Keto, paleo, low-carb, no-carb, low-fat, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian. … What would Jane Austen make of all our various diets and regimens? Not to mention all the prepackaged, processed food nutritionists tell us to avoid by sticking to the margins of grocery stores?
Food, in the Regency period, or indeed, any period before the modern era, tended to be more seasonal, fresher (since you couldn’t refrigerate or freeze things easily) and definitely less sweet, given how new sugar was to people’s palates and how expensive it was.
So what did they eat?
- Meats we would recognize, such as beef, pork, fish and various fowl, but Georgians made full use of the animals, including beef tongue, cheeks, and tail (beef was so popular that it gave the French mockingly referred to the English as “les rosbifs,” i.e. the roast beefs).
- Meats we tend not to eat much, especially game meat, such as hare, pigeon, partridge, and venison to name a few.
- Vegetables and fruit, preferably from one’s garden, such as potatoes, berries, plums, and currants. Wealthier landowners, like the Darcy family in “Pride and Prejudice” could afford to keep hothouses and grow even more varieties, such as the grapes, peaches, and nectarines Elizabeth and her family are offered while visiting Pemberley.
- Bread and pastries: no such thing as low-carb! But given the cost of sugar, pastries and cakes were more of a treat. Despite Mr. Woodhouse’s warning not to eat too much wedding cake in “Emma,” people still partook. Breakfast in particular relied on tea and bread (toast) and “muffins or hot rolls, with good butter,” according to American visitor Joshua White’s observations. At great houses, breakfasts could be grander affairs, with plum cake, pound cake, varieties of rolls, tea, coffee or hot chocolate.
As mentioned above, freezing food was no small feat. Before the advent of electricity and refrigerators, people had to rely on blocks of ice to keep food cold. And with that, rooms to keep the blocks of ice cold. Not everyone could afford that kind of space, but it could be done, and ice cream became popular in the late 18th century. Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra about her stay at her rich brother Edward’s home where she could “eat Ice & drink French wine, & be above Vulgar Economy.” The Regency version of “Treat Yourself”!
Mealtimes as we know them were very different in the past, one main difference being the relative novelty of the lunch. In previous centuries, dinner was the main meal of the day and eaten much earlier than it is now (in 1789, Jane Austen would dine at 3:30 p.m.). As dinner moved to a later time (about 5 p.m.), it became necessary to have a bit of a snack between breakfast and dinner, hence lunch. Supper was later still, eaten after one returned from the theater or opera or other late-night entertainment.
Since Thanksgiving is next week in our corner of the world, we couldn’t let you go without letting you in on this: the over-the-top turducken feast (a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken) is neither new nor is it the most extravagant sort. From the Jane Austen Centre’s post on the Yorkshire Christmas Roast: “In his 1807 Almanach des Gourmands, gastronomist Grimod de La Reynière presents his rôti sans pareil (“roast without equal”)—a bustard stuffed with a turkey, a goose, a pheasant, a chicken, a duck, a guinea fowl, a teal, a woodcock, a partridge, a plover, a lapwing, a quail, a thrush, a lark, an ortolan bunting and a garden warbler.” Now pass the Tums!
Cheers for drinks
Although Jane Austen perhaps did not have access to the variety of microbreweries of our time, she did have plenty to choose from. Fortified wines – such as sherry, madeira, port – and cordial waters (liqueurs) were popular, and punch recipes were varied and mouthwatering. Wine and cordial waters were often used for medicinal purposes, however misguided, such as when Elinor brings her ill sister Marianne some wine in “Sense and Sensibility.”
Sources: Jane Austen’s novels, “Jane Austen’s Letters” by Deirdre Le Faye, “Tea With Jane Austen” by Kim Wilson, “The Jane Austen Diet: Austen’s Secrets to Food, Health, and Incandescent Happiness” by Bryan Kozlowski, Jane Austen’s World, the Jane Austen Centre
Here’s a selection of additional resources you might want to peruse, including recipes you can try.
On the Web
- Find a whole host of recipes at the Jane Austen Centre’s website.
- A variety of posts on 19th-century food on the Jane Austen World blog.
- Information on Georgian ices at HistoricFood.com.
Books on Regency food
- “Dinner With Mr. Darcy: Recipes Inspired by the Novels of Jane Austen” by Pen Vogler
- “The Jane Austen Cookbook” by Maggie Black
- “Cooking With Jane Austen (Feasting with Fiction)” by Kirstin Olsen
- “The Housekeeping Book” of Susanna Whatman
- “Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy”
- “Gin Austen: 50 Cocktails to Celebrate the Novels of Jane Austen” by Colleen Mullaney