Feeding Your Invalid in the 19th Century 1: Ivory Dust Jelly

Being sick in Victorian times was an entire lifestyle. It had its own modes of transport (the invalid chair), its own furnishings and clothing, its own vacation destinations. And of course it had an entirely separate menu! Most of these recipes are, mercifully, lost to us now. But some of these foods are so horrific, you just have to hear about them.

Sick people in the 19th century always got jellies. The notion was that you were too ill to digest regular food. In COOKERY FOR COMMON AILMENTS, from which I have transcribed this recipe, the author Arthur Gay Payne assures us that jellies are very acceptable to invalids, because (if made properly) they melt in the mouth – essentially a liquid food. Commercial gelatin having just been invented, the Victorians could turn anything into a jelly. And boy, did they ever. Not only the fruits and veg you would expect, but awful stuff like Irish moss, OMG!

In spite of the name ivory dust jelly seems to be more like a soup. We shall never know. I learned in my researches for A Most Dangerous Woman that the Ruskin family swore by it. (No wonder art maven John Ruskin had mental problems, if this is how his parents nursed him in illness.) And I Googled up a recipe with no trouble! It was a costly ingredient, so this was a food that only rich invalids got. Notice how the recipe encourages you to reuse the expensive ivory dust for one more round – something they also did with tea leaves. In the 19th century there was an entire ivory-turning industry, making elephant tusks into piano keys, billiard balls, furniture inlays, chessmen, and so on. Ivory dust is the equivalent of sawdust, what’s left over. So this recipe is totally un-reproduceable today. An equivalent might be our modern bone broth. If you substituted a pound of bones for the pound of ivory dust you might actually get something reasonably palatable.

1 lb. ivory dust (obtain it from any ivory turner, or a druggist)

5 pints cold water

½ teaspoon salt

Lemon juice or essence, to flavor

Put the dust in an earthen jar with the water and salt, and simmer for 12 hours. Take off all the liquid that is clear, and add flavoring. Another 4 pints of water may be added to the dust and simmered again. Add to other dishes as a strengthening ingredient.




Feeding Your Invalid in the 19th Century 1: Ivory Dust Jelly — 9 Comments

  1. In working our our cookbook exhibit last spring, I discovered that Fanny Farmer’s passion was in cooking for invalids; not only did the original Boston Cooking School cookbook include a full section on the subject, but she wrote a separate tome on the subject, which she confidently believed would be the work for which she would be remembered.

  2. My mom purchased her copy of Fannie Farmer in 1935(ish) as a college textbook! I do not know if that edition still had the cooking for invalids. She gave me a new edition as a 1st anniversary present in 1971 so I’d stop borrowing her copy. I just checked it, nothing about invalids in the TOC or the index. It does have sections on dressing game, butchering, and best of all measurement equivalents. I can’t cook without this text.

  3. I am grinning because actually Irish moss is used as a clarifying agent when you make beer! This sounds ghastly, and when you think how good bone broth can be for you, it’s just such a crock. It amazes me that anyone survives fad medicine–even today.

    I have an older copy of Joy of Cooking and the sections on barding fowls came in handy in KINDRED RITES.

  4. Just you wait until we get to beef tea. The poor invalids, I am amazed they survived at all. And what, exactly were you getting out of the ivory dust? Maybe it helped your calcium deficiency?

    • Look at the bright side: it was unlikely to do them actual harm, unlike the medicines of the day.

  5. Irish moss is an ingredient in a lot of commercial ice cream and milk products to this very day. It’s sometimes called kosher gelatin or carrageen (the actual Irish name.)

  6. There’s actually a recipe for Irish moss jelly, on the same page as the ivory dust jelly in the book. (Alphabetical order?) What all of this stuff tasted like one hates to contemplate. But the Victorians were really geniuses at making you suffer. For your own good, of course.

    • Discovered during research for Moon & Sun (1693, court of Louis XIV) that the better off and higher class you were, the more likely you were to be killed by your physician.

      Louis XIV lived his life in public. (I can’t even.) So the horrible medical things they did to him are pretty well documented. He must have had a very strong constitution.

      If I remember right, the only one of his grandsons who survived was the one whose nurse grabbed him up and locked herself and him in the nursery and wouldn’t let the medical gentlemen into the room.

      And then there was the father of military medicine, Ambrose Pare, who was ridiculed by his contemporaries for testing whether soldiers survived better if doctors *didn’t* pour molten lead into their open wounds.

      Three guesses who was right.