‘Chewy and a bony, the customers would suck the meat and fat off the bones, but the Victorians thought they were delicious.’
When Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, family life was transformed through her 63-year reign, and so did the food. Victorian food was sometimes bizarre, depending on one’s status and income. During Victorian times, London’s population boomed at an unprecedented rate. In 1801, the population stood at just under 865,000 people, by 1871 it was over 3 million. The new Londoner’s were predominately industrial workers, and they needed to be fed.
The Victorians took street food to a whole new level with over 6,000 street sellers combining weird and wonderful foods. They also sold some unusual foods. You needed to be careful though, some unscrupulous traders would sell rotten meat dressed with the fat of fresh meat; bakers would add alum and chalk to make bread look whiter. Other tricks included adding arsenic to pickles and other preserved foods to cause an increase in tanginess. And, presumably, death.
Sheep’s feet are exactly what they sound like: feet from a sheep. The Victorians liked to boil them at home when they couldn’t afford other meat. If you were out and about, though, fried sheep’s feet would be served by pretty much every single food vendor out there, right alongside a ham sandwich. Chewy and a bony, the customers would suck the meat and fat off the bones, but the Victorians thought they were delicious.
Times were tough for the poor during Victorian era, and many would take anything they could get — like broxy. Broxy was an umbrella term for any meat the butcher had for sale that had dropped dead from disease. Sheep, which were incredibly susceptible to communicable diseases like tetanus, salmonella, and ringworm, were most often sold as broxy meats.
According to a 19th century recipe, this was how you cooked Calf’s Head: ‘Take a calf’s head, cleave it and take out the brains, skins, and blood about it, then steep them and the head in fair warm water the space of four or five hours, shift them three or four times and cleanse the head; then boil the brains, & make a pudding with some grated bread, brains, some beef-suet minced small, with some minced veal & sage… fill the head with this pudding, then close it up and bind it fast with some packthread, spit it, and bind on the caul round the head with some pudding round about it, roast it & save the gravy, blow off the fat, and put to the gravy; for the sauce a little white-wine, a sliced nutmeg & a piece of sweet butter, the juice of an orange, salt, and sugar. Then bread up the head with some grated bread; beaten cinnamon, minced lemon peel, and a little salt.’
Saloop had been popular since the 1600s. It was a hot and supposedly nutritious, heavily sweetened drink made from ground orchid roots. Towards the latter part of the nineteenth century, the basis of the drink changed to sassafras bark, flavoured with milk and sugar. Regardless, saloop was considered a delicious and starchy way to start or finish the day. If you were lucky, the beverage was made with the proper roots or bark, and not something like used tea leaves picked from the trash heap.
Though technically not a street food, it was believed the fresh, hot blood of a slaughtered animal would build up a sick person’s constitution, alleviating disease. People would line up in the slaughterhouse with cups ready to catch the blood, which was swallowed right away. If you were lucky, the animal was dead when the collecting began!
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