New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has intervened to curb the excesses of his city’s biggest citizens. Has he decided to collect a sales tax on Stock Exchange turnover? Has he slapped a luxury tax on Park Avenue penthouses? The answers to these questions are “nope” and “nope.” The good mayor has in his sights, rather, those waxed-paper tankards of fizzy, super-sweet refreshment beloved not merely by New Yorkers but by all Americans. Bloomberg intends to ban sugary drinks larger than sixteen ounces from city eateries, and his plan has stirred the citizenry’s ire. A backlash that spans class and political divisions has rippled through the Big Apple. Millionaires and minimum-wage earners, liberals and conservatives alike decry what they consider inordinate government meddling in people’s dietary choices. Bloomberg nonetheless insists that such measures are needed to halt the city’s rising obesity rate. “The idea here is you tend to eat all the food in the container in front of you,” he said in a recent interview. “If it’s a bigger container, you eat more.” And eating more, he maintains, translates into ever-expanding waistlines.
Not surprisingly, industry titans have balked at the idea of limiting soft drink consumption. Senior executives of Coca-Cola claim that the attempt to ban sales of super-sized sodas unfairly targets their products and does nothing to address obesity. “[Customers] can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase,” a company spokesman said. Critics of the proposal have aligned themselves with Big-Bevra mouthpieces, denouncing Bloomberg’s initiative as emblematic of nanny state officiousness and as susceptible to mission creep. It’s a slippery slope from Pepsi to pastrami, after all. Who’s to say that, once the super-sized soda ban takes effect, Brooklyn pizza or Coney Island hotdogs won’t be next?
Many critics of the soda ban find less troubling the idea of Bloomberg’s paternalism than they do its possible effects. They worry that the initiative might further burden New York’s most straitened citizens. Jen Doll writes in the Atlantic Wire that proscriptions of this sort “widen the divide between the rich, who can find a way around them, and the poor, who perhaps cannot.” What’s more, “a class of people whom [Bloomberg] judged unable to make the proper decision for themselves is now being told what to do, by someone who knows better.” A repeat offender, the mayor tried in 2010 to prohibit payment for soda using Electronic Benefit Transfer and other state assistance.
For all of his zeal in such matters, however, Bloomberg merely presents the most recent notable instance of what has been a longstanding tradition among the economic elite: the assumption that given a choice, poor people will always make the wrong one. A look at the early days of the processed food industry suggests that the unhealthy choices supposedly made by economically disadvantaged people are often forced.
Sometime in the 1860s the enterprising French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès made an important discovery. He took a pound of beef tallow soaked beforehand in a solution of 15 percent common salt and 1 percent sulfate of soda, slowly rendered it at 103 degrees Fahrenheit, poured in gastric juices of a pig, and sprinkled it with biphosphate of lime. This curdled mixture he spun in a centrifuge before adding a splash of cream. The resulting opalescent, jelly-like substance tasted much like butter.
This substance not only won Mège-Mouriès a prize offered by Emperor Napoleon III, who desperately sought a cheap, long-lasting, and easy-to-produce substitute for butter to feed the poor and his antsy army; it also secured him a place in history as the father of oleomargarine, which he patented in 1869. Two years later he sold the patent. Not long after a German pharmacist, who adapted the Frenchman’s formula, commenced its industrial production by establishing the Benedict Klein Margarinewerke.
Oleomargarine’s initial foray into the marketplace went anything but smoothly. Dairy farmers hated the stuff, and officials in the United States, Canada, and Australasia placed bans on the artificial coloring that made it resemble butter. This they hoped would render it less appealing to consumers. Such interference came to nothing; people grew to love the product, particularly those in pinched circumstances. In his 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell notes the “half-eaten bits of bread and margarine” strewn about the lodging-house bedroom of his narrator, a downwardly mobile advertising copywriter turned bookstore clerk. And social reformer Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree’s 1911 study on unemployment quotes the diary of a “casual worker” (a man employed only intermittently):
Tuesday, July 12.—Earned a shilling at wharf for working three hours. Breakfast—bacon and bread; dinner—bacon and bread; tea—margarine and bread.
Wednesday, July 13.—Went out at 5.30 A.M.; walked round to several different jobs…. Breakfast—margarine and bread; dinner—dripping and bread; tea—kipper and bread, and not much of that.
Until the worker-diarist brings in a steady income, “the family will continue to live almost entirely on bread and margarine,” Rowntree remarks. Known as “bread and scrape,” the meal presents a study in contrasts. Whereas the bread is “good and home-made, and always the same,” the “scrape” consists merely of drippings, butter or margarine and sugar. No matter the substance, those living on it could count on only a meager amount.
A taste for simple, skimpy fare became something of a distinctive feature of laboring Britons. “The English palate, especially the working class palate, now rejects good food automatically,” Orwell complains in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). “The number of people who prefer tinned peas and tinned fish to real peas and real fish must be increasing every year.” What’s worse, “plenty of people who could afford real milk in their tea would much sooner have tinned milk—even that dreadful tinned milk which is made of sugar and cornflour and has UNFIT FOR BABIES on the tin in huge letters.”
