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A Cookery Lesson

One of the most cheerful origins of “Cockney” is coquina, the Latin term for cookery. London was once seen as a vast kitchen and “the place of plenty and good fare.” Thus, as has already been observed, it became “Cockaigne” or the fabled land of good living.

In one year, 1725, it consumed “60,000 calves, 70,000 sheep and lambs, 187,000 swine, 52,000 sucking pigs” as well as “14,750,000 mackerel … 16,366,000 lb of cheese.” The Great Fire began in Pudding Lane and ended at Pie Corner, where the golden figure of the fat boy still occupies a site; he was once accompanied by an inscription noting “This boy is in memory put up of the late fire of London, occasioned by the sin of gluttony, 1666.”

Pie Corner itself was known for its cook-shops and, in particular, its dressed pork. Shadwell writes of “meat dressed at Pie Corner by greasy scullions” while Jonson describes a hungry man there “taking his meal” by sniffing the steam from the stalls. The steam of cooked meat drifted just a few yards from Smithfield, where the cooked flesh of the saints once also rose in smoke. A twenty-first century restaurant, beside Smithfield, offers spleen and tripe, pig’s head and veal hearts, as part of its menu.

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A kitchen of the second century AD has been reconstructed in the Museum of London; it shows a large stove upon which were cooked portions of beef and pork, duck and goose, chicken and deer. Such was the profusion of wild life in the neighbouring woods and forests that London became a meat-eater’s haven. And so it has remained.

In recent years deep excavation of Roman London has also revealed evidence of scattered oyster shells, the stones of cherries and of plums, the remnants of lentils and cucumbers, peas and walnuts. One surviving beaker or amphora from Southwark bears the advertisement: “Lucius Tettius Aficanus supplies the finest fish sauce from Antipolis.”

The diet of the Saxon Londoner was less exotic. At the times of “noon-meat” and “even-meat,” a staple diet of flesh was enlivened by leeks, onions, garlic, turnips and radishes. An ox had a value of six shillings, a pig one shilling, but there is also evidence that at a slightly later date Londoners demanded a plentiful supply of eels. At various spots along the Thames there were eel fisheries which date back at least as far as the eleventh century. From this century, too, excavations beneath St. Pancras have uncovered more plum-stones and cherry-stones.

Bread was the most important commodity throughout London’s history. There are many city regulations of the thirteenth century concerning the conduct of bakers, whose profession was divided into those who made “white bread” and those who made “tourte bread.” “Pouffe” was French bread; “simnel” or “wastel,” white bread, fine as well as common; “bis,” brown bread; and “tourte,” the inferior bread. The principal bakers were situated to the east, in Stratford, and the loaves were carried by long carts to the various shops and stalls within the city. Bread was indeed the staple of life. Scarce supplies in 1258, for example, had the direct consequence that “fifteen thousand of the poor perished.” Shiploads of wheat and grain were imported from Germany, and certain London nobles distributed bread to the crowd, but “innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were all lying about swollen from want.” The permanent contrast in London, between need and abundance, has taken many different forms. In the more prosperous years of the thirteenth century, however, the diet of the citizen included beef, mutton and pork together with lampreys, porpoise and sturgeon. Vegetables were not greatly in demand but there was a particular delicacy known as “soup of cabbage.” Londoners had also invented a kind of mixed meat dish, created by pounding together pork and poultry into one concoction. A household book at the end of the thirteenth century reveals that on fish days there was also a choice of “herrings, eels, lampreys, salmon” and on meat days a similar variety of “pork, mutton, beef, fowls, pigeons and larks” together with “eggs, saffron and spices.”

The records of the fourteenth century are less descriptive, but Stow denotes 1392 and 1393 as years of want, when a diet of “apples and nuts” was forced upon the poor. It is an open question whether the poor ever lived well, even in years of prosperity. The average wage of a London labourer was sixpence a day, while a capon pasty cost eightpence and a hen pasty fivepence. A roast goose could be purchased for sevenpence, while ten finches cost one penny. Ten cooked eggs also cost a penny, and a leg of pork threepence. Oysters and other shellfish were cheap, as were thrushes and larks. Here, then, is evidence of a strangely assorted diet, complemented by rich delicacies—“gruel of almondes … a potage of whelks … Blancmaung of fysshe … Gruel of porke … Pigges in sawce.” In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1387–1400) the Cook is employed “To boil the chicken and the marrow bones … maken mortrewes and well bake a pie”—a mortrewe being a soup whose ingredients included fish, pork, chicken, eggs, bread, pepper and ale. One must also imagine the hasty Londoner picking up a roasted lark or thrush from a cook’s stall and eating it as he makes his way along the thoroughfare, perhaps picking his teeth with the bones before discarding the remains by the side of the road.

