Victorian street food

by on December 19, 2011 at 1:33 am in Books, Food and Drink, History | Permalink

Victorian street food was a huge industry.  In the north you would find tripe sellers; I remember the one in Dewsbury market that sold nine different varieties of tripe, including penis and udder (which is remarkably like pease pudding).  Another popular street food was pea soup with, according to where you lived, either pig’s trotters or bits of ham chopped up into it.  Peas boiled in the pod and served with butter were similarly popular.  Stalls known in my youth as whelk stalls also sprang up, selling jellied eels, whelks, winkles and prawns, all by the pint or the half-pint.  You could splash a bit of vinegar on them and eat them at the stall or take them home with you.

That is from the new and excellent A History of English Food, by Clarissa Dickson Wright.  This book also offers up a good deal of confirming evidence for Paul Krugman’s prior hypotheses about English food.

1 Vacslav December 19, 2011 at 2:37 am

I venture that Eurotunnel and cheap flights to Europe perhaps contributed a lot to push London away from the bad equilibrium: if one can dine in Paris and be back by midnight – that’s enormous pressure on the upscale strata of local restaurants. Once you have the upscale restaurants going, the rest will follow.

2 ChrisA December 19, 2011 at 4:10 am

I think the primary cause of British bad food was the austerity following the second world war. After all there were still plenty of people left in the countryside with access to fresh food who could have maintained traditions of good british food. But the UK basically became almost North Korean for a while trying to satisfy the desire of the leaders to remain relevant post second world war, the pound was held at far too high a level, with exchange controls and the like, and a fetish around the balance of trade. During this time, only low quality food was affordable. I grew up in the UK in the 60’s and the 70’s and thinking back, I am astonished at how poor the country was. The British put up with this due to the solidarity meme achieved during the second world war. It was really only when Mrs. Thatcher gained power that this approach was challenged, the most important thing she did was float the pound, freeing the UK from the obsession of keeping the pound at a high artificial level. Basically she swapped prestige for leaders for wealth for ordinary people. That’s why food is now better in the UK. I really hate the attitude that national prestige should be something important, for instance in the recent discussion on Cameron’s veto on the Euro bail out, Britain is supposed to have “lost its place at the negotiating table” – who cares! The benefits of being at the negotiating table are only for a very few senior politicians and civil servants, at the expense of the rest of the population. Consumerism is still sneered at in the UK (by the press anyway), but to me, the sole purpose of any Government should be to maximise the standard of living of the country not the prestige of the country versus other countries.

3 Rahul December 19, 2011 at 8:37 am

But was pre-war British food any better?

4 Veridical Driver December 19, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Perhaps what he was saying is that post-war England lives at pre-war prosperity levels. There was huge innovation in that time period, yet that innovation didn’t find its way in giving British people good food.

5 Leigh Caldwell December 19, 2011 at 4:14 am

I have lived in London for 18 years and have never heard of a single person going to Paris for dinner. However, I do suspect that more foreign travel in general – and therefore more exposure to good food – might have had an impact on London restaurants. As has, probably, the influx of rich foreigners – something like 25% of London’s population was born overseas, and many of them are at the upper end of the income spectrum.

Incidentally, there are still a few whelk and jellied eel stalls around. Never seen a tripe stall, though. Perhaps they’ll revive some in time for the Olympics.

6 anonymous December 19, 2011 at 6:23 am

Off topic, but it’s fascinating to see the Krugman of 1998 implicitly admitting that London went from “shabby” to “positively buzzing with prosperity” under Thatcher and Major.

Mind you, he sidesteps the “fascinating question” of causation vs. correlation, but it’s still a far cry from the firebreathing revisionist of today, who would write Hayek out of the history books, and who blames Reagan for economic crises that occurred two decades after he left office — akin to blaming FDR for the Vietnam war.

