Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be aware that Aotearoa New Zealand is facing a cost-of-living crisis. That weekly visit to the supermarket seems to be getting more expensive each time. Throughout history people have sought ways of making their household budget go that little bit further. Turning cheap cuts of meat and inexpensive vegetables into a delicious meal for the family has been the subject of books and newspaper articles for generations, including in the 19th century. This blog will look at what kinds of evidence we have for the types of cuts of meat people were using and how this reflects social status. We’ll then have a look at the kinds of dishes that Christchurch’s residents might have served up during the 19th century and the differences in the kind of dishes working-class and upper-class households might have enjoyed. Finally, we’ll undertake a bit of experimental archaeology and try cooking one of the more economical 19th century recipes, and get feedback on what my family, and UOA team thought of it.
First published in 1861, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was written by Mrs. Isabella Beeton, who lived in London during the height of the Victorian period. The book is a compendium of recipes, cleaning tips, and advice on children-rearing, finances, and the how to manage the day-to-day running of a good household. The book had sold nearly two million copies by 1868, making it a common guide for households across the British Empire, including here in New Zealand. The recipes within the book are typical of Victorian trendy cooking, with dishes such as Lobster Curry, Mock Turtle Soup (sans turtle and instead using a calf’s head), an assortment of preserves, puddings and cakes, and many French recipes (such as Boeuf a la Mode or Claves head à la Maître d’hôtel). The recipes are usually easy to follow and generally include the cost, presumably based on the prices in London at the time of publication.
What is clear from reading a book such as Beeton’s, is that those in the Victorian period ate a lot of meat-based protein. To cater for this need, butchers were there to provide. Because of a lack of refrigeration, most people went to the butcher daily or every few days (although Mrs Beeton has advice on ‘restoring’ meat that was getting a bit old and dodgy). Butchers themselves also didn’t have refrigeration, so would rely on a quick turnover of goods to ensure everything was nice and fresh. Nineteenth century butcher shops would often hang their stock off the shop front or verandah. This utilised the natural cooling effect of the breeze and helped promote their stock to potential customers. Catering to all sorts of budgets, butchers would sell almost every part of the animal; a truly nose to tail experience that has gained a revival in recent years. Just as it is today, the best cuts were expensive, while others, such as offal and those that required a bit more preparation, were more affordable.
Faunal remains are a component of the archaeological assemblage that comprise bones, shells and other surviving elements of animals. In New Zealand historical archaeological sites, faunal remains include beef, sheep and pig bones, shellfish (such as oyster, cockle, pipi, and mussel), bird bone (such as chicken, goose, turkey and duck), as well as other species, such as rabbit and deer. The kinds of species present and the types of bone can shed light on the types and cuts of meat being consumed by a site’s occupants. Just as they are today, certain cuts of meat were more expensive than others and the amount of disposable income people had would often determine what cuts of meat they were eating on a regular basis. This isn’t to say that the working-class of 19th century Christchurch were not eating nice cuts of meat, but rather that these expensive cuts were probably consumed less often in favour of more affordable cuts.
Butchery has changed since the 19th century, and this means that the way in which meat is butchered has changed. The cuts we see at the butcher now is not necessarily the same as those going to the butcher in the 19th century would have seen. As such, we need to be careful comparing the remains we find in archaeological sites to the kinds of cuts we can buy from a butcher now. Thankfully, historical archaeologists have undertaken studies to compare and account for these differences using archaeological assemblages, and historic documents like that from Mrs Beeton and others, to identify the kinds of cuts that existed in the 19th century. Researchers in Australia used this research to categorise the types of bones found in archaeological assemblages and related them to the cultural quality, or ‘class’, for the cut of meat (in this case beef). They also gave an example of the kinds of recipes given by cookbook authors of the period. Cuts like sirloin and rump were considered ‘First Class’ cuts; middle-rib, and flank – Second Class; chuck and brisket – Third Class; while sticking-pieces (from the lower part of the neck), shin, head (e.g. cheek and tongue), hocks, trotters, and marrow bones fall into the lowest classes, from Fourth to Sixth.
