Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/July 1879/Food and Feeding I
I THINK I shall not be far wrong if I say that there are few subjects more important to the well-being of man than the selection and preparation of his food. Our forefathers in their wisdom have provided, by ample and generously endowed organizations, for the dissemination of moral precepts in relation to human conduct, and for the constant supply of sustenance to meet the cravings of religious emotions common to all sorts and conditions of men. In these provisions no student of human nature can fail to recognize the spirit of wisdom and a lofty purpose. But it is not a sign of ancestral wisdom that so little thought has been bestowed on the teaching of what we should eat and drink; that the relations, not only between food and a healthy population, but between food and virtue, between the process of digestion and the state of mind which results from it, have occupied a subordinate place in the practical arrangements of life. No doubt there has long been some practical acknowledgment, on the part of a few educated persons, of the simple fact that a man's temper, and consequently many of his actions, depends on such an alternative as whether he habitually digests his food well or ill; whether the meals which he eats are properly converted into healthy material, suitable for the ceaseless work of building up both muscle and brain; or whether unhealthy products constantly pollute the course of nutritive supply. But the truth of that fact has never been generally admitted to an extent at all comparable with its exceeding importance. It produces no practical result on the habits of men in the least degree commensurate with the pregnant import it contains. For it is certain that an adequate recognition of the value of proper food to the individual in maintaining a high standard of health, in prolonging healthy life (the prolongation of unhealthy life being small gain either to the individual or to the community), and thus largely promoting cheerful tender, prevalent good nature, and improved moral tone, would require almost a revolution in the habits of a large part of the community.
The general outlines of a man's mental character and physical tendencies are doubtless largely determined by the impress of race and family. That is, the scheme of the building, its characteristics and dimensions, are inherited; but to a very large extent the materials and filling in of the framework depend upon his food and training. By the latter term may be understood all that relates to mental and moral and even to physical education, in part already assumed to be fairly provided for, and therefore not further to be considered here. No matter, then, how consummate the scheme of the architect, nor how vast the design, more or less of failure to rear the edifice results when the materials are ill chosen or wholly unworthy to be used. Many other sources of failure there may be which it is no part of my business to note; but the influence of food is not only itself cardinal in rank, but, by priority of action, gives rise to other and secondary agencies.
The slightest sketch of the commonest types of human life will suffice to illustrate this truth.
To commence, I fear it must be admitted that the majority of British infants are reared on imperfect milk by weak or ill-fed mothers. And thus it follows that the signs of disease, of feeble vitality, or of fretful disposition, may be observed at a very early age, and are apparent inof indigestion or in the cravings of want manifested by the "peevish" and sleepless infant. In circumstances where there is no want of abundant nutriment, over-feeding or complicated forms of food, suitable only for older persons, produce for this infant troubles which are no less grave than those of the former. In the next stage of life, among the poor the child takes his place at the parents' table, where lack of means, as well as of knowledge, deprives him of food more suitable than the rough fare of the adult, and moreover obtains for him, perchance, his little share of beer or gin. On the whole, perhaps he is not much worse off than the child of the well-to-do, who becomes a pet, and is already familiarized with complex and too solid forms of food and stimulating drinks which custom and self-indulgence have placed on the daily table. And soon afterward commence in consequence — and entirely in consequence, a fact it is impossible too much to emphasize — the "sick-headaches" and "bilious attacks," which pursue their victim through half a lifetime, to be exchanged for gout or worse at or before the grand climacteric. And so common are these evils that they are regarded by people in general as a necessary appanage of "poor humanity." No notion can be more erroneous, since it is absolutely true that the complaints referred to are self-engendered, form no necessary part of our physical nature, and for their existence are dependent almost entirely on our habits in relation to food and drink. I except, of course, those cases in which hereditary tendencies are so strong as to produce these evils, despite some care on the part of the unfortunate victim of an ancestor's self-indulgence. Equally, however, on the part of that little-to-be-revered progenitor was ill-chosen food, or more probably excess in quantity, the cause of disease, and not the physical nature of man.
The next stage of boyhood transfers the child just spoken of to a public school, where too often insufficient or inappropriate diet, at the most critical period of growth, has to be supplemented from other sources. It is almost unnecessary to say that chief among these are the pastrycook and the vender of portable provisions, for much of which latter that skin-stuffed compound of unknown origin, an uncertified sausage, may be accepted as the type.
After this period arise the temptations to drink, among the youth of all classes, whether at beerhouse, tavern, or club. For it has been taught in the bosom of the family, by the father's example and by the mother's precept, that wine, beer, and spirits are useful, nay, necessary to health, and that they augment the strength. And the lessons thus inculcated and too well learned were but steps which led to wider experience in the pursuit of health and strength by larger use of the same means. Under such circumstances it often happens, as the youth grows up, that a flagging appetite or a failing digestion habitually demands a dram before or between meals, and that these are regarded rather as occasions to indulge in variety of liquor than as repasts for nourishing the body. It is not surprising, with such training, that the true object of both eating and drinking is entirely lost sight of. The gratification of acquired tastes usurps the function of that zest which healthy appetite produces; and the intention that food should be adapted to the physical needs of the body and the healthy action of the mind is forgotten altogether. So it often comes to pass that at middle age, when man finds himself in the full current of life's occupations, struggling for preeminence with his fellows, indigestion has become persistent in some of its numerous forms, shortens his "staying power," or spoils his judgment or temper. And, besides all this, few causes are more potent than an incompetent stomach to engender habits of selfishness and egotism. A constant care to provide little personal wants of various kinds, thus rendered necessary, cultivates these sentiments, and they influence the man's whole character in consequence. The poor man, advancing in years, suffers from continuous toil with inadequate food, the supply of which is often diminished by his expenditure for beer, which, although often noxious, he regards as the elixir of life, never to be missed when fair occasion for obtaining it is offered. Many of this class are prematurely crippled by articular disease, etc., and become permanent inmates of the parish workhouse or infirmary.
