Follies in Food

In the last generation, a family of five brothers and sisters were left, by the death of their widowed mother, to choose their way of life for themselves, at ages varying from fifteen to two and-twenty. They made a wise choice, which was acquiesced in by the guardians of the younger ones. They had no marked disease —any one of them: but they were of a strumous constitution, their physicians admitted; — not scrofulous, but tending towards it. They resolved to devote five years to the establishment of their health, which they considered would be a good economy of time, if those years could give vigour to all that followed.

There was no difficulty about money; so they took an airy country-house on a gravelly soil; bought horses for the five and two grooms, and devised a side-saddle for the girls, which would enable the rider to take either side of the horse at pleasure — a point of some importance for girls still growing, who were to spend so much time on horseback. They were in the open air whenever the weather would possibly admit of it, varying their exercises in every imaginable way. They lived on generous diet — good ale or porter, and, by the medical advice of the day, port wine. At the end of the five years they were as fine a set of young people as could be seen, without a trace of disease or weakness, sound in body and mind.

Another family in a lower rank of life lost their father when they were about the same age. They had had warning; for a brother had died of some form of scrofula, and their father, who had been far from temperate, died consumptive: but they had no idea of health being a matter of choice or of duty in any way. They expected “Providence” to settle all that for them; and the consequence was, that the old mother saw one after another drop from her side, after long periods of disease.

It is not necessary to dwell on the particulars. Unhappily, we have all witnessed the fate of scrofulous families, where ignorance and mismanagement aggravated the misery to the utmost. It is enough to say that the young men exposed themselves to heat and draughts without any precautions; that it never entered their heads to unload their skins (beyond their face and hands) of the salts accumulated on the skins of working-men from day to day; and that their meals were like those of their neighbours — hot cakes, swimming in butter, for breakfast and tea; and at dinner and supper the everlasting favourite — the “pasty” no game pie, nor anything like it; but two thick, greasy slabs of paste, with fruit clapped in between them: or, if fruit could not be had, fresh or preserved treacle in its place.

There are districts in England where whole families of working-men and apprentices are seen daily dining on such an abominable mess as this, and rarely touching or desiring fish. It is in just such neighbourhoods that there are superstitions against washing. An infant’s arms must not be washed before six months, or it would turn out a thief, and the parents “would not like that:” and the parents themselves are scandalised at the very mention of such rashness as washing the feet.

If the doctor advises a patient to put her feet in hot water for a cold, he is told that she has not let water touch her feet for thirty years, and never will; and that she once had a daughter who ought to have been living now, but she was once advised to put her feet in hot water, and she died; — not in the same year, it is true: but who can tell whether she might not have been living now if she had done like her mother? Living in a state of society like this, and knowing nothing of the art of health, the predisposed family drooped and died, or are lingering on in conspicuous disease.

These are indications worth attending to, while the Registrar-General’s Report tells us that twenty in a hundred of the deaths in England, in 1857, were from “constitutional disease,” by far the largest proportion being from some form of scrofulous affection, and especially consumption. No less than 58,320 persons died of consumption in England in 1857.

But double the number died of diseases for which want of cleanliness and good diet are mainly answerable. As to personal cleanliness, we will only say one thing; — that very few persons seem to be aware, even after all that the Combes have written, what the precise consequences are of the skin not being thoroughly washed and rubbed every day. It is not enough to say or suppose that people feel refreshed and invigorated by bathing; for mere bathing — a mere plunge into the Serpentine, or the sea, or any other bath, does not answer the purposo of thorough ablution.

We ought to know the process by which disease follows a loaded skin. It is simply that the skin ought to carry off several pounds a day of the waste of the body; and if it is so choked as to be unable to do this, the work is thrown upon the interior organs, which have quite enough work of their own to do. Hence come internal inflammations, disorders, and decay.

The introduction of steam ought to have lessened mortality from this cause more than it has: but the perception of this advantage of the steam engine is spreading. Many years ago, some millowners and mining proprietors gave the benefit of the warm water of their engines to their workpeople, by carrying it into a range of washing sheds and baths.

In Cornwall it seems to be a regular practice for the miners to wash in this way on leaving their work every afternoon. Let us hope that it is a more thorough washing than is described in the Reports of the Inspector of Mines in certain coal districts, where the men, duly shaven and proper in appearance on Sundays, are wearing their clean shirts over skins ingrained with six months’ coal-dust. Inflammatory and choleraic diseases make prodigious havoc among an unwashed population.

Taking society all round, however, it appears that more young people are killed by mistakes about food than about anything else except air. The mistakes about food are so various, so opposite, that, while we are ashamed of our ignorance, we may hope for a great saving of life when we grow wiser.