In the fifteenth century the main dish remained that of meat—“swan, roasted capons … venison in broth, coney, partridges and roasted cocks”— together with very sweet compound desserts such as Leche Lombarde, which was “a kind of jelly made of cream, isinglass, sugar, almonds, salt, eggs, raisins, dates, pepper and spices.” All dishes seem to have been highly spiced, with herbs for meat in particular demand. The author of London Lickpenny is assailed by merchants of Newgate—“Comes me one, cryd hot shepes feete/One cryd mackerel”—and as he wanders down into East Cheap “One Crys rybbs of befe, and many a pye.” The evidence of fifteenth-century kitchens and monastic gardens, given by an authority known simply as “Mayster Ion Gardener,” is of sage, chickweed, borage, rosemary, fennel and thyme as the staple “vegetable” diet. The other favoured vegetables were “garlike, onions and lekes,” which does not suggest much taste for green vegetables.

A change in that diet is marked by the Tudor chronicler, Harrison, who notes that “in old days”—by which he means the thirteenth century—herbs and roots were in great demand, but that they became less frequently used in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Yet “in my time their use is not only resumed among the poore comons—I mean of melons, pompines, gourds, cucumbers, radishes … carrots, marrowes, turnips, and all kind of salad herbes—but they are also looked upon as deintie dishes at the tables of delicate merchants, gentlemen.” At times of commercial success and plenty, however, meat is often required to maintain the animal spirits of Londoners. That is perhaps why there is so much emphasis in the contemporary chronicles on feasting, as a way of exemplifying the power and wealth of the city. Stow writes of one such occasion that “it would be tedious to set down all the preparation of fish, flesh and other victuals spent in this feast” but then goes on to enumerate the twenty-four oxen, the hundred sheep, the fifty-one deer, the thirty-four boars, the ninety-one pigs …

There were variations in diet according to the season, with fresh herrings at Michaelmas, pork and sprats at All Saints, veal and bacon at Easter. In the summer of 1562, a Venetian observer noticed that the native population enjoyed raw oysters with barley bread.

Other dietary habits were changed by law. After the partial relaxation of the intricate fast laws, for example, cheap meat was often substituted for fish. Alterations were also fostered by voyages of discovery; yams or sweet potatoes from Virginia and rhubarb from China became sixteenth-century commodities in a city which plucked its fruits from every known country.

In the early seventeenth century we read of the almost emblematic significance of roast beef, as well as fresh oysters, as a token of civic existence. These were invariably followed by a dessert of milk puddings or “apple pippin”; “To come in pudding time is as much as to say, to come in the most lucky moment in the world,” according to Misson de Valbourg in the early years of the century. In the houses of the more affluent citizens roast beef and pudding were sometimes exchanged for “a Piece of boil’d Beeff, and then they salt it some Days beforehand, and besiege it with five or six Heaps of Cabbage, Carrots, Turnips, or some other Herbs or Roots, well pepper’d and salted and swimming in Butter.” For more delicate fare, the London household would sit around a gridiron “roasting slices of buttered bread … This is call’d ‘toast.’”

From the seventeenth century, too, comes evidence of the food available from the hawkers of London. The illustrator Marcellus Laroon places the costermonger or “regrater” crying out “Buy my fat chicken!” next to the female huckster selling “ripe speragas,” because chicken and asparagus together were considered by Londoners to be a dainty dish. Chicken was cheap, too; that, and rabbit, seem to have been the only meats on sale in the streets. The rabbit-seller, shouting “Buy a rabbet a rabbet,” was likely to have been an Irishman who came to London in the autumn with his wares. Those sent out to buy from him were advised that “For being new killed, you must judge by the Scent.” Milk and water were carried through the streets in vessels, but not wine. Cherries were available in early summer, followed by strawberries later in the season, and apples in the autumn. From autumn to winter the costermonger sold her pears or “wardens” baking hot from a pot she balanced upon her head. The countryman’s attitude to these city fruits is perhaps best exemplified by Matthew Bramble in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (1771), who declared that “I need not dwell upon the pallid, contaminated mash which they call strawberries, soiled and tossed by greasy paws through twenty baskets crusted with dirt.” Here the emphasis is upon dirt, of course, but also the endemic overpopulation of London wherein every item is passed through a selection of anonymous “paws.” Eels were a cheap element of the Londoner’s diet; sold alive, generally by female vendors, they were skinned on the spot before being used in pies or pastries. They were not the only fish hawked about the main thoroughfare; crabs were cheap, as were mackerel and flounders, while oysters were purchased for “twelve pence a peck” or approximately two gallons.

From the countryside came the young man trading “Lilly white Vinegar, three pence a quart!” Made from cider or white wine, vinegar was employed as a sauce and as a preventive against disease; but its main use was as a preservative. Almost anything could be pickled, including walnuts, cauliflowers, peaches, onions, lemons, oysters and asparagus.

