Food From Hell

Christopher Fowler
IMG_3710 Notice anything weird about this burger? (Answer at the end of the column)   Gold-Coated Cockerel, Anyone? My mother has no taste. I mean that literally; she's 90 and says she can't taste anything unless it's incredibly sweet. It's a medical fact that we veer to sweet from savoury in old age. I was thinking about that as I was sitting here writing with a plate of marmalade ham sandwiches on one side of the keyboard. I usually add a spoonful of marmalade to spaghetti bolognese when I'm cooking it, and like using fruits in cooking, along with strong, unusual spices. Now comes a wonderful volume, 'The Curious Cookbook', by Peter Ross, with an introduction from Heston Blumenthal, about some of the more extreme historic dishes of old England. These include viper soup, badger ham, roast swan, stewed sparrows, sea-ducks with chocolate, udders on toast, 'whore's farts' (tastier than they sound), barbecued otter, porpoise with wheat porridge, bruised snails and a ketchup that will last for twenty years. Some of the recipes, like the medieval recipe for lasagne, sound entirely modern. Others, like the wartime idea for stuffing whole potatoes with whole sprats, are desperate and disgusting recipes designed to stretch a ration book for the week. (Apparently I had a ration book, even though the war had ended eight years before I was born). There are several items from the book I'm planning to try; 'Instant meat-stock glue to carry in your pocket' comes from a 1747 cookery book. 'Fishy Mince Pies' is nicer than it initially sounds because it uses dried fruits, ginger and spices to perk up fish. However I won't be trying 'Purple Pears', which uses a pewter plate to cause a chemical reaction between the acidic fruit and the lead in the metal to dye the meal purple. It's poisonous. 'Gruel For Invalids' from Mrs Beeton also sounds extremely off-putting. I might give the sautéed tortoise a miss, too. The cockerel distilled with gold to treat consumption is typical of these recipes, which make the cook's work sound incredibly violent; 'Take a red cock that is not too olde and beate him to death, and when he is dead, fley him and quarter him in small peeces, and bruse the bones everye one of them.'   Cooking By The Senses Just as there's not enough discussion about cinema or reading from the POV of their effect on our senses, we don't look at eating from the sense of taste. Why is a great British fry-up still popular? It's a power-jump into the day, a hangover cure, a meal designed to burn off over six or eight hours, and cooked correctly it's a taste sensation. It will also kill someone not used to them. Britain is a nation of strong flavour lovers. We have a history of pickling, salting and spicing meats, and a powerful connection to India that has placed Indian food as the nation's favourite cuisine. When I returned from India I had trouble eating anything for a few days because it all tasted so dry. The old American idea that British food was bad originated in a very real problem; the Second World War. Rationing shuttered restaurants and limited food supply (conversely, it made everyone healthier because they ate less meat). After, the government opened
Associated British Cafeterias (ABCs) to provide very cheap meals for those on rations and drastic budgets, because they were concerned about malnourishment.
The culinary ground could not be regained for years. Now British restaurants have rediscovered a rich culinary history, with Blumenthal's restaurants tackling some incredible dishes from the past. Meat and shellfish were often mixed; I have a
great recipe for oxtails stewed with scallops and oranges. Oyster water was added to stews and we still have beef and oyster pies. The American ambassador recently complained that he had eaten too much lamb in the UK and was looking forward to hamburgers again. We tend to regard American food as too big, too bland and under-spiced, fit only for street eating, but I've had good regional dishes from
Californian chicken with peaches to Louisiana gumbo. There are no high-end American restaurants in Britain, which make it virtually the only unrepresented country in the food world apart from Canada. I tend to find French food overrated; trapped in the past, often with subtle herb flavours but a total lack of understanding about how to use spices, it now languishes while many other countries are surprising us. Eastern European food can be thrilling; one of the most sensational meals I had this year was at Cepetim in Riga, Latvia. At the end of it, they gave us little packets of the herbs and spices that were in our dinner - I'm still using them. Still, I may give 'Tendons in gravy' from 'The Curious Cookbook' a miss. Oh, and that hamburger? It's a plastinated one from Japan, where plastinated food is an art form.  


Ken (not verified) Sat, 08/11/2014 - 09:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Tendons in gravy sound quite tasty. If you're ever in Hong Kong I'd recommend the beef noodle soup, packed with slow cooked beef tendon, as a regional classic delicacy. Hard to find as the whole place is being overrun by Starbucks and kids wearing Abercrombie & Fitch but peek down the further ends and you still get a taste of the colonial Hong Kong in its heyday.

