Plzeňské sympozia

Martin Franc

Rumford’s Soup and Other Delicacies. The Poor Man’s Diet in the Habsburg Monarchy in the First Half of the 19th Century

pp. 99–110 (Czech), Summary pp. 111–112 (English)

The subject of this essay is the standard dietary composition in the poor sections of society in the Central European Habsburg Monarchy during the first half of the 19th century. Te study does not cover instances of emergency  situations such as those of famine or war. The basic documentary source drawn upon here are medical topographies, a genre of specialist literature existing most notably in the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. In these texts their authors, mostly physicians, provided detailed descriptions of specific localities, their residents’ lifestyles and other types of data, as material for analysis of health conditions in a given territory. They included in these studies observations on the condition of the poorest sections of society and their lifestyle, including their dietary patterns. According to the data recorded in these topographies as well as in other sources, the standard diet of the poor was unexceptionally dominated by the vegetable component, at that time still comprised largely of flour-based food including bread, whereas potatoes served as a staple food for the poor only in certain localities. Another important dietary component were pulses and, as a valuable supplement, also other vegetables and fruit, although information about the exact extent of their consumption is now scarce. While the average consumption of meat in the Habsburg monarchy during the first half of the 19th century kept at a fairly low level, it did still retain its position in the diet of even the most disadvantaged classes, above all in the realm’s more industrialized regions, and in Vienna. An important part of the poor classes’ diet was milk and certain dairy products, such as cheese. A symbolic element of the poor man’s diet, one whose existence was recorded by other sources as well was in the first half of the 19th century known as Rumford’s soup, named for an English aristocrat, Count Benjamin Rumford. The technology of preparation of food for the broadest popular strata is comparatively sparsely documented in available sources. From what information there is, however, it clearly follows that much importance was given to enhancing the piquancy of what were otherwise by and large blandly tasting dishes. Although the period in question witnessed an ever wider use of sugar, coupled with a slump in the prices of exotic spices, the medical topographies mostly document an earlier variant of the standard pattern, with the dominance of a sour taste that was often regarded as an attribute of inferior social status. As for the poorest classes’ beverage patterns, water was decisively the dominant drinking stuff in the realm’s rural and small-town localities during the first half of the 19th century, while in larger towns and cities it was complemented most often by beer or wine. Beyond that, the period under survey also marked the beginning of a more widespread consumption of coffee, albeit mostly in its surrogate forms, even among the poor sections of society. On the whole, diet of the poor during the first half of the 19th century remained monotonous and lacking in variety, notwithstanding intuitive attempts at enhancing its taste and enriching its vitamin content.

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