Over the summer I was involved in making a living history documentary on Victorian baking. I’m co-presenting (with Alex Langlands), and I was also a consultant on the programme. There are various things I could talk about in this blog, but I’ve decided to pick up on one aspect of each programme (possibly, I make no actual promises), and look at it in more detail. Today: episode one, day three, crammings.
Episode one covers the 1830-40s. The early Victorian period was, in rural Britain, one of massive hardship. So was the mid-Victorian period, and indeed the late Victorian period, depending on where you lived and what you did. But the 1840s have become especially infamous, mainly because Edwardian and later reformers wanted to make political points about protectionism and the Corn Laws, and so wrote a lot about it, and coined the catchy phrase ‘hungry forties’. There’s even a book called ‘The Hungry Forties: Life Under the Bread Tax’ (Unwin, 1904). It’s heavily weighted to give credence to the view that the ’40s were particularly bad and to lay the blame squarely at the then government’s door. Fine. That said, the oral testimonies and letters included do tell a truth, even if the direct link between bread tax, starvation and that particular decade is less clear cut. People were starving all the time, and there’s little to suggest the 40s were any worse than most of the rest of the period when you look at Britain as a whole.
One practice which crops up in The Hungry Forties book, and which the programme makers wanted to explore in more detail, was the eating of animal food in times of desperation. With any documentary, the aim was to both entertain (or no-one will watch it) and educate (or it may as well be the brain rot which is X-Factor and the like). Asking ‘our’ bakers to make animal food and then try and work out how on earth it could be made edible by humans, was just one way in which to graphically engage viewers in the themes of the period. Crammings are referred to several times, and that was the product which you will see on screen.
Cramming refers to the practice of fattening fowls. It’s similar to gavage, as practiced on ducks and geese today to make foie gras, but most of the references suggest that they seem to have had the pellets forced down in their throats, without a funnel to help, as per factory gavage today. It has a very long history: the practice of cramming poultry for the luxury market continued until the Second World War, but also was known in the Roman period.
It was also pretty widespread and references can easily be found in some of the best-selling cookery books of the Georgian and Victorian period. Here’s Isabella Beeton on chickens in 1861: ‘the fattening process…is to give them a gruel made of pot-liquor and bruised oats, with which are mixed hog’s grease, sugar and milk. The fowls are kept very warm, and crammed morning and night. They are put into the coop, and kept there 2 or 3 days before the cramming begins, and then it is continued for a fortnight, and the birds are sent to market’. In an early critique of intensive farming practices, she goes on to suggest that this process, when done in London especially, is very cruel.
Representing the Georgians, how about Mary Eaton, in 1822: ‘The method of fattening poultry for the London market, is liable to great objection. They are put into a dark place and crammed with a paste made of barley meal, mutton suet, treacle or coarse sugar, mixed with milk…[it] frequently kills them.’ and, on Norfolk turkeys, ‘[they] are literally crammed with boluses of barley meal till their crops are full’. Incidentally, in the good old tradition of plagiarism, both of the above borrow freely from William Kitchener’s rather more original Cook’s Oracle (1818).
Crammings, therefore, were made of bran or other filler, liquid and fat. They could clearly vary from region to region, but were largely based on by-products of the milling industry. It’s not a massive stretch to suggest that rural bakers, especially when attached to a mill, as at Sacrewell, where we filmed, would have turned them out as an easy way to make a few extra pence. Farmers would have made their own, and in bulk. Henry Stephens, in his Book of the Farm (1852) refers to cramming as a paste made with hot liquor and barley or other meal. Meanwhile 200 years previously Robert May opted for wheatmeal and milk (May, 1660). He is one the few writers to give details on making them, and specifies that the crams should be small and ‘well wet’. He also gives the ideal shape as being ‘thickest in the middle, and small at both ends’.
No-one suggests cooking the crammings, I tried making some and just leaving them to dry, which I suspect was the usual way as they could then be kept indefinitely. They would then have been well wetted with milk or water before the feeding process. They would have been pretty inedible in that form though. It seems that when starving rural householders tried them, they processed the basic ingredients into a dumpling – ‘You ask what sort of food we had. Well, crammings was common. It was made with what was left after the flour and the bran was taken away, and what was left, mixed with a little bread flour, we called crammings, but more often we made a sort of pudding with it.’ (Hungry Forties, 22). This makes sense – they’d hold their shape when boiled. Here’s another oral history; ‘Often on a Saturday I’d see Jonathan Heath, what was the son of a wheelwright who lived in the Petersfield Road an’ had a large family, comin’ along with a penny bag of crammin’s – that’s what they give the pigs nowadays – to make the Sunday puddin’ with’. (Ibid.,28)
All in all, it gives a fairly brutal picture of rural life. It was the day that the bakers stopped enjoying the sunshine and birds, and the novelty of wearing hose and drinking endless amounts of beer, and started realising that the past was not always a very nice place. Hopefully that segment also has a certain resonance with current debates around food and nutrition and welfare. Mind you, if that sounds vaguely pertinent to the 21st century, just wait until episode two.