Meat consumption through the ages

Carina Perkins charts how the focus of meat in meals has changed since the Victorian era... and not necessarily for the better.

When Meat Trades Journal was first established in the 1880s, Britain was in the latter part of the Victorian era, a time characterised by the cry of ‘Eat, drink and be merry!’. For wealthy Victorians, eating was at the centre of social life, and meat was at the centre of eating. From cold cuts for breakfast to elaborate roasts for dinner, barely a mealtime would pass without some form of meat. “It depended on class and income, but if you could afford it, you ate a great deal more meat than we eat today,” explains Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, food historian and author of The Victorian Cookbook.

Meat all day long

Breakfast was a big deal for the upper classes in the Victorian era, with cooked and cold meats, eggs and kippers washed down with lashings of coffee and tea. “If in the upper classes, you would have lots of meat for breakfast, including sausages, cutlets, cold cuts and kidneys,” Berriedale-Johnson says.
Lunch was a more modest affair, although meat was usually present in the form of boiled hams, pies and game birds. Dinner was the main event, with five or six courses typical for a family dining alone, and as many as 12 or 13 common when entertaining guests. “During the course of the century, things moved on from the 18th century buffet-style service to the serving of course after course,” explains Berriedale-Johnson.

Raw or baked oysters were a popular appetiser, with a second course typically soup with fish. The main course was meat, meat and more meat, with roasted poultry, pork, beef and game. “Several joints would be the norm for dinner and they would be dressed quite elaborately,” explains Berriedale-Johnson. “It was an era of making food look realistic – if they were going to have rabbit, they wanted it to look like rabbit. They would dress whole boars’ heads and put them on the table.”

Among the working classes, meat consumption would depend entirely on income. If several family members were employed and the household income reasonable, meat would be eaten every day, albeit in a less elaborate fashion than the upper classes, while poorer families would be limited to meat once or twice a week. One cheap meat option for poorer families desperate for protein was broxy, a sheep that had dropped dead from illness, although this carried with it the risk of tetanus, toxoplasmosis or salmonella. Otherwise, meat on the bone was the most economical form of meat, and this was usually stewed or fried.

Of course many working class families would find it difficult to cook at home, due to long working hours and the lack of proper facilities. “Amongst the working class, cooking at home was often not an option a lot of the time due to the danger of fire,” explains Berriedale-Johnson. As a result, there was a thriving street food culture in Victorian England, with meat pies, sheeps trotters, ham sandwiches commonly bought and eaten on the street.

Offal in favour

One noticeable difference between Victorian and modern meat-eating was the popularity of offal. Judith Rowbotham, who teaches history at Nottingham Trent University, says that nose-to-tail eating was a key characteristic of the Victorian diet, with offal meats including brains, heart, sweetbreads, liver, kidneys and ‘pluck’, (the lungs and intestines of sheep) eaten regularly by both rich and poor.

“They made much better use of animals than we do – no-one would dream of throwing anything away,” she explains. “If we look in any Victorian cookbook the number of ways they served different kinds of offals was tremendous. A delicious savoury was things like bone marrow, which would be scooped out and eaten before the bones were boiled to make a good stock.”

While spit-cooking and roasting were favoured for dinner meats, Berriedale-Johnson says slow cooking was also popular. “One recipe I came across was beef cooked in water for 24 hours,” she explains. “Amazingly enough, it was really delicious.” She adds that the Victorians also ate far more boiled meats than we do today. “This was largely due to the fact that not many families – especially poorer families – had ovens because of the dangers of fire. If they wanted to roast meat they would have to rent the oven from the baker,” she explains.

In the absence of fridges and freezers, the Victorians had many methods to preserve meat. These included spicing and potting, where meats were put in a pot and sealed with an airtight layer of butter. Encasing meat in pastry was another way to prevent it from spoiling and pies reached their most elaborate forms in Victorian England. “Yorkshire pies, which featured several birds stuffed in each other sealed in a raised pastry crust, were very popular,” explains Berriedale-Johnson. “They were often sent as a gift around the country”.

Healthy diet

The meat-rich diet of the Victorians is often characterised as excessive and unhealthy, but Rowbotham says that this was not the case.

In 2008, Rowbotham wrote a series of papers on the Victorian diet and health with Dr Paul Clayton, former chairman of the Food Group at the Royal Society of Medicine. They found that if you removed infant mortality from the figures, Victorian life-expectancy was almost exactly what it is today. What is more, the main causes of death in the Victorian period were accidents, infections and heart failure, which was generally due to damage to the heart valves caused by rheumatic fever, rather than due to degenerative disease. Chronic degenerative diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and strokes, were rare, with the incidence of degenerative disease just 10% of ours today.

