Food and politics intersect in many ways, but a rather unusual connection came across my radar recently. The story takes place in Britain in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and the chief protagonists are members of the Radical movement. The radicals were champions of the common man, and agitated for extensive reform of the parliamentary system in general and the electoral system in particular, along with repeal of the Corn Laws, freedom of the press and other outlandish ideas.
One of the agitators was Richard Carlile (1790-1843). Carlile wrote of one of the strategies recommended to supporters of the movement in an edition of The Republican published in early 1820.
There are a variety of other things which are heavily excised, the use of which might be prudently dropped, and which are not essential either to the health or the comfort of mankind. Speaking for myself, I can say, that I do not recommend more than I practise, and that my fare for the last year has consisted chiefly of milk, bread, and raw native fruits. I have been fatter and stronger than in any former year of my life, and I feel as if I had obtained a new system by the change. My natural disposition is luxurious, and under a better system of government, or where this rational warfare was not called for, I should at all times live up to my income: but I feel that I should not half do my duty were I to recommend what I did not practise. The cost of my food has not more than averaged five shillings per week for the last year, and what I should have otherwise spent I have now had the satisfaction to give away. This system of abstinence from exciseable articles was well begun last year, but it must be continued, to be effectual: six, twelve, or eighteen months will not suffice; it must end only with the present system of government. Persevere, Reformers; increase your fortitude and your Virtues as you proceed.
For a considerable time last winter I made a liquor as a substitute for tea from hay, and I found it very pleasant. I would prefer it to the Breakfast Powder, or the British Herb Tea, which are now selling in London in such large quantities. In London good milk is not to be obtained, therefore some beverage is necessary as a substitute, and from universal habit something warm in the shape of tea is looked for. Nothing can be more wholesome than the Breakfast Powder or British Herb Tea, as the former I understand to be manufactured from the best wheat, and this might as easily be done by persons in country places, as to fry a pancake or bake a loaf on the hearth. A variety of substitutes have been already pointed out for various exciseable articles, so that I need not enumerate them here: my chief object is to stimulate all Reformers to the further use of them, and not to grow weary of so easy and so effectual a mode of warfare. In this pursuit we do not punish ourselves but the common enemy. We aggravate not our own evils but we increase the difficulties of those who oppress us. Shrink not then ye Male and Female Reformers from this virtuous mode of warfare, for to conquer our injurious habits, and our enemy at the same time, is a double conquest, to obtain which, both man, woman, and child can very properly assist.
The Breakfast Powder to which Carlile referred was likely the one developed by a radical colleague, Henry "Orator" Hunt (1773 –1835.) Hunt was imprisoned for two years for his involvement in the protest that became the infamous Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, on August 16, 1819. Hunt was released from prison with his fortune gone, and the need to earn an income urgent. He tried several new business ventures, including the production of a “Breakfast Powder” made from roasted corn (which in England at the time meant wheat, not maize!) His breakfast beverage was promoted not just as a way of subverting the tax on tea and coffee, but as a healthy alternative. It was a "… most salubrious and nourishing Beverage that can be substituted for the use of Tea and Coffee, which are always exciting, and frequently the most irritating to the Stomach and Bowels."
Breakfast Powder remained popular (in virtuous theory, at least) for another decade or so. An article in The Atheneum, Volume 19 (1826) described the method of making one version, using rye flour.
It is stated that if rye be divested of its skin, the beverage is more mild and agreeable ; but how to do this we are without information. To get the skin from wheat, for domestic use, it is customary to soak a small bag, half filled with the grain, for a quarter of an hour, and then beat it with a rolling pin, by which the skin is disengaged. This method seems, however, inapplicable to rye, as the bruising would render it unfit for roasting. One way of preparing the rye is to steep it in water for forty-eight hours, or till it be a little sprouted; then drain it thoroughly ; put it. in its damp state into a frying-pan, and keep it well stirred with a spoon during the operation of roasting. Or it may be dried, after undergoing the malting process, before it be roasted, but not by artificial heat. Another method is as follows :—Take a common frying-pan ; put into it a small piece of lard or butter, the size of a marble, and then a quantity of rye, and keep it over the fire, stirring it with a spoon to prevent its burning, until it be of a regular dark-brown colour. A bushel of rye will return forty-eight pounds of prepared breakfast powder; and as two ounces will fully serve three or four persons, the cost of the powder is about one farthing. Only enough for two or three days should be roasted at a time; and no more ground than is wanted for immediate use. Rye fresh roasted, and ground or bruised when warm, is as superior to that which has been prepared for some time, as Mocha is to the commonest Colonial coffee. That which is roasted, and remains unground, should be kept in a bottle or jar, secured from external air. A rolling pin, or a mortar and pestle, will fully answer the purpose of pulverizing the roasted grain, if a mill be not at hand.