It must be obvious to everybody how much more of detail might be added to fill in the outlines of this little sketch. It is meager in the extreme: nevertheless it suffices for my purpose; other illustrations may occur hereafter.
But it is necessary to say at this point, and I desire to say it emphatically, that the subject of food need not, even with the views just enunciated, be treated in an ascetic spirit. It is to be considered in relation to a principle, in which we may certainly believe, that aliments most adapted to develop the individual, sound in body and mind, shall not only be most acceptable, but that they may be selected and prepared so as to afford scope for the exercise of a refined taste, and produce a fair degree of that pleasure naturally associated with the function of the palate, and derived from a study of the table. For it is certain that nine tenths of the gormandism which is practiced, at all events in English society — where for the most part it is a matter of faith without knowledge — is no more a source of gratification to the eater's gustatory sense than it is of digestible sustenance to his body.
Our subject now shapes itself. Food must first be regarded in relation to its value as material to be used for building up and sustaining that composite structure, the human body, under the varied conditions in which it may be placed. Secondly, the selection of food, and the best modes of preparing it, resulting in the production of "the dish," a subject of great extent and importance, must be dealt with very briefly. Lastly, the exercise of taste in relation to the serving of food and drink, or the art of combining dishes to form "a meal," must also be considered.
I shall not regard this as the place in which to offer any scientific definition of the term "food." I shall include within its range all the solid materials popularly so regarded, and therefore eaten. And drink being as necessary as solids for the purpose of digestion, and to supply that large proportion of fluid which the body contains in every mesh and cell thereof, I shall regard as "drink" all the liquids which it is customary to swallow with our meals, although probably very few, if any, of them can be regarded as food in any strict sense of the term.
Food is essential to the body in order to fulfill two distinct purposes, or to supply two distinct wants inseparable from animal life. As certainly as a steam-engine requires fuel, by the combustion or oxidation of which force is called into action for various purposes — as the engine itself requires the mending and replacing of parts wasted in the process of working — so certainly does the animal body require fuel to evoke its force, and material to replace those portions which are necessarily wasted by labor, whether the latter be what we call physical or mental — that is, of limbs or of brain. The material which is competent to supply both requirements is a complete or perfect food. Examples of complete food exist in milk and the egg, sufficing as these do for all the wants of the young animal during the period of early growth. Nevertheless, a single animal product like either of the two named, although complex in itself, is not more perfect than an artificial combination of various simpler substances, provided the mixture (dish or meal) contains all the elements required in due proportion for the purposes of the body.
It would be out of place to occupy much space with those elementary details of the chemical constitution of the body which may be found in any small manual of human physiology; but for the right understanding of our subject, a brief sketch must be presented. Let it suffice to say that carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, the three all pervading elements of the vegetable world, enter largely into the composition of the animal body; and that the two former especially constitute a fuel the oxidization of which produces animal heat, and develops the force in its varied forms, physical and mental, which the body is capable of exerting. Besides these, nitrogen, obtainable from certain vegetable products, not from all, but forming definite combinations with the three elements just named, is essential to the repair and reproduction of the body itself, being one of its most important constituents. Lastly must be named several other elements which, in small proportions, are also essential constituents of the body, such as sulphur, phosphorus, salts of lime, magnesia, potash, etc., with traces of iron and other metals. All these must be present in the food supplied, otherwise animal existence can not be supported; and all are found in the vegetable kingdom, and may be obtained directly therefrom by man in feeding on vegetables alone. But the process of obtaining and combining these simple elements into the more complex forms which constitute the bases of animal tissues — definite compounds of nitrogen with carbon, hydrogen and oxygen — is also accomplished by the lower animals, which are exclusively vegetable feeders. These animals we can consume as food, and thus procure, if we please, ready prepared for our purpose, the materials of flesh, sinew, and bone for immediate use. We obtain also from the animal milk and the egg, already said to be "perfect" foods; and they are so because they contain the nitrogenous compounds referred to, fatty matter abundantly, and the various saline or mineral matters requisite. But compounds simpler in form than the preceding, of a non-nitrogenous kind, that is, of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen only, are necessary as food for the production of animal heat and force. These consist, first, of the fat of animals of various kinds, and of butter; and from the vegetable kingdom, of the fatty matter which exists in grain and legumes, and largely in the olive and in many seeds; secondly, of the starchy matters, all derived from vegetables, such as a large part of wheaten and other flour, rice, arrowroot, and potatoes, together with sugar, gum, and other minor vegetable products of a similar kind. The fats form the more important group of the two, both in relation to the production of heat and force; and without a constant supply of fat as food the body would cease to exist. The vegetable-eater, pure and simple, can therefore extract from his food all the principles necessary for the growth and support of the body as well as for the production of heat and force, provided that he selects vegetables which contain all the essential elements named. But he must for this purpose consume the best cereals, wheat or oats, or the legumes, beans, peas, or lentils; or he must swallow and digest a large weight of vegetable matter of less nutritive value, and therefore containing at least one element in large excess, in order to obtain all the elements he needs. Thus the Irishman requires ten to eleven pounds of potatoes daily, which contain chiefly starch, very little nitrogen, and scarcely any fat; hence he obtains, when he can, some buttermilk or bacon, or a herring to supply the deficiency. The Highlander, living mainly on oatmeal, requires a much smaller weight, since this grain contains not only starch, but much nitrogen and a fair amount of fat, although not quite sufficient for his purpose, which is usually supplied by adding milk or a little bacon to his diet. On the other hand, the man who lives chiefly or largely on flesh and eggs as well as bread obtains precisely the same principles, but served in a concentrated form, and a weight of about two or three pounds of such food is a full equivalent to the Irishman's ten or eleven pounds of potatoes and. extras. The meat-eater's digestion is taxed with a far less quantity of solid, but that very concentration in regard of quality entails on some stomachs an expenditure of force in digestion equal to that required by the vegetable-eater to assimilate his much larger portions. And it must be admitted as a fact beyond question that some persons are stronger and more healthy who live chiefly or altogether on vegetables, while there are many others for whom a proportion of animal food appears to be desirable, if not necessary. In studying this matter individual habit must be taken into account. An animal feeder may by slow degrees become a vegetarian, without loss of weight or strength, not without feeling some inconvenience in the process; but a sudden change in diet in this direction is for a time almost equivalent to starvation. The digestive organs require a considerable period to accommodate themselves to the performance of work different from that to which they have been long accustomed, and in some constitutions might fail altogether in the attempt. Besides, in matters of diet essentially, many persons have individual peculiarities; and while certain fixed principles exist, such as those already laid down as absolutely cardinal, in the detail of their application to each man's wants an infinity of stomach eccentricities is to be reckoned on. The old proverb expresses the fact strongly but truly: "What is one man's meat is another man's poison." Yet nothing is more common — and one rarely leaves a social dinner-table without observing it than to hear some good-natured person recommending to his neighbor, with a confidence rarely found except in alliance with profound ignorance of the matter in hand, some special form of food or drink, or system of diet, solely because the adviser happens to have found it useful to himself!
