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‘Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring’

I’m just reading a book by Alice Thomas Ellis called Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring: A Gallimaufry. It’s a book about the history of food and it’s both very entertaining and extremely annoying. Annoying because it is indeed a gallimaufry (‘a confused jumble or medley of things’). The book is loosely organised into themed chapters, but within the chapters she cheerfully hops from topic to topic and period to period, often without so much as a paragraph break to mark an abrupt change of tack. The content is interesting enough to keep me reading, though. The emphasis is on English food from the 19th and early 20th century; more, I think as a reflection of Ellis’s collection of old books than for any other reason.

An example of the kind of thing I’ve been finding interesting. In the chapter about food for infants and invalids (the Victorians seem to have treated children as effectively invalids for several years) there’s some stuff about beef tea. I’ve seen references to beef tea in books but always assumed it was either like a consommĂ© or broth, or something like Bovril (a beef concentrate sold in jars you can make into a hot drink). But no. Beef tea was made by taking finely minced beef and soaking it in warm water for a couple of hours. You can heat it, but allowing it to boil destroys the goodness. Obviously. One writer suggested serving it in a ruby-colored glass because, presumably, even Victorians found something slightly off-putting in a glass of warm, bloody water. And if you find that a bit icky, how about a drink for invalids called ‘liver cocktail’: half-cooked, sieved liver mixed with the juice of an orange and lemon and a pinch of sugar.

Much of the book is less repulsive, fortunatley, since just the idea of the liver cocktail makes me feel ill.

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