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Feeding Your Invalid in the 19th Century 6: Gruel

When we think of godawful 19th century food, gruel comes immediately to mind. Remember Grace Poole bringing the mess to a boil in the attic for the mad wife Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre? The very word recalls little Oliver Twist, holding the bowl and pathetically asking for more. Or who can forget Mr. Woodhouse offering to share a nice basin of gruel with Emma in the Austen novel.

This recipe is a luxe one, from Queen Victoria’s chef Mr. Francatelli, who is responsible for not telling us how much arrowroot. I would add a spoonful. If you were running a workhouse you would use only oatmeal and water. Sixteen ounces to a pint of water was considered a generously adequate ratio and would get you a soupy substance that you could not quite see the bottom of the bowl through. Workhouse managers so frequently abused their charges by watering the gruel that sometimes the proportions were set by regulation.

No. 185. Gruel made with oatmeal.

In the absence of groats, oatmeal furnishes the means of making excellent gruel. Mix two table-spoonfuls of oatmeal with a gill of cold water; pour this into a saucepan containing a pint of hot water, stir the gruel on the fire while it boils and a glass of wine; stir the arrow-root while it is boiling on the fire for a few minutes, and then give it to the patient.

Observe that it is essential to perfection in the preparation of arrow-root, and, indeed, of all farinaceous kinds of food, that the whole of the ingredients used in the preparation should be boiled together.

A glass of wine, gad! Overly stimulating, sir. It would drive the workhouse orphans mad!


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