It will be interesting now to take a general but brief survey of the vast range of materials which civilized man has at his command for the purpose of food: these few preliminary remarks on the chemical constituents of food having been intended to aid in appreciating the value of different kinds.
Commencing with the vegetable kingdom, from which our early progenitors, probably during long ages, drew all their sustenance, the cereals, or cultivated grasses, come first, as containing all the elements necessary to life, and being therefore most largely consumed. Wheat and its congeners, which rank highest in quality, had been distinguished in the form of bread, as "the staff of life," long before the physiological demonstration of the fact had been attained. Wheat, oats, rye, and barley, maize and rice, are the chief members of this group; wheat containing the most nitrogenous or flesh-forming material, besides abundance of starch, a moderate amount of fat, together with sufficient saline and mineral elements. Rice, on the other hand, contains very little nitrogen, fat, and mineral constituents, but starch in great abundance; while maize, with a fair supply of nitrogenous and starchy matter, contains the most fat or heat-producing material of the whole group. As derived from wheat must be named the valuable aliments, macaroni and all the Italian pastes. Derived from barley is malt-saccharine, parent of the large family of fermented liquors known as beer. And from various other grains are obtained, by fermentation and distillation, several forms of ardent spirit. Vinegar, best when produced from the grape, is also largely made from grain.
The legumes, such as beans, lentils, and peas, form an aliment of great value, containing more nitrogen even than the cereals, but with fat in very small proportion, while starchy matter and the mineral elements abound in both groups.
The tuber finds its type in the potato, which contains much starch, little nitrogen, and almost no fat; in the yam also. The roots may be illustrated by the beet, carrot, parsnip, and turnip, all containing little nitrogen, but much sugar, and water in large proportion. Derived from roots and stems of foreign growth, we have arrowroot, tapioca, and sago, all starches and destitute of nitrogen. Fatty matter is abundantly found in the olive, which supplies a large part of the world with an important article of food. The almond and other seeds are also fruitful sources of oil.
Under the term "green vegetables," a few leading plants may be enumerated as types of the vast natural supplies which everywhere, exist: The entire cabbage tribe in great variety; lettuces, endive, and cresses; spinach, seakale, asparagus, celery, onions, artichokes, and tomato, all valuable not so much for nutritive property, which is inconsiderable, as for admixture with other food chiefly on account of salts which they contain, and for their appetizing aroma and varied flavors. Thus condiments are useful, as the sweet and aromatic spices, the peppers, mustard, and the various potherbs, so essential to an agreeable cuisine. Sea-weeds, as laver, and the whole tribe of mushrooms should be named, as ranking much higher in nutritive value than green vegetables. Pumpkins, marrows, and cucumbers, chestnuts, and other nuts largely support life in some countries. The bread-fruit is of high value; so also are the cocoanut and the banana in tropical climates.
Lastly must be named all those delicious but not very nutritive products of most varied kind and source, grouped under the name of fruits. These are characterized chiefly by the presence of sugar, acid, vegetable jelly, and some saline matter, often combined with scent and flavor of exquisite quality. Derived from grapes as its chief source, stands wine in its innumerable varieties, so closely associated by all civilized nations with the use of aliments, although not universally admitted to rank in technical language as a food. Next may be named sugar in its various forms, a non-nitrogenous product of great value, and in a less degree, honey. No less important are the tea-plant, the coffee-berry, and the seeds of the cacao-tree.
There is a single element belonging to the mineral kingdom which is taken in its natural state as an addition to food, namely, common salt; and it is so universally recognized as necessary that it can not be omitted here. The foregoing list possesses no claim to be exhaustive, only to be fairly typical and suggestive; many omissions, which some may think important, doubtless exist. In like manner, a rapid survey may be taken of the animal kingdom.
First, the flesh of domestic quadrupeds: the ox and sheep, both adult and young; the pig; the horse and ass, chiefly in France. Milk, butter, and cheese in endless variety are derived chiefly from this group. More or less wild are the red deer, the fallow deer, and the roe deer. As game, the hare and rabbit; abroad, the bison, wild boar, bear, chamois, and kangaroo, are esteemed for food among civilized nations; but many other animals are eaten by half-civilized and savage peoples. All these are rich in nitrogen, fatty matters, and saline materials.
Among birds, we have domestic poultry in great variety of size and quality, with eggs in great abundance furnished chiefly by this class. All the wild fowl and aquatic birds; the pigeon tribe and the small birds. Winged game in all its well-known variety.
Of fish it is unnecessary to enumerate the enormous supply and the various species which exist everywhere, and especially on our own shores, from the sturgeon to whitebait, besides those in fresh-water rivers and lakes. All of them furnish nitrogenous matter largely, but, and particularly the white fish, possess fat in very small proportion, and little of saline materials. The salmon, mackerel, and herring tribes have more fat, the last-named in considerable quantity, forming a useful food well calculated to supplement cereal aliments, and largely adopted for the purpose both in the south and north of Europe.