Jo W (not verified) Sat, 08/11/2014 - 10:33

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Thanks for reminding me of our pickling and spicing traditions. I should be getting on with this year's chutneys! 😋😋😋

Wayne Mook (not verified) Sat, 08/11/2014 - 12:29

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Not to mention the sweet desserts, also smoking and the hanging of meat, some of the high gamy foods take some getting used to.


Paul Graham (not verified) Sat, 08/11/2014 - 15:58

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Hmm I thought plastinated food originated from McDonalds?

Helen Martin (not verified) Sat, 08/11/2014 - 16:23

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I don't know how much uniquely Canadian food there is. We have picked up all the dishes brought here by immigrants (except for the fry up breakfast) and just get on with integrating everything. I've even seen a tourtiere with curry. Tourtiere (ground pork & beef pie), maple syrup, saskatoon berries and some very tasty salmon dishes are our chief contributions - oh and pemmican, now sold as jerky, but made from buffalo. Just now we are in the process of blending in Vietnamese and middle eastern (again!) dishes.

snowy (not verified) Sat, 08/11/2014 - 16:46

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"Notice anything weird about this burger?" Quite a bit, the first being it is too big to fit into any normal persons 'cake-hole'.

Marmalade fixation? Too many 'Paddington' annuals as a child? ;-)

I wouldn't put Ham and Marmalade in a sandwich myself, it's the bits of peel that put me off, [though it works very well as a glaze if baking a whole ham, I'm told.].

For a 'Breakfast Sensation', two slices of bread lightly toasted, buttered, one spread with marmalade, the other Marmite, [even that newfangled squirty sort at a push]. Pop them together to make a sandwich and serve with a mug of tea.

[For those repulsed at the very idea of such a combination, break down the flavour components, sweet, sour, bitter, salt and unami. No different to large chunks of Asian cuisine!]

For those die-hard fans of the hursuite Peruvian, there are 50 statues of him scattered around London, [to tie in with a film, it has to be said], there is even an App to guide you about.

Roger (not verified) Sat, 08/11/2014 - 20:10

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"The old American idea that British food was bad originated in a very real problem; the Second World War"

A European idea, surely, and dating back to long before WWII. Look at reports of the diet of nineteenth century urban workers and eighteenth century farm labourers and you'll see why people thought British food was bad. It was. People were undernourished, malnourished and had gross vitamin deficiencies.

Christopher Fowler Sat, 08/11/2014 - 21:35

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Roger - Er, and that. But not if you were rich; you got gout, like Giles Coren.

Brian Evans (not verified) Sat, 08/11/2014 - 21:57

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My mum also had no sense of taste or smell. Which was lucky as she was one of the old school of cooks. If you could still count the sprouts, then they weren't cooked.* She put it down to sinus problems (lack of taste not overcooked sprouts) which she refused to have operated on. Also, oddly, she never liked chocolate. I once asked how she knew if she couldn't taste it. And answer came there none!
* Thank you Barry Crier for that gag.

Charles (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 06:00

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"We tend to regard American food as ... too bland and under-spiced, fit only for street eating."

Hmm... I would say it's the other way 'round. I like my food "bland and under-spiced". Finnish cuisine at its best (I am of Finnish heritage). I cannot understand this fascination of drowning your food in so many spices and hot things that you cannot even taste it anymore. Do people really like that burning sensation that stays in your throat for tens of minutes after eating some type of foreign over-spiced food? Or do their throats become so calloused to spicy food after a while and they are really tasting it the same way the rest of us do?

@Paul Graham: That's a myth. A (Canadian, at least) McDonald's hamburger is not much more processed than one made from scratch. The reason a standard hamburger doesn't decompose is because of its size. It dries up faster than it has time to mold or rot. Now, if you get a Double Big Mac, yes, it will get moldy, simply because it is so much larger. These results are from an semi-informal experiment that I recall reading a while back... I can't remember what it was called but it was reputable.

@Helen Martin: Poutine, anyone? Definitely uniquely Canadian. Fries (like from McD) covered in cheese curds and smothered in gravy... mmmm! Absolutely delicious!

Charles (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 06:05

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In fact, most fast food restaurants such as McDonald's offer poutine as a side instead of fries, though you can certainly get better poutine from a dedicated poutine place, such as Smokes' Poutinery (yes, that's a real word).

Charles (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 06:07

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Hmm... I spelt it wrong. It's "poutinerie". That was my instinct, but then I second-guessed myself.

snowy (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 16:32

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Picking up on the point Roger made. To talk about British food we need to distinguish between 'diet' and 'cuisine'.

If you worked on the land you should never go hungry, if you didn't get free food from work, you would have a garden full of potatos, carrots, beans, cabbage etc. For meat you could keep a pig or a few chickens, failing those you could take a few rabbits or pigeons from the wild. Both regarded as pests. But if you were unemployed then not only did you have no income, you would be evicted from your 'tied' cottage and thrown 'on the parish'.

