Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/September 1879/Food and Feeding III




I HAVE already said that, among all civilized nations, wine in some form has for centuries been highly appreciated as a gastronomic accompaniment to food. I can not and do not attempt to deny it this position. Whether such employment of it is advantageous from a dietetic or physiological point of view is altogether another question. I am of opinion that the habitual use of wine, beer, or spirits is a dietetic error, say, for nineteen persons out of twenty. In other words, the great majority of the people, at any age or of either sex, will enjoy better health, both of body and mind, and will live longer, without any alcoholic drinks whatever, than with habitual indulgence in their use, even although such use be what is popularly understood as moderate. But I do not aver that any particular harm results from the habit of now and then enjoying a glass of really fine, pure wine—and, rare as this is, I do not think any other is worth consuming—just as one may occasionally enjoy a particularly choice dish; neither the one nor the other, perhaps, being sufficiently innocuous or digestible for frequent, much less for habitual use. Then I frankly admit that there are some persons—in the aggregate not a few—who may take small quantities of genuine light wine or beer with very little if any appreciable injury. For these persons such drinks may be put in the category of luxuries permissible within certain limits or conditions; and of such luxuries let tobacco-smoking be another example. No one probably is any better for tobacco; and some people are undoubtedly injured by it; while others find it absolutely poisonous, and can not inhale even a small quantity of the smoke without instantly feeling sick or ill. And some few indulge the moderate use of tobacco all their lives without any evil effects, at all events that are perceptible to themselves or to others.

Relative to these matters, every man ought to deal carefully and faithfully with himself, watching rigorously the effects of the smallest license on his mental and bodily states, and boldly denying himself the use of a luxurious habit if he finds any signs of harm arising therefrom. And he must perform the difficult task with a profound conviction that his judgment is very prone to bias on the side of indulgence, since the luxurious habit is so agreeable, and to refrain therefrom in relation to himself and to the present opinion of society, so difficult. Be it remarked, however, that the opinion of society is notably and rapidly changing relative to the point in question.

Having premised thus much, I have only now to say, first, that wine, in relation to dinner, should be served during the repast; it should never be taken, in any form or under any circumstances, before, that is, on an empty stomach, and rarely after the meal is finished. Regarded from a gastronomic point of view alone, nothing should appear after fruit but a small glass of cognac or liqueur, and coffee. The postprandial habit of drinking glass after glass even of the finest growths of the Gironde, or of the most mature or mellow shipments from Oporto, is doubtless a pleasant, but, in the end, for many persons, a costly indulgence.

Secondly, whatever wine is given should be the most sound and unsophisticated of its kind which can be procured. The host had far better produce only a bottle or two of sound bourgeois wine from Bordeaux—and most excellent wine may be found under such a denomination—with no pretense of a meretricious title, or other worthless finery about it, than an array of fictitious mixtures with pretentious labels procured from an advertising cheap wine-house. I could only speak in terms of contempt and disgust, did I not feel pity for the deluded victims, of the unscrupulous use of the time-honored and historical titles which advertisers shamelessly flaunt on bottles of worthless compounds by means of showy labels, in lists and pamphlets of portentous length, and by placards sown broadcast through the country. So that one may buy "Lafite" or "Margaux"—"Chambertin" or "Nuits"—′47 port, or even ′34—at any village store! No terms can be too strong to characterize such trade.

If fine wines of unquestionable character and vintage are to be produced, there are only two ways of possessing them: one, by finding some wine-merchant of long standing and reputation who will do an applicant the favor to furnish them, and the price must be large for quality and age. We may be certain that such a one will never advertise: no man who really has the grands vins of esteemed vintages in his cellar need spend a shilling in advertisements, for he confers a favor on his customer by parting with such stock. But better and more satisfactory is it to obtain from time to time a piece or two of wine, of high character and reputed vintage, when they are to be had, just fit to bottle, and lay them down for years until ripe for use. Commencing thus in early life, a man's cellar becomes in twenty or thirty years a possession of interest and value, and he can always produce at his little dinners, for those who can appreciate it, something curiously fine, and free at all events from the deleterious qualities of new and fictitious wines.