A cursory glance at the reams of sociological reports and reform pamphlets dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth would lead you to think that a preference for, say, tinned milk over clotted cream runs deep in the working-class character, as it reflects an improvement from what laborers were used to consuming in decades past. Popular literature of the time serves to reinforce this impression. Who can forget the watered-down gruel ladled out in miserly portion to Oliver Twist? Much better that he should sip hygienically evaporated milk. Touted as a boon, processed food didn’t so much supplement as supplant the already nutritious diet most working-class people enjoyed. They hankered not for tinned peas, but for fresh vegetables, fruit, and meat.
Before the brief golden age of working-class nutrition came the “Hungry Forties,” so called because a potato blight compounded the damage wrought by the 1815 Importation Act, otherwise known as the “Corn Laws,” which imposed tariffs designed to protect cereal producers in Great Britain and Ireland. The act effectively fixed the price of wheat, and did so at a level not at all favorable to laborers’ bottom lines. Its repeal came in 1846, after agitation against it nearly became revolt. Food prices decreased, and access to greater quantities of nutritionally dense food expanded. Together with a rapidly developing railway network, these changes in food availability ensured that urban laborers could buy not only affordable grain but reasonably priced produce and meat as well.
With better nutrition didn’t necessarily come a better standard of living. Urban dwellers continued to contend with overcrowding, dangerous work conditions, inadequate health care, questionable water supplies, and a host of other infrastructural problems. Yet as Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham maintain in their fascinating three-part study “An Unsuitable and Degraded Diet?” (2008), many working-class Victorian families survived on limited income without succumbing to starvation or malnutrition. “While today’s consumers would regard the mid-Victorian ‘poverty-diet’ as unappetising,” they write, “detailed analysis of typical menus demonstrates its high nutritional value.” Some workers spent half their weekly wage on food and ate only basic staples, but others enjoyed a rich and varied seasonal diet of fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables that even middle-class folks today might find appealing.
The menu of one Mrs. Ball stands as a prime example. Saddled with a drunken husband, six children, and an income that you could only regard as paltry, this inventive housewife managed to prepare regularly “fourpenny-worth of lean beef and onion and carrots,” which she boiled and served with “suet dumplings.” A talent for healthy cooking extends beyond this single case. Lancashire women used vegetables freely in their menu, and even destitute East Enders dined on vegetables, fruit, and rabbit meat—all of which they produced in their small backyards. (Clayton and Rowbotham liken the green thumbs of the East Enders to the “dacha component” of the postwar Soviet diet, which, they feel, official records fail to accurately represent.)
Much thought and foresight went into the preparation of meals. A more or less fixed menu rotated around a main course of pork or mutton. Saturday meant payday for most workers, which meant also a trip to market for a joint to last the week. The most lavish meals generally came on Sunday. Depending on income, housewives either boiled or roasted their recently purchased bit of meat (fuel often proved dear, so its price determined the cooking method). This they served with potatoes, carrots, and perhaps a piquant onion sauce. Monday’s dinner saw a reduced portion of the same meat served cold and accompanied by pickled vegetables. These offerings appeared again on Tuesday, disguised as a curry. On Wednesday whatever scraps remained enjoyed one last hurrah as a steamed pudding. Friday featured fish. Saturday’s meal might see pork or beefsteak, a reward for having endured the austerities of the work week.
Vegetables rounded out many a daily menu. Potatoes filled Victorian larders, as did onions, carrots, Jerusalem artichokes, cabbage, and green beans. The lower your income, the more you ate of them. The poorest of the poor, meanwhile, came to depend on the costermonger, or street food vendor. A great favorite among all working-class men, women, and children, he (or she) peddled an array of food—spuds, ham sandwiches, oranges, nuts, watercress, hot green peas, even sheep trotters. The costermonger’s fare varied not only in terms of the items offered, but also in quality. The social reformer Henry Mayhew mentions that these vendors often played tricks on their customers by adulterating their wares in unwholesome ways. He reports that though “more honest costermongers will throw away fish when it is unfit for consumption,” many “less scrupulous dealers…only throw away what is utterly unsaleable.” Such scruples fail to apply to dead eels, however, which neither honest nor dishonest costermongers would “fling away” but would instead “[mix] with the living often in the proportion of 20 lbs dead to 5 lbs alive, equal quantities of each being accounted very fair dealing.” On this point of dead- and live-eel blending, Mayhew presents the opinion of one such vendor: “I don’t know why dead eels should be objected to. The aristocrats don’t object to them. Nearly all fish is dead before it’s cooked and why not eels?”
The occasional spoiled-eel pie notwithstanding, the typical mid-Victorian diet contained nutrition enough to sustain laborers through a six-day work week of nine- to ten-hour shifts. If you take into account the fact that many workers had to walk to and from work over some distance, you find that, all told, they exerted themselves about fifty-five to seventy hours. Housework made a similar demand on women. Charles Dickens’s 1848 novel Dombey and Son features Mrs. Mac Stinger who in a pair of pattens spends the entire day cleaning, which involves hauling all of her furniture out of the house in order to wash the floor. Both sexes expected to rest only in the next world, not in this.