Urban workers didn't fare so well, but provided you were in work a basic heathly diet was attainable. If unemployed through lack of work/illness/disability then it was very tough.

if you had the income to afford at least one servant then you could access the whole of British cuisine. [I'll find a link in a bit.]

What the war did was to reduce not only the quantity of food in the 'diet', but all the ingredients that added flavour to food either disapeared completely or were in very short supply. For example any sort of fat, butter, cream, sugar, most herbs and spices.

Without those food is very bland and what 'cuisine' there was just vanished for years. Not to re-emerge until the 50's and then only slowly. [When the current Queen took the throne, the menu for the post-match nosh included 'Coronation Chicken', not a pleasant dish, but it signalled that things were starting to change back to what they were before.]

snowy (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 16:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hmm wordpess rejects pdfs if placed there. Ok lets do it the old fashioned way.

Heres a link to a suggested menu from 1887.


It comes from a magazine of the time and represents what was thought to be 'proper' food. Most working households wouldn't run to the full three courses and many wouldn't get puddings during the week either.

But it is quite cosmopolitain, including rice, pasta and curried dishes along with the usual chops and stews.

snowy (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 17:21

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Charles, I'm guessing you won't be ordering a vindaloo any time in the next decade. :-)

The key word is 'over-spiced', if the seasoning completely overwhelms the other flavours then it has been done badly. One might just as well live on a diet of *shudder* Tofu.

Palates vary, if I'm served any dish with too much dried corriander then the whole thing just tastes 'metallic'. You do become accustomed to overspiced food over time, but any decent resturant will adjust the spice levels on request. If you ask for, as a friend of mine does, a very mild Korma, you will get a creamy sauce with just a hint of spice.

Poutine is mostly unheard of here in the UK, the nearest would be 'Cheesy Chips', and I wouldn't recommend it, a handful of skinny french fries, [hence not real chips], with a slice of orange processed cheese substitute placed on top. And if you are expecting gravy, no chance [unless you are in the North of England.]

Brian Evans (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 18:58

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I agree with everything you say, except your assertion that Urbanites could obtain a basic healthy diet. Sadly, so many people could only earn starvation pittances, and often had too many children due to lack of reliable birth control. Their diets didn't have enough vitamins. Look at pics of the Victorian age, and note the number of people who are clearly suffering from rickets, just to mention one deformity.

The diet in the 2nd World War was mind-numbingly boring, but it was incredibly healthy as it was calculated to have a very good balance of the right vitamins, with no rubbish such as fat cooked into it. There has been one huge sea-change in people since I was born (1951). In those days, poor people tended to be very thin, whilst today they are very fat.

Helen Martin (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 21:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sorry, I shudder whenever poutine is mentioned . I don't think it's very traditional, but it is definitely Canadian - from Quebec, as is the tortiere and the maple syrup/sugar.
There may have been some wealthy households that served a variety of foods but I would be willing to bet that vegetables and fruit were very rare on anyone's table. Without processing they're both very seasonal in Britain.
As for spices, I'm willing to bet that much of that is a result of lack of preservation techniques, too. I enjoy a bit of spice but my husband likes it as the people from India do, not that he gets it that way at home. Try some of the Korean spicing for strength, too. All things in moderation, that's me.

snowy (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 23:32

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Brian, I know where you are coming from, [or at least I think I do]. Our perception of the period is coloured hugely by the sentimentaliity of the period and some bloke called Charles Dickens, [who lined his pockets peddlling romantic and/or sensationalised accounts of poverty to all those that could afford to buy his publications.]

In the country as whole poverty was about 5% and would fall to 2.5% by 1900. [Those figures are inflated by the old and infirm as there was no organised state provision as we would now understand it.]

Outside of the very poorest parts of the cities, life was bearable, not brilliant, but money was flowing into the country*, industry was booming, exports were rising year on year. If you were employed and in a skilled occupation life was quite pleasant. As demonstrated by the huge boom in consumer goods, spending on leisure etc.

The outcry against poverty, was not motivated by pure altruism, there are many different factors at play, social change was one, Quakerism played an important part among many others. But lurking under all of those is a growing fear and then absolute terror of corruption and disease escaping the 'Rookeries.]