Table 1. Individual cattle skeletal elements recorded for Quadrant interpreted as beef cuts of various quality (after Table 3 in Colley 2006: 50-51).
|Skeletal Element||Gross Body Part||Butchery Section
|Beef Cut(s)||Beef Quality||Beef Recipes|
|Horn core||Horn core||Head||Non-food||Various||Not applicable|
|Pelvis||Pelvis||Hindquarter||Aitch-bone and/or rump||Various||Various|
|Acetabulum||Pelvis||Hindquarter||Aitch-bone and/or rump||Various||Various|
|Long bone fragment||Limb||Unknown||Unknown||Various||Various|
|Lumbar vertebra||Spine||Trunk||Sirloin||First Class||Roasted baron of beef; roast fillet of beef (larded)|
|Sacrum||Spine||Trunk||Rump||First Class||Beef-steak and kidney pudding; fried rump steak|
|Ilium||Pelvis||Hindquarter||Rump||First Class||Beef-steak and kidney pudding; fried rump steak|
|Patella||Lower Hindlimb||Hindquarter||Thick-flank||Second Class||Beef a la Mode|
|Thoracic vertebra||Spine||Trunk||Fore–rib and/or middle-rib||First and/or Second Class||Various|
|Sternum||Rib cage||Trunk||Brisket||Third Class||Boiled or stewed beef; excellent
salted, boiled & eaten cold
|Scapula||Upper forelimb||Forequarter||Chuck-ribs||Third Class||Roast beef with bone or rolled|
|Ischium||Pelvis||Hindquarter||Aitch-bone||Third Class||Beef stew; salted beef; poorer quality
|Pubis||Pelvis||Hindquarter||Aitch-bone||Third Class||Beef stew; salted beef; poorer quality
|Costal cartilage||Rib cage||Trunk||Thin flank and/or thick flank||Second and/or Third Class||Various|
|Femur||Upper hindlimb||Hindquarter||Aitch-bone and/or buttocks||Second and/or Third Class||Various|
|Atlas||Spine||Trunk||Sticking piece||Fourth Class||Beef soup or a cheap beef stew|
|Axis||Spine||Trunk||STicking piece||Fourth Class||Beef soup or a cheap beef stew|
|Cervical vertebra||Spine||Trunk||Sticking piece||Fourth Class||Beef soup or a cheap beef stew|
|Humerus||Upper forelimb||Forequarter||Clod||Fourth Class||Beef soup or a cheap beef stew|
|Radius||Lower forelimb||Forequarter||Shin||Fifth Class||Excellent beef stock or soup; top of
shin beef stew
|Ulna||Lower forelimb||Forequarter||Shin||Fifth Class||Excellent beef stock or soup; top of
shin beef stew
|Radius and Ulna||Lower forelimb||Forequarter||Shin||Fifth Class||Excellent beef stock or soup; top of
shin beef stew
|Tibia||Lower hindlimb||Hindquarter||Hock (shin, leg)||Fifth Class||Excellent beef stock or soup; top of
shin beef stew
|Fibula||Lower hindlimb||Hindquarter||Hock (shin, leg)||Fifth Class||Excellent beef stock or soup; top of
shin beef stew
|Astragalus||Lower hindlimb||Extremity||Hock (shin, leg)||Fifth Class||Excellent beef stock or soup; top of
shin beef stew
|Calcaneis||Lower hindlimb||Extremity||Hock (shin, leg)||Fifth Class||Excellent beef stock or soup; top of
shin beef stew
|Centroquartal||Lower hindlimb||Extremity||Hock (shin, leg)||Fifth Class||Excellent beef stock or soup; top of
shin beef stew
|Skull fragment||Cranium||Head||Cheek and/or tongue||Sixth Class||Beef stews and soups|
|Maxilla||Cranium||Head||Cheek and/or tongue||Sixth Class||Beef stews and soups|
|Hyoid||Cranium||Head||Cheek and/or tongue||Sixth Class||Beef stews and soups|
|Mandible||Jaw||Head||Cheek and/or tongue||Sixth Class||Beef stews and soups|
|Tooth||Teeth||Head||Cheek and/or tongue||Sixth Class||Beef stews and soups|
|Incisor||Teeth||Head||Cheek and/or tongue||Sixth Class||Beef stews and soups|
|Canine||Teeth||Head||Cheek and/or tongue||Sixth Class||Beef stews and soups|
