard son from a long-term relationship he had after his brief marriage, which resulted in a separation, but not dissolution. His legitimate wife is not mentioned in his will, but his companion, Elizabeth Friend, was provided for. Sadly, speaking of poisons, it it suspected Dr. Kitchiner was poisoned by amanita mushrooms under very suspicious circumstances shortly after changing his will to make his son a majority recipient of his estate.

Another enjoyable read, and the last chapter provides an interesting selection of his recipes from his most famous book.


A million thank yous to the Under Gardener, who told me a months ago to watch The Supersizers Go Victorian. A recent comment from MadamQ nudged me toward it again, and I was ready this time! In case you do not know the Supersizers, they are two British comedians/TV presenters who immerse themselves in the culture of a time period for a week. I thought this was a scream, but in the past year I have found increasingly bizarre things relating to the nineteenth century funny, so take me as you will.

The Supersizers enjoy a Christmas feast that would make Dickens envious, a calf’s head, many jellies, fried ears, very sad, thin soup for the poor a la Soyer, and more.

I like what cohost Sue Perkins said about the Victorians–I think she nailed it: “The fascination with rare and beautiful creatures, combined with the desire to kill them and eat them.”

Here is the first part:

The rest is on the YouTubes. I am still cooking, don’t worry. I’ll be back soon with glistening piles of who knows what.

Curry in a Non-Hurry

Curry in a Non-Hurry

“If Leekes you like, but do their smell dis-like, Eat Onyons, and you shall not smell the Leeke; If you of Onyons would the scent expel, Eat Garlicke, that shall drowne the Onyons’ smell.”  –Dr. William Kitchiner

Isabella Beeton includes fourteen recipes for curries in the Book of Household Management, including lobster curry, which I tried earlier this year, and Indian Curry-Powder [449.], from a Dr. Kitchiner’s Receipt. Here again I have struck gold with regards to one of Beeton’s sources.

William Kitchiner, MD (1775–1827) seemed to have been somewhat of a Renaissance man and an eccentric, who was known for his sauces and spice concoctions. His most famous cookbook was called The Cook’s Oracle (thrillingly subtitled “Containing Receipts for Plain Cookery, On the Most Economical Plan for Private Families; Containing Also a Complete System of Cookery for Catholic Families. Being the Result of Actual Experiments Instituted in the Kitchen of William Kitchiner, MD”). Well, now you don’t have to see the movie to know how it comes out, do you? I love the nineteenth century.

Let’s look at the important part of that gargantuan title: “Result of Actual Experiments.” (!!) Beeton went to the sauce source, it seems. Originally published in 1817, Dr. Kitchiner’s book was an attempt at precision in measurements and timing, rather than instructing the cook to add a bit of this-and-that until it was done. However, Kitchiner acknowledges in his preface to the seventh edition that many of the newly-added recipes had not been tested, though curry powder was not on that list of later recipes.

The book was published through and enhanced through at least the 1840s (William Crescent, the editor for the 1931 edition, released posthumously, notes in his introduction that “many receipts for pastry, preserves, &c, &c have been added to the present edition…”,  making it more of a well-rounded cookbook in keeping with others from that era). I assume Beeton got her hands on a later edition, which presumably means that some of the recipes she lifted for the BOHM were tested, and some were not. Many of Dr. Kitchiner’s recipes are very familiar, textually, such as Portable Soup; of course Beeton’s edit is to extract the  ingredients and lay them out for the reader at the outset like most modern recipes, and to make the language clearer, something she excelled at as an editor.

It is interesting to note that in his preface to the third edition (1819-20?) Kitchiner includes curry powder on a list of sauces, with a little disclaimer:

Store Sauces and many items of Domestic Comfort, which are extravagantly expensive to purchase, and can very seldom be procured genuine, he has given plain directions to prepare at Home–of infinitely finer flavour, and considerable cheaper than they can be obtained ready made…

While 44 years later in her introduction to her chapter on Sauces, Beeton declares that

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.

…Demonstrating that times had changed.

So I decided to try out Dr. Kitchiner’s recipe for curry powder. My old neighbor was from India and he was always exhorting me to make my own. “It’s so much BETTER!” he would say, as he foisted some of his on me as proof.