By the eighteenth century roast beef was described as being of “Old England,” although in fact it had been only one of many meats burdening the tables of earlier centuries. As a token of national character the myth of roast beef may owe more to the observations of foreign visitors that Londoners were “entirely carnivorous,” with the prevailing assumption of voraciousness. In May 1718 a great meat pudding, eighteen feet two inches in length and four feet in diameter, was dragged by six asses to the Swan Tavern in Fish Street Hill but apparently “its smell was too much for the gluttony of the Londoners. The escort was routed, the pudding taken and devoured.” “A foreigner,” wrote a German pastor visiting London in 1767, “will be surprised to see what flesh-eaters the English are. He will be struck with the sight of an enormous piece of beef such, perhaps, as he never saw in his life, placed before him upon the table.” The same observer also noted that “the common people in London” insisted upon “daily beef or mutton” together with white bread and strong beer. The meat may not necessarily have taken the form of rib or haunch, however, since in the 1750s beef sausages became the culinary fashion.

One other aspect of the pastor’s account is of interest, in those passages where he remarks upon the fact that Londoners require their food and drink to be vivid in colour. The brandy and wine must be “deeply coloured,” the vegetables as bright and as green “as when gathered”; cabbage and peas, for example, are not boiled “for fear they should lose their colour.” It is, perhaps, an intimation of the unnaturalness of the London palate; in a city of spectacle, even the food must be completely seen before being understood. But it may also be a symptom of a certain craving after effect which may itself be unhealthy. He observes the whiteness of the veal and mentions that the calves are made to lick chalk in order to procure that colour. He also notices that the poorer Londoners “are much prejudiced in respect of the colour … the whiter the bread is, the better they think it to be.” One of Smollett’s characters considered the white bread to be nothing more than “a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum and bone-ashes.” So Londoners mistake the nature of things by judging upon appearances alone. This, of course, was also the criticism of social moralists who saw villains and parvenus accepted as gentlemen because of their dress and manners.

Yet there are also intimations of a revulsion against so much greedy consumption. “What should they do,” as the poet John Lewkenor put it, “with all this greasie Meat?” Another of Smollett’s heroes enters a cook-shop filled “with steams of boiled beef” where the sight of “skin-of-beef, tripe, cow-heel or sausages … turned my stomach.” In this same period the Worshipful Company of Butchers, in debt and pestered by competition in the suburbs, proved wholly incapable of enforcing regulations on the sale of meat. Every kind of shoddy or mouldy flesh could be purchased. Once more the unchecked reign of commerce becomes a symbol of city life.

So it was that in the early part of the nineteenth century “food processing” took its place beside the manufactories along the Thames; essences of meat and meat sauces came from London Bridge, while tinned meat or “patent beef” came from Bermondsey. This was the century of anchovy paste and preserved tongue, of clarified butter and tinned pâté de foie gras. There were also more familiar items. Accounts describe nineteenth-century travellers breakfasting off ham, tongue and “a devil” (kidney), or dining off mutton chop, rump steak and a “weal cutlet,” while in less splendid establishments the fare included “hams, and sirloins, the remnants of geese and turkeys, codfish reduced to the gills, fins and tail.”

But the overwhelming mass of evidence still concerns food provided by the street-sellers of the period. With a restless, large and rapidly moving population the equivalent of fast-food was the most characteristic and appropriate form of sustenance. Whether they bought fried fish sold in oily paper, or boiled puddings in cotton bags, it was the custom of the poorer citizens to eat “upon the stones.” New-laid eggs were for sale on Holborn Hill and pork in Broad St. Giles. There was also the ubiquitous baked-potato stall, as well as the shops plying roly poly or plum duff. One trader in Whitechapel informed Henry Mayhew that “he sold 300 pennyworths of pudding in a day. Two thirds of this quantity he sold to juveniles under fifteen years of age … The boys are often tiresome: ‘Mister,’ they’ll say, ‘can’t you give us a plummier bit than this?’ or ’Is it just up? I likes it ’ot, all ‘ot.’” In competition with these hot delicacies came sandwiches, hailed as “one of our greatest institutions” by Charles Dickens, who saw them, in an image of perpetual activity and perpetual consumption, being engorged by the shelf-load at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton.

The times of that consumption have changed, both in the commercial and the fashionable areas of the city. An entire history of social manners might be constructed from the essential fact that, over the last five centuries, the time for eating dinner, or the main meal of the day, has advanced by approximately ten hours. In the late fifteenth century, many Londoners dined “at ten o’clock in the forenoon,” although others delayed for a further hour; in the sixteenth century, the hour for meat varied between eleven and twelve but no later. In the seventeenth century, the hours of twelve and one became common. But then in the early decades of the eighteenth century there was a rapid acceleration of mealtime. By 1740 two o’clock was the appropriate hour, and by 1770 three was considered the vital moment. In the last decades of the eighteenth, and the first of the nineteenth, the dinner hour slid to five or six. Then Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing about London life in the 1850s, noted that dinner at eight or even nine o’clock in the evening was considered appropriate at “aristocratic” tables.

The reason for this postponement of the main meal was credited by eighteenth-century moralists to the decline of moral fibre and the rise of social decadence, as if it were important to devour food before successfully devouring the day. But a more specific circumstance may have assisted the process, particularly in the early decades of the eighteenth century when, according to Grosley, “the hour of going to Change interfered with dinner time, so that the merchants thought it most advisable, not to dine till their return from Change.” Once more commercial imperatives play their part within the intimate texture of London life.

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