Thursday, May 07, 2015

Food for the Million: Pilchards (1873)

Yesterday I posted some early nineteenth century thoughts on food for “the Million,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines in this context as “the bulk of the population; the multitude, the masses.” Imagine my delight to find that the first usage is attributed to none other than the Great Bard himself, William Shakespeare. The phrase appears in 1604, in Hamlet (ii. ii. 439) in the line “The play I remember pleasd not the million.”

Yesterday’s thoughts on Food for the Million came from a newspaper article of 1854. Today I want to start with another piece from an English newspaper – the Argus – of a decade earlier (April 1, 1843.)

Everything now-a-days is said to be done “FOR THE MILLION!” We wish the spirit of the saying were carried out to the full extent of the words, for then we might hope to see an ameliorated state of things, instead of the abounding misery and desolation of which we have daily so appalling descriptions.
 [The author goes on to briefly discuss singing and education before moving to food.]

“FOOD FOR THE MILLION” is a great matter of national importance and Ministerial consideration. A people which should be the strength and defence of a State, become its weakness and its injury, if they have not regular and cheap supplies of food; and to make that food really “for the Milllion,” that Million should raise it for themselves by their own labour and industry. We have soil enough in this country to produce sufficient bread-corn annually for all our population, and (according to Mr. Allison, and the best writers on such statistics) to support a population half as large again as that which now inhabits the British Isles; but to maintain this supply, all the labour of the country must be kept occupied: and thus, if we broke up and cultivated the waste lands capable of tillage, we should effect a most desirable end “for the Million,” something better than singing with Mr. Hullah, Mr. Mainzer, or Mr. Lanzer, we should provide.

“OCCUPATION FOR THE MILLION;” and in that consists the great secret of a nation’s wealth and tranquility. EMPLOY YOUR PEOPLE, then your Millions are content: and then if we begin with “Education for the Million” and find “Food for the Million,” through the “Occupation of the Million,” we may and shall have “Singing for the Million,” and “by the Million,” from Caithness to Cornwall.

A few decades later, in 1873, another London newspaper, the Central Press, talked about the problem of food for the million in “ever hungry London” and proposed pilchards as being a very suitable solution.

The favourable accounts of the pilchard fishery which arrive from Cornwall serve to illustrate forcibly the want of some more regular and extensive supply of these fish to the London market. All over the country there are loud complaints of the exorbitant price of food, and struggling heads of families find it a harder matter than ever to live. In the metropolis the difficulty is at its height, and the charge for butchers’ meat is prohibitory to a large number of the population. Yet here on our very shores there is so abundant a supply of pleasant nutritive food that millions of fish are used for manure for want of a ready market! It is an absolute absurdity, and can be accounted for only by our national tendency to keep in the grooves of custom and prejudice. The pilchard, is it true, will not keep, and must be eaten at once if not preserved. But in these days of potted and salted food of all kinds that is surely no objection, and the fact that 40,000 hogsheads of them are sent abroad to Italy and Spain at once suggests the means of utilising them in London. In Cornwall itself they are salted for the winter, for it is impossible to consume the immense supply while fresh. A single boat often catches 60,000 in a night. Large quantities are pressed for the oil which they produce in abundance – a fact which testifies their nutritious qualities. With the prospect of a winter which is likely to press hard on the poor, cannot some enterprising speculator at once invest largely in salted Cornish pilchards, and send a new source of food supply into ever hungry London.

The recipe of the day of course must be for pilchards, or maybe sardines? The distinction is “unclear” to quote several sources, and there are regional variations of the meaning of the two words. In general, it may be said that a sardine is a smaller version of a pilchard, or perhaps a sardine is a Cornish pilchard re-branded. I am not sure. Maybe you are. If so, please give us your opinion via the Comments.

I give you a short commentary and some minimalist instructions for dealing with pilchards from a book published at the time of all this debate - A Practical Treatise on the Choice and Cookery of Fish (1854) , by William Hughes (‘Piscator’)

Pilchards, if they can be eaten perfectly fresh, have very much the same rich flavour as salmon-peel; but, from their extremely oily nature, they acquire a rancid taste within a very few hours after they are taken; and the flesh, which, if cooked in proper time, would have been of a curdy whiteness, then acquires a dull, reddish cast. The best way of cooking them is to broil them with their scales on, without gutting. They are also very good split, and peppered and salted. They also make a rich pie. In Cornwall numbers are salted in every year, for home use, and a still greater number for foreign, consumption. But, although esteemed by the Cornish people, and those to whom they are sent abroad, they are too strong and rancid to suit the palates of the generality of persons, and will not bear any comparison either with Yarmouth bloaters, or Scotch red herrings.

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