Thursday, January 10, 2008

Poorhouse or Prison?

January 10

When improvements to the prison food ration were mooted in England in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a “strongly expressed opinion” on the part of some members of the judiciary, that “the increased scale of dietary recommended by the government would operate as a direct premium to crime.” In spite of these fears, the improvements were ratified, and “the most depraved characters in the country” did get better prison food.

The justice of this decision was demonstrated in an article in The British Farmer’s Magazine in 1849 that contrasted the fare in the workhouse and in the prisons. At that time the attitude to the poor was based on the principle that most of them were ‘undeserving’ – that is, were idle or indolent, and not truly deserving of charity. The management of them was therefore punitive, and the conditions in the poorhouses (as sanctioned by the Poor Laws) were deliberately kept severe as a disincentive to the lazy individuals disinclined to work, who, it was feared, would flock there in droves. The conditions were so bad that there were many reports of inmates of these ‘houses of industry’ committing crimes so as to be sentenced to gaol for a few days R&R on the better food. It is easy to see the attraction when the two dietaries are compared, as in this article. Today being Thursday, this was the fare in one set of institutions:

Breakfast (same every day): 8 oz bread and half pint of broth, gruel, or milk.
Dinner: 8 oz. bread and 4 oz. cooked meat.
Supper (same every day) 7 oz. bread and an ounce and a half of cheese.

Breakfast: 1 pint of oatmeal gruel and 6 oz. of bread.
Dinner: 4 oz. Cooked meat without bone, 1 lb potatoes, and 6 oz of bread.
Supper: 1 pint of oatmeal gruel, and 6 oz. of bread.

The workhouse diet varied hardly at all from day to day – and the food was very poor quality and often diluted and adulterated. In the prison there was a little more variety - some days there was cocoa (1 pint, sweetened with ¾ oz of sugar or molasses) for breakfast, and soup at dinner, with the ingredients specified, and including vegetables.

There is something punitive-sounding in the word ‘gruel’, isn’t there? I have never quite understood why ‘gruel’ was also a food for invalids. It would not get you better as quickly as ‘broth’, now would it?

As this is the week of potatoes in honour of The International Year of the Potato, I give you a couple of recipes for invalids from yesterday’s book, The Potato: A compilation of Information from every available source. They are from the famous venue for the wealthy unwell, the Battle Creek Sanitarium of the Kellogg brothers.

Potato Meal Gruel.
1 ½ quarts water
1 cup potato meal.
Mix, heat, and serve.

Savory Potato Meal Gruel.
1 cup water, in which is steeped two stalks of celery
½ cup water
½ cup strained tomato
2 ½ tablespoons baked potato meal
¼ cup cream
¼ teaspoonful salt.
Mix ingredients and heat.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Honorary Potatoes.

Quotation for the Day …

This root, no matter how much you prepare it, is tasteless and floury. It cannot pass for an agreeable food, but it supplies a food sufficiently abundant and sufficiently healthy for men who ask only to sustain themselves. The potato is criticised with reason for being windy, but what matters windiness for the vigorous organisms of peasants and labourers? Denis Diderot in 1767


Liz + Louka said...

I don't think much of Diderot's comments. I always thought he was such a clever man!

The Old Foodie said...

Clever, but a snob it seems.