Briefly: the rule, by general gastronomic consent, for those who indulge in the luxury of wine, is to offer a glass of light pale sherry or dry Sauterne after soup; a delicate Rhine wine, if required, after fish; a glass of Bordeaux with the joint of mutton; the same, or champagne—dry, but with some true vinous character in it, and not the tasteless spirit-and-water just now enjoying an evanescent popularity—during the entrées; the best red wine in the cellar, Bordeaux or Burgundy, with the grouse or other roast game; and—but this ought to suffice, even for that exceptional individual who is supposed to be little if at all injured by "moderate" potations. With the ice or dessert, a glass of full-flavored but matured champagne, or a liqueur, may be served; but at this point dietetic admonitions are out of place, and we have already sacrificed to luxury. The value of a cigarette at this moment is that with the first whiff of its fragrance the palate ceases to demand either food or wine. After smoke the power to appreciate good wine is lost, and no judicious host cares to open a fresh bottle from his best bin for the smoker, nor will the former be blamed by any man for a disinclination to do so.

For unquestionably tobacco is an ally of temperance; certainly it is so in the estimation of the gourmet. A relationship for him of the most perfect order is that which subsists between coffee and fragrant smoke. While wine and tobacco are antipathetic, the one affecting injuriously all that is grateful in the other, the aroma of coffee "marries" perfectly with the perfume of the finest leaf. Among the Mussulmans this relationship is recognized to the fullest extent; and also throughout the Continent the use of coffee, which is almost symbolical of temperate habits, is intimately associated with the cigarette or cigar. Only by the uncultured classes of Great Britain and of other northern nations, who appear to possess the most insensitive palates in Europe, have smoke and alcoholic drinks been closely associated. By such, tobacco and spirit have been sought chiefly as drugs, and are taken mainly for their effects on the nervous system—the easy but disastrous means of becoming stupid, besotted, or drunk. People of cultivated tastes, on the other hand, select their tobacco or their wines, not for their qualities as drugs, but for those subtler attributes of flavor and perfume, which exist often in inverse proportion to the injurious narcotic ingredients; which latter are as much as possible avoided, or are accepted chiefly for the sake of the former.

