Food, in all its myriad forms, can be one of the most intrinsic and expressive aspects of culture and society – throughout time and across the world. From the customs surrounding the preparation and consumption of food to the ingredients themselves, we are, as they say, what (and how) we eat. Looking at the nature of food in past societies and cultures can be a rewarding exercise in finding both the strange and the familiar in the lives of those who’ve gone before us. After all, what is more universal yet more varied than food?
From a purely archaeological perspective, our impressions of past meals and culinary traditions are limited by what survives in the archaeological record. In the case of 19th European century sites, this usually consists of animal remains and glass, metal or ceramic food containers: the only physical remnants of a much broader, much more varied array of food and drink. Ceramic or glass serving dishes and table wares can also provide information, usually on the how, rather than the what, of food consumption, but often prove difficult to interpret. Animal remains – the butchered bones of cattle, sheep, pig and poultry – are the most common evidence of food itself that we find, but I’m going to leave them for another post and focus here on what we can learn from the food containers we’ve found in Christchurch.
Unfortunately, because we’re limited to food containers, as the durable remnants of 19th century culinary habits, our understanding of food types is skewed towards long-life items (i.e. preserves), condiments, and packaged foods rather than fresh ingredients. As a result, we see a lot of foods that are additives to meals (like condiments) rather than meals or major ingredients themselves. Even more than that, we’re restricted by what we can identify: distinctive containers used for specific food types or those labelled with the identity of their contents.
Many of these are products that wouldn’t be unusual to find in the modern pantry and, in fact, some of them are still made today. Commonly found items like salad oil, table salt, pickles, sauces or flavoured essences are all familiar additions to modern cuisine, albeit in slightly different packaging than their Victorian counterparts. Other products, like Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce have persisted in popularity under the same brand for over a century: in the case of Lea and Perrins, it’s been over 170 years since its introduction. Similarly, foodstuffs like anchovy paste continue to appeal to the same subset of people who like really salty fish puree as they did in the 1800s. As a side note, my favourite 19th century use for anchovy paste involves spreading it on fried bread and topping with a generous helping of whipped cream (Otago Witness 17/08/1904: 67). Takers, anyone?
As well as the more ordinary foods, however, we do come across a few weird and wonderful items during our investigations. Some of these only seem unusual at first glance, but wow, is it a strange first glance. Crosse & Blackwell’s calves’ foot jelly, for example, sounds less than appetising until you remember that gelatine (even modern gelatine) is derived from the bones, tendons and skin of various animals. Unlike modern gelatine products, though, calves’ foot jelly has no compunctions about promoting its ingredients: recipes for the jelly involved boiling calves feet in a stewing pan, removing the fat and straining before flavouring the mixture, usually with citrus (Auckland Star 26/10/1929: 4). In this sense, the jelly is an interesting reminder of how our attitudes towards the consumption of animal products have changed since the 19th century. We now produce and consume animal products on a colossal scale, yet are, thanks to the packaged nature of the food industry, more removed from the origins and preparation of those products than we’ve ever been. As the calves foot jelly reminds us, this was far less true of the 19th century.
In contrast to the honest marketing of the calves’ foot jelly, products like Virol bone marrow paste elicit our revulsion (well, for me they do) thanks to the use of ingredients that have long since been replaced with more palatable alternatives. Virol contained a mixture of bone marrow, malt extract, eggs, lemon syrup, lime salts and iron salts. Bone marrow is still eaten today (it’s something of a delicacy in some places), but it’s the combination of the fatty, spongy marrow with the lemon syrup and malt extract that makes my taste buds shrivel in horror. It was advertised as a health food for infants and invalids, in order to “build sturdy limbs, good teeth and a strong constitution”, so maybe it wasn’t really about the taste (Auckland Star 25/06/1925: 9). Nowadays, of course, such results would more often be obtained from calcium rich, often dairy-based, foods rather than bone marrow.
Other unusual foodstuffs stand out as much for their innovation and unexpectedly early existence as for their probable bad taste. We tend to think of processed foods as being something of a recent invention, yet the 19th century had its fair-share of such products (Wood 1974: 20). One such example found in Christchurch was Maclaren’s Imperial Cheese, a Canadian-manufactured ‘spreadable cheese’ from the early 1900s (next week’s post is going to look at this product in more detail; Badgely 1998). Maclaren’s, which is still produced by the Kraft Foods Group, was initially made from ground cheddar, and enjoyed immense popularity. It’s described in turn of the century advertisements as the “cheese of the hour” (Hawera & Normanby Star 16/12/1904: 3) and “one of the most appetising luxuries [that] the world produces” (Press 5/01/1907: 10). That last one may have been a slight exaggeration…
Although they provide an incomplete picture of Victorian tastes, the types of food-related artefacts I’ve mentioned here can still offer us fascinating insights into the lives of 19th century people and the relevance of those lives – and eating habits – to the modern world. Despite their ability to make us (well, me) recoil in disgust, these products can still challenge our preconceptions of food in society and culture, our own included. Most of all, though, these artefacts offer us an almost tangible taste connection between our own experiences and those of our forebears in this city, and the rest of the world. It may be a foul tasting connection, but it’s a connection nonetheless.
Auckand Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Badgely, K. 1998. Maclaren, Alexander Ferguson. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. [online] Available at www.biographi.ca
Feilding Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Hawera and Normanby Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Otago Witness. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Wood, J. A. 1974. Victorian New Zealanders. A. H. & A. W. Reed Ltd, Wellington.