Sunday, 25 May 2014

1901 Workhouse Diet Survival Strategy

I had a really bad time on the gruel-and-bread 1834 diet. To be brutally honest, the gruel was as bad on the way out as it was on the way in. And now, starting tomorrow, I have to do it all again for the 1901 diet.

So, during this 'break' week, I’ve eaten loads (and I sincerely mean LOADS) of fruit and vegetables while I’ve been planning what to do about the oncoming gruel-tanker that is the 1901 diet. I really don’t fancy another experience like last time. 

I asked myself if food in the workhouse could really still be as bad as all that in 1901? I mean, that’s only just over 100 years ago, and most of my life has so far been lived in that same century. Surely we had moved on from gruel by 1901? 

Happily, my research has revealed that workhouse food did improve in the 1900s -but there was still gruel on the menu.

And so to the history bit: Records show there were increasing complaints and concerns about the quality and quantity of workhouse food during the last few decades of the 1800s. Finally in 1901 the Local Government Board decreed that standards must be raised, and produced a manual and a training program for workhouse cooks.

I have a copy of the manual. We know that cheap, but now thicker, gruel still featured, and it was probably eaten for breakfast. Other than that, the newly trained Edwardian cooks could choose whichever meal combinations they thought best. Norfolk workhouse cooks didn’t seem to write any of their choices down (or if they did, they’re now long lost), so I have no option but to make up my own meal plans. 

I’ve done gruel, and it was disgusting. In 1901 they doubled the amount of oatmeal back to two ounces per pint of water, exactly like the older 1797 diet. So I have tasted it (YouTube video here) and I’ve run out of expletives, so I’ve decided to give gruel a miss this time.

I've opted to eat normally for the week, with one daily exception: my main evening meal. That’s when I’ll be trying out the 1901 workhouse meal recipes. My family will be joining me on this venture (they don’t know about it yet, but I’m the one who cooks tea in our house, so they really have no choice)!

George tucks into Hog Roast at GFW
Luckily they won't have too bad a time, because the 1901 diet includes pasties, shepherd's pie, roly poly pudding and all sorts of other relatively normal sounding meals. 

From a cookery perspective, it will be interesting for me to put away all my shop-prepared 'essentials' like frozen pastry and to make meals entirely from scratch. I'm no Delia, but I'm not a terrible cook -and lets be clear, no ready-meals ever darken my doorstep- but I do like the convenience of bottled sauces with pasta, and I admit I am no stranger to the pre-washed potato. 

The first day of the 1901 diet coincides with a super event at Gressenhall, 'The Workhouse Experience'. Do come!

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