August 4

27 comments

Fast Food in the Victorian Era

Hello there beautiful people!

I have a question for you! 

How many times have you told your children to eat their veggies and stay away from all this junk food they so readily like to devour?

Well, I know I have been ranting about that to my kids for ages! 

But let’s be honest with each other… You do enjoy your fair share of a tasty burger, am I right? 

Your friend Violet is guilty as charged as well! (Let’s just have this stay between us)

And speaking of junk food, I had always thought that it was non-existent in the past!

You know, my grandma always talked about how they used to make everything themselves at home! You know, before the fast food chains popped up… 

So you can imagine my surprise and disbelief when I found out that fast food was very popular during our beloved Regency and Victorian Eras!

But how can this be? Did they use to eat pizzas and burgers? What do the falafels have to say about this?

According to Henry Mayhew’s list of “The Street-sellers of Eatables and Drinkables”, the Victorians had access to the most peculiar fast food delicacies!

Let’s try and set the mood first, as I understand your confusion.

You are a labour worker in the most overpopulated city in the world (during the Victorian era, that is). There’s lots of work for you, but no kitchen in your home!

Well even if there was one, you wouldn’t even get there before midnight.

Suddenly, the hot eels and sheep’s trotters that the seller is offering across the street start smelling awfully tasty!

The options are plenty. From baked potatoes, fried fish, meat pies, pickled whelks (brr), hot green peas (!), ham sandwiches, cakes, tarts, meat pudding and even eel jelly!

The choices were many and the street vendors thousands, to satisfy the needs of the working people and the poor ones that wandered the streets.

Well if I were a lady or lord, I wouldn't choose this over the lush meals prepared by my trusted servants at my luxurious manor…

However, there were also drinks that were popular with everyone and of course, ice cream was the thing!

Coffee, hot cocoa, tea, cooling refreshments and even warm milk were sold for those that started their day as early as dawn, and for the “fast gentlemen and loose ladies” that roamed the night streets.


So far so good, but the question remains: Was Victorian fast food healthy? Is there any comparison to contemporary fast food?

One would think that it was freshly prepared by a doting housewife or working woman for sale, right?

Well...no. And I am not even going into sanitation, as this was no one’s concern and wasn’t even regulated.

To make it clearer, have you ever heard of Sweeney Todd and the contents of his pies?

Don’t freak out, as it wasn’t the case that your meat pie would contain human meat, but the conditions and quality of this street food is what inspired the story.

And I thought our campaigns against fast food were intense! 😛

Given the fact that this fast food was ridiculously cheap, at a time when the price of good quality meat was skyrocketing and was inaccessible for any street vendor, there had to be substitutes or additives that greatly lowered the quality and threatened the consumers’ health.

Of course, the people most at risk from food fakers were those at the lower end of society and the ones that could only afford the “one penny meals”.

Growing awareness of the scale of adulteration in the UK eventually led to public anger, and the 1860s saw the first modern food standards legislation, which became stronger and more effective as the century progressed.

Soo I suddenly appreciate my pizza, regardless of its additives! 😛

Would you try any of this street food? Let me know what you think!

Written by Violet Hamers!


Tags

Articles, Regency Romance


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  • Another interesting article, thank you! Makes perfect sense in the context. Many folks rented rooms, worked long hours and had no kitchen options. I’d totally eat a meat pie, I hear pigeon is tasty baked potato should be safe, cakes, tarts, no to the eel and not too hot on the whelks.

    • You’re welcome Kim! Well I guess starving would make me choose something, but I would definitely go with the baked potato! 🙂

    • You’re welcome Kim! Well I guess starving would make me choose something, but I would definitely go for the baked potato! 🙂

  • What about sweet rolls, I don’t think I could not eat meat pies not knowing what was in it, I think I would die from starvation, I was a picky eater, I could a whole cake & not gain a pound, over active thyroid.

  • How interesting!
    I suppose if you were out late and had the “munchies” you followed the foodies!
    I think I will stick with Late Night breakfast at Village Inn!
    Keep these articles coming…love this and the other one about what a day looked like back then!

  • Ohhhhh! Ick. Nope. I wouldn’t try it. However my unfortunate ancestors probably had.
    My Dear, you do come up with some ghastly and intriguing facts in your research. I’m hooked!

  • Reminds me of the nursery rhyme “Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold , pease pudding in the pot 9 days old” The peas were the dried marrowfat type cooked in either water of stock (mainly from ham bones) made either a thick soup or a type of spread (delicious on crusty fresh bread) but definitely not fast food overnight soaking followed by a long simmer PS Love your books

  • I grew up in the time of home made, when we were told eat it up it is good for you. I cannot imagine how those poor people managed to stay alive, with the poverty and the bad food. Even at my age I say thank goodness for burgers and pizza, and any other take aways.

  • Different times. People ate different things. Also hungry you can eat
    anything. Think about what we eat today. What would they think about
    that?

  • I would go for the baked potatoes and maybe some of the baked goods. Definitely a big, fat, resounding no on the eels, jellied or otherwise; and on the welks also. Ugh! Makes you realize how much we’ve taken fastfood for granted today.

  • Like all the others here who have commented, I too, couldn’t eat anything on this take away menu. Hygene was not top of the agenda & the ingredients were really suspect. I can imagine how many people succumbed to food poisoning. When I was a child in Shanghai in the late 40s/early 50s,I recall that there were lots of sellers of ready to eat meals who lined the streets touting for trade. The best tasting was the roasted chestnuts. These were safe to eat, the rest not so much.

    • Hey there Irene! I think it’s always best to avoid meat and fish from street sellers! Unless it’s a hot dog 😛

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