“Doctor,” said an American clergyman to the family physician who was attending the mother, “do look at that girl’s tongue.”

“O, father, I am very well,” said the young lady; “as well as I always am.”

But the doctor looked at the tongue, and observed that it was just as white as every young person’s tongue he looked at.

“They are all alike,” said he. “Why? Why people must have more or less fever while they eat as young people eat here; and without proper exercise too.”

He criticised the American diet; which it is not our business to do while we have so much to correct in our own. The young people in both countries suffer and die in much the same way; — the Americans more and the English less; but both very unnecessarily. The mistake is the same, whether the diet be the same or different.

The mortality detailed by Dr. Farr relates, we must remember, to all classes. When we read of errors in diet, we usually think of the tables of the rich, as we imagine them, and suppose that luxurious people are over-fed. In the first place, this appears to be a mistake, by the testimony of physicians; and in the next, if it were true we need not dwell upon it, because the rich and luxurious must always be the smallest class of the English or any other people.

It is enough to say that wise modern physicians have been heard to declare that English ladies are not, generally speaking, sufficiently well fed. They take enough in bulk, perhaps, but not nutritious and reparative food. They would be more robust and less nervous if they lived rather more as ladies did in Queen Elizabeth’s time, consuming more beef and manchet and (if earned by strong exercise, not otherwise) good ale.

As for the late dinners which we are all so shocked at, they had better be called suppers. If the gentlemen do not take a substantial luncheon in the middle of the day, they ought; and the ladies do. They in fact dine with the children at one or two o’clock. The leg of mutton or cold beef then is their real dinner. They have tea at five or six, with or without the children; and then, if they choose to call the eight o’clock meal dinner they can; but it in fact answers to the supper of old days.

A few spoonsful of soup, a wing of fowl or game, a plate of jelly or cream, and ice and fruit afterwards, may be all very pretty, but it bears no comparison as a dinner to the mutton and pudding at two o’clock. Many gentlemen do make their real dinner at the nominal time; and hence the great amount of disease among professional men and the rich merchant class in London.

Now it is the stomach that gives way, and now it is the nerves. Paralysis knocks down one, choleraic disease carries off another, and dyspepsia makes life a long misery to a third; and who can wonder, when that class of gentlemen breakfast early (if men of business in any way), and work their brains all day, without another proper meal, or perhaps any food at all, for twelve hours? The expenditure of alimentary material may be great in the kitchens of the rich — as in the making of the famous white soup in the Queen’s kitchen — but the higher classes are not in this country over-fed.

The next class is nearer to reason in its ostensible practice than perhaps any other in the country. Three meals a day, with a small interlude, and at nearly reasonable times, seem to promise well; and if one sort of citizen is better nourished than another, it is probably the ordinary man of business in town and country, who likes his joint and pudding at dinner, and the loaf of good homemade bread, with country butter and eggs at breakfast and tea.

Yet there are drawbacks here. The wife is not complacent about her table, and her daughters do not eat as girls should; and her sons at times look critical. The fault here is, not in the theory, not in the hours, not in the tradesmen who supply the house, but in the cookery. Without incurring the reproach of grumbling at one’s own age of the world, or saying that “the former times were better than these,” one may state the plain fact, that the custom of our country used to be for the housewives of all ranks to be responsible for the table at home, and to claim that responsibility as a matter of right — as a point of honour as well as of duty. To declare this is to say that the case is otherwise now.

A new saying has recently obtained a wide circulation— “That you should discharge your cook for no offence short of murder.” Send her away, and you will never have another: for two real cooks in a lifetime are more than any one has a right to expect. Why are there so few cooks? Simply because the demand for them has declined. So it is, in the very face of the new saying. Cooks are wanted more than ever; but not good ones, because housewives do not know how to set about requiring high qualities in a cook, and are accustomed to put up with what they can get, or to hire on blind speculation.

Middle-class housewives in England cannot cook, generally speaking: and, moreover, they do not know what to require, what to order, and how far to superintend. Their mothers did not teach them; we have no schools for the homely domestic arts; and how should they know any more of housewifery than of law, physic, or divinity?

If the truth were known, this is one of the depressing influences which bear down the spirit and health of the maidenhood of England. Thousands of girls are painfully conscious of ignorance which is, and ought to be, regarded as a disgrace; and, when intending to marry, a heavy weight of care sits at the heart from the sense of the chances against their being able to make their husbands’ homes comfortable, and the scene of complacency that the home of every good wife should be. After marriage it is worse. If the deficiency is repaired, it is through severe humiliation on the one part, and great forbearance on the other; and the cases are few in which it can be thoroughly repaired.