The so-called reptiles furnish turtle, tortoise, and edible frog. Among articulated animals are the lobsters, crabs, and shrimps. Among mollusks, the oyster and all the shellfish, which, as well as the preceding animals, in chemical composition closely resemble that of fish properly so called.
I shall not enter on a discussion of the question, Is man designed to be a vegetable feeder, or a flesh-eating or an omnivorous animal? Nor shall his teeth or other organs be examined in reference thereto. Any evidence to be found by anatomical investigation can only be safely regarded as showing what man is and has been. That he has been and is omnivorous to the extent of his means, there can exist no doubt. Whether he has been generally prudent or happy in his choice of food and drink is highly improbable, seeing that until very recently he has possessed no certain knowledge touching the relations which matters used as food hold with respect to the structure and wants of his body, and that such recent knowledge has been confined to a very few individuals. Whatever sound practice he may have attained, and it is not inconsiderable, in his choice and treatment of food, is the result of many centuries of empirical observation, the process of which has been attended with much disastrous failure and some damage to the experimenters. No doubt, much unsound constitution and proclivity to certain diseases result from the persistent use through many generations of improper food and drink.
Speaking in general terms, man seems, at the present time, prone to choose foods which are unnecessarily concentrated and too rich in nitrogenous or flesh-forming material, and to consume more in quantity than is necessary for the healthy performance of the animal functions. He is apt to leave out of sight the great difference, in relation to both quantity and quality of food, which different habits of life demand, e. g., between the habits of those who are chiefly sedentary and brainworkers and of those who are active and exercise muscle more than brain. He makes very small account of the different requirements by the child, the mature adult, and the declining or aged person. And he seems to be still less aware of the frequent existence of notable individual peculiarities in relation to the tolerance of certain aliments and drinks. As a rule, man has little knowledge of, or interest in, the processes by which food is prepared for the table, or the conditions necessary to the healthy digestion of it by himself. Until a tolerably high standard of civilization is reached, he cares more for quantity than quality, desires little variety, and regards as impertinent an innovation in the shape of a new aliment, expecting the same food at the same hour daily, his enjoyment of which apparently greatly depends on his ability to swallow the portion with extreme rapidity, that he may apply himself to some other and more important occupation without delay. Eating is treated, in fact, by multitudes much as they are disposed to treat religious duty — which eating assuredly is — that is, as a duty which is generally irksome, but unfortunately necessary to be performed. As to any exercise of taste in the serving or in the combining of different foods at a meal, the subject is completely out of reach of the great majority of people, and is as little comprehended by them as the structure and harmonies of a symphony are by the first whistling boy one chances to meet in the street. The intelligent reader who has sufficient interest in this subject to have followed me thus far, may fancy this a sketch from savage life. On the contrary, I can assure him that ignorance and indifference to the nature and object of food mark the condition of a large majority of the so-called educated people of this country. Men even boast of their ignorance of so trivial a subject, regard it as unworthy the exercise of their powers, and — small compliment to their wives and sisters — fit only for the occupation of women.
Admitting man, then, to be physically so constituted as to be able to derive all that is necessary to the healthy performance of all his functions from the animal or from the vegetable kingdom, either singly or combined, he can scarcely be regarded otherwise than as qualified to be an omnivorous animal. Add to this fact his possession of an intelligence which enables him to obtain food of all kinds and climes, to investigate its qualities, and to render it more fit for digestion by heat — powers which no other animal possesses — and there appears no a priori reason for limiting his diet to products of either kingdom exclusively.
It is a matter of great interest to ascertain what have become, under the empirical conditions named, the staple foods of the common people of various climates and races — what, in short, supports the life and labor of the chief part of the world's population.
In the tropics and adjacent portions of the temperate zones, high temperature being incompatible with the physical activity familiar to northern races, a very little nitrogenous material suffices, since the waste of muscle is small. Only a moderate quantity of fat is taken, the demand for heat-production being inconsiderable. The chiefly starchy products supply nearly all the nutriment required, and such are found in rice, millet, etc. Rice by itself is the principal food of the wide zone thus indicated, including a large part of China, the East Indies, part of Africa and America, and also the West Indies. Small additions, where obtainable, are made of other seeds, of oil, butter, etc.; and, as temperature decreases by distance from the equator, some fish, fowl, or other light form of animal food, are added.
In the north of Africa, Arabia, and some neighboring parts, the date, which contains sugar in abundance, is largely eaten, as well as maize and other cereals.
Crossing to Europe, the southern Italian is found subsisting on macaroni, legumes, rice, fruits, and salads, with oil, cheese, fish, and small birds, but very little meat. More northward, besides fish and a little meat, maize is the chief aliment, rye and other cereals taking a second place. The chestnut also is largely eaten by the poorer population, both it and maize containing more fatty matter than wheat, oats, and legumes.
In Spain, the inhabitants subsist chiefly on maize and rice, with some wheat and legumes, among them the garbanzo or "chick pea," and one of the principal vegetable components of the national olla, which contains also a considerable proportion of animal food in variety, as bacon, sausage, fowl, etc. Fruit is fine and abundant; especially so are grapes, figs, and melons. There is little or no butter, the universal substitute for which is olive-oil, produced in great quantity. Fowls and the pig furnish the chief animal food, and garlic is the favorite condiment.
Going northward, flesh of all kinds occupies a more considerable place in the dietary. In France the garden vegetables and legumes form an important staple of diet for all classes; but the very numerous small land proprietors subsist largely on the direct products of the soil, adding little more than milk, poultry, and eggs, the produce of their small farms. The national pot-au-feu is an admirable mixed dish, in which a small portion of meat is made to yield all its nutritive qualities, and to go far in mingling its odor and savor with those of the fragrant vegetables which are so largely added to the stock. The stock-meat eaten hot, or often cold with plenty of green salad and oil, doubtless the most palatable mode of serving it, thus affords a source of fat, if not otherwise provided for by butter, cheese, etc.
