One of many fascinating aspects of writing historical romances is pondering the food my characters eat. In real life, how our own food is prepared and served provides information about us. Most families have beloved recipes that are handed down from one generation to the next, like Aunt Nellie’s cabbage and pineapple salad; or are shared between friends, like the recipe I translated for bernadines, French almond cookies, when I was in high school.
When researching To be Seduced, I found Samuel Pepys’ diary a wonderful source of food and entertainment available in London. Not only did Sam enjoy the pleasures of the table — he frequently comments on meals, beginning with the Diary‘s first entry — he grasped the propaganda value of food and drink. At the beginning of his journal, Pepys speaks of gifts of wine and food from his patrons, Sir Edward and Lady Montague (later the Earl and Countess of Sandwich and ancestors of the eponymous earl), and he himself takes great pains to see that his wife Elizabeth presents suitable meals when they entertain guests.
Much of his food sounds strange our ears, but at the time were delicacies by virtue of their rarity or expense. Venison, for example, was available only to those noblemen whose estates had herds of deer. To receive the gift of a haunch or other cut, or even meat pies made with it, was a sign of favor in that era. Wine was another popular gift, for by then much of it was imported and again out of the reach of many.
In my second book, venison pasty and sack are replaced by the elaborate meals of the Victorian aristocracy. Unlike the adulterated and inferior food offered for sale to the poor in cities, that on the nobleman’s table was fresh and well-prepared. According to British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History by Colin Spencer, the wealthiest classes started growing vegetables such as artichokes, broccoli, and several varieties of lettuce on their estates in the eighteenth century. Meats available depending on the season were mutton and lamb, veal, pheasant and grouse, rabbit and freshwater fish like trout and salmon (to name only two). The wealthy ate fresh fruit throughout the year thanks to hot-houses and the ability to afford exotic imports.
Victorians at all economic levels considered the waste of food sinful. Leftovers were either presented to the servants or saved for subsequent meals in the dining room, provided they could be disguised as something original. For example, recipes for croquettes abounded. Minced cooked meat and vegetables were combined with breadcrumbs and molded, then fried or steamed and served with a sauce. Viewed as a feminine delicacy, men tended to regard them with disdain before rushing off to their clubs for a slab of beef and some potatoes. I am inclined to sympathise with the gentlemen here.
This is a very good online site featuring Pepys’ Diary and including several articles and annotations.
Spencer, Colin, British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History (Columbia University Press, 2002)