What is to be done? for cooking does not come by nature, nor even ordering a table by observation. The art must be learned, like other arts, by proper instruction. We want, and we must have, schools of domestic management now that every home is not such a school. Mothers can, at least, teach their daughters to know one sort of meat from another, and one joint from another, and, in a rougher or more thorough way, what to order in the every-day way and for guests.

Thus much, then, every girl should know, from childhood upwards. A little practice of observation in the markets would soon teach a willing learner to distinguish prime articles from inferior kinds, and to know what fish, flesh, fowl, and fruits are in season every month in the year. We have seen ladies buying pork under a sweltering summer sun, and inquiring for geese in January and July, and taking up with skinny rabbits in May, and letting the season of mackerel, herrings, salmon, and all manner of fish pass over unused.

Everybody is glad to hear of the introduction of cookery into industrial schools, here and there. But much more than this is wanted; and there can be little doubt that if well-qualified cooks would open schools in London and all our large towns for the instruction of ladies and housekeepers, they would meet with signal success.

It is probably true that almost every little girl is fond of the household arts, and delights in cooking, especially; and it is certainly true that a multitude of young ladies, married and single, would give all they are worth to be as much at home at the head of their households as their grandmothers were. Till this new-old branch of female education is placed within reach of the whole sex, there will be sickness and mortality, as well as waste of the national resources, from the whole of society being at the mercy of its cooks — not a tenth part of whom are worthy of the honourable name.

How is it in that class in which every wife is the household cook, or at least the directress of the kitchen? How do the affairs of the table prosper in that substantial class which includes our farmers, country shopkeepers, and superior artisans? We are sorry to say — but physicians and tradesmen will testify to the fact — that the mortality of the country is increased by the habit of over-eating which exists in thousands of households of this order.

Not in all; and great honour is due to those who adopt a sensible diet, because it is apt to be stigmatised as meanness; but, as a general fact, the habit of over-eating destroys health and life to a grievous amount in that order of citizens in which a gross table is regarded as a liberal and kindly mode of living.

As to the true old English farmhouse, there is no better picture of its habits as to meals and hospitality than one given by Mr. Howitt, in (if we remember right) his “Rural Life in England.” The quantity on the table at one time, the perpetual arrivals of more, the constant succession of meals all day, and the urgent persuasions to guests to eat, and reproaches for not eating enough, are just like the experience of townspeople who some time in their lives were suddenly introduced into rural society.

The ordinary mode of life on a Yorkshire grazing farm is abundantly surprising to persons who have doubted about taking luncheon while eating three meals a day. Mistress and maid are stirring early to make the porridge for the household, breakfast being at seven. The vast bowls of porridge and quarts of milk being dispatched, there is bare time for the chamber-work before lunch has to be sent out to the fields — huge baskets of bread, oatcake and cheese, with bottles of beer. This is from half-past nine to ten. At twelve dinner smokes on the long board — great pieces of pork, beef, or mutton, or all three; or vast pies and puddings, and cheese, and rice-milk, and ale; and the board is pretty well cleared in half an hour.

At three, the baskets go again into the field with the afternoon lunch — bread, cheese, and beer as before. At five all assemble for tea, which is porridge and milk, as at breakfast. At eight, there is supper — cold meat, hot potatoes, oat-cake, and cheese. By that time the women have done cooking for the day, and, the board being cleared, they sit down to mend stockings, the farmer reads the newspaper at his own round table, with his own candle; and the men nudge each other to keep awake, or nod forwards, or join to prick or pinch or punch any particularly sleepy sinner, till nine o’clock strikes, and they slink off to bed.

However strong the exercise taken by such a household, it is still subject to fever, liver complaints, diarrhoea, and rheumatism, besides that torpidity of brain which is in itself a preparation for disease. The strongest and most active brains resist disease the best and the longest. Not the overwrought brains, be it observed, but the most generally exercised, which keep up the highest vitality over the widest range of human powers. One does not look for this kind of brain among clowns who eat five or six meals a day, and know and care nothing about the world outside the farm fences.

But the small shopkeepers in towns are a very different class, from whom a higher intelligence might be expected: yet they are apt to eat twice as much as is good for them. Observe the master or mistress of the household at market. What a quantity of prime fish is bought! what ducks, geese, and turkeys, besides joints, and odds and ends of dainties! What peas and asparagus and seacale! What vast cheeses, and cream cheeses, and curds, and gallons of fruit, and mounds of butter! But, to come to particulars, here is an illustration.