[I trimmed this comment right down, it was getting way out of hand, I cut out the Lancashire Cotton Famine, the rise of organised labour and the Bryant and May matchgirls strike to name just three. ;-) ]

[*Mostly by waltzing into foreign countries uninvited, stomping about, shooting anybody that objected and either nicking all thier natural resources or making them grow non food crops. They called this having an Empire.]

snowy (not verified) Mon, 10/11/2014 - 00:07

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Seasonal veg wouldn't be hard to get per se, when there is a glut the price goes through the floor. But the choices would have been stultifyingly limited. There are calenders that list what would be available in season...... [Modern ones are full of veg that would have been unheard of at the time. Hmm... the closest would be.. Ah, yes, the old Dig for Victory leaflets.] Link up there, the last column lists what would be in season and when.

But you would eat the same thing for weeks and weeks and weeks on end, to the point that you would just be sick and tired of seeing the same thing appear at every single $@%%!#& meal.

Fruit, once the summer glut was over the choice was Apples or..... Apples, unless you could afford the sugar to have preserved anything.

Charles (not verified) Mon, 10/11/2014 - 03:10

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: "A blend of red chilis, tamarind, and other spices, such as ginger, cumin, and mustard seeds." Nope, definitely not! All of those foods are almost strictly on the no-no-eat list.

Poutine is unheard of mostly everywhere. Go ten inches over the US border and mention poutine and all you'll get are funny stares. It's a relatively recent Quebec phenomenon, only 25-30 years. And I agree, the stuff from McDonald's made with the skinny "fries" isn't too great. The real deal made with thick fries, real curds, and rich gravy is good though. Clearly Helen doesn't like it much :). Sure it's unhealthy, and I try to avoid it for that reason, but it sure tastes good!

Charles (not verified) Mon, 10/11/2014 - 03:12

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Hey, it ate my "Looks up vindaloo in the dictionary" comment! I suppose because I put it in angle brackets, which indicates HTML formatting.

Brian Evans (not verified) Mon, 10/11/2014 - 09:35

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Thanks for the very informative details. I have become quite interested in the social history of Britain, esp in Victorian times, and the information you give has been very helpful. Even if I was rolling in money, it is a period that I would not have like to have lived through. Just think-operations without anaesthetic until 1845.

"The Worst Street in London", by Fiona Rule is a fascinating read. Christopher recommend it on here.

You mention Bryant and May matches-yes the "Fossie" Jaw (if I have spelt it right) was a terrible thing that disfigured the faces of the matchgirls, caused, I think, by the sulphur in the matches which ate away at the bone. And on top of that-appallingly low wages.

I suppose we have to try and bear in mind that the government mindset of the time was one of non-intervention, and it was not considered a duty of any government to help the population to "better" themselves. Much, I think, which is still the philosophy of the USA Republicans today. You have to it by yourself-or fail.

I learnt recently that even in the year 1900, 40% of the British population died from syphilis. I don't know if that was across the social spectrum or not.

Christopher Fowler Mon, 10/11/2014 - 15:49

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No sooner did I write this column than Heston Blumenthal brought out a gigantic doorstop of a book filled with bonkers old historical English recipes that you can cook at home (if you have a blowlamp and an industrial cement mixer).

Brian Evans (not verified) Mon, 10/11/2014 - 19:10

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Hi Admin,
2nd prize is TWO Heston Blumenthal cookery books!

snowy (not verified) Tue, 11/11/2014 - 02:06

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Charles, I didn't think we would convert you :twisted: It's an acquired taste, something that is very individual. [Similarly there is ZERO chance that anybody will EVER get me anywhere near ANY form of Nordic fermented fish! :o ]

Brian, the figure of 40% seems a bit high for the general population, It sounds more like the Army figure for men that were infected <i>with</i> syphilis that has been extrapolated out.

[That gave rise to the Contagious Diseases Act 1864. A contentious law that allowed a Police Officer to arrest <i>any</i> female, [within certain geographical distructs], and detain her for a forced medical examination.]

That said it could have been under reported if it was not the primary cause of death. Hence people could have died <i>with</i> the disease, but if what finished them off was pneumonia or septicemia only that would be listed on the death certificate, to save the family from embarrassment.

There is a link above that covers the period about 1870-ish, [it gets a bit specific/medical towards the end, so not ideal reading while eating dinner.]

Alan Morgan (not verified) Tue, 11/11/2014 - 07:32

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My granda Bill used to tell me that they had a pig and chickens in the yard, and this was in Lambeth. He told me that was where eggs and bacon for breakfast came from. Which sounds about right, but he was also a colossal wind up merchant whereby he would sprinkle his fascinating tales of London with outright mustard* just to amuse himself.

*Slang I just made up to keep it in theme with topic. Also, this sort of thing is what I'm talking about. I remember him telling me that the little crane on HMS Belfast was for fishing, but you never got a whale almost always an octopus. Still, everyone got a leg.

Brian Evans (not verified) Tue, 11/11/2014 - 12:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks. What you say sounds more plausible. 40% does seem high.