January 3, 2009

Experiments in Culinary History: Eating Like a Tenement Family

I recently came across a reference to an 1877 pamphlet titled Fifteen Cent Dinners. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I found a copy of the pamphlet online, and I got curious if the meals were as filling, nutritional, and cheap as the authors purports.

The pamphlet, according to it's author Juliet Corson (founder of the New York Cooking School), is meant as a guideline for the poorest working class families to provide a nutritional meal on the cheap. She proposes a meal plan that can feed a family of six for three dollars a week, about $57 in today's money.

In New York, a poor, working class family usually meant a life in the tenements. My curiosity stems from the desire to understand a small part of what life was like for these families by preparing and consuming the foods that made up their daily lives.

Although these families were also likely to be immigrants and were probably cooking some of the foods of their homelands, Corson assures her readers that the recipes are based around "...articles in common use among the working classes."

I'm going to start my experience with Ms. Corson's suggested menu. Here is my Bill of Fare for the next seven days:

I was struck by how efficient the menu is: the stock created at lunch has vegetables added to it for supper, then reheated for breakfast. Ms. Corson leaves an extra 62 cents ($11.94 our money) which she advises is for the purchase of "extra bread, milk and butter." I've decided it would be wise for me to use this money to purchase apples (because I would like to poop sometime this week) and lemons (to prevent scurvy). I'll also be taking a daily multi-vitamin.

I'll be working with 1/6th of Ms. Corson's given budget, so I plan to eat this week for about $10. I'll be keeping a running tally of the groceries I buy and each day I'll post recipes and photos of the foods I cook.

Ms. Corson says that "The cheapest kinds of food are sometimes the most wholesome and strengthening..." A statement that does not seem to hold true in today's society. The poorest classes are often the most obese, and the cheapest foods in the grocery store seem to be those that are the worst for you. Through cooking Ms. Corson's recipes, I hope to tap into an older, and perhaps wiser, way of eating on a restricted budget.

Or I might just end up constipated. I begin on Monday.

Fifteen Cent Dinners for families of six. (pdf)