|Premolar||Teeth||Head||Cheek and/or tongue||Sixth Class||Beef stews and soups|
|Molar||Teeth||Head||Cheek and/or tongue||Sixth Class||Beef stews and soups|
|Deciduous tooth||Teeth||Head||Cheek and/or tongue||Sixth Class||Beef stews and soups|
|Caudal vertebra||Spine||Trunk||Ox-tail||Sixth Class||Stewed ox-tails; cow heel jelly; beef
stock for stew
|Carpal||Lower forelimb||Extremity||Cow heel (trotters)||Sixth Class||Fried ox-feet or cow-heel|
|Metacarpus||Lower forelimb||Extremity||Marrow bones||Sixth Class||Boiled marrow bones|
|Tarsal||Lower hindlimb||Extremity||Cow heel (trotters)||Sixth Class||Fried ox-feet or cow-heel|
|Metatarsus||Lower hindlimb||Extremity||Marrow bones||Sixth Class||Boiled marrow bones|
|Sesamoid||Foot||Extremity||Cow heel (trotters)||Sixth Class||Fried ox-feet or cow-heel|
|First phalanx||Foot||Extremity||Cow heel (trotters)||Sixth Class||Fried ox-feet or cow-heel|
|Second phalanx||Foot||Extremity||Cow heel (trotters)||Sixth Class||Fried ox-feet or cow-heel|
|Third phalanx||Foot||Extremity||Cow heel (trotters)||Sixth Class||Fried ox-feet or cow-heel|
|Metapodial||Lower hindlimb||Extremity||Marrow bones||Sixth Class||Boiled marrow bones|
|Phalanx||Foot||Extremity||Cow heel (trotters)||Sixth Class||Fried ox-feet or cow-heel|
|Carpal or tarsal||Foot||Extremity||Cow heel (trotters)||Sixth Class||Fried ox-feet or cow-heel|
Underground Overground Archaeology has recently completed a project within the four avenues than spanned across parts of seven former town sections. During the project, numerous rubbish pits were identified and these yielded a range of faunal remains. These remains showed the people who occupied these sections were consuming a wide variety of animal protein sources including: beef, lamb and mutton, pork, rabbit, chicken, fish, and shellfish including oyster and cockle. Most of the cuts of beef tended to be from cheaper cuts, such as brisket, chuck, flank, foreshank (shin), and neck. But we also had a few examples of bones related to rump cuts, suggesting the occasional splash out on good quality meat. Shellfish and rabbit were common within the assemblages, and were affordable protein sources at the time. Lamb and mutton was also well represented and based on the published prices during the 19th century, was also an affordable option for families on a budget. All in all, the assemblage that we uncovered suggests that the occupants across these town sections were working-class, and the faunal assemblage suggested that they were frugal and purchased cheaper and more cost-effective cuts of meat.
But fear-not dear reader, Mrs Beeton gives recipes for all sorts of types and cuts of meat, including fancy cuts like rump, as well as ways to turn ‘economical’ cuts into something that everyone will enjoy. Let’s dive in and have a look at some of the recipes she has for us. Bones from the rump meat cut were found on our site, but as mentioned previously, these were identified in limited numbers, suggesting that rump, a ‘First Class’ cut, was only consumed occasionally. However, bones relating to beef shin, a ‘Fifth Class’ cut, were some of the most common faunal remains we found. This suggests that beef shin was a regular on the menu of the working-class families. So, what kinds of dishes were these cuts turned into? Let’s have a look at two recipes from Mrs Beeton: Rump steak and Stewed shin of beef.
