Our speaker Jessica Thurtell gave an overview of eating habits from the Saxons to modern times. Anglo-Saxon diet was tied to seasons, climate and what could be effectively preserved. They would have reared livestock primarily for eggs, milk and wool and would therefore have eaten meat only a few times a year. Pigs were plentiful and the only animal the Anglo-Saxons used solely for eating. Producing large numbers of offspring who mature quickly, they were an efficient form of meat production and survived on what they could forage such as acorns or seed (pannage).
The Saxons would have boiled or roasted their food over an open fire in clay pots to avoid waste; clay ovens were used for bread-baking. Feasting would have been common in Saxon times and could last one to three days and involved a lot of drinking and toasting. Food was a measure of hospitality and prosperity.
By the 1100s society was more hierarchical and the upper classes would have more sophisticated dining habits. Meat was still rarely available and supper mostly consisted of fish. Rich and poor alike ate a dish called pottage, a thick soup containing meat, vegetables or bran. Bread was a staple for all classes, although the quality varied depending on the type of grain used. Peasant families were allowed to collect firewood only on certain days and only as much as they could carry ‘by hook or by crook’.
A peasant’s diet in medieval times consisted largely of barley, which was used to make a variety of different dishes, from coarse, dark breads to pancakes, porridge and soups. If the harvest was poor, grain was in short supply and people were forced to include beans, peas and even acorns in their bread. Ale continued to be the staple drink as water was not healthy. Young children were weaned on to ale, generally making them tipsy, thus the origin of the word ‘toddlers’ because of their drunken demeanour.
Bread was still a major part of the diet and was served with the main meal of the day and often with other meals as well for both rich people and poor alike. At about this time the terms ‘upper crust’ and ‘lower crust’ came into parlance to distinguish between the wealthy and the poor of society: during cooking in stone ovens the heaviest part of a loaf settled to the bottom and was often burned and hard and was eaten by the poorest people. The bread in the middle of the loaf was still heavy, but it was better quality. This part was eaten by the middle class. The top part of a loaf was the lightest and fluffiest and was normally eaten by the wealthy, who would give the rest of it to their workers and servants.
Elizabethan eating habits were ruled by the calendar. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays were fish days, so was the whole of Lent and various other days – almost a third of the year.
Not every house had an oven so it was quite usual for women to send a pie or cake round to the baker; she might also take a joint wrapped in pastry, not intended for eating but to stop the joint from drying out, as we would use foil wrap. Everything was highly seasoned, maybe to disguise the taste of food that had begun to go off; but Elizabethans had developed a taste for sweet things and spices such as cinnamon and ginger which were being imported from abroad. For the poor, life was still hard and they would rely on leftovers of meals from the big houses.
Forks were not widely used but everyone would carry a small knife for use at table, and there would be a spoon at each place. Spoons were often given at christenings – the godparents were known as ‘spoonsters’ or sponsors. Rich households would place an elaborate salt cellar on the table. The master and his guests and family sat ‘above’ the salt at the top of the table; lesser mortals sat ‘below the salt’. Sauces were also a vital part of a meal and were presented in ‘saucers’, hence the shape and name of our modern counterparts.
By the 1800s the rich grew fruits and vegetables in hot houses, and most people ate meat, soups or bread throughout the year. Fruit and vegetables were preserved or stored to provide food through the winter. Selective breeding of animals brought about larger animals with more meat, and fodder was being introduced to feed animals during the winter.
In the 1900s dining with the Edwardians became more sophisticated for the upper classes, with courses being served in succession — à la russe — rather than all the food being laid out on tables ‘à la française’. Table decorations and silverware were at their most elaborate. Dinner for the poor and factory workers was at midday with tea being a more substantial meal than at present.
Wartime did away with domestic staff, who took to working in factories. Housewives shopped every day and there was still no reliable way of storing food other than in a cool larder. Rationing was introduced in 1940 and lasted 14 years. Cooking fats and sugar were heavily restricted, but potatoes, other root vegetables and bread were freely available, so people ate a diet much higher in carbohydrates and lower in fats.