From Poor Man’s Pot to Posh People’s Prized Possession: A Story about Food over the past 5,000 years
Most of us do not realise that much of what we consider to be luxury food items today used to be poor man’s food that was frowned upon by the rest of society (we certainly didn’t until very recently). As food bloggers we find this topic hugely fascinating. Food rising the ranks only to drop back into the gutter when the next big trend comes. This shows how subjective food is, how much of its appreciation depends on convention and society’s dictates rather than pure and simple deliciousness as it should. In some cases it also shows how cooking techniques have improved over time.
Nowadays, not so much in countries like France or Italy with their ancient, deeply ingrained appreciation of food and good produce, but certainly in Anglo-Saxon cultures with their focus on ready-made meals and fast food, being poor often equates to harming your body with the worst possible ‘food’.
In previous centuries, however, when there were no ready-made meals or fast food, what ended up on the peasants’ tables was usually simply whatever the posh people chose to ban from theirs.
Lousy Lobster for Losers
I remember that as a kid I found lobsters enormously scary, like large, murderous, demonic sea insects. Turns out that’s how the vast majority of society felt a few hundred years back. In the 17th and 18th Century American colonies lobster was considered as disgusting as bugs or maggots (both of which we’ve tasted, by the way, and they can be super-tasty, if prepared right).
As is nearly always the case with food held in low esteem: it was abundant. The oceans before the era of industrialisation and overpopulation were pristine and supported gigantic populations of these crustaceans. After strong winds and bad weather it was not unusual to find the creatures stacked on the beaches a foot high and more. Even if they had been a popular meat, it would have been impossible to eat such large amounts. Most of them were used to fertilise the fields. The rest was left to the poor and fed to prisoners.
In an early eruption of the human rights movements, prisoners petitioned the government to avoid having to eat lobster more than three times a week “because it would be unnecessarily cruel”. Servants asked for similar provisions to be put into their employment contracts.
Along the water quality the numbers of these eight-legged creepy-crawlies equally went down. At around the same time cooking methods improved dramatically and people learned how to prepare lobster properly.
The average price of one of these specimen in a London restaurant is now north of £50. We would love to eat lobster several times a week, but due to the high prices we usually only eat lobster a few times a year. Tip: if you like lobster, visit the Whitstable Oyster Festival, where you can get a whole lobster for £22.50. Or try Nova Scotia, Canada, where a big red one will set you back less than £12.
Oysters suck, but we were starving
Again, because the water quality was so high in the olden days and oysters really only ask for one thing: clean water, they were literally growing everywhere in moderate climates. That’s since the beginning of time. Humans in coastal regions have always eaten oysters, one million years ago, two million years ago, mainly because they were there and so easy to harvest.
In medieval Europe, whenever people were desperate, whenever they were close to starvation, they picked oysters from the ocean for sustenance. They’d try to imagine eating something more edifying like pig’s ears or offal, while they were eating the disgraceful shellfish, and they wouldn’t ever tell anyone about the horrible experience.
Up until the early Victorian era they were considered a culinary abomination by the well-heeled, like eating raw slugs. They were immensely popular among the working classes in London’s East End, though, where they were handed out as free snacks with the drinks. Charles Dickens mentions them in The Pickwick Papers.
In a moment of madness, Ms B and I recently tried half a dozen of the world’s most prized oysters: Gillardeau oysters. They are so expensive (usually around £35 for half a dozen), that plenty of criminals have started to sell lower quality oysters mislabelled as Gillardeau. This led to the decision to engrave holograms of the logo into every single shell with lasers. Again, if you like oysters, Whitstable Oyster Festival should probably be on your to do list. You can get high-quality ones for £1 or less. My personal best is 38 on a single sunny afternoon three years ago.
Foie Gras: Food for the Flat Broke
In ancient Egypt the unholy tradition of force-feeding geese took its beginnings. During the last 10 days before murdering the birds, they were force-fed three times a day to make them bigger and fatter. However, back then birds’ intestines were frowned upon, so the fatty liver (literal translation of foie gras) was given to the local Jews, who didn’t seem to mind. The ancient Romans were the ones who discovered the potential and turned foie gras into a posh dish.
During the Dark Ages and Medieval times it became the nourishment of the needy again. The tradition was barely held alive by a few Jewish folks in the slums of Central Europe, until the Renaissance royals in France fell in love with it.
Whenever possible (this might sound silly, but it’s not always easy to avoid foie gras at fine dining restaurants where it’s often contained in every other dish), I try to avoid foie gras, because of animal welfare. I also want to try ethical foie some time soon. It depends on the definition of foie gras, of course, but it is possible to produce fatty goose liver without force-feeding the geese. According to the official French definition, it is only foie gras if force-feeding is involved, but you are free to choose your own definition. We hear that the taste is similar to cruel foie.
In everyday life we find it easy to avoid fatty liver, simply because of its enormous price tag. Top quality fatty liver easily sets you back more than £15 for 100g in a gourmet food store, much more in a restaurant.
Sushi: Simply for Sustenance
Perhaps most surprisingly, sushi was initially a preparation technique used by 16th and 17th Century Japanese fishermen to preserve low quality fish they weren’t able to sell, while rich people obviously would only ever touch fresh fish. Initially sushi involved covering large chunks of fish in fermented rice. It was only after WWII that the sushi craze took off properly and prices started to rocket sky-high. The pieces of fish had gotten smaller and smaller, instead of fermented rice, vinegar and fresh rice were being used, and an enormous competitiveness amongst so-called sushi-masters led to a greater appreciation of their skills and food.
We absolutely love sushi and during our last visit to Japan stopped by our favourite sushi place, Sushi Zanmai three times in three days.
Care for Caviar? It used to come with your drink for free.
Caviar used to be so cheap that saloons in the American Wild West handed it out for free with every drink. The intention was that the super-salty snack should keep the railway workers, cowboys, prostitutes and petty criminals thirsty and would make them order even more drinks.
America’s waters were full to the brim with sturgeon at the time and America became the world’s biggest exporter of caviar. Most of it ended up right back on U.S. tables as the much more expensive “Russian caviar” after having been exported to Europe. A few decades later the once abundant sturgeon was nearly overfished to extinction around the globe, and voila, their offspring’s price shot up into the stratosphere within just a few years.
Nowadays it’s hard to find something more luxurious and pricey than these fish eggs. We recently had a chance to try Imperial Reserve Beluga Caviar where 30g in a restaurant set you back at least £300 (someone else paid for our meal, sometimes food blogging has its benefits).
For another article about how food and society are connected, check out this post about yerba mate tea by our buddies from Green Mochila.
For action and adventure try our articles about skydiving, jetlevving, jetskiing, riding supercars around a race track, off-roading, or our rides in a helicopter and in a hot air balloon. Hope to see you again soon. Looking for restaurant reviews, perhaps you’d like to eyeball our posts about two-starred Helene Darroze in London, Fig in Chipping Campden, La Scuderia in Frankfurt, or Café Demel in Vienna.