Monday, October 14, 2013

Penny Dinners and Butterfly Feasts.

“Penny dinners” for the poor were a charitable service offered from time to time by well-meaning individuals and organisations in Britain in the Victorian era. I came across another interpretation of the concept recently, in The Preston Guardian of Saturday, January 27, 1883. The article appeared in the Ladies’ Column, which was written by “one of themselves.” The article shows that an economical meal can also have some prettiness. The lady writes:

I have lately been invited to partake of a penny dinner for the second time – that is a dinner in which each course shall cost but a penny for guest. There were eleven people present, and eleven courses. The total cost – exclusive of service and firing – was 10s 1d. The following is the menu, which was pronounced excellent – superior I think to the last experiment of the kind at which I assisted:-
            1.Crecy soup (a puree of various kinds of vegetables, predominating flavour carrot and tomato). 2. Fried kedgeree (little balls of cod, eggs, and rice). 3.Brain patties (bread cut into the shape of patties, filled with a mince of sheep’s brains and white sauce, just like sweetbread). 4. Rabbit soufflé garmished with artichokes. 5. Pig’s fry with fried potato ribbons. 6.Fillets of beef with carrot croquettes (this is American beef braised ,with mashed carrots made into balls and fried, mashed potatoes were handed separately). 7. Sweet macaroni. 8.Orange fritters. 9. Apple mould, with whipped cream. 10.Mulberry trifle (sponge cake, mulberry syrup, and custard in little cups). 11. Egg toast (little squares of toast) with buttered egg, flavoured with cheese grated.
All the arrangements and surroundings of a dinner add very much, of course, to a pleasant recollection of it. On this occasion we had each lovely flowers, pretty menus and name cards that I always think of it as a charming gastronomical and entomological dinner. The bill of fare was written on plain white cards, of the ordinary size, with an arrangement behind so that they stood up properly on the table. Perched on the edge of each menu, with extended wings, was a pretty painted butterfly, also on the little name card, and at the bottom of the large card, sat a second little moth or small butterfly. They looked so lifelike that I was almost deceived at first, and could have fancied that the nursery tale was reversed, and instead of  “the butterfly’s ball and the grasshoppers feast” we were summoned to the “butterfly’s feast,” and the ball was to follow. There were purple emperors, red admirals, painted ladies, chalk, rich blues, “sulphurs,” and “cabbage whites,” seemingly poised over the festive board, as if they had fluttered off the flowers; and great was our admiration of this quaint and pretty device – a novelty certainly, and purchased, I believe, at Mr Southwood’s, 90 Regent Street. I fancy any skilful lady could make them for herself, though she must be a clever artist to imitate the colours and forms of living insects so well, and they are sold so cheaply, it may not be worth trying to do so. But I have by me a small collection of real butterflies’ wings, preserved and taken off on to paper, by a process shown to me years ago by a young Italian naturalist. Here they are, as bright and fresh as when the down was on the gossamer wing itself. I think I shall try and utilize some of my pretty specimens in this way.

I was quite taken with the idea of Orange Fritters, so here is a recipe for them for you to try at your next economical dinner:
Orange Fritters.
Pare five or six oranges, cut them in quarters, take out the seeds, and boil them with a little sugar; make a paste with white wine, flour, and a spoonful of fresh butter melted; mix it of a proper thickness; it should rope in pouring from the spoon. Dip the quarters of your orange into this paste, and fry them in lard till of a light brown. Serve them glazed with sugar, and a salamander.
Cookery Made Easy: Being a Complete System of Domestic Management.

by Michael Willis, (London 1831.)


korenni said...

That looks like a MOST interesting dinner! I wonder how much it would cost to do the same thing today? If the portions were small -- and if they were, I think by the end of the meal you'd still be quite full! -- the total cost might not be so bad (although way more than 10 shillings, I'm sure).

I know "penny dinners" were served to the poor, but my guess is that this writer isn't one of them. Is there any explanation of how she got a seat at the table, or who the other guests were?

Anonymous said...

I give - what is a salamander?

The Old Foodie said...

A salamander is a metal plate on a handle - it is (or was) heated on the fire then held over a dish to brown the top - we would pop the dish under the grill to achieve the same effect today

The Old Foodie said...

Hi korenni. - I was frustrated too by the lack of context. I suspect it was some sort of demonstration of economical cookery - not an actual meal prepared for the poor.