7 CBBB December 19, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Well buzzing with prosperity if you’re a City Banker, Saudi Aristocrat, or Russian oligarch. I’m sure most of the middle class people who originally could live in London are now forced to live in shitholes like Woking or Slough.

8 Veridical Driver December 19, 2011 at 1:41 pm

The city became nice, and the poor people moved to the shitty suburbs… as opposed to the whole country being shitty? Even working class folk go to the big city for a fancy meal once in a while, life got a lot better for the rich, and a tiny bit better for the poor. Outside of class-warfare rhetoric, I don’t see it as a bad thing.

9 CBBB December 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm

I’d say life got worse for the majority and WAY better for the wealthy but for the average person they’re probably worse off.

10 Veridical Driver December 19, 2011 at 9:09 pm

In what way is life worse for a modern day resident of the UK, compared to back in the 1970s?

11 anonymous December 19, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Krugman’s words, not mine. Hence the quotation marks. Who are we to argue with the wisdom of a subsequent Nobel prizewinner?

On the other hand, he wrote that in 1998, not the present day. Labour had come to power just the year before (where they would remain until just last year), and Krugman openly wonders “whether [they] can sustain” the turnaround…

PS, Once upon a time, a newly-elected Conservative government (under Thatcher) got off to a controversial start with a bracing dose of fiscal austerity. Plus ça change… That, of course, led inevitably to the utter disaster that was so clearly discernible by 1998… oh, wait…

12 Veridical Driver December 19, 2011 at 1:38 pm

He still was producing propaganda, even back then. For example, he talks about the “market failure” of British consumers demanding bad food, but completely ignores the rent-seeking, regulatory capture, and other means of government control used by producers of bad food to maintain their oligarchy for so long.

13 CBBB December 19, 2011 at 3:41 pm

The British just have no taste – don’t try to blame this on government regulation.

14 Tom T. December 19, 2011 at 7:43 am

The popularity of street food, particularly serving organ meats and shellfish, would seem to indicate a “high-trust” society.

15 Rahul December 19, 2011 at 8:43 am

Krugman says:
But why did the [British] food stay so bad after refrigerated railroad cars and ships, frozen foods (better than canned, anyway), and eventually air-freight deliveries of fresh fish and vegetables had become available?

Do fish and veggies actually fly much even today, except for the most elite circumstances? I doubt it.

16 Phil December 19, 2011 at 9:02 am

What did the food stands call penis? They must have had a euphemistic meat word for it.

17 dearieme December 19, 2011 at 10:48 am

uinspotted dick

18 Stephen Boisvert December 19, 2011 at 9:34 am

People seem to making the typical mistake of confusing London for England. I can assure you that the restaurant options outside of London and its commutable surroundings are quite dismal. Not quite call ahead for fresh cooked pasta dismal but still pretty awful for just about everything except Indian and Thai food. Then there is the soggy horror that is English bread…

On the plus side, living in the UK for seven years has made me a better cook.

19 Tracy W December 19, 2011 at 10:33 am

That’s odd. I’ve been living in the UK for the last 4 years and had great food from the Isle of Iona to Edinburgh to East Anglia to Cornwall. The key difference I find in the UK is that you need to get recommendations, but that’s as true of London as anywhere else in the UK.

20 albert magnus December 19, 2011 at 10:43 am

Was the food in Paris particularly good during this era? Why was it better or worse?

21 CBBB December 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Of course it was better – the British are the guys who started up trying to quantify food into bare nutritional value vs. cost.

22 dearieme December 19, 2011 at 11:08 am

“English food used to be deservedly famous for its awfulness…”: I wait with bated breath to see whether he’s going to discuss home-cooked food or public food.

“–greasy fish and chips, …”: ah, public food. I suppose not many people would invite him home. Still, he must be talking about London. South of England f&c can be pretty dire, but in Scotland or Oop North often excellent. (You can also meet excellent f&c in Aus and NZ.)

