Monday, April 23, 2007

Always on my mind...

When we are in the field Jan fixes lunches for us, usually in small coolers that fit in the tractor cab. I have discovered that by oh, about 9:45, my thoughts and gaze rest often on that small red cube, and by 11:15 it's usually gone - including the afternoon snack.

It turns out I am not merely weak-willed. I am being historically accurate.
Today many people find it strange that the biggest meal of the day once centered around noon, but it made great sense at the time. Artificial lighting such as oil lamps and candles were expensive, and provided weak illumination at best. So people went to sleep at sundown, because it's difficult to work and eat in the dark. The last meal of the day was a rushed affair, a quick snack before the lights (the sun) went out. The only exceptions were those who had to work at night, and the extremely wealthy and powerful people at royal courts. The wealthiest courts, like those of France and Burgundy might stay up after sunset, their grandly decorated halls illuminated by thousands of candles or torches. But they were unusual; most medieval people never witnessed such spectacles.

Traders and merchants, who sometimes had to stay in the shop to handle the last daylight stragglers amongst their customers, might close shop at dusk and spend the last hour or two of their day in candlelight or firelight. But they made it to bed as quickly as they could, to rise early the next day and open up their shops again. Only the extremely wealthy had candles to burn and could waste daylight hours sleeping in late. So supper, the third and last meal of the day, was usually eaten before the sun went down, or very shortly afterward.

The English knew the last meal of the day as supper, and it was a light repast, usually made of cold leftovers from dinner. People generally went to sleep soon after eating it, and did not like to go to bed on a full stomach any more than modern people do.

Most nobles and manor lords ate supper between four and six p.m. They might have entertainment afterward, unlike the lower classes, but even nobles usually went to bed before too many hours had passed. Peasants might have just the last of the day's bread for supper, eaten at sundown. Then they went to sleep, to be up and working with the sunrise.

And that was the standard schedule for centuries. There were some exceptions, of course. People at the wealthiest courts might stay up after dark, as already mentioned. They had plenty of money for things like candles and rush lights, and were used to the world revolving around their schedules, rather than the other way around. A king or a lord who was passionate enough about his pursuits to put off eating for hours while hunting would make his retainers and family wait too. [More]

A couple of years ago, our power went out from storm and we discovered how powerful the diurnal schedule is. The sun goes down, and without light, you go to bed.

As for the eating part, even patrons of the Hungry Heifer couldn't keep up with the prodigious meals of the Edwardian upper class. Consider this one day:
Breakfast: Porridge, sardines, curried eggs, grilled cutlets, coffee, hot chocolate, bread, butter, honey.

The meal is served at the Edwardian house in Barnes in which I am residing with my co-presenter Sue Perkins, and is cooked, as all our meals here will be, by the great Sophie Grigson from a weekly menu taken from an Edwardian housekeeping book.

I go at it full tilt, using the age-old technique of “surprising my stomach” by getting as much as possible down before it realises I am full. I do myself proud and end by wiping my fifth cutlet in the remaining curry sauce from my eggs. Sue, a demi-semi-vegetarian, has not fared so well, going green halfway through her first sardine. We discuss briefly how income tax at the preposterously low rate of 5 per cent freed up plenty of cash for eating, but are interrupted by Sophie ringing the bell to announce lunch.

Lunch: Sauté of kidneys on toast, mashed potatoes, macaroni au gratin, rolled ox tongue.

Good stuff, this. Toast all mulched with kidney fat and blood, macaroni good and rich, tongue gigantic and purple. It is exactly what Dr Petty wants me to avoid.

Afternoon tea: Fruit cake, Madeira cake, hot potato cakes, coconut rocks, bread, toast, butter.

High tea was invented by the Edwardians to stave off hunger during the endless minutes between lunch and dinner. Everything is very brown.

Dinner: Oyster patties, sirloin steak, braised celery, roast goose, potato scallops, vanilla soufflé.

Oysters, the gouty man’s nemesis. I swallow eight in my patties. I carve the goose, as the man of the house always did, and find that it is not easy in the stiff-fronted shirt I am wearing with my white tie, nor can I properly incline my neck to observe my work, what with the 3in-high stiff separate collar I am wearing, and thus very nearly lose a thumb. Sue says that I can shut up until I have worn a corset. Apparently her spleen and kidneys have already been forced up into her ribcage (a recognised problem of the Edwardian lady) and her stomach, contained in a waist now narrowed to the width of a toddler’s thigh, is no longer allowing ingress of food.

And so to bed. But up again an hour later for a midnight snack of roast chicken and Madeira. King Edward always took a roast chicken to bed with him, so it seems only right. Alas, after my chicken, I do not get back to sleep. I have consumed 5,000 calories in a single day, well over Dr Petty’s recommendation of 1,800, and toss and turn and rumble until dawn. [More]

Remember, you are what you eat.

Is it me, or is it hungry in here?

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