Before quitting the subject of dining it must be said that, after all, those who drink water with that meal probably enjoy food more than those who drink wine. They have generally better appetite and digestion, and they certainly preserve an appreciative palate longer than the wine-drinker. Water is so important an element to them, that they are not indifferent to its quality and source. As for the large class which can not help itself in this matter, the importance of an ample supply of uncontaminated water can not be overrated. The quality of that which is furnished to the population of London is inferior, and the only mode of storing it possible to the majority renders it dangerous to health. Disease and intemperance are largely produced by neglect in relation to these two matters. It would be invidious, perhaps, to say what particular question of home or foreign politics could be spared, that Parliament might discuss a matter of such pressing urgency as a pure water-supply; or to specify what particular part of our enormous expenditure, compulsory and voluntary, might be better employed than at present, by diverting a portion to the attainment of that end. But for those who can afford to buy water no purer exists in any natural sources than that of our own Malvern springs, and these are aerated and provided in the form of soda and potash waters of unexceptionable quality. Pure water, charged with gas, does not keep so long as a water to which a little soda or potash is added; but for this purpose six to eight grains in each bottle suffice—a larger quantity is undesirable. All the great makers of these beverages have now their own artesian wells or other equally trustworthy sources, so that English aerated waters are unrivaled in excellence. On the other hand, the foreign siphon, made, as it often is, at any chemist's shop, and from the water of the nearest source, is a very uncertain production. Probably our traveling fellow countrymen owe their attacks of fever more to drinking water contaminated by sewage matter than to the malarious influences which pervade certain districts of southern Europe. The only water safe for the traveler to drink is a natural mineral water, and such is now always procurable throughout Europe, except in very remote or unfrequented places.[1] In the latter circumstances no admixture of wine or spirit counteracts the poison in tainted water, and makes it safe to drink, as people often delight to believe; but the simple process of boiling it renders it perfectly harmless; and this result is readily attained in any locality by making weak tea, to be taken hot or cold; or in making toast-water, barley-water, lemonade, etc. The table-waters now so largely imported into this country from Germany and France contain a considerable proportion of mineral matter in solution, and, while they are wholesome as regards freedom from organic impurities, are, of course, less perfect for daily use than absolutely pure waters, such as those above referred to. Vaunted frequently as possessing certain medicinal properties, this very fact ought to prohibit their constant use as dietetic agents for habitual consumption, inasmuch as we do not require drugs as diet, but only as occasional correctives. Among them, the natural Selters, Apollinaris, Gieshübel, and St. Galmier—but of this latter some of the sources are inferior to others, the best appearing now to be chiefly retained for Paris—are perhaps among the most satisfactory within our reach. A dash of lemon-juice and a thin cutting of the peel form sometimes an agreeable addition. I am compelled to say that the sweet compounds and fruity juices which have of late been produced as dinner-drinks, and apparently in competition with wine, are rarely wholesome adjuncts to a dinner. Such liquids rapidly develop indigestible acid products in the stomachs of many persons; while, for all, the sipping of sweet fluids during a meal tends to diminish appetite, as well as the faculty of appreciating good cookery. If wine is refused, let the drink be of pure water—with a sparkle of gas in it, or a slight acid in it if you will—but in obedience both to gastronomic and dietetic laws let it be free from sugar. No doubt there are exceptional circumstances in which fruity juices, if not very sweet, can be taken freely. Thus I have rarely quaffed more delicious liquor at dinner in the warm autumn of southern Europe, notably in Spain, than that afforded by ample slices of a watermelon, which fill the mouth with cool, fragrant liquid; so slight is the amount of solid matter, that it only just serves to contain the abundant, delicate juices of the fruit grown in those climates. Here the saccharine matter is present only in small proportion.

Before concluding, a remark or two may be permitted in reference to that great British institution, the public dinner. Its utility must, I suppose, be conceded, since, for a vast number of charitable and other interests, the condition of commanding once a year the ear of the British public for an exposition of their claims seems in no other way at present attainable. A royal or noble chairman, a portentous menu, an unstinted supply of wine, such as it is, and after-dinner speeches, in variety, form an ensemble which appears to be attractive to the great body of "supporters." On the other hand, those whose presence is enforced by the claim of duty find these banquets too numerous and too long. The noise and bustle, the badly-served although pretentious dinner, the glare of gas and the polluted air, the long, desultory, and unmeaning speeches, interspersed with musical performances—which, however admirable in themselves, extend unduly a programme already too comprehensive—unfit many a man, seriously occupied, for the engagements of the morrow. Might it not be worth trying the experiment of offering fewer dishes, better service, and abolishing half the toasts? Might it not be possible to limit the necessary and essential toasts of a public dinner to the number of three or four—these to be followed only by a few subordinate toasts associated with the minor interests of the special object of the dinner? With the utmost deference to long-received usage, and after some little consideration, I venture to suggest that the following programme would at all events be an improvement on the present system, if such it can be called:

The first toast, or toasts, by which we declare our fidelity to the Crown, and our loyalty to the person of the Sovereign, as well as to the royal family, to remain, by universal consent, as before. The next, or patriotic toasts, unlike the preceding, are regarded as demanding response, often from several persons, and here it is that time is generally wasted. These might therefore be advantageously compressed into one, which need not be limited to the military and naval services, although it would of course include them. The object might be attained by constituting a single comprehensive but truly patriotic toast, viz., "Our great national institutions," which are easily defined. Supposing them to be regarded as seven in number, a response might be provided for from any two, according to the speakers present and the nature of the special object. These institutions fall naturally into order, as—1. Parliament: its leaders. 2. Justice: the judges. 3. The military and naval forces: their officers. 4. Education: heads of universities and public schools. 5. Religion: its ministers. 6. Science and art: heads of societies, academies, colleges. 7. Literature and the Press: distinguished writers.