Throughout the German Empire, the cereals, legumes, greens, roots, and fruits supply an important proportion of the food consumed by the common population. Wheaten bread chiefly, and some made from rye, also beans and peas, are used abundantly. Potatoes and green vegetables of all kinds are served in numerous ways, but largely in soups, a favorite dish. Meats, chiefly pork, are greatly esteemed in the form of sausage, and appear also as small portions or joints, but freely garnished with vegetables, on the tables of those who can afford animal diet. Going northward, where the climate is no longer adapted for the production of wheat, as in parts of Russia, rye and oats form the staple food from the vegetable kingdom, associated with an increased quantity of meat and fatty materials.
Lastly, it is well known that the inhabitants of the Arctic zone are compelled to consume large quantities of oily matter, in order to generate heat abundantly; and also that animal food is necessarily the staple of their dietary. Vegetables, which, moreover, are not producible in so severe a climate, would there be wholly inadequate to support life.
We will now consider the food which the English peasant and artisan provide. The former lives, for the most part, on wheaten bread and cheese, with occasionally a little bacon, some potatoes, and perhaps garden greens: it is rarely indeed that he can obtain flesh. To this dietary the artisan adds meat, mostly beef or mutton, and some butter. A piece of fresh and therefore not tender beef is baked, or cooked in a frying-pan, in the latter case becoming a hard, indigestible, and wasted morsel; by the former process a somewhat better dish is produced, the meat being usually surrounded by potatoes or by a layer of some batter, since both contain starchy products and absorb the fat which leaves the meat. The food of the peasant might, however, be cheaper and better; while the provision of the artisan is simply extravagant and bad. At this period of our national history, when food is scarce, and the supply of meat insufficient to meet the demand which our national habits of feeding perpetuate, it is an object of the first importance to consider whether other aliments can be obtained at a cheaper rate, and at the same time equal in quality to those of the existing dietary. Many believe that this object may be accomplished without difficulty, and that the chief obstacle to improvement in the food supply, not only of the classes referred to, but in that of the English table generally, is the common prejudice which exists against any aliment not yet widely known or tried. The one idea which the working-classes possess in relation to improvement in diet, and which they invariably realize when wages are high, is the inordinate use of butcher's meat. To make this the chief element of at least three meals daily, and to despise bread and vegetables, is for them no less a sign of taste than a declaration of belief in the perfection of such food for the purposes of nutrition.
We have already seen that not only can all that is necessary to the human body be supplied by the vegetable kingdom solely, but that, as a matter of fact, the world's population is to a large extent supported by vegetable products. Such form, at all events, the most wholesome and agreeable diet for the inhabitants of the tropics. Between about forty and nearly sixty degrees of latitude we find large populations of fine races trained to be the best laborers in the world on little more than cereals and legumes, with milk (cheese and butter), as food; that little consisting of irregular and scanty supplies of fish, flesh, and fatty matter. In colder regions vegetable products are hardly to be obtained, and flesh and fat are indispensable. Thus man is clearly omnivorous; while men may be advantageously vegetarian in one climate, mixed eaters in another, and exclusively flesh-eaters in a third.
I have not hesitated to say that Englishmen generally have adopted a diet adapted for a somewhat more northerly latitude than that which they occupy; that the cost of their food is therefore far greater than it need be, and that much of their peculiar forms of indigestion and resulting chronic disease is another necessary consequence of the same error. They consume too much animal food, particularly the flesh of cattle. For all who are occupied with severe and continuous mechanical labor, a mixed diet, of which cereals and legumes form a large portion, and meat, fish, eggs, and milk form a moderate proportion, is more nutritious and wholesome than chiefly animal food. For those whose labor is chiefly mental, and whose muscular exercise is inconsiderable, still less of concentrated nitrogenous food is desirable. A liberal supply of cereals and legumes, with fish, and flesh in its lighter forms, will better sustain such activity than large portions of butcher's meat twice or thrice a day. Then again it is absolutely certain, contrary to the popular belief as this is, that while a good supply of food is essential during the period of growth and active middle life, a diminished supply is no less essential to health and prolongation of life during declining years, when physical exertion is small, and the digestive faculty sometimes becomes less powerful also. I shall not regard it as within my province here to dilate on this topic, but shall assert that the "supporting" of aged persons, as it is termed, with increased quantities of food and stimulant, is an error of cardinal importance. These things being: so, a consideration of no small concern arises in relation to the economical management of the national resources. For it is a fair computation that every acre of land devoted to the production of meat is capable of becoming the source of three or four times the amount of produce of equivalent value as food, if devoted to the production of grain. In other words, a given area of land cropped with cereals and legumes will support a population more than three times as numerous as that which can be sustained on the same land devoted to the growth of cattle. Moreover, the corn-land will produce, almost without extra cost, a considerable quantity of animal food, in the form of pigs and poultry, from the offal or coarser parts of vegetable produce which is unsuitable for human consumption.
Thus this country purchases every year a large and increasing quantity of corn and flour from foreign countries, while more of our own land is yearly devoted to grazing purposes. The value of corn and flour imported by Great Britain in 1877 was no less than £63,536,322, while in 1875 it was only just over £53,000,000. The increased import during the last thirty-two years is well exhibited in the following extract: "In 1846 the imports of corn and flour amounted to seventeen pounds weight per head of population; in 1855 they had risen to seventy pounds per head; and in 1865 to ninety-three pounds weight per head of population. Finally, in 1877 the imports of corn and flour amounted to one hundred and seventy pounds weight per head of population of the United Kingdom."
Lastly, those who are interested in the national supply of food must lament that, while Great Britain possesses perhaps the best opportunities in the world for securing a large and cheap supply of fish, she fails to attain it, and procures so little only that it is to the great majority of the inhabitants an expensive luxury. Fish is a food of great value; nevertheless, it ought in this country to be one of the cheapest aliments, since production and growth cost absolutely nothing, only the expenses of catching and of a short transport being incurred.
Having enunciated some general principles which it is important should first be established, I shall offer briefly an illustration or two of the manner in which they may be applied. This brings us to the second division of the subject, viz., the practical treatment of certain aliments in order to render them suitable for food. Dealing first with that of the agricultural laborer, our object is to economize his small pittance, to give him, if possible, a rather more nutritive, wholesome, and agreeable dish — he can have but one — that his means have hitherto furnished. But here there is little scope for change; already said to live chiefly on bread and cheese, with occasionally bacon, two indications only for improvement can be followed, viz., augmentation of nitrogenous matter to meet the wear and tear of the body in daily hard labor, and of fatty matter to furnish heat and force. A fair proportion of meat, one of the best means of fulfilling them, is not within his reach. First, his daily bread ought to contain all the constituents of the wheat, instead of being made of flour from which most of the mineral elements have been removed. But beans and peas are richer in nitrogen than wheat, and equal it in starch, mineral matters, and fat, the last being in very small quantity, while maize has three times their proportion of fat. Hence all of these would be useful additions to his dietary, being cheaper than wheat in the market, although, the retail demand being at present small, they may not be so in the small shops. As an illustration of the value of legumes combined with fat, it may be remembered how well the Erbswurst supported the work of the German armies during the winter of 1870–’71, an instructive lesson for us in England at the present moment. It consists of a simple pea-soup mixed with a certain proportion of bacon or lard, and dried so as to be portable, constituting in very small compass a perfect food, especially suitable for supporting muscular expenditure and exposure to cold. Better than any flesh, certainly any which could be transported with ease, the cost was not more than half that of ordinary meat. It was better also, because the form of the food is one in which it is readily accessible and easily digested; it was relished cold, or could be converted in a few minutes into good soup with boiling water. But for our laborer probably the best of the legumes is the haricot bean, red or white, the dried mature bean of the plant whose pods we eat in the early green state as "French beans." For this purpose they may be treated thus: Soak, say, a quart of the dried haricots in cold water for about twelve hours, after which place them in a saucepan, with two quarts of cold water and a little salt, on the fire; when boiling remove to the corner and simmer slowly until the beans are tender; the time required being about two to three hours. This quantity will fill a large dish, and may be eaten with salt and pepper. It will be greatly improved at small cost by the addition of a bit of butter, or of melted butter with parsley, or if an onion or two have been sliced and stewed with the haricots. A better dish still may be made by putting all, or part, after boiling, into a shallow frying-pan and lightly frying for a few minutes with a little lard and some sliced onions. With a few slices of bacon added, a comparatively luxurious and highly nutritive meal may be made. But there is still in the saucepan, after boiling, a residue of value, which the French peasant's wife, who turns everything to account, utilizes in a manner quite incomprehensible to the Englishwoman. The water in which dried haricots have stewed, and also that in which green French beans have been boiled, contain a proportion of nutritious matter. The Frenchwoman always preserves this liquor carefully, cuts and fries some onions, adds these and some thick slices of bread, a little salt and pepper with a pot-herb or two from the corner of the garden, and thus serves hot an agreeable and useful croûte au pot. It ought to be added that the haricots so largely used by the working classes throughout Europe are not precisely either "red" or "white," but some cheaper local varieties, known as haricots du pays. These, I am assured on good authority, could be supplied here at about twopence a pound, their quality as food being not inferior to other kinds.
But haricots — let them be the fine white Soissons — are good enough to be welcome at any table. A roast leg or shoulder of mutton should be garnished by a pint boiled as just directed, lying in the gravy of the dish; and some persons think that, with a good supply of the meat gravy, and a little salt and pepper, "the haricots are by no means the worst part of the mutton." Then with a smooth purée of mild onions, which have been previously sliced, fried brown, and stewed, served freely as sauce, our leg of mutton and haricots become the gigot à la bretonne well known to all lovers of wholesome and savory cookery. Next, white haricots stewed until soft, made into a rather thick purée, delicately flavored by adding a small portion of white purée of onions (not browned by frying as in the preceding sauce), produce an admirable garnish for the center of a dish of small cutlets, or an entrée of fowl, etc. Again, the same haricot purée blended with a veal stock, well flavored with fresh vegetables, furnishes an admirable and nutritious white soup. The red haricots in like manner with a beef stock make a superlative brown soup, which, with the addition of portions of game, especially of hare, forms, for those who do not despise economy in cuisine where the result attained is excellent, a soup which in texture and in flavor would by many persons not be distinguishable from a common purée of game itself. Stewed haricots also furnish, when cold, an admirable salad, improved by adding slices of tomato, etc., the oil supplying the one element in which the bean is deficient; and a perfectly nutritious food is produced for those who can digest it — and they are numerous — in this form. The same principle, it may be observed, has, although empirically, produced the well-known dishes of beans and bacon, ham and green peas, boiled pork and pease-pudding, all of them old and popular but scientific combinations. Thus also the French, serving petits pois as a separate dish, add butter freely and a dash of sugar, the former making the compound physiologically complete, the latter agreeably heightening the natural sweetness of the vegetable.
Let me recall, at the close of these few hints about the haricot, the fact that there is no product of the vegetable kingdom so nutritious; holding its own in this respect, as it well can, even against the beef and mutton of the animal kingdom. The haricot ranks just above lentils, which have been so much praised of late, and rightly, the haricot being also to most palates more agreeable. By most stomachs, too, haricots are more easily digested than meat is; and, consuming weight for weight, the eater feels lighter and less oppressed, as a rule, after the leguminous dish; while the comparative cost is very greatly in favor of the latter. I do not of course overlook in the dish of simple haricots the absence of savory odors proper to well-cooked meat; but nothing is easier than to combine one part of meat with two parts of haricots, adding vegetables and garden herbs, so as to produce a stew which shall be more nutritious, wholesome, and palatable than a stew of all meat with vegetables, and no haricots. Moreover, the cost of the latter will be more than double that of the former.
