Saturday, March 18, 2006

After Dinner—the Rotund Victorians

So I cooked the Victorian Dinner, ate the Victorian dinner and now I have the Victorian hips. Just for kicks, I took the menu I published earlier on the site and tried to calculate the calorie count

Fried oysters-------------167
Oxtail soup----------------68
Salmon------------------- 184
Chicken Croquettes--------276
Roast Sirloin---------------177
Chocolate Souffle------------63

Which comes to a whopping 1,335 for one dinner! Now, granted the portions I used may be a little large, but I didn’t include all the side dishes, either, or the sauces that the Victorians loved to use. Nor did I add in the wine. So all in all, this count is probably about 500-1000 calories smaller than it would be when all the trimmings are added. For modern comparison, a Big Mac with large fries and a milk shake is 1,265 calories.

An active 150 pound woman needs about 2000 calories a day to maintain her weight. A Victorian woman could eat this in one dinner, and the kind of women who would attend this sort of dinner party (upper middle class to upper class) weren’t typically active. You'd think that these women had as difficult a time back then with weight control as we do today. Corset anyone?

So how did this all play out?

First of all, the phenomenon of the 8-9 course dinner was not an early Victorian experience. Early in the period dinner was a la francais . Basically this brought the courses down to about 3. Every diner had a plate, the food was put on the table and then passed around like we typically do at a holiday dinner. This differs greatly from the experience later in the period, when food was served a la russe, (
in which servants passed out each course on plates. In the first example, you could choose what to eat and how much. In the latter, you’d probably eat at least a little of every course so as not to insult the hostess. The latter would cause you to eat more.

Interestingly, the concept of (American) female beauty early in the Victorian period was slim and willowy—delicate. It was not fashionable, in fact, for a woman to display any sort of appetite at all. The ideal waist measurement was 18 inches and when dieting didn’t accomplish that (how could it?) a corset did. Some doctors played into this by advocating lighter menus for the delicate female body, and most people believed that that delicate female body functioned better with the support of a corset. I have to say here that when I read this I could hear my rebellious heroines wondering “If that’s true, how on earth did women survive before the corset?”, even as they try to lace the darned thing tighter, because women are slaves to fashion no matter what era we live in.

Later in the Victorian period, past the 1860’s the concept of female beauty changed. Artists started painting “fleshy” women. In the 1870’s doctors started advocating plumpness as a sign of good health. By the 1880’s it was fashionable to be plump and American women were more afraid of being too thin than being too fat.

It is interesting to note that dining a la russe became fashionable in the 1870’s, around the same time that plumpness became fashionable. By this time canning was widely used as were kitchen iceboxes. In the 1880’s refrigerator cars came into play. By the late 19th century food was cheaper and more widely available than ever before. People could quite literally eat more food, more easily. All of which has some similarities to today’s society: the notion that the rise in fast food has contributed to the rise in weight problems. It seems that the Victorian answer was to make “fat” fashionable.

And so, in answer to how I would handle my extra Victorian weight? It seems I might have celebrated it, unlike today when the answer is to diet and excercise. But I'm thinking that from a historical perspective I might just hold off on that. Maybe like the Victorians, instead of dieting, we’ll change our concept of beauty. . . .

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