It’s a History Thing: Period Partying & Jellied Eels

A Christmas Table from 1882 — Roast Swan anyone?

Are you ever curious about the food and drinks consumed  in the historical fiction you are reading?

I know I have been. Sometimes it is just its weirdness;  as a 20th century American girl my diet was pretty standard growing up. Indeed where I grew up the Greek food my Dad’s family was partial to was considered exotic.

I grew up to love the foods of many cultures, as an adult,  although fishier things and chewy, and/or springy things are disconcerting.  And, I have had a hard time with some things I was offered in Asia.

In the non-seacostal area of New York where I grew up, fish was never served in the morning and it wasn’t even easy to get fresh fish in the 1960s and 1970s, mushrooms were exotic and seem to have come in cans.  But in historical romances it is very common. And I think one of Claire’s favorite Outlander dishes is Oyster stew, which I imagine is very much like Clam Chowder.
Comforts of Bath: Gouty Gourmands at DInner

I often wonder what one ate at the balls like the one at Netherfields, and according to JANE AUSTEN’S WORLD:

Mr. Bingley most likely served a sumptuous supper on a magnificent table set with his finest china and silver. The food would consist of white soup, which during this time was made with veal stock, cream, and almonds; cold meats, such as chicken or sliced ham; poached salmon; glazed carrots and other seasonal vegetables; salads; fresh fruits;biscuits;dry cake (which meant unfrosted cake, like the pound cake recipe from the Delightful Repast at the bottom of this post); cheeses; short-bread cookies; pies; ice-cream; and trifles. One must not forget that during this period cockscombs and testicles were considered delicacies, and that bone marrow was routinely added to pies for richness. (Fancy Tripe or Trotters for Supper?)


And, being served  jellied eel would make me swoon, but my husband has attended an all eel dinner in Japan — traditional on the longest day of the year.

18th c. British Drinking glasses – Public Domain Wikimedia

Drinks at balls I have looked at before, but in the same article cited above they say:

Drinks of tea, coffee, lemonade, white wine claret, and red wine (sweet madeira wine was especially popular) were served. Regency cups were filled with punch, negus (wine mixed with hot water, lemon and nougat); orgeat (made with a sweet syrup of orange and almonds); or ratafia (a sweet cordial flavored with fruit or almonds). Port was reserved for gentlemen, though I am not sure that they were allowed to imbibe this liquor in front of the ladies.

I think a lot of the acceptance, and even desire for foods we would find hard to stomach, literally, were more acceptable for a few reasons the chief being availability and lack of refrigeration.  The lack of availability had a variety of reasons, war, poverty, drought, plant diseases.  If eels were available you figured out how to eat them.  There is an Irish saying that is very apt: Hunger is the best sauce.

If you were at Lallybroch and ran out of something, you were out of it there were no markets handy. And, yet you have mouths to feed. When you slaughtered an animal, any parts that didn’t poison you and were nutritious were eaten.

In the Colonial America of the 18th century, the proto-cocktail, Flip was often consumed around the holidays.

On Serious Eats they describe flip like this:

Once flip appeared in taverns in the 1690s, it would capture the colonial hearts and livers for a century to come. A blend of beer, rum, molasses (or dried pumpkin), and eggs or cream, flip was usually mixed in a pitcher and then whipped into a froth by plunging a hot fire poker (called a flip-dog) into its midst. The tavern keeper would then decant the singed creation into ceramic mugs or featherlight flip glasses.

The composition of flip varied from tavern to tavern, and sometimes so did its name—from Bellow-Stop and Hotch-Pot to Yard of Flannel and Crambambull. The most vaunted flips were rendered velvety by pouring the drink several times between two pitchers until well-blended.

To make a basic colonial-style flip, fill a pitcher with two beaten eggs, two ounces of rum and a tablespoon of superfine sugar (or molasses) and beat to combine. In a saucepan, heat eight to 10 ounces of brown ale over a low flame until it begins to steam. Slowly pour the warm beer into the rum-egg mixture, then pour the drink back and forth between vessels until blended. Decant into a pint glass, shave some nutmeg over the top, and serve—it’s sort of like drinking liquified earth, but it has its charms.

In our holiday program one year the museum docents learned that at the holidays you would share the cup of Flip with your friends or fellow diners to show good will. Yep, they were all about hygiene. I have no support for that so it could be a myth.  I tried to make this drink with a recipe that called for a red hot poker to be plunged into the mixture.  I did not have a red hot poker and was therefore unable to reproduce it. In any event I couldn’t bring myself to drink it.

If you are really interested whter because you want to know what the hell they just ate in your book, or because you want to make something historic for the holidays, here are some good resources.  Historic food has a great list of links itself: