Thursday, August 28, 2008

1815 Food

Soused pig's face!

It's Captain Jack Aubrey's favorite dish. In one of her letters, Jane Austen describes having just eaten some. But what is it, actually? Obviously there are pigs involved. My initial guess would have been that alcohol was somehow involved in the cooking process, like the 1815 equivalent of drunken chicken, but my limited Internet research, which led me to this fascinating book, suggests this is not the case:


Clean them extremely well, and boil them; take for sauce part of the liquor, and add vinegar, lime or lemon juice, salt, cayenne, black and Jamaica pepper; put in, either cut down or whole, the head and feet; boil all together for an hour, and pour it into a deep dish. It is eaten cold with mustard and vinegar.

In fact, the first definitions listed of souse as a verb are "to pickle, or to plunge or steep in a liquid, or to make wet." The slang sense of "to make or become intoxicated," which is the one I thought of first, is only No. 4.

I've been thinking a lot about food in 1815 lately, having been writing a chapter in which my time-traveling characters go to dinner at Henry Austen's house. In general, they find the food of 1815 hard to get used to, particularly since in their world of 2089 nearly everyone is a vegetarian, and meat-eaters are regarded with the kind of pitying disdain that cigarette smokers face today. (I am imagining the world of 2089 with certain politically correct, eco-friendly trends of today taken to ridiculous extremes.)

In 1815 everyone was a locavore; there was no choice in the matter. My characters probably approve of this, but not so much Mrs. Dalgairns's merciless way with overcooking vegetables, i.e.:


Wash and clean them thoroughly; if large, cut them into quarters, or divide them; put them on in boiling water, and throw in a little salt; boil them for nearly two hours.


Wash and clean them well; put them on in boiling water with a little salt in it, and let them boil quickly from three quarters to nearly an hour; serve with melted butter.

Quickly boil for nearly an hour? How is that quick? More proof of what we already suspected, that the 19th century had a different sense of time. Or maybe it just means a rapid boil?

Another fascinating difference: The Practice of Cookery has, in addition to a chapter about pork, a chapter about pigs: How to care for them and what to feed them, how to handle them after they are killed. (There are no instruction for actually killing the pig, making me wonder whether the potential readers of the cookbook outsourced this job, or it was something so obvious as to need no explaining.)


Anonymous said...

I have the very same question: what on earth is Jack Aubrey so fond of? I believe you are correct: a rapid boil is a higher temperature boil, rather than a simmer, etc. It does make one wonder, though, how it was actually consumed. Was it eaten with one's fingers? The meat in a pig's foot isn't easy to come at. The head was cleaned? Or boiled contents intact? The diners must have relished the fat, cartilage, and skin as well as the scant meat. Urg.

Jeanjaz said...

I have books and 'receipts' from a couple generations back in our family and they refer to a "fast oven" and "fast boil" or "slow boil" or "slow oven" when referring to the temperature since they didn't have a way of saying or even having a feel for the temperature.

On the soused pigs head, I have been listening through the audiobooks of P. O'Brian's Jack Aubry series and wondered about a number of the recipes, also. The best recipe I found with internet searches (although all were similar) is this one: Cook hogs head, pigs feet until all meat drops from the bone. Let cool. Clean all meat from bones. Add sage, red pepper and salt to taste. Cut or chop in very small pieces. Cool liquid until jellied. Skim off all grease. Add small amount of jellied liquid warmed to chopped meat, mix together. Place in stone jar or porcelain pan. (Never aluminum or metal.) Vinegar may be added for more of a souse taste. Press down with plate with weight on top to press out the grease. Chill until firm. Slice and eat with crackers.

It seems to me like a sort of pickled pudding, in the British sense of the word pudding. Some of the older cookbooks my grandmother had contained a lot of recipes using meat and gelatin. I would imagine they were similar to the British pudding and something that modern children would gag at the thought of, considering gelatin to be a sweet food, rather than a savory one.

I have to say I am glad I won't be around if those extreme pc vegetarians are really the mode in 2085. :)

Good luck on your book!

~ Jean

Kathleen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen said...

Thanks for your kind words, Jeanjaz! Since writing this post, I have learned there is a fantastic book, "Lobscouse and Spotted Dog (Which It's a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels)" in which an enterprising mother-daughter team from Long Island attempt to cook their way through (and provide recipes for) many of the dishes mentioned in the series.
It's both learned and very, very funny. I highly recommend it. The soused pig recipe sounds very much like you describe, and pretty frightening to the modern palate.
Slice and eat with crackers!! Eeeee!

Roy Haycock said...

Jeanjaz's recipe is exactly what my mother used during The Second World War to produce what we called Brawn.A pig's head and feet were not "rationed" and could be obtained from a friendly butcher( a very important friend to have during that war!).
Pig's cheeks, when roasted are known as " pig's chaps"and can still be obtained from specialist pork butchers in Lincolnshire. All are delicious when eaten with home made pickles. Other war-time favourites wereegtyou sheeps brains and lambs tongues !! Roy Haqycock