I have just adverted to the bread of the laborer, and recommended that it should be made from entire wheat meal; but it should not be so coarsely ground as that commonly sold in London as "whole meal." The coarseness of "whole meal" is a condition designed to exert a specific effect on the digestion for those who need it, and, useful as it is in its place, is not desirable for the average population referred to. It is worth observing, in relation to this coarse meal, that it will not produce light agreeable bread in the form of loaves: they usually have either hard, flinty crusts, or soft, dough-like interiors; but the following treatment, after a trial or two, will be found to produce excellent and most palatable bread: To two pounds of whole meal add half a pound of fine flour and a sufficient quantity of baking-powder and salt; when these are well mixed, rub in about two ounces of butter, and make into dough with half milk and water, or with all milk if preferred. Make rapidly into flat cakes like "tea-cakes," and bake in a quick oven, leaving them afterward to finish thoroughly at a lower temperature. The butter and milk supply fatty matter in which the wheat is somewhat deficient; all the saline and mineral matters of the husk are retained; and thus a more nutritive form of bread can not be made. Moreover, it retains the natural flavor of the wheat, in place of the insipidity which is characteristic of fine flour, although it is indisputable that bread produced from the latter, especially at Paris and Vienna, is unrivaled for delicacy, texture, and color. Whole meal may be bought; but mills are now cheaply made for home use, and wheat may be ground to any degree of coarseness desired.
Here illustration by recipe must cease; although it would be an easy task to fill a volume with matter of this kind, illustrating the ample means which exist for diminishing somewhat the present wasteful use of "butcher's, meats" with positive advantage to the consumer. Many facts in support of this position will appear as we proceed. But another important object in furnishing the foregoing details is to point out how combinations of the nitrogenous, starchy, fatty, and mineral elements may be made, in well-proportioned mixtures, so as to produce what I have termed a "perfect" dish — perfect, that is, so far as the chief indication is concerned, viz., one which supplies every demand of the body, without containing any one element in undue proportion. For it is obvious that one or two of these elements may exist in injurious excess, especially for delicate stomachs, the varied peculiarities of which, as before insisted on, must sometimes render necessary a modification of all rules. Thus it is easy to make the fatty constituent too large, and thereby derange digestion, a result frequently experienced by persons of sedentary habits, to whom a little pastry, a morsel of foie gras, or a rich cream is a source of great discomfort, or of a "bilious attack"; while the laborer, who requires much fatty fuel for his work, would have no difficulty in consuming a large quantity of such compounds with advantage. Nitrogenous matter also is commonly supplied beyond the eater's wants; and, if more is consumed than can be used for the purposes which such aliment subserves, it must be eliminated in some way from the system. This process of elimination, it suffices to say here, is undoubtedly a prolific cause of disease, such as gout and its allies, as well as other affections of a serious character, which would in all probability exist to a very small extent, were it not the habit of those who, being able to obtain the strong or butcher's meats, eat them daily year after year, in larger quantity than the constitution can assimilate.
Quitting the subject of wheat and the leguminous seeds, it will be interesting to review briefly the combinations of rice, which furnishes so large a portion of the world with a vegetable staple of diet. Remembering that it contains chiefly starch, with nitrogen in small proportion, and almost no fat or mineral elements, and just sufficing perhaps to meet the wants of an inactive population in a tropical climate, the first addition necessary for people beyond this limit will be fat, and, after that, more nitrogen. Hence the first effort to make a dish of rice "complete" is the addition of butter and a little Parmesan cheese, in the simple risotto, from which, as a starting-point, improvement, both for nutritive purposes and for the demands of the palate, may be carried to any extent. Fresh additions are made in the shape of marrow, of morsels of liver, etc., of meat broth with onion and spice, which constitute the mixture, when well prepared, nutritious and highly agreeable. The analogue of this mainly Italian dish is the pilau or pilaff of the Orientals, consisting as it does of nearly the same materials, but differently arranged. The curry of poultry and the kedgeree of fish are further varieties which it is unnecessary to describe. Follow the same combination to Spain, where we find a popular national dish, but slightly differing from the foregoing, in the polio con arroz, which consists of abundance of rice, steeped in a little broth and containing morsels of fowl, bacon, and sausage, with appetizing spices, and sufficing for an excellent meal.
Another farinaceous product of world-wide use is the maize or Indian corn. With a fair amount of nitrogen, starch, and mineral elements, it contains also a good proportion of fat, and is made into bread, cakes, and puddings of various kinds. It is complete, but susceptible of improvement by the addition of nitrogen. Hence, in the United States, where it is largely used, it is often eaten with beans under the name of "succotash." In Italy it is ground into the beautiful yellow flour which is conspicuous in the streets of almost every town; when made into a firm paste by boiling in water, and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, a nitrogenous aliment, it becomes what is known as polenta, and is largely consumed with some relish in the shape of fried fish, sardines, sausage, little birds, or morsels of fowl or goose, by which, of course, fresh nitrogen is added. Macaroni has been already alluded to; although rich in nitrogenous and starchy materials, it is deficient in fat. Hence it is boiled and eaten with butter and parmesan (à l'italienne) and with tomatoes, which furnish saline matters, with meat gravy, or with milk.
Nearer home the potato forms a vegetable basis in composition closely resembling rice, and requiring therefore additions of nitrogenous and fatty elements. The Irishman's inseparable ally, the pig, is the natural, and to him necessary, complement of the tuber, making the latter a complete and palatable dish. The every-day combination of mashed potato and sausage is an application of the same principle. In the absence of pork, the potato-eater substitutes a cheap oily fish, the herring. The combination of fatty material with the potato is still further illustrated in our baked potato and butter, in fried potatoes in their endless variety of form, in potato mashed with milk or cream, served in the ordinary way with maître d'hôtel butter, or arriving at the most perfect and finished form in the pommes de terre sautées an beurre of a first-class French restaurant, where it becomes almost a, plat de luxe. Even the simple bread and butter or bread and cheese of our own country equally owe their form and popularity to physiological necessity; the deficient fat of the bread being supplemented by the fatty elements of each addition, the cheese supplying also its proportion of nitrogenous matter, which exists so largely in its peculiar principle caseine. So, again, all the suet-puddings, " short-cake," pie-crust, or pastry, whether baked or boiled, consist simply of farinaceous food rendered stronger nutriment by the addition of fatty matter.
