When I think of the Victorian era, two images immediately come to mind. Both are derived from literature and film, the first being the lavish high society depicted in Edith Wharton’s novels like ‘The Age of Innocence’. The other is from Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’, the orphan who pleads “can I have some more, please?” This extreme between the haves and have-nots is fitting because there existed a huge gap between the rich and the poor at the time. Today, we can think of it like the 1% and the other 99! It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and it was a tale of two diets.
Involved in heavy manual labor, the working class consumed more. They needed more calories and a higher glycemic load to fuel their physical labor. A typical breakfast could be two chunks of stoneground bread smeared with drippings, a large bunch of watercress and tea. Lunch was soup with some cheese and a hot or cold meat. Dinner would be very similar to lunch, only the working class ate their largest meal in the middle of the day, which according to Ayurvedic principles is a better routine for us to follow.
With the development of the railway system, fish, a cheaper source of protein became more widely available. This is when fish and chips become popular. Oliver’ in the workhouse ate mostly potatoes, cheese, bread and that infamous gruel.
As if that doesn’t sound dreary enough, the urban poor ate things like tripe (stomach of farm animals), slink (premature calves), and broxy (diseased! Sheep). In rural areas, birds and other game were eaten. Both the urban and rural working class would use the odds and ends of meat from butchering and make use of it in sausages and such.
Honoring the animal by utilizing all parts is a great practice, though as a vegetarian some of their habits sound as frightful as a Sweeney Todd story! But if you’ve seen the film ‘Food Inc.’ or know about the modern industrial food system, what we order at a baseball game or a fast food chain may not be that different after all. I understand being a vegetarian is not a healthy choice for everyone. I appreciate the episode in season one of ‘The Fabulous Beekman Boys’ where Porky and Bess are slaughtered because I believe it’s beneficial to be close to our food source. Not only does it foster greater reverence and appreciation for animals, but we can ensure our meat is of higher quality and support local farmers!
The upper class would start their day with animal protein like eggs and bacon, but also with items like grilled tomato, fish or British delicacies like smoked herring or devilled kidneys. Lunch was similar to breakfast but with more meats. The tradition of afternoon tea with tea sandwiches, cakes and scones with jam or clotted cream meant lunch was lighter and dinner later.
Dinner was the largest meal of the day for the rich. If they dined alone, it could average five courses but if entertaining could be a dozen or up to as many as twenty courses! This was a chance to boast of one’s wealth with displays of china, cutlery and servants. Cheeses, savory soups, vegetable side dishes, fish, meats like roast beef, turkey or pork were followed by citrus ice, fresh rolls with sweet cream, butter or jams, sweet pickles, cake and fruit preserves, coffee and punch. Consequently, obesity was more prevalent in the rich!
From a nutrition standpoint, they did have higher levels of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables and ate local and with the season. In fact, health featured quite prominently in Victorian life and the Latin phrase ‘mens sana, in corpore sano’ (healthy mind in a healthy body), was a motto. At this time, physiology developed as a distinct biological science with an emphasis on the wholeness of the body and the organs in relation to the system. Physiological psychology also emerged which professed that the health of the body and mind was interdependent.
One well-known figure we’re somewhat familiar with is Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Most everyone knows his cereals but he also founded the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, as depicted in the comedic film ‘The Road to Wellville’. He held some controversial views, but he was a vegetarian who promoted exercise, enemas and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and sexual stimulation… but not necessarily in that order! He was nuts about nuts, which are healthy fats we all need in our diet and even patented a process for making peanut butter.
If you think of yogurt of a health food, that can be attributed to Kellogg also. He promoted yogurt and the use of enemas because healthy intestinal flora help our immune system fight harmful bacteria and viruses. Now popular and referred to as probiotics, this is important for us to do with the widespread use of antibiotics as well as in our industrial livestock. Many commercial yogurts contain high amounts of sugar and I suggest limiting dairy intake so try fermented products like tempeh, miso and kombucha.
Kellogg also employed hydrotherapy, which experienced a revival in Victorian times. Hydrotherapy dates back to the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and Japan. In fact, we still use it today, only we call it a hot tub or going to the spa! This is what contributed to Sharon Springs becoming a fashionable resort, it being one of the only places with a confluence of three distinct mineral springs. It’s also why the architecture of the temples at each is a nod to its classical roots.
Kellogg didn’t start the fad, that can be attributed to a peasant farmer in Austria and then a Bavarian priest who authored the book ‘My Water Cure’. By 1850, there were more than 100 books and periodicals on the subject and at its height, there were more than 200 water-cure spas, mostly in the Northeast. This is why other places like Saratoga Springs, Vail and Evian were popular and why seaside resorts like Cape May were frequented.
History is fascinating and provides us with perspective and greater understanding of our present. And regardless of class and the era in which we live, our health is truly our wealth. Just as then, if we make healthy diet and lifestyle choices, are mindful of our body-mind connection, and seek ways to restore and rejuvenate ourselves, we can appreciate and focus on this moment.
Justin Mendoza, is Your Gay Guru, a nutritionist who practices a holistic approach to health. He is also a former intern at Beekman 1802. Connect with him to clarify your diet and lifestyle goals at www.yourgayguru.com and on Facebook and Twitter!