A friend of ours — a surgeon’s wife — was informed one day about noon that a patient desired to see her in the waiting-room. She answered this odd request by going there, when she found two persons in great alarm, and distressed that the surgeon was not expected home for two hours. The wife of a small shopkeeper was ill, and a friend had come with her, in hope of obtaining immediate relief. They could not explain what was the matter, but would be glad of any advice. The poor woman said she felt so miserable she did not know what to do, and her throat was quite unlike in shape to its usual state; and she could scarcely breathe, and had such an oppression, &c. The lady saw immediately that it was a case of violent indigestion.

She said that it was not her practice to prescribe for her husband’s patients, but she could recommend a simple medicine for relieving the immediate oppression, which would pass the time till medical advice could be had. What she heard of the eating of that day and the preceding astonished her; but in the evening her husband said she had not told him nearly all that had gone down the woman’s throat, which was, as nearly as we can remember, this — perhaps more, certainly not less.

There was a large fine salmon in the case — a present. A friend came to pass the day, and the salmon was cooked for dinner, superseding a bullock’s heart stuffed with onions. There was a pie, and there were puddings, and other things at dinner; but the great salmon was the main feature. At tea, at five, there were hot buttered cakes and buttered toast, and the heart stuffed with onions, and sweet cake, of course: and at eight there was supper, viz., fried soles and potatoes, an apple pie and custard, cheese and porter.

At breakfast next morning the salmon was proceeded with; and the patient had partaken plentifully of it, and had also fortified herself with lunch before going to the doctor. If, as we are assured, this is only a fair specimen of the diet of thousands of families in England, it is no wonder that we suffer under that dreary collection of diseases that Adam saw going into hospital, by dismal anticipation, as related in Paradise Lost.

If we set against these the consequences of under-feeding, we may see how far we are from wisdom. On the subject of deficient food we will not enter. Nobody needs convincing of the horrors of it. The practical question is, whether any means can be found of saving the lives of young people who have been brought up to over-load their stomachs (under the idea of fostering their strength and living generously), that there may be the more food left in the market for those who now have not enough.

There are a few places within the United Kingdom where instruction is given in regard to the constitution and management of the human frame. If there were schools enough to teach the girls of the middle classes the leading truths about diet, in relation to health, the next generation would be happier than the last. The well-to-do would have better health — quiet nights, easy and cheerful days, freedom from nightmare and indigestion, a longer life and a merrier one than now: and the poor people below them would have a better chance of keeping body and soul together, and being in an amiable mood towards God and man.

Can one not imagine the surplus left over by a wise generation of farmers and shopkeepers spread out in the wilderness for the poor? For it should be remembered that food of all kinds is one of the commodities which is, at each particular time, limited in quantity; so that to waste it is to deprive somebody. If this were fairly understood by those who eat meat three times a day, more persons would have it once.

One practical point, which would assist the due feeding of the under-fed, need not wait for a general advance in education. To enable the poorer classes to turn food to the best account is much the same thing as putting more within their reach; and this could easily be done. It actually is done in a few places where cooking is taught on system in industrial schools; and there is no apparent reason why there should not be schools of cookery for poor children, as well as for young ladies in London, and for soldiers in the camp. Why should we not all learn to cook? We have cookery-books for the great, and also for the million; but cookery-books are of little value till there is some aptitude at the practice.

Let half a dozen popular teachers like Soyer (but who is like him!) travel through the country, each with a portable kitchen, and show all the women and girls in town and country the best way to make and cook the common preparations of food; and the benefit will be equal to a rise of wages to the labouring man at once.

The mere secret of the stew — now rarely or never seen on the cottage table — would be as good as another shilling a-week in health and strength. It is difficult to stop here, on the verge of a great and enticing subject; but we can say only one thing more now — that there are literally thousands of mourning parents in England at this moment, whose manly young sons and once promising daughters are in their graves because their fathers made mistakes in providing the family food, and their mothers did not know how to set it before them.

The mind recoils from such a statement, but it is true; and it ought therefore to be set down plainly. The mind also recoils from the statement that the cholera is at Dantzic and at Hamburg; and not altogether absent from England; but it is true, and ought to be told; and with it the further truth that if every family in the kingdom sat down in pure air, in a state of personal cleanliness, to three meals a day of good common food, well cooked, and earned by fair work of body and mind, the cholera would be kept out more surely than by a wall of brass, or would fly over us like the first raven we hear of, and go back to its haunts, for want of some place whereon to alight.

It will be some time before that can happen. Meanwhile, what can each of us do to save some of the thousands who are for ever dropping into well-known pitfalls around the threshold of adult life?

Harriet Martineau.

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