Food & Class in Victorian Britain

Pen Vogler

Focusing on topics from avocados, to dessert forks, to names for the evening meal, food is inextricably linked with class.
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Food & Class

Is it true that pineapples were so fashionable and expensive that they were hired out for Victorian parties? Alexis Soyer, the celebrity chef and philanthropist of Victorian London, delighted in retailing a rumour that the same “pine” was spotted first at an 8pm dinner and then at a supper at a civic ball at midnight. ‘Memoirs of a Pineapple in London’ would be a bestseller, he mused, as it had ‘the advantage of mixing in so many different societies’ (1850, The Modern Housewife). I was reminded of this story recently by pieces in style magazines about the now-fashionable practice of hiring special occasion clothes (which was bolstered, apparently, by the announcement that Carrie Symonds wore a rented dress for her wedding to the former Prime Minister). Could we imagine any food, now, being so “aristocratic and inaccessible” (as Soyer described the ‘pine’) that we would rent it for show rather than throw it in the supermarket trolley, probably without even looking at the modest price tag of £1 or £1.50.

It isn’t simply the change in price which has made us rethink the desirability of various foods. Pineapple, owing to its good-natured flexibility, is squeezed, juiced, tinned, cubed and put into plastic, and has become commonplace. Peas, once so much a luxury that they were a craze at the court of Louis XIV became ordinary once Captain Birdseye started to freeze them. One of the reasons that we have been so enamoured of the avocado in Britain, is probably because of its lofty refusal to have anything to do with tins, the freezer, or a freeze-drying machine, and its tender flesh which bruises as easily as that of the Real Princess sleeping on a hundred feather beds on top of a dried pea. All that, plus, of course, the small matter of a multi-million-pound marketing push by the Californian Avocado Board which was seized on with delight by middle-class wellness bloggers and aspirational youngsters, earning it the reputation of “the most middle-class vegetable ever”.

In class-conscious Britain, we love ascribing social class to our fruit and vegetables, our pies, pasties, meats, and treats. We have become experts at judging each other by what is in our shopping baskets, by where we eat our food and what we eat it with, and by the language we use around it. Social judgements work particularly well if the grounds on which they are based are constantly shifting, and Britain’s relatively fluid class structure has, historically, made us hyper aware of perceived differences in status.

Of course, the food we eat, material culture and language around food have always evolved, but in the Victorian period the speed of change picked up in earnest. In the fast-moving economy of industrialising Britain, as families enriched by industry and commerce, aimed to join the elite, ideas of dining etiquette also started evolving rapidly. Etiquette became an ever-changing set of rules designed to identify the right sort in society and keep out the people who hadn’t learnt – or kept up with – the minutiae of how to eat your jelly (with a fork, of course), or where to put your napkin (on your lap, instead of letting it do the useful job of keeping your shirt clean by tucking it into your collar.)

Let’s take that Victorian jelly, wobbling on a dessert plate (not a ‘pudding bowl’) as the ‘dessert’ fork tries to get to grips with it. At the beginning of the 19th century, nobody minded that jelly was being made by the time-honoured way of boiling up calves’ feet (to extract the gelatine), so long as its fruity, jewelled colours glittered on the table, and it was made by painstaking and expert hours into designs of a moon and stars, a hen’s nest, a Solomon’s Temple, playing cards (all described in Mrs Raffald’s 1769 book, The Experienced English Housekeeper). Jelly benefited twofold from the Industrial Revolution with new techniques for manufacturing beautiful and elaborate moulds, and a growing number of industrialists eager to climb the social ladder, dinner by dinner, impressing their guests with intricate jellies. Chefs learnt to cheat the limits of jelly physics (that it collapses any higher than about 6 inches or 15cm) with internal supports which also had to be beautiful: spirals of white blancmange in the centre of translucent jelly towers, for example. As the Scottish cookery writer ‘Meg Dods’ (in fact a witty pseudonym taken from an innkeeper in a Walter Scott novel) said, in 1829, ‘At genteel tables, fat puddings, very rich cakes, and fat meat-pies have lost ground. Creams, jellies, and preserved and caramelled fruits or compôtes, take their place.’ But by the end of the Victorian period, the introduction of manufactured gelatine, accompanied by the rumour that it was made from horse’s hooves, had this most elegant of constructions slithering down the social scale. For decades mass produced, artificially coloured and flavoured jellies, became synonymous with children’s parties. Fortunately for jelly lovers, its affinity with alcohol (watermelon vodka jelly shot, anyone?) and some inspirational food historians and jelly fanatics have recently reminded us just how spectacular, delicious, and sophisticated jelly can be.

