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07 December 2023

Mixing food with fiction

Chef Fabian serves up the "barely palatable" gruel. (SUPPLIED)

By Robin Millard

It's not your typical cuisine choice – or scientific experiment for that matter – but the UK's Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) says it has perfected the recipe for Oliver Twist's most famous meal: workhouse gruel.

As a new musical production opened in London's West End this week against the backdrop of one of the worst depressions in living memory, RSC members consulted historical sources and Charles Dickens' beloved 19th century novel to recreate the porridge, which is made from water, oats, milk and an onion.

This week, the RSC ladled out bowls brimming with the gruel, which they describe as "barely palatable," in London, bringing the cuisine of Victorian poverty to credit crunch-hit Britain.

French haute cuisine artist Fabian Aid created the gruel. "It's half milk, half water. It's a bit like porridge. There's no seasoning, like at the time," he explained. "If you didn't have a choice, it was better than nothing. There's nothing wrong with it.

"I normally do fine dining. My influence is French food with a British twist," the chef added, but did not speculate how well gruel might go down in France.

RSC's Chief Executive, Dr Richard Pike, elaborated on why the society created an experiment of this kind: "The part that food plays in our lives has perhaps never been more memorably portrayed in literature than in the workhouse scene. This year, we will be looking closely at food sustainability and the part that science and engineering play in this."

The tasting comes the week the musical Oliver!, starring Rowan Atkinson as Fagin, reopens in London's West End. But according to scientists, "Please sir, I'm stuffed", is what Twist should really have said.

According to a report in the British Medical Journal, doctors contend that Dickens was exaggerating when he portrayed Twist and other orphans driven to the brink of starvation by a miserly diet of watery porridge.

In fact, the food provided under 1834 Poor Law Act, which set up workhouses for the destitute poor in mid-19th-century Britain, was dreary but there was plenty of it and the diet was nutritious enough for children of Oliver's age, their paper says.

In Oliver Twist, Dickens wrote that the orphans were given "three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sunday."

On feast days, according to the novel, the inmates received an extra two-and-a-quarter ounces (64gm) of bread. Four medical experts, with skills ranging from nutrition to paediatrics and the history of medicine, say such a diet would have killed or crippled the children, inflicting anaemia, scurvy, rickets and other diseases linked to vitamin deficiency.

They took a closer look at the actual historical record, sifting through contemporary documents. One important source for their research was a treatise by a physician, Jonathan Pereira.

He wrote it in 1843, five years after Dickens completed Oliver Twist and ignited a furious debate about the workhouses. Pereira found that the local boards of the guardians of the poor had a choice of six "workhouse dietaries", one of which they could choose according to the circumstances of each establishment. On the basis of Pereira's figures, using a recipe for water gruel taken from a 17th-century English cook book, the authors calculate Oliver would have had around three pints (1.76l) of gruel per day, comprising 3.75 ounces (106gm) of top-quality oatmeal from Berwick, Scotland.

Far from being thin, the gruel would have been "substantial," the authors say. This would not have been the only source of food. Pereira details "considerable amounts" of beef and mutton were delivered to London workhouses.

"The diet described by Dickens would not have supported health and growth in a nine-year-old child, but the published workhouse diets would have generally met that need," the paper says. "Given the limited number of food staples used, the workhouse diet was certainly dreary but it was adequate."

The authors suggest Dickens' attack on the workhouses may have come from his own deprived childhood and separation from his family, after his father was imprisoned for debt.

"Dickens' novel is a timeless chronicle of the abuse of childhood," the paper says, adding, though: "Fictional 'truth' does not always coincide with the true facts."