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The story behind the picture: Eating your greens, Victorian style

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At Preston Manor in the summer of 2015 we lifted the lid on the dark-side of the Victorian kitchen with an event in planning for a long time but which needed a strong stomach to create. The finished product turned out to be one of the most entertaining and queasy-making events in Preston Manor’s often strange repertoire

This picture shows me with Social & Cultural historian, Sarah Tobias in the basement kitchen at Preston Manor as we host the event The Horrors of the Victorian Kitchen that ran for three days that summer. In 2015 I was working as Royal Pavilion & Museums Learning Officer with responsibility for the adult event programme and this was one of the 53 public events of that year.

Sarah and I are shown with our table of props because the event was lavishly illustrated with things for people to look at in this part-sit-down talk and part-food-demonstration aimed at exposing the sinister side of Mrs Beeton’s world.

Our main theme was food adulteration, the bulking-out or otherwise tampering with foodstuffs in the 19th century, such as adding chalk to flour and sawdust to tea. We also investigated the dyeing of food and contaminants in the food production process, all issues that lingered into the 20th century and some into the 21st and remain pertinent today around honest practice in food manufacture and expectations around the wholesomeness of what we consume.

I knew from the start of the planning process that I wanted to make samples of dyed and contaminated food to show event attendees and really bring alive the perils of eating in the mid-Victorian period. Until I started my in-depth research, I understood the Victorians tampered with food manufacture processes but I had no idea of the extent of the problem or how noxious and toxic were the additives used. I was conscious too in creating the event content that I didn’t want to demonise people of the period because huge legislative moves were made in the 19th century to improve what had become a deadly practice both in small scale food manufacture and food made in the new industrial process.

Don’t use this saucepan!

This is the warning I gave to my husband regarding the little old saucepan I bought from a charity shop and used to cook some peas with Victorian-approved bright green colour.

The one element we miss from monochrome Victorian photographs is the dazzling colour of their world. If we thought the 1960s and 1970s were psychedelically garishly coloured it was nothing on the 1860s and the 1870s.

Famously, in 1856 the British chemist William Perkin (1838-1907) created the first synthetic colour-fast purple dye which he called mauvine, a gorgeous purple, after which he went onto synthesise other intense colours, reds and greens and blues which everyone wanted, especially the clothing industry, and which made Mr Perkin an astoundingly wealthy man. The craze for life in vivid colour was already rife in the kitchen before Perkin came along.

A German chemist called Friedrich Accum (1869-1838) visited Britain in the Regency period and was shocked by the lackadaisical attitude of the British towards the safety of what they ate. He gave an example of greening, or dyeing green vegetables, in his 1820 study, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons

“Will it be believed,” he exclaimed, “that in cookery books which form the prevailing oracles of the kitchen there are express injunctions to boil greens with halfpence or Verdigris in order to improve their colour.”

Verdigris is that attractive blue-green colour you see as a natural patina on weathered copper, brass or bronze especially when the metal is exposed to salty sea air.

Victorian greens

My saucepan in question was used to experiment with some greening of my own because I was curious to discover the visual effect. For the purpose of the experiment I took some ordinary garden peas and cooked them with copper sulphate. At home ‘don’t use this saucepan!’ was closely followed by ‘don’t eat those peas!’ And I must add, all my noxious food experiments took place in a controlled environment and never posed a danger to persons or animals and everything was correctly disposed of afterwards.

Rightly so, we fear food that doesn’t conform to today’s super-high standards and natural appearance but for the Victorian householder you expected your cook to create cheerily coloured meals.

In his treatise Friedrich Accum reproduces a sinister recipe from a cookbook called Modern Cookery for making your own green food dye from a mixture of Verdigris, vinegar, alum and bay salt (sea salt) to be used with ‘whatever you wish to green.’

He found a recipe for pickled gherkins which recommended boiling the vinegar in a copper pot. In another book The English Housekeeper there were directions to boil pickles with a halfpence or allow them to stand for 24 hours in a copper or brass pan. The taste for green pickles, Accum lamented “could be fatal.”

The copper kitchenware you see on display in the Royal Pavilion Great Kitchen or the Victorian kitchens at Preston Manor were safe to use because the utensils were lined with tin. Without the tin they’d be poisonous.

Commercial manufactures followed the bad practice of the home cook as factory-made foods were luridly dyed. Tinned anchovies were always dyed a deep brick-red and so popular that colour the manufacturers doubted people would buy unattractive natural brown anchovies when advised the red-lead chemical dyes were being phased out.

Green copper, red-lead and yellow-lead were noxious dyes commonly used in sweets and ice-cream to results you can imagine. Even the sweet wrappers were dyed with the chemicals to add to the appeal. Modern sweets are coloured with safe well-tested vegetable products such as E160, a carotene that makes carrots orange and E100, turmeric, the bright yellow spice of the ginger family.

I’m not sure this photograph does justice to my green Victorian peas (on the left) but you should be able to tell the difference. The natural peas on the right are a greenish-yellow colour. The peas on the left were, in actuality, a brilliant almost turquoise-green in hue, bought about by the copper in the cooking process.

Mrs Beeton’s cabbage

I also wanted to try some of Mrs Beeton’s ideas around cooking times. Cabbage, she informs us, has a boiling time of 30-40 minutes. For this experiment I used two saucepans (both ordinary home pans). In one I boiled some cabbage as we would today for a very short period of a few minutes. The result is on the left of the picture, a pleasantly crisp fresh-looking vegetable accompaniment to any meal.

To the right cabbage boiled for over half an hour; water-sodden, limp, stewed and dull of colour. I had, I realised, created the infamous school dinner cabbage remembered from my 1970s primary school days. Using Beeton’s method your house gets to smell of 1970s school dinners too, which is not to be recommended for the faint hearted. These samples all came to Preston Manor with me and were passed around event attendees for observation and comment.

The mid-Victorians loved the colour green in clothing, wallpaper, paint, confectionery and children’s toys and their use of green dye made from the deadly poison, arsenic is now well-known. Perhaps it was to be expected the fashion for bright green would extend to cabbage which you boiled to the texture and colour of seaweed and remedied by adding chemicals to the cooking pan.

Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer Preston Manor