The next to be "the toast of the evening": in other words, the particular subject of the dinner. After this would follow the healths of officers connected with the subject, visitors, etc., if necessary.

I confess I see no reason why the military and naval forces, however profound our respect and our gratitude for their great services to the nation must be—and in this matter I yield to no man—should invariably occupy a toast and speech, to be responded to by at least two, often by three officers, while the other great and scarcely less important interests should be left out of consideration altogether, or be only occasionally introduced. The toast of "national institutions" would mostly insure to the chairman and managers of the dinner an opportunity of obtaining two good speakers from different interests in reply—say, one for Justice and the other for Religion; one for Parliament or the Services, and the other for Science or Literature, and so forth. Thus all the varied elements of our national life would receive in their turn a due share of attention from the great mass of public diners, and better speeches would probably be secured than by the present mode.

I confess this is rather an episode; but the subject of "toasts" is so interwoven with the management of the public dinner that I have ventured to introduce it. I even dare to think that the proposition may be not unlikely to receive the support of "the chair," the duties of which, with a long array of toasts, are sometimes excessively onerous; only more so, be it recollected, in degree than those, of a humbler kind, which are entailed on many of the guests who are compelled to assist.

In concluding this imperfect sketch of the very large subject indicated by the title of my paper, I desire to express my strong sense of its manifold shortcomings, especially by way of omission. Desiring to call attention, in the shortest possible compass, to a great number of what appear to me to be important considerations in connection with the arts of selecting, preparing, and serving food, I have doubtless often failed to be explicit in the effort to be brief. It would have been an easier task to illustrate these considerations at greater length, and to have exceeded the limits of a couple of articles; and I might thus perhaps also have avoided, in dealing with some topics, a tone in statement more positive than circumstances may have warranted. Gastronomic tastes necessarily differ, as races, habits, digestive force, and supplies of food also differ; and it becomes no man to be too dogmatic in treating of these matters. De gustibus non est disputandum is in no instance more true than in relation to the tastes of the palate. Still, if any rational canons are to be laid down in connection with food and feeding, it is absolutely necessary that something more than the chemical and physiological bearings of the subject should be taken into consideration. With these it is unquestionably essential for any one who treats of my subject to be familiar; but no less necessary is it to possess some natural taste and experience in the cultivation of the gustatory sense; just as a cultivation of the perception of color and a sensibility to the charm of harmoniously combined tints are necessary to an intelligent enjoyment of the visual sense and to the understanding of its powers. Hence the treatment of the whole subject must inevitably be pervaded to some extent by the personal idiosyncrasy and predilections of the individual. It is this fact, no doubt, which, operating in relation to the numerous writers on cookery, has tended to produce some of the complication and confusion which often appears in culinary directions and receipts. But the gastronomic art is a simpler one than the effusions of some of its professors might lead the wholly uneducated to believe; and the complicated productions originated by some of its past and greatest practitioners are as unnecessary as are the long and complicated prescriptions formerly in vogue with the leading physicians of past time. Both were the natural outgrowth of an age when every branch of technical education was a "mystery," and when those who had attained the meaning thereof magnified their craft in the eyes of the vulgar by obscuring what is simple in a cloud of pedantic terms and processes. But that age and its delusions are passing away, and it is high time for simplicity in the practice of cookery to take the place of some useless and extravagant combinations and treatment which tradition has handed down.