If Victorian working-class men and women didn’t live particularly well, at least they ate and felt reasonably well. Between 1850 and 1870 deaths attributed to starvation and malnutrition accounted for approximately 1.5 percent of cases in the city, a figure only slightly higher than today’s. Infectious disease, accidents, and misfortune associated with violence or intoxication rated as the most common causes of sickness and death. Come the 1870s, however, this changed. Around 1877, foreign imports of wheat, along with advances in industrial canning and preserving, caused food costs to drop some 30 percent. A few years later, cheap sugar entered the mix—literally—appearing in every kind of processed food on the market. Encouraged by middle-class social reformers, who pronounced this first wave of processed food not only healthful but hygienic (a view that gained strength from frequent food-adulteration scares), the working classes forsook their joints of mutton and bunches of watercress for American tinned fruit and New Zealand evaporated milk.
They did so to disastrous result. By the time of the Second Boer War (1899-1902) the British army found more than half of its recruits malnourished to the point of unfitness for service. The infantry deemed it necessary to lower its minimum height to five feet, down from five feet four inches, where it had stood since 1800. This apparent degeneration so alarmed the British government that it established the Committee on Physical Deterioration for the purpose of investigating the cause. It concluded that the working classes suffered from weak constitutions, which had beset them at the beginning of the previous century.
Thirty years later Orwell would echo the findings of the Committee on Physical Deterioration. He states that in Lancashire “you would have to look for a long time before you saw a working-class person with good natural teeth.” In Sheffield, he adds, “you have the feeling of walking among a population of troglodytes.” This he attributes to a hard life and a steady diet of “bread-and-marg and sugared tea,” which he characterizes as the “Englishman’s opium.”
A good percentage of the household budget went to procuring this drug. Orwell notes that mining families “spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence halfpenny on milk, and nothing on fruit.” The rest they fritter away on sugar and tea. If anything remains, the family might invest in “five tins of bully beef,” a pathetic stand-in for the great proletarian joint of yesteryear. Ought they to have spent their money on more wholesome food? Not at all. “A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; the unemployed man doesn’t,” Orwell reasons. “When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’….White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer.” Orwell concludes that the “endless misery” that comes with unemployment “has got to be constantly palliated.” Prewar Britain witnessed nothing less than the birth of “comfort food.”
If the mid-Victorian working classes preferred their chops and veg to sweet palliative treats it perhaps owed to the fact that they preserved some dim memory of preindustrial ways of eating. The fruits of the land—organic and rich in phytonutrients—and fresh, wholesome meat sustained their rustic forebears but became alien to them as they toiled in factories ten, twelve hours a day for subsistence wages. Indeed, had they recourse to sugared bread and cheap fats, they likely would have devoured them, if for no other purpose than to snatch a few minutes’ respite from the additional demands of household work. In his 1913 essay Marxism and Darwinism, Anton Pannekoek blames the pittance paid them as occasioning the sort of distorted thinking exemplified by the Committee on Physical Deterioration. “Their poverty and misery cannot be attributed to the fact that they fell in the competitive struggle on account of weakness,” he insists, “but because they were paid very little for their labor power.” Questions of native fitness bear not at all on the issue, because “although their children are born strong and healthy, they perish in great mass, while the children born to rich parents, although born sick, remain alive by means of the nourishment and great care that is bestowed on them.” Pace the old Chinese proverb, nutrition, not character, is destiny.
Despite ferociously adverse conditions, mid-Victorian laborers not only survived but thrived. If you remove infant mortality from the equation, life expectancy stood at seventy-five for men and seventy-three for women (the perils of childbirth explain this lower expectancy). Today, the poorest Americans enjoy a life expectancy of seventy-four (sixty-seven if you happen to live in certain parts of Mississippi), and this figure continues to fall. News stories trumpeting a proposed fat tax, the latest anti-obesity campaign, or a ban on super-sized sugary drinks overlook the fact that the very system in which overweight, malnourished poor people live militates against any possibility for improvement. These propaganda campaigns amount to just so many band-aids over gaping wounds—or, indeed, so many heirloom tomato slices over slabs of vat-fried Velveeta. What can “dull wholesome food” mean to you in the absence of affordable health insurance, sound education, a secure job, and a dignified standard of living? If you can’t reach for the brass ring, you might as well reach for the bread-and-marg.
Christine Baumgarthuber is a writer who keeps the Austerity Kitchen, an ongoing project that considers plebeian culinary and cultural practices, past and present, in their historical context. She holds a doctorate in English Literature from Brown University. Her work has been featured by Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable and the Bon Appétit blog, and she is a contributing editor at the New Inquiry.
Images from Henry Mayhew’s 1851 London Labour and the London Poor (Volume 1: The London Street-Folk).