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Feeding Your Invalid in the 19th Century 3: Beef Tea

The Victorians and Edwardians put supreme faith in beef tea. Every invalid, every orphan, every wounded soldier, had to be fed beef tea.  This (complete and unabridged!) recipe is from 1851. To the modern eye it seems like a travesty. Note how labor-intensive it is, cutting a pound of lean beef into mince. If you want to try it, I suggest pre-ground low-fat hamburger meat.

Take a pound of lean beef and cut into shreds. Add a quart of water and boil for twenty minutes, removing any scum that rises to the top. When it has become cold, strain.

There are allied recipes for chicken tea, veal tea, and so on, that are exactly similar. The fluid was the color of ginger ale. What, oh you thrifty housewives may ask, happens to the meat left in the strainer? I sincerely hope that the bootboy, the kitchen slavey or the pug ate it. Even Florence Nightingale declared that very little of the nutritive quality of the meat went into the tea. The invalids were getting hot water with a little beef juice (the period cookbooks call this ‘gravy’, God help them) in it.

I can’t stand it. You want a broth that will heal the sick? Here is my beef stock recipe.

Get a quantity of beef bones and cheap cuts of beef – shin, neck, even spines. Some meat is essential for flavor. Ethnic grocery stores are the place to go to save money. Put them all into a roasting pan or two and roast them at 425 degrees for an hour. Turn them over halfway along, and at that point add a peeled onion or two and a peeled carrot.

When everything is nice and brown, transfer it all into a big stock pot. This is the moment, if you are Chaz Brenchley, to take the marrow out of the bones and eat it. Add enough water to cover all the ingredients by one inch, and bring to a slow boil. Skim any scum that rises to the top. This will take a little while. While you’re waiting, run some water into the roasting pan and scrape up all the brown bits. Also, accumulate other additions: celery stalks. Bay leaf. A good spoonful of peppercorns. Herbs, perhaps parsley, sage, or rosemary, fresh if possible.

When there is no more scum, add all the additions. Add all the water and brown bits from the roasting pan. Set the lid onto the pot askew, and adjust the heat so that it simmers very slowly, just a bubble every now and then. Leave it for at least 12 hours; Katharine Eliska Kimbriel swears 24 is better and I believe her. At the end of that period the broth will be mahogany brown and the whole kitchen will smell marvelous. You will not feel the least doubt that all the nutrition in the ingredients has been transferred to the fluid. Strain off the stock into a clean vessel and chill to bring the fat to the top. Depending upon the proportion of bone you used the fluid may set up solid like a jelly. If you do not spoon this jelly into the mouth of an invalid the stock can be frozen; I also save the cake of fat to use in making Yorkshire puddings. You can also use this recipe for veal stock, chicken stock, turkey stock, and so on.

Set that against your pale thin beef tea, and decide which is better!


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