“The crude average figures often used to depict the brevity of Victorian lives mislead because they include infant mortality, which was tragically high. If we strip out peri-natal mortality, however, and look at the life expectancy of those who survived the first five years, a very different picture emerges,” stated Rowbotham and Clayton.

“Victorian contemporary sources reveal that life expectancy for adults in the mid-Victorian period was almost exactly what it is today.

“Given that modern pharmaceutical, surgical, anaesthetic, scanning and other diagnostic technologies were self-evidently unavailable to the mid-Victorians, their high life expectancy is very striking, and can only have been due to their health-promoting lifestyle.”

Rowbotham explains that the relative good health of Victorians was partly down to the sheer amount of food – including meat – that they ate, which resulted in more nutrients passing through the body. “They ate much more than we do and could get away with it because they were much more active and colder, as they didn’t have central heating,” she explains.

Victorian diets resembled the dietary recommendations made by today’s advocates of the palaeolithic diet, say Rowbotham and Clayton. They were rich in vegetables, free-range meats and offal, which has a high micro-micronutrient density. “A diet rich in offals is extremely good for you,” explains Rowbotham.
Additionally, many Victorian meals were cooked in one pot, so none of the nutrients were lost. “The Victorians would also make their own stocks and gravies from bones and keep the water used to boil vegetables to make sauces,” she explains.

Even street food during the Victorian times was healthier than the fast food available to us today, says Rowbotham. “The street food that was on sale at the time was actually better for you than ready meals and fast food we consume now”.

The health of the Victorians only started to decline in the latter part of the era, when processed, imported foods such as sugar and canned meats started to arrive from abroad. “One of the challenges that the fresh meat industry faced in the 1880s was imported meat, which really hit the health of men. Imported products such as corned beef were high in fat and salt,” says Rowbotham.

Edwardian times

Meat continued to play an important role in the diet throughout the Edwardian period, which was characterised by the arrival of the restaurant, the celebrity chef and exotic new dishes. Although meat consumption dwindled during the rationing and price increases experienced during the First and Second World Wars, the post-war decades saw it rise again steadily, reaching record levels by the 1960s. According to the Food Standards Agency, average red meat consumption in the 1970s was 450g per week, compared to 247g today.

In fact, meat-eating only began to wane in the 1980s, when concerns over saturated fat led the UK government to change its public health advice, warning people to reduce their red meat consumption and eat more starchy carbohydrates. Figures for the decade suggest that there was a 25% decrease in meat consumption among higher-income groups and a 12.5% decrease among lower-income groups. Red meat took the biggest hit, with people swapping from beef and pork to poultry in a bid to stay healthy.

Gradually, people switched to more carbohydrate-heavy meals, which used meat as an ingredient rather than the centrepiece. This is reflected in the most popular foods in Britain today, with spaghetti bolognese, cottage pie and curries topping our list of favourite foods and roasts relegated to the weekend. Offals disappeared from the menu completely, as people sought to distance themselves from the animal origin of the meat they ate.

Interestingly, the changes to our diet seem to have done us more harm than good. Although heart diease rates have come down, they have not come down as much as one would expect given the huge leaps made in medical intervention, and remain high above those in the Victorian era. Even more worryingly, the rates of other diet-related degenerative dieases have gone through the roof since we changed our eating habits, as has obestity.

According to figures from the World Health Organisation, obesity rates have soared since the 1970s, with two-thirds of UK citizens now considered overweight or obese compared to just 2.7% in 1972 .
Diabetes rates for UK adults more than doubled between 1972 and 1982 and then almost doubled again by 1989, and almost doubled again by 1999. Bowel cancer rates increased by 36% for men and 15% for women between 1971 and 2010.

Many of these diseases are blamed on red meat consumption, but the fact that we eat less red meat than we did in the 1970s would suggest otherwise. As does the relative good health of the Victorians, who ate red meat in abundance. As Rowbotham and Clayton pointed out in their papers on the Victorian diet, “although the mid-Victorians lived as long as we do, they were relatively immune to the chronic degenerative diseases that are the most important causes of ill health and death today”.

So perhaps we have a lesson or two to learn from the Victorians, for whom meat was the mark of a good diet, and who lived free of many the diseases that plague us today.