And what about that ‘dessert fork’? The fork got off to a rocky start in Europe when it was introduced to Venice by a couple of Byzantine princesses who deeply offended their adopted societies with their decadent, Eastern hygiene-obsessed ways. It obviously had pragmatic advantages, of course, and in Britain it was soon seen that it had social ones too. Here was an enterprising new way of distinguishing one class of person from another. The working person who was likely to be truly hungry, might scoop up food with the fork; the upper (and aspirational) classes therefore turned the fork over and insisted that to be truly genteel you should push your food – even peas – onto the back of its tines. By 1878, the anonymous etiquette expert who used the soubriquet ‘An Aristocrat’ warned his or her eager readers, ‘Fish should be eaten with a silver fish knife and fork. Two forks are not used for eating fish, and one fork and a crust of bread is now an unheard-of way of eating fish in polite society.’ The fish knife became, for a few decades, an indispensable aspect of elegant dining culture. Until all of a sudden, it wasn’t; instead, it became a particular lightning conductor of disdain; a new generation decided it was fusty and pretentious. Interestingly, no such stigma attaches to the steak knife, although its serrated edge and business-like point are equally unnecessary now that technology has refined our steel table knives to be (nearly) always sharp. Sharp is cool; the flat fish knife was finished off by John Betjeman, whose satirical poem How To Get On In Society, amplified by the society writer Nancy Mitford, chucked fish knives into a bin of lower-middle-class solecisms. It is still there, languishing in the back of antique shops, waiting (like jelly) to be adopted by a young and/or hipsterish trend setter.

John Betjeman, fond of the serviette

Much of Betjeman’s chastening wit was aimed at lower-middle-class affectations such as replacing the word ‘napkin’ (which sounded embarrassingly like ‘nappy’) with the not-quite-French ‘serviette’; ‘meal’ (which showed that they didn’t know whether to say ‘lunch’ or ‘dinner’) and ‘sweet’ for the doughty-sounding pudding. These terms have become fairly mainstream, perhaps mostly due to the hospitality industry who exhibit a pragmatic preference for terms everybody understands.

Our language, with its French / Germanic background and implicit upper / lower registers, still has many tricks for betraying – or proudly proclaiming – your social status. What we call our ‘meals’ (see above) will give away something about your background. If you are Northern and/or from a working-class background you might proudly call your midday meal ‘dinner’ and your main evening meal ‘tea’, whether it is fish and chips or spaghetti Bolognese. This came from a long tradition of working-class evening meals which relied on tea (the drink) to turn some bread, cheese and bacon into something that felt like a hot meal. There is an often-told story that ‘afternoon tea’ was ‘invented by the Duchess of Bedford in the 1840s, when dinner hours were pushed later into the evening. If you moved in the Duchess’s circles, your ‘tea’ might come with cake or something toasted and be served at 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon, to tide you over before dinner or supper. From Victorian times, therefore, the country house sort would never call this ‘afternoon tea’ because the adjective is unnecessary (and a bit vulgar). The phrase, ‘Afternoon tea’ might have started with one foot in the world of John Betjeman’s despised lower middles, but it has been given a leg up by hotels and tea rooms, who have wrapped up the idea of country house leisure and luxury, in almost-unvarying tiers of tiny sandwiches, tiny pastries, the scones. It is now served to visitors willing to pay north of £50 to experience what the Ritz describes as ‘one of the finest British traditions’.

The middle- and upper-class family or sociable “dinner” moved, timewise, from around noon in Pepys day to seven or eight or later in Victorian Britain. In the Georgian period, when social circles were fairly settled and there wasn’t yet the economic opportunity for social advancement that the Victorian period offered, families simply ‘dined with’ one another. The next century invented “the dinner party”; it was the perfect vehicle for social climbing, displaying your silver cutlery and matching sets of china and crystal, and for showing off the talents of your chef with a menu written entirely in French. For perhaps the whole of the 20th century, “the dinner party” was what you held – or went to – if you had any social status (or pretensions) at all. Then along came television and showed that anybody could have a “dinner party”; from 2005, Come Dine With Me showed people from many walks of life competing to throw the perfect dinner party (with a cash prize for the ‘best’) in a way which harked back in intent – if not in style – to its highest Victorian ambition and competitiveness. This played into the British habit of constant reinvention of fashion. The post-World War I generation rejected the stiffness and formal competitiveness of the Victorian dinner party, but in such a way that showed that your style and breeding was somehow innate and could not be learnt; similarly in the 2010s and 2020s, the effort and formality of Come Dine with Me became déclassé. “Supper” was the thing, made to look effortless, thanks to the huge kitchen with an Aga harbouring an enormous Le Creuset full of something meaty (and probably organic), and an oozing cheese, with an Haut-Médoc from an iconic Chateau, all served by – for top social marks – a discreet butler. The French menu, so long the mark of sophistication and fine dining, now looks hopelessly pretentious (except, apparently, in the Queen’s household).

Our children and grandchildren will almost certainly laugh at our determination that avocados are ‘middle class’, at the fusty (to them) terms ‘brunch’ or ‘bottomless brunch’ or claims of ‘authentic’ ethnic food. They might find sharing plates hideously unhygienic or impractical, or as passé as the square plates or black plates that were a brief fad a few years ago. Let’s hope those generations believe, too, that whilst food fashions might be enjoyable, people of all social backgrounds should be able to afford the same good food, and the best part of food is when it brings us together rather than sets us apart.

Pen Vogler is a food historian and author of Christmas with Dickens, Tea with Jane Austen, and her latest book, Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, now out in paperback.

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