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Feeding Your Invalid in the 19th Century 7: Please, Sir, Can I Have More?

The Victorians adored gruel so much that the variations were endless – rice, flour, arrowroot, groats (a mixture of grains), cornmeal, toast, sago. It was the go-to food for everybody who was frail. As Mr. Woodhouse, in Jane Austen’s EMMA, says, “I recommend a little gruel to you before you go. You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together. My dear Emma, suppose we all have a little gruel.”

You will notice from this recipe that there’s no fiber left in the final product. Constipation was a Victorian obsession, constantly addressed by purgatives, and no wonder. This particular gruel is so dangerously stimulating that the royal chef Mr. Francatelli felt obliged to append a warning to the unwary. I wish he had told us how much wine and how much sugar, but perhaps this can be ‘to taste.’ The presence of the wine and the cinnamon stick shows you that he was cooking for the upper classes.


No. 189. How to make gruel with pearl barley.

 Put four ounces of pearl barley in a saucepan with two quarts of cold water and a small stick of cinnamon, and set the whole to boil very gently by the side of the fire (partly covered with the lid) for two hours; then add the sugar and the wine, boil all together a few minutes longer, and then strain the gruel through a colander into a jug, to be kept in a cool place until required for use; when it can be warmed up in small quantities.

As this kind of gruel is a powerful cordial, it is to be borne in mind that it should never be administered unless ordered by a medical man.


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