“…gelatinous pork pies…”: does he prefer pork pies without jelly? What a deeply odd remark. The Saturday morning pork pies in the N Yorkshire village where I used to live were superb and, of course, contained jelly enough to counteract the tendency of pork to be too dry. Hell, you can buy a perfectly decent pork pie in Marks and Spencer’s for 99p. Perhaps he should try one.

23 Anthony December 19, 2011 at 12:52 pm

In the early 80s, English public food *was* pretty awful. As a young visitor in 1983 and 1984, I found that the way to insure I ate food which wasn’t too soggy, greasy, or gelatinous for the callow tastes of my 17-year-old self, was to eat Indian, Chinese, or at McDonald’s. Even Wimpy’s, which I’d encountered in Colombia a few years earlier, was awful in its home country. Upon my return in 1998, eating at a pub or other restaurant which wasn’t specifically ethnic was only a small risk.

24 CBBB December 19, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Meat should never appear in pie form, gelatinous or not.

25 dearieme December 19, 2011 at 1:32 pm


26 Matt December 19, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Away with ye, Dim Sum!.. or not.

I think the main issues are:

– the mindset – British people of the Industrial Age believed themselves to be practical people (and I am including the Irish, Scottish and Welsh in this, as their food is worse in reputation, not better) and when it comes to food practical people concern themselves with a) cost, b) nutrition, c) convenience, d) hygiene, e) quantity and f) not with food at all. In short, anything other than flavour and texture.
– elaborate food is continental and “not honest”.
– traditional or foreign (badly cooked) is better than innovative.
– the base of ingredients just isn’t that diverse. food is never seasoned.

27 CBBB December 19, 2011 at 4:58 pm

I’ve often felt there is a sort of divide between Northern and Southern cuisines in the world. By far most of the popular cuisines come from warm-weather (not necessarily tropical but southern) regions. Mexican, Thai, Indian, Chinese (the best Chinese cuisines are Schiuanese, Hunanese, and Cantonese), Arabian/Turkish, and possibly you can include Italian and Mediterranean cuisines in this.
Of all the northern countries I can think of with cuisines I like I can only come up with French, Japanese, and Korean.
British food is bad but I’m also not a big fan of German, Scandinavian, Russian either.

28 Steve December 19, 2011 at 12:15 pm

I’m not a foodie, and I may be confusing different subsets of foodies with eachother, but the list of items that were common street food sound a lot like the type of stuff Anthony Bourdain seeks out on his travel/food shows, or like the type of stuff that the great “authentic” Chinese restaurant has, but the crappy takeout joint specializing in Sweet and Sour Chicken lacks.

29 CBBB December 19, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Yeah that’s a point but the British really embrace boiling and frying as cooking methods way more then they should be used.

30 Matt December 19, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Everything in Britain is basically stick it in the oven, leave it, ignore it, take it out when it looks like it isn’t harmful to your health (even if its too cooked). The national dish is the roast, not the fry or the boil.

Very little is deep, pan or stir fried or boiled or poached, compared to other countries.

31 CBBB December 19, 2011 at 4:52 pm

I thought they really liked boiled vegetables. I always associated boiled potatoes (the worst way to prepare potatoes) with the British (sure maybe its an Irish thing but I think it’s okay to lump all their “cuisine” together).

32 Steve December 19, 2011 at 12:19 pm

It would have made more sense if I had put “great” in quotes rather than “authentic,” above.

I’d consider myself a fairly adventurous eater, at least compared to the average midwestern suburbanite, but I’ve long thought that the term “delicacy” was the probably the most successful marketing euphamism of all time. Much better than “pre-owned” cars and the like.

Then again, maybe I have an unsophisticated pallate.

33 Brandon Reinhart December 20, 2011 at 3:31 am

The entry on Wikipedia for ‘offal’ is fascinating. I had just read on it last night that most of the tripe stores in Britain have closed down.

34 sharath December 20, 2011 at 6:11 am

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