For these recipes, Mrs. Beeton gives a cost of around 2s per pound for the rump steak and 4d or four pence per pound for the beef shin recipe. For reference, the beef shin recipe calls for a whole shin, which equates to about 4kg (or around 8.8 lbs) bone-in weight, giving a cost of around 2s 11d for a meal for seven to eight people, which equates to around 4 ⅓d per serve. Meanwhile the rump steak serves half the number of people at a cost of around 6d to 9d per serve, and that doesn’t include any side dishes.
The price of beef in 1860 Christchurch appears to be fairly similar to the London prices suggested by Beeton, with the cheaper cuts of beef probably being 4-5d per pound, however this fails to take into account the price of the vegetables, sauces, etc. In 1861 the median real wage for unskilled labour was estimated to be £1 4s 7d a week, or £64 6s 7d per annum (Brooke 2011). This meant that Beeton’s beef shin recipe for eight people equated to around 12% of the real wage, while the fancy rump steak for eight people equated to up to 22% of the real wage! That’s quite the difference!
Always interested in history, and even more so in saving a few dollars feeding my family, I decided to give the beef shin stew recipe a go. Most of the ingredients were fairly simple to find. I was even able to find the mushroom ketchup in the supermarket. Mushroom ketchup is the OG ketchup in Victorian times and Isabella Beeton says “is one of the most useful store sauces to the experienced cook” (Beeton 1861: 227; link to her recipe for mushroom ketchup here). For the savoury herbs, I used what I had in my garden: rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley and bay leaves. I couldn’t find turnips, but substituted with a half a swede (which, after all, is actually just a Swedish turnip). Next was the beef, which I got from my local supermarket. After following the recipe, I was left with an appropriately beige-brown stew of shin beef, which smelled pretty good.
For a half portion of the recipe, it came in at a cost of around $44. Based on the recipe, this was meant to serve four people, but in truth it was more like five to six serves. So, how does the cost compare to today? If we still assume that the half portion results in four very large serves, then it would mean that the full recipe would have cost around $88. The current take-home median weekly income in Aotearoa New Zealand is around $948.34. This means that a modern recreation of Beeton’s beef shin recipe for eight people equates to around 9.3% of the real wage. Mrs. Beeton’s economic cooking still seems to be on the money (pun intended). Oh, and as for the cost of rump steak; is it still 22% of the take home wage to feed 8? Apparently not, and now steak for a family of eight will set you back around $65, or just 6.9% of the weekly wage. Mind you, this is just for the steak and doesn’t account for any side dishes. So, while it seems there is certainly a cost-of-living crisis happening at the moment, and things seem to be getting more and more expensive, spare a thought for those living in the mid-nineteenth century.
But how does a 142-year-old recipe taste? To find out, I served it to my wife and 14-month-old son. The verdict? The vegetables are a bit soft, and the gravy was definitely flavoured heavily by the turnip, but the mushroom ketchup made for a really tangy, salty, umami gravy, and the beef was meltingly tender. The little one also found his delicious, with most ending up in his mouth and only minimal amounts ending up in his hair.
With lots of leftovers, I next served it up to a panel of perpetually hungry archaeologists and asked for their thoughts. Here was some of their feedback:
“Delicious, soft meat and vege, with some delicious meat water to accompany it.”
“I thought it tasted fine and was nice and tender but could have used a bit more seasoning.”
“Just tangy enough, but try adding more mushroom sauce! It won’t necessarily be beneficial, but I did accidentally pour in about four tablespoons worth, so that probably influenced the flavour profile. And I loved it!”
“Nah, it was alright. It is a pretty classic European cuisine that seems like it is trying to double down on the savoury flavours. I think I’m glad for the greater variety spices and seasonings that we have now because the recipe did seem a bit limited; you’d throw in way more other stuff were you making the same thing now”
So, the beige colour was matched by a somewhat similar beige flavour. But there you have it, a bit of experimental archaeology: looking at faunal remains from a Christchurch site, selecting an economical recipe from the 1860s, and giving it the taste test.
Colley, S. A Preliminary Beef Meat Cuts Typology for Nineteenth-Century Sydney and Some Methodological Issues. Australasian Historical Archaeology 24: 47-54.