from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: fast food …from 1861!

22 May. As part of the hesitant relaxation of the lockdown regulations, some of the fast food chains have been experimenting this week with reopening their restaurants.  McDonalds has unlocked thirty-three drive-through outlets in London and south-east England.  Burger King, KFC and Nandos are said to be exploring the challenge of selling food whilst observing safety measures. 

It’s a glimpse of pleasure, the possibility of going out for a meal, whether or not these particular outlets are entirely to taste.   But in my shielded lockdown, this is still a forbidden promise.   So as last Friday, we must be content with reading about food, again relying on Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861.

After reviewing the markets for fruit, vegetables and fish, he turned his attention to the ‘street-sellers of eatables and drinkables.’  Once more he found a trade of enormous vigour and variety.  He recognised that the demand was not necessarily for the most nutritious food.  ‘Men whose lives’ he wrote ‘… are alternations of starvation and surfeit, love some easily-swallowed and comfortable food better than the most approved substantiality of a dinner table.’  ‘Easily-swallowed and comfortable food’ is a perfect description of McDonalds and their rivals, however much their menus are deplored by nutritionists.  And like the fast food outlets of the modern day, it was essentially cheap, though far more varied.  The following feast was delivered to the penny economy of the London poor in the mid-nineteenth century:

The solids then, according to street estimation, consist of hot-eels, pickled whelks, oysters, sheep’s trotters, pea-soup, fried fish, ham-sandwiches, hot green peas, kidney puddings, boiled meet puddings, beef, mutton, kidney, and eel pies, and baked potatoes.  In each of these provisions the street-poor find a mid-day or mid-night meal

The pastry and confectionary which tempt the street caters are tarts of rhubarb, currant, gooseberry, cherry, apple, damson, cranberry, and (so called) mince pies; plum dough and plum-cake; lard, currant, almond and many other varieties of cakes, as well as of tarts; gingerbread-nuts and heart-cakes; Chelsea buns; muffins and crumpets; “sweet stuff” includes the several kinds of rocks, sticks, lozenges, candies, and hard-bakes; the medicinal confectionary of cough-drops and horehound; and, lastly, the more novel and aristocratic luxury of street-ices; and strawberry cream, at 1d. a glass, (in Greenwich Park). 

The drinkables are tea, coffee, and cocoa; ginger-beer, lemonade, Persian sherbert, and some highly-coloured beverages which have no specific name, but are introduced to the public as “cooling” drinks; hot elder cordial or wine; peppermint water; curds and whey; water (as at Hampstead); rice milk; and milk in the parks.  (p. 159)

That’s Fast Food!  Enjoy the sight.

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