We’ve talked about food in the 19th century before on the blog, but we’ve mostly focused on the weird and wonderful (because, let’s face it, therein lies the fun stuff). In reality, a lot of food in the 19th century would have been bland and basic, especially for those of lower socio-economic status, who may not have been able to afford to buy the more flavoursome ingredients. In fact, much of it may have only been made palatable by the addition of the humble condiment, otherwise known as the saviour of tastebuds everywhere. The Victorians (and Edwardians) loved their condiments, from catsup to Worcestershire sauce, with an enduring appreciation that is more than evident in the archaeological and historical records.
Here in Christchurch (and, indeed, throughout the country) we find quite a lot of condiments on 19th century archaeological sites. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, many of them elaborately designed and decorated, from ‘gothic’ or ‘cathedral’ pickle jars to ‘swirly’ or ‘twirly’ salad oil bottles. Although we define the primary function of such bottles as ‘food storage’, condiments were also public objects, in the sense that unlike a lot of other food containers (jars, for example), condiment bottles were intended for use during a meal, at the table (much as they are now). As such, they were affected by the same philosophy of display and presentation that created decorated dinner sets and serving dishes: the things we put on our tables are almost always nicer than the things we use in our kitchens.
Most of the condiment bottles we find are unlabelled, and the only clue we have to their original contents lies in the shape of the bottle, a correlation that (as we’ve mentioned before) is based on several – sometimes erroneous – assumptions. We have, however, been lucky enough to find several condiment bottles here in Christchurch with surviving labels or embossed glass, letting us know exactly what they originally contained. These labels have included everything from J. T. Morton’s vinegar, the ever present Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce and its not-quite-so-famous relative, Mellor’s Worcester Sauce to Champion’s Vinegar, Olson’s Tomato Sauce, Weston and Westall’s Table Salt, George Whybrow’s ‘sublime’ salad oil and Crosse and Blackwell’s Mushroom Catsup.
Some of these are familiar to us. Lea and Perrins is still in business today, as is Crosse and Blackwell (as a side note, Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce began life as the ‘disgusting’ result of an attempt to make a spicy sauce – it wasn’t until after it had been forgotten for several years that it evolved into the sauce known today). Others are less familiar. Olson’s Tomato Sauce, which faded from mention in newspapers during the 1890s, seems to have been something of a forerunner to Watties, with “the red substance” produced in a factory in Auckland from the 1870s onwards. Mushroom Catsup (or ketchup, as it is now known), while still around today, is far more unusual now than it was in the 19th century.
It’s not all savoury, however. Sweeter accompaniments such as the fantastic calves feet jelly and Kirkpatrick’s jam have also been found in the city. Kirkpatrick’s, another New Zealand product (manufactured in sunny Nelson from the 1880s onwards), was famous throughout the country and overseas – with the ‘K’ brand winning awards in various exhibitions and expositions in the 1880s and 1890s. Calves feet jelly, despite the rather off-putting name (we do like to disguise where our food comes from now, don’t we?), was apparently a fairly mild tasting jelly marketed largely to invalids.
Jams and jellies aside, most of the condiments we find would have been used to spice up savoury dishes and many of the advertisements we find for them in contemporary newspapers list foods like roasts, cheese, fish, mutton, gravies and soups as the things most likely to benefit from the addition of condiments. Interestingly, the word of choice to describe the flavour of the condiments themselves seems to have been ‘piquant.’ With ‘relish’ coming in a close second. Whether ‘piquancy’ was actually a flavour sought after by Victorian consumers or a buzz-word imposed by advertisers on those consumers, I don’t know. Possibly a little bit of both?
Advertisements for condiments are actually really interesting, not just because of the fascinating insights you get into Victorian and Edwardian food (and there were some amazing recipes, seriously) and other things (I stumbled across an amazing rant about puns, for example) but because of the ways those advertisements reflect the world around them. For example, 19th century adverts emphasise the tastelessness of foods, the tried and trusted nature of the products, the familiarity of the tastes, but by the early 20th century and the advent of World War I, there’s a notable shift to an emphasis on the economic advantages of using condiments.This is particularly relevant to archaeology, since condiments have been considered signifiers of wealth – or at least economic status – in archaeological assemblages before, because they are inessential items. You don’t need condiments to survive, but they make the foods you do need to survive more palatable (although it could be said that a lot of material culture is inessential, if you wanted to be technical about it). The logic follows, therefore, that the presence of condiments indicates the ability to afford extra ‘luxury’ items. Yet, as those advertisements from the early 20th century indicate, we have to consider the theory that condiments actually reflected a lower economic status household or, at least, the practice of economy within a household. People could easily have bought simpler and cheaper foods, because they knew they could spice it up with condiments, rather than more expensive food that required no such additions of flavour.
It’s something to think about in our own culinary habits now, I think. Especially in a culture and an era in which so much emphasis is placed on the health benefits (and social status, to a degree) of fresh ingredients and ‘good quality’ non-processed foods, despite the plethora of processed foods and sauces that surround us every day. What would our condiment consumption say about our society now, I wonder? What does yours say about you? Is it a flavour issue, a preference of taste? Is there an economic benefit to our consumption of condiments? How much do our tastes reflect the changing culture, influences and social context in which we live our daily lives? How much do they reflect our past? The remnants of our colonial heritage are evident in more than just our buildings or our flag (ooh, topical!) – they’re present in our food as well. Even more than that, they’re present in our tastes.
Think about it. Honestly, what does your taste in food say about you, and your history?