In the same way almost every national dish might be analyzed up to the pot-au-feu of our neighbors, the right management of which combines nutritious quality with the abundant aroma and flavor of fresh vegetables which enter so largely into this economical and excellent mess.
It will be apparent that, up to this point, our estimate of the value of these combinations has been limited, or almost so, by their physiological completeness as foods, and by their economical value in relation to the resources of that great majority of all populations, which is poor. But when the inexorable necessity for duly considering economy has been complied with, the next aim is to render food as easily digestible as possible, and agreeable to the senses of taste, smell, and sight.
The hard laborer with simple diet, provided his aliment is complete and fairly well cooked, will suffer little from indigestion. He can not be guilty, for want of means, of eating too much, fertile source of deranged stomach with those who have the means; physical labor being also in many circumstances the best preventive of dyspepsia. "Live on sixpence a day and earn it," attributed to Abernethy as the sum of his dietary for a gluttonous eater, is a maxim of value, proved by millions. But for the numerous sedentary workers in shops, offices, in business and professions of all kinds, the dish must not only be "complete"; it must be so prepared as to be easily digestible by most stomachs of moderate power, and it should also be as appetizing and agreeable as circumstances admit.
On questioning the average middle-class Englishman as to the nature of his food, the all but universal answer is, "My living is plain, always roast and boiled" — words which but too clearly indicate the dreary monotony, not to say unwholesomeness, of his daily food; while they furthermore express his satisfaction, such as it is, that he is no luxurious feeder, and. that, in his opinion, he has no right to an indigestion. Joints of beef and mutton, of which we all know the very shape and changeless odors, follow each other with unvarying precision, six roast to one boiled, and have done so ever since he began to keep house some five-and-twenty years ago! I am not sanguine enough to suppose that this unbroken order which rules the dietary of the great majority of British families of moderate and even of ample means will be disturbed by any suggestions of mine. Nevertheless, in some younger households, where habits followed for want of thought or knowledge have not yet hardened into law, there may be a disposition to adopt a healthier diet and a more grateful variety of aliment. For variety is not to be obtained in the search for new animal food. Often as the lament is heard that some new meat is not discovered, that the butcher's display of joints offers so small a range for choice, it is not from that source that wholesome and pleasing additions to the table will be obtained.
But our most respectable paterfamilias, addicted to "plain living," might be surprised to learn that the vaunted "roasting" has no longer in his household the same significance it had five-and-twenty years ago; and that probably, during the latter half of that term, he has eaten no roast meat, whatever he may aver to the contrary. Baking, at best in a half-ventilated oven, has long usurped the function of the spit in most houses, thanks to the ingenuity of economical range-makers. And the joint, which formerly turned in a current of fresh air before a well-made fire, is now half stifled in a close atmosphere of its own vapors, very much to the destruction of the characteristic flavor of a roast. This is a smaller defect, however, as regards our present object than that which is involved by the neglect in this country of braising as a mode of cooking animal food. By this process more than mere "stewing" is of course intended. In braising, the meat is just covered with a strong liquor of vegetable and animal juices (braise or mirepoix) in a closely covered vessel, from which as little evaporation as possible is permitted, and is exposed for a considerable time to a surrounding heat just short of boiling. By this treatment tough, fibrous flesh, whether of poultry or of cattle, or meat unduly fresh, such as can alone be procured during the summer season in towns, is made tender, and is furthermore impregnated with the odors and flavor of fresh vegetables and sweet herbs. Thus, also, meats which are dry, or of little flavor, as veal, become saturated with juices and combined with sapid substances, which render the food succulent and delicious to the palate. Small portions sufficing for a single meal, however small the family, can be so dealt with; and a réchauffée, or cold meat for to-morrow, is not a thing of necessity, but only of choice when preferred. Neither time nor space permits me to dwell further on this topic, the object of this paper being rather to furnish suggestions than explicit instruction in detail.
The art of frying is little understood, and the omelet is almost entirely neglected by our countrymen. The products of our frying pan are often greasy, and therefore for many persons indigestible, the shallow form of the pan being unsuited for the process of boiling in oil, that is, at a heat of nearly 500° Fahr., that of boiling water being 212°. This high temperature produces results which are equivalent indeed to quick roasting, when the article to be cooked is immersed in the boiling fat. Frying, as generally conducted, is rather a combination of broiling, toasting, or scorching; and the use of the deep pan of boiling oil or dripping, which is essential to the right performance of the process, and especially preventing greasiness, is a rare exception and not the rule in ordinary kitchens. Moreover, few English cooks can make a tolerable omelet; and thus one of the most delicious and nutritious products of culinary art, with the further merit that it can be more rapidly prepared than any other dish, must really at present he regarded as an exotic. Competent instruction at first and a little practice are required, in order to attain a mastery in producing an omelet; but, these given, there is no difficulty in turning out a first-rate specimen. The ability to do this may be so useful in the varied circumstances of travel, etc., that no young man destined for foreign service, or even who lives in chambers, should fail to attain the easily acquired art. — Nineteenth Century.
- Such as "Physiology," Science Primer, by M. Foster, M. A., M. D. (Macmillan); "Lessons in Elementary Physiology," by Professor Huxley (Macmillan). For a full consideration of the subject, Dr. Pavy's very complete "Treatise on Food and Dietetics" (Churchill, London, 1875).
- The vegetable kingdom comprehends the cereals, legumes, roots, starches, sugar, herbs, and fruits. Persons who style themselves vegetarians often consume milk, eggs, butter, and lard, which are choice foods from the animal kingdom. There are other persons, of course, who are strictly vegetable-eaters, and such alone have any right to the title of vegetarians.
- "Statesman's Year Book," 1879, p. 258.