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

Since the BVC blog 1.0 evaporated, this material has been lost, lost I tell you, to all modern knowledge. Pleas from far elsewhere have resurrected this series, which is going to trickle out over the next month or so. As the elect among you may know, I wrote a multi-volume series of Victorian thrillers featuring Miss Marian Halcombe, a heroine last seen in 1860 gracing the pages of THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins. To that end I did more research than anyone really should have to do about English life the latter half of the 19th century. The most amusing bits made it into this blog series, which includes recipes when I could find them. 

Being sick in Victorian times was an entire lifestyle. It had its own modes of transport (the invalid chair), its own furnishings and clothing, even its own vacation destinations (Baden Baden). 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 MARIAN HALCOMBE 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.) I Googled up a recipe with no trouble.

Ivory 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 after the carving and cutting. So this recipe is totally un-reproduceable today. To keep the elephant from extinction we are allowed to neither sell nor buy genuine elephant ivory. An equivalent might be our modern bone broth. If you substituted a pound of animal bones for the pound of ivory dust you might get something reasonably palatable. I would flavor a beef or chicken stock with onion and celery, not lemon.

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.


5 thoughts on “Feeding Your Invalid in the 19th Century 1: Ivory Dust Jelly”

  1. Suid (pig) ivory has pretty much the same physical qualities as elephant ivory (other than being an enlarged canine rather than enlarged incisor). And given that feral hogs are a destructive invasive species, harvesting them is a positive good for the environment. Of course a boar’s tusk is much smaller than an elephant’s, but if you’re going to grind it for dust, you just need a lot of them — and unlike an elephant, which has a calf only once every few years, feral hogs churn out multiple litters every year (which is why they’ve become such a godawful nuisance in states like Texas and Florida).

    Sooo-eeee. Ho, piggy!

    1. There is nothing more delicious than wild boar — which is essentially feral pig. There is no season on them in Europe; you are allowed to kill them at any point you like, because they’re so destructive. If only I could get my hands on one I’d be happy to cook it, and turn the tusks into jelly for an invalid.

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