First, I had to assemble all the spices and let them heat overnight in a cool-ish oven. I did not track down cinnamon seed, but instead used sticks. I didn’t think the powdered and dried ingredients like turmeric and ginger really needed a go in the oven overnight, but I thought I would keep to the spirit of it. Modern curry recipes usually call for toasting the spices in a skillet on the stove top.

Then it was time to grind up the spices. A friend of mine once told me not to monkey around with a mortar and pestle, but to instead use a coffee grinder, so I did. As I ground the spice pile in small batches, I began to sneeze uncontrollably. I think I lost half the contents of my head and the tissues were beginning to turn yellow. My nose burned all day afterward from all the cayenne. Next time I will be smart and wear a handkerchief like a cowboy.

As I ground the spices, I saw that the coriander seeds were losing their outer shells, and that there were a few chunks left behind. I sifted the mixture when it was done to get rid of the excess debris.

It made about two-and-a-half cups, certainly more curry than I have ever purchased in one go.

I decided to use it almost immediately in Curried Fowl [941.]. The base of the curry was meant to be veal gravy, which is not something I keep on hand, so I made some quick gravy with bacon drippings and chicken broth out of the carton. It went over very well and was a nice mixture of hot and flavorful. The dish did not at all resemble what you get in modern Indian restaurants I have eaten in, but was in line with other Victorian Indian dishes I’ve made–the focus is on the curry, a simple gravy, and loads of onions. This one also called for diced apple, which was nice. I will be using the powder for all of the rest of the curry dishes I make this fall.

Visually unexciting, as usual.

I can’t think of anything duller than a long essay on the etymology of the word curry, but I admit I got a little curious about it after stumbling on some writing by Richard Sainthill, an art patron and coin collector who compiled a book of reminiscences and other hodge podge appropriately named An Olla Podrita: or, Scraps, Numismatic, Antiquarian, and Literary, Volume Two [1853]. In this second volume, which features riveting chapter titles such as “The Use of the Samaritan Language By the Jews Until the Reign of Hadrian Deduced from the Coins of Judea” and “Objections to a Laurel Wreath for the Bust of Her Majesty Queen Victoria on the Coinage,” is proof of what can happen when you sarcastically tell someone incredibly dull to “get a hobby already” and they DO, and then they write all about it and expect you to read it.

(Ironic Pause.)

Anyway, Sainthill reproduced some correspondence between himself and a friend whom he only refers to as “Madam Soyers” in regards to Kitchiner and what “real” curry is. Even in the nineteenth century there were obnoxious foodies arguing about authenticity, isn’t that grand? I got all excited because I thought maybe his correspondent was Emma Soyer, Alexis Soyer‘s wife, but I think she was dead by this time and did not travel to India besides. I thought it was worth looking into in spite of the typo, as Sainthill misspelled Kitchiner’s name in the article as well. Sainthill asked Madam Soyers what she thought about Kitchiner’s recipe.

She replied:

Now, both as an eater and maker of curries, I affirm that during nine years’ residence in India I never saw or tasted a curry like Dr. Kitchener’s [sic].

However, she does go on to say that every chef has his own recipe for curry, and surmises that Kitchiner’s recipe may be more similar to concoctions that were created to be imported to London (too turmeric-heavy, suiting English tastes) and not for use in India. I felt that Kitchiner’s was missing garlic, and the “authentic” recipe Madam Soyer includes in her letter from a “most capital cook, Haji Ali” includes it.

Very briefly I will say that while the OED claims the word “curry” comes from a Tamil word, “kari,” meaning sauce/relish for rice, I was interested to see that there is some debate about it. Of course the British appeared in India in the early seventeenth century, but the word “curry” or “cury” was already in the English lexicon. I was interested to find another discussion about the literal meaning of the Tamil word “kari” as well.

As a final aside, Dr. Kitchiner invented something he called “wow-wow sauce,” which does not seem to appear in any form in Beeton’s. There are similar sauces, but no real match. Perhaps it had fallen out of fashion by that time. When I stumbled across this tidbit, I knew the name sounded familiar, and then I got it. Wow-wow sauce is referenced in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series as an ingredient for a hangover cure. I could be wrong, but based on Kitchiner’s love affair with flash and the exclamation point, I bet the name is pure nonsense. I love it. I am going to order his biography Regency Eccentric as soon as my library reopens from furlough.