Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What would Jane Eat

I said in my first post that my mantra for this blog was going to be What Would Jane Eat. So I must establish this, which is not by any means a simple task. I consulted the wonderful essay by Sheryl Craig, "The Torment of Rice Pudding and Apple Dumplings" for extra research. I am mainly using the Complete Housewife as my guide. I also will use my knowledge of the novels and less than perfect knowledge of the letters as well in some cases. So many restrictions abound because of the limits of seasonal produce and meat, the need to buy local and the costs of certain foods, that I considered subtitling this essay What Jane Wouldn't (or couldn't) Eat.

I'll start with the restrictions since they are many:

1) Processed food. No more MacDonalds. Not that I ate there much, but I did enjoy the occasional Chipotle, which is more or less the same thing. No more packet anything. No more supermarket ketchup, salad dressing or cottage cheese. No refined flour as it did not exist in Jane's day, even for the super rich. Sadly this means my beloved pasta too since macaroni was a relatively recent arrival to England in Jane's time and was associated with the rich and fashionable. The word "macaroni" was synonymous with "dandy." Jane Austen wasn't big on dandies and ate macaroni only rarely perhaps at some of the more opulent dinners she attended. Though the pasta she would have eaten would have been homemade since the first pasta factory didn't exist even in Italy, until 1827.

2) Very little sugar. Jane didn't take sugar in her tea, so I'll have to give that up. The reason for this may have been political, because sugar was heavily associated with the slave trade and boycotting sugar was something that many abolitionists practiced. Tea was the main reason for the quadrupling of sugar consumption per capita just prior to Jane's lifetime from three to eleven pounds per person. (Still a far cry from 66 pounds per capita in present day America). There had to be some people at the top skewing these numbers since the average person had no access to this heavily-taxed luxury good. That someone was the Prince Regent and his cohorts who enjoyed all manner of excess including the fad of sweet pastries and cakes, probably brought to England from France.

Tea of course was accompanied by scones, cakes and jams, all made with sugar. In the Complete Housewife recipe for marmalade you have 3.5 cups of sugar used for every pound of boiled down seeded orange concentrate. Compare this to a modern marmalade recipe which would use two cups of sugar for every pound of oranges. This was a change from earlier times when marmalade would have been made with little added sugar, using salt as the main preservative. This was a fermented product and far more beneficial to one's overall health than the overly sweet jam of Jane's day. No wonder it was around this time that people among the aristocracy became obsessed with the condition of one's teeth. Think of the Bingley sisters commenting that Elizabeth's teeth were "tolerable, but nothing out of the common way." The rise of cavities, gum disease and other dental misfortunes is absolutely linked to the rise in refined sugar consumption.

Raspberry jam swas pecifically mentioned by Jane Austen in her letters. During a visit to Godmersham, her brother's estate, Jane laments a lack of Raspberry jam in the house and asks Cassandra to bring her a pot from home. The recipe for raspberry jam in the complete house wife calls for two and a quarter cups of raspberries for every pound of sugar and is a more similar to a modern jam recipe in its sugar requirement.

Of course not everyone could afford to cook like this. For most of her adult life Jane Austen was dependent relation, her income fixed by what she, her sister and her mother were given by her brothers. Throughout the Complete Housewife pudding recipes call for one to add "some sugar" presumably to account for tastes, but for varying budgets as well. Three out of four rice pudding dishes have no call for sugar at all, which seems very strange to a modern palette.

Most amazing to me is the difference in the way cakes are made. Even the impoverished Bates family in Emma, arguably the poorest people who have actual "speaking parts" in Austen, had cake for tea. Where modern cake recipes rely heavily on sugar, Regency recipes rely far more heavily on eggs, butter and fruit for richness. I found a recipe for a "rich great cake" which would be a wedding sized cake, perhaps similar to that eaten at Miss Tayor's wedding in Emma. The cake used four cups of sugar for 22 cups of flour. Compare this to a modern cake recipe whose sugar to flour ratio would be closer to 1:4. The cake had 16 pounds of currants and raisins though, so it would be sweet.

From a Weston Price perspective this is good news for me. I will be able to make the occasional cake, heavy with saturated fats from animal sources, sugar from fruit and light on refined sugar. I should note that the overall use of desserts, I believe to be far less frequent in Austen's time than ours. In the bill of fare in Complete Housewife there are very few puddings listed as they mainly rely on seasonal fruits for their sweetness. So I should expect to eat very little sugar and fruit only infrequently. I plan to go whole weeks on this diet without any fructose at all.

3) Out of season, anything. That means no apples in July, no asparagus in September and no Strawberries in February. I will be trying to eat as much local produce as possible, grown within 500 miles of the Twin Cities where I live. Luckily we live in a very rich agricultural area with good small farms, tons of local farmers markets and a wide variety of locally grown produce. The one exception to this is seafood. In order to best mimick the Austen diet, I will probably need to eat salt-water fish and seafood, which would have occasionally enjoyed on seaside trips. I will also be trying my hand at preserving as much as possible. Though jam making in Austen's day was similar to what it would be today, they didn't have the sterilized jars and lids with the clamping rings. They had to rely on stoneware with paper or parafin "lids" for jam. Sometimes they would use leather I think, but that would be porous to the air, and allow spoilage. Mostly I'll be fermenting vegetables and fruit without sugar, in order to have more available in the winter. I'm not insane. I don't want to get sick. I'll sterilize my storage containers ahead of time.

4)Imported or ethnic foods. It won't be easy to give up my beloved Japanese soba noodles and sushi, my Chinese chow fun and my Italian pizza. The huge variety of styles of cooking make modern life bearable really.

So what does that leave me to eat? Well lots of wonderful things. Meat of all kinds, and all kinds of meat bits that I might have formerly balked at are going down in my kitchen as we speak. I have come to rely on my local Asian market for all those parts of the cow that the grocery store is uninterested in carrying. Maybe by next spring I'll have worked up the courage to make the "Ragoo of coxcombs and hen's feet" in the Complete Housewife. If so, I have a source for those bits. I'm still trying to track down beef cheek so that I can make potted meat, which was a staple of the picnic food/cold collation lunches that Jane Austen would have been familiar with.

Hearty soups and stews made with real homemade broths were a staple of Regency fare. Almost every bill of fare in CH begins with a soup. I better get busy boilin them bones!

I can't believe how much butter is going on in this diet. Every single vegetable recipe says to accompany it to the table with a cup of butter. Failing that, a boat of butter will do. Huzzah! I love butter.

Eggs were used in greater quantity than we would think wise today. I reckon I'll be going through a couple dozen a week, versus, our usual consumption of a dozen every other week.

Nutmeg is the preferred spice in this time period. I've seen savory recipes that call for more than an entire grated nutmeg. I've never seen a modern recipe with a request for more than a pinch of the stuff. Good thing I have that dedicated nutmeg grater. It just goes to show you can never have too many kitchen gadgets.

Though I mentioned in an earlier post dairy seems not to agree with my allergies, I'm hoping that finding raw milk sources of dairy will open up the wide world of moo juice, again. Fingers crossed.

For those of you who may be concerned about the large amounts of cholesterol and saturated animal fats that I'll be consuming, I have done a blood cholesterol test (though blood cholesterol levels can be misleading and shouldn't be an indicator of overall health, it will show a piece of the puzzle) before starting this diet. I've also had my annual physical exam and am in adequate health. Let the sat fat insanity begin!