David Copperfield, a character in Jane Eyre Gets Real, was no stranger to the vagary of circumstances. He knew what it was like to be very poor, quite wealthy, and everything in between. Like clothing and housing, food has always been a solid indicator of the good, or the bad, life.
Unemployed, homeless people were consigned to workhouses in Victorian times. Lunch, the main meal, was called “dinner”. According to a menu from a real Victorian workhouse, dinners consisted of 6 oz. bread, 2 oz. cheese per person, varied by such alternatives as 8 oz. bread, 1 and 1/2 pints of gruel, and 12 oz. suet or rice pudding with vegetables. If you were really lucky you might get a bit of pickled pork or a meat dumpling. Breakfast and “supper”, the evening meal, were always bread, gruel and cheese with the occasional potato. There was never any dessert.
Ordinary middle class people might enjoy a lunch comprised of cheese, sausage, bread, bacon, and vegetables. Tinned food became available for the first time during the reign of Queen Victoria; it was less expensive, and thus less prized, than fresh meats. A rich man might enjoy a lunch of creamy soup, broiled fish or roast beef, piping hot bread, asparagus in butter sauce, with cheese and fresh fruit at the end–all washed down with a good claret. Wealthy children enjoyed a nursery “dinner” (modern lunch) at noon of mutton (considered the easiest meat to digest), brown bread, and milk. Interestingly, for breakfast they might have been served cocoa, eggs, and macaroni, something like a modern mac & cheese meal but at seven in the morning instead of six at night. Ladies were likely to have a large breakfast, light luncheon, and rich French-themed dinner, with a very pretty tea in between.
Forget the image of the weak Victorian. Historians suggest that, beggar or lord, they had stronger immune systems than we do. The working poor ate a lot of fresh vegetables including cabbages and onions, wholemeal bread, and beetroot. They would boil meat or fish bones for the broth. And cherries, known as “the poor man’s fruit”, were available for half a penny; an equivalent amount would cost close to $10 today. Due to the expense, they rarely smoked (at least the women and children), beer was watered-down, and sugar used sparingly. The average working woman lived to 73 and was still doing back-breaking chores such as laundry until she dropped down dead. Men also did hard labor until they collapsed at 75. As for rich women, they got their nutrients through all those little watercress tea sandwiches AND they didn’t have to lift a finger. Rich men, who did drink and smoke heavily, might have been the unhealthiest but as they had the best of everything while they were alive, they may also have had the last laugh–even if it came from the grave.