Did Bad Nutrition Begin with Importing Onions?




Commercial building owned in Almonte by R. H Pounder–Public Archives


New  Importation: A car load of onions arrived at the depot last week all the way from Vermont. Mr. D. Davis from Almonte purchased the whole quantity and is now retailing them out again. What do our farmers think of onions being brought from such a distance, into their market, and sold at a much lower price than they usually ask.– Almonte Gazette 1871


The mid-Victorian period is usually defined as the years between 1850 and 1870, but in nutritional terms we have identified a slightly longer period, lasting until around 1880. During these 30 years, we argue here, a generation grew up with probably the best standards of health ever enjoyed by a modern state.

Improved agricultural output and a political climate dedicated to ensuring cheap food led to a dramatic increase in the production of affordable foodstuffs; but it was the development of the railway network that actually brought the fruits of the agricultural and political changes into the towns and cities and made them available.



Bridge Street looking East to the theatre-Almonte= Public Archives


The imported canned meats were fatty and usually corned’ or salted. Cheaper sugar promoted a huge increase in sugar consumption in confectionery, now mass-produced for the first time, and in the new processed foods such as sugar-laden condensed milk, and canned fruits bathed in heavy syrup. The increased sugar consumption caused such damage to the nation’s teeth that by 1900 it was commonly noted that people could no longer chew tough foods and were unable to eat many vegetables, fruits and nuts.

But the generation of 1849 was not burdened by the counsels of professional dietitians. They made do with their mothers’ judgement…Among foods ‘discovered’ were common fare during the 1840s:  broccoli and artichokes. Other vegetables, of which there are numerous off-handed recipes in the cookbooks and references in the market reports were asparagus, lima beans, haricot or string beans, cucumber, eggplant, mushrooms, okra, rutabagas, and spinach, as well as tomatoes.

It is true that our forebears were inclined to cook their vegetables into a sodden mess, but eating greens and other vegetables raw seems not to have been uncommon. Commercially preserved foods were making their appearance in 1849. By 1855, the Mills B. Espy Company of Philadelphia was annually canning twenty thousand pounds of cherries, ten thousands pounds of strawberries, and four thousand bushels of pears, tomatoes, and peaches.

In the nutritional standards between 1880 and 1900 was so marked that the generations were visibly and progressively shrinking. In 1883 the infantry were forced to lower the minimum height for recruits from 5ft 6 inches to 5ft 3 inches.

 middle-class home meals: 1853
In the days before home freezers and rapid transit, suggested family menus were grouped by season and presented for each day. Breakfast would have been served between 8-9AM. Dinner would have been the main meal of the day, served sometime between noon and three. Tea would have been a light meal (at that time this meal was often called supper) before retiring.

“Bill of Fare. Winter.Monday.
Breakfast. Corn bread, cold bread, stew, boiled eggs.
Dinner. Soup, cold joint, calves’ head, vegetables.
Dessert. Puddings, &c.
Tea. Cold bread, milk toast, stewed fruit.

Breakast. Hot cakes,cold bread, sausages, fried potatoes.
Dinner. Soup, roast turkey, cranberry sauce, boiled ham, vegetables.
Dessert. Pie &c.
Tea. Corn bread, cold bread, stewed oysters.

Breakfast. Hot bread, cold bread, chops, omelet.
Dinner. Boiled mutton, stewed liver, vegetables.
Dessert. Pudding, &c.
Tea. Hot light bread, cold bread, fish, stewed fruit.

Breakfast. Hot cakes, cold bread, sausages, fried potatoes.
Dinner. Soup, poultry, cutlets, vegetables.
Dessert. Custards and stewed fruit.
Tea. Corn bread, cold bread, frizzled beef, stewed fruits, or soused calves’ feet.

Breakfast. Hot bread, cold bread, chops, omelet.
Dinner. Soup, fish, roast mutton and currant jelly, vegetables.
Dessert. Pudding, &c.
Tea. Hot light bread, cold bread, stewed fruit.

Breakfast., Hot bread, a nice hash, fried potatoes.
Dinner. Soup, roast veal, steaks, oyster pie, vegetables.
Dessert. Custards.
Tea. Corn bread, cold bread, stewed oysters.

Breakfast. Cold bread, croquets, omelet.
Dinner. Roast pig, apple sauce, steaks, vegetables.
Dessert. Pie, jelly.
Tea. Cold bread, stewed fruit, light cake.”
Cookery As It Should Be: A New Manual of the Dining Room and Kitchen, by A Practical Housekeeper and Pupil of Mrs. Goodfellow [Philadelphia:Willis P. Hazard] 1853 (p. 310)

Come and visit the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page– what’s there? Cool old photos–and lots of things interesting to read.

Information where you can buy all Linda Seccaspina’s books-You can also read Linda in Hometown News

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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