You Can Thank Victorian England for the Bleakest Breakfast Recipe Ever
Charles Elmé Francatelli was, roughly speaking, a celebrity chef in the Victorian era. He was born in London, educated in France under Marie-Antoine Carême, employed as a personal chef for a string of noblemen, and served as the chief cook to Queen Victoria for two years. Around two decades after that, Francatelli took a post as the chef de cuisine to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. In the interregnum, he worked as a chef, steward, and manager at several tony private clubs. He also wrote a book called A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes. It’s grim as hell—especially at breakfast.
Let’s give Francatelli the benefit of the doubt and say his heart was in the right place. He was the author of the wildly popular book The Modern Cook, and was often quoted as saying he “could feed every day a thousand families on the food that was wasted in London.” Noble notion—if you’re not the one expected to feast on other people’s trash. Plain Cookery included ads from tea, coffee, cocoa, and groats merchants, and purported to educate those with “comparatively slender means” about preparing and cooking daily food “so as to obtain from it the greatest amount of nourishment at the least possible expense.” Great. Fabulous. Huzzah. Until you’re instructed to eat Thick Milk.
His other breakfast suggestions include potato soup (potatoes, water, fat), boiled pumpkin (though Francatelli admits he is “aware that pumpkins are not generally grown in this country as an article of food for the poorer classes”), rice milk (which doesn’t sound half bad, save for the meager portions), and plums stewed in milk and chilled (“give it to the children”). There’s also a bit of proto-native content in the form of another Thick Milk recipe bolstered with Brown and Polson's prepared Indian corn, sugar, and cinnamon—cited as both cheaper and better for children’s health than the previously invoked sloppy tea mess. (Conspiracy theory: The original Thick Milk recipe recipe was intentionally glummed-down to make the B&P recipe seem like a feast in comparison.)
Yes, Victorian times were bleak and hard for the masses, and surely the less fortunate were grateful for the altruism of their neighbors, but how do you swallow down Thick Milk when it’s served with such a large helping of condescension? As food historian John Burnett noted in his 2004 book England Eats Out: A Social History of Eating Out in England from 1830 to the Present, “Such recipes for the poor which could be made either by charitable bodies, or by the poor themselves, at home, became much publicized mid-century as a means of demonstrating that a satisfying diet could be found at very low cost—usually with the implication that the current culinary practices of the poor were ignorant and wasteful.”
Know who’s great at coming up with recipes that nourish not just the bodies, but also the spirits of poor people? Poor people. People who have had to figure out the hard way how to eke every bit of flavor and sustenance out of whatever is available. That’s how barbecue, stews, and so many of the world’s most delicious dishes came into existence. They fortify the soul, bring anticipation and pleasure, allow a grace note into the often bleak drone of a day full of worry. If a person starts out the morning with a mug full of boiled milk and flour, how are they expected to believe that things could ever improve?
There’s no way to know if Francatelli ever voluntarily started his day off with a glass of Thick Milk (other than for purposes of recipe testing) though it’s highly entertaining to imagine. But let us take the high road and be nobly possessed of largesse, going with the notion that when he wrote the recipe, his heart was in the right place (stuffed with onions, sage, and egg-soaked bread crumbs, basted in fat, and sent over to the butcher’s to cook, because you have no oven of your own)—even if was kind of a sloppy mess.