Tuesday, September 25, 2012

'Broken Victuals'

I remember as a child being sent to the local store to buy broken biscuits. They were dispensed from a large tin on the grocer’s counter, at a lower price per pound than the whole biscuits. When I came across the phrase ‘broken victuals’ recently, in my innocence I assumed it referred to something along the same lines. A little further reading, however, turned up a slightly different concept:

‘Some Footmen, without considering the number of persons to be at table, will pile up the basket with large pieces of bread, the half of which, perhaps, not being eaten, goes amongst what is called the "broken victuals," which the Cook may either with, or without, your permission, give to some poor person. That the poor should have the crumbs from your table, is very right; but it should always be by your express orders; for the term broken victuals is sometimes understood in so very comprehensive a sense, as to include cold meat, potatoes, greens, butter, bread, soap, and candles, which are conveyed out of the house once or twice in a week, to sell at shops where such articles are regularly purchased.’
The Home Book: Or, Young Housekeeper's Assistant, (1829) by ‘A Lady.’

This little piece of kitchen wisdom comes from one of the many nineteenth century manuals offering advice to the young newly married woman. It must have been a tense time for a girl groomed solely to find a husband, to return from the honeymoon to discover that she had to actually manage an entire household. The situation was full of traps for the new wife: willful and intimidating servants, unscrupulous tradesmen, dinner parties to plan, household account books to balance, and keeping the level of kitchen perquisites and broken victuals to a reasonable level.

The tradition of the scraps from the kitchen of a large wealthy household being given to the poor at the gate goes back to ancient times. There was sometimes even a separate cupboard – or room – allocated for the storage of these edible alms for the poor. The first source gave it the name almonarium – a word which the Oxford English Dictionary does not know, which is in itself interesting.

Another source defines almonarium as ‘a cupboard; an ambrey.’ The OED also knows ambrey as aumbrey – which may be:
-          A place for storing things, as a cupboard, locker, safe, press, etc.; a repository; (in later use) esp. a niche or recess in a wall used for storage. Formerly also (occas.): a storeroom or storehouse (obs.).
-          A place for storing food. Now rare (chiefly Sc. and Eng. regional (north.) in later use).Applied to various kinds of storage, as a pantry, store-cupboard, meat safe, etc.
-          Christian Church. A cupboard, locker, or recess in the wall of a church or church building, to hold books, communion vessels, vestments, etc.

Another definition appears in Specimens of Gothic Architecture selected from various ancient edifices in England (1829) by Augustus Charles Pugin

Almonarium, armarium, almeriola, Lat. Almoire, armoire, Fr. A cupboard, closet, or recess; so called from the hospitable old custom of setting aside cold or broken victuals in a particular place for alms to be given to the poor. The Ambrey, Aumbry, or Aumery, is still spoken of in the north of England.’

Naturally, I have to give you a recipe for leftovers today, and I have chosen something that would not have been be added to the broken victuals in the past, and would today be consigned to either the compost bin or rubbish bin – orange rinds. The recipe is from Left-over foods and how to use them, with suggestions regarding the preservation of foods in the home , (1910) published by the McCray Refrigerator Company in Kendallville, Indiana.
Firstly, the author’s philosophy of leftovers:

‘I cannot say that I altogether agree with the statement, "Scraps are accidents to be taken care of, no doubt, but the very last objects on which to bestow either expense or labor." The "scraps" or "left-over" bits of food that accumulate in the average household, are worthy of consideration and with little labor and expense are convertible into the most palatable viands.’

Candied Orange Peel
Save the left-over peel from four large thinned-skin oranges cut in quarters or halves. Cover with cold salted water, let stand overnight. In the morning drain and rinse thoroughly. Put peel in a sauce-pan and cover with cold water, bring to boiling point, let boil five minutes, pour off water and cover with fresh boiling water; repeat three times. Then add boiling water and let cook until tender. Drain and remove the white portion, using a teaspoon. Cut peel in narrow shreds, using the shears. Prepare a syrup of two cups sugar and one -half cup water, skim syrup if necessary, and let cook until it spins a thread when dropped from the tip of a wooden spoon. Simmer shreds of orange peel in syrup until they have absorbed nearly all
the syrup; then boil rapidly, stirring until each shred is well coated with sugar. Drain and coat with fine granulated sugar. Let dry in a warm oven. Then store in tin left over crystalized ginger or marshmallow boxes.

Amazing how a single random phrase can lead down such interesting linguistic and culinary paths, is it not?


Foose said...

When Consuelo Vanderbilt arrived at Blenheim as the new Duchess of Marlborough in the late 19th century, the "broken victuals" were still being handed out to the poor from the palace kitchens. Her American sensibilities were affronted by the revolting swill pail of leftovers mixed together indiscriminately.

After an almighty struggle with the tradition-obsessed staff and family, she managed to get the edibles separated by course and foodstuff, so meat was distinct from vegetables, bread, etc. I don't know if the poor felt very grateful.

The Old Foodie said...

Interesting, Foose. I must look into the story of this brave lady - taking on established English family systems was a very courageous move! wonder what those Downstairs said about her behind her back?