At the present day it appears desirable, before all things, to secure the highest quality of all produce, both animal and vegetable; a respectable standard being rarely attained throughout our country in regard to the products of the latter kingdom. Great Britain has long held, and still maintains, the first place as to quality for her beef and mutton; in no other country in Europe—I can not speak of America—is it possible to obtain these meats so tender, juicy, and well developed. The saddle, the haunch, the sirloin, and the round, so admirable on occasions, are only in danger of suffering here, like intimate friends, from too great familiarity with their charms. But even our standard of quality in meat has been gradually lowered, from the closer struggle, year by year, to produce a fat animal in a shorter space of time than formerly; a result which is accomplished by commencing to feed almost exclusively on oil-cake at a very early period of life. The result of this process is, that size and weight are attained by a deposit of fat, rather than by the construction of muscular fiber, which alone is true meat; while, as a necessary consequence, the characteristic flavor and other qualities of fully developed beef and mutton are greatly wanting in modern meat.

Much more unsatisfactory is the supply of vegetable and dairy produce to our great city, particularly of the former. It must be confessed that our market at Covent Garden, in relation to capabilities for effective distribution of fresh vegetables, etc., would disgrace a town one fifth of the size of London. Nineteen twentieths of its inhabitants can not obtain fresh green food on any terms, and those who succeed pay an exorbitant price. I think I am right in saying that a really new-laid egg is a luxury which a millionaire can scarcely insure by purchase; he may keep fowls, and with due care obtain it, not otherwise. The great staple of our bread, commonly called "baker's bread," is unpalatable and indigestible; and I suppose no thoughtful or prudent consumer would, unless compelled, eat it habitually—used as it nevertheless is by the great majority of the inhabitants of this great city—any more than he would select a steak from the coarse beef whose proper destination is the stock-pot. Let any one compare the facilities which exist in most foreign towns for obtaining the three important articles of diet just named, with the parallel conditions afforded by London, and the inferiority of the latter will be so manifest as to become matter of humiliation to an Englishman. I do not raise any question of comparison between our own markets and the Halles Centrales of Paris, covering as they do nearly five acres of closely utilized space, with enormous vaults beneath, in direct communication by tram-road with the railways; nor of the well-stocked Marché St. Honoré, and others of less note. To many among the thousands of tourists who frequent the public buildings of Paris, an early morning survey of the fish, flesh, dairy produce, vegetables, fruit, and flowers, which the Halles Centrales display, and the scarcely less remarkable exhibition of Parisian and provincial life brought together there, present one of the most interesting and truly foreign spectacles which the city affords.

To the long list of needed reforms I have ventured to advocate in connection with this subject, I must add the want of ample and accessible markets in various parts of London, for what is known as country produce. I do this not only in the interest of the millions who, like myself, are compelled to seek their food within the limits of Cockayne; but also in the interest of our country gardeners and housewives, who ought to be able to supply us with poultry, vegetables, and eggs, better than the gardeners and housewives of France, on whom at present we so largely depend. We may well be grateful to these small cultivators, who by their industry and energy supply our deficiencies; but the fact that they do so does not redound to the credit of our countrymen.

No doubt, as regards security, liberty, locomotive facilities, etc., Cockayne is a tolerably comfortable and pleasant place to live in; nevertheless, it is certainly true that greater intelligence, more enterprise, and better organization—perhaps of the coöperative kind—are much required, in order to improve not only the sources and quality of our food, but also some of our manners and customs in relation to selecting, preparing, and serving it.—Nineteenth Century.

  1. Throughout France, St. Galmier; in Germany, Selters; in Austria and Bohemia, Gieshübel, are always obtainable, being the table-water of most repute, in each case respectively, of the country itself. In all chief places in Italy, either Selters or St. Galmier, often both, are supplied by the hotels. In Spain, these are not at present to be had, but the alternatives recommended are easily obtained.