Peter Lund Simmonds’ book was the first truly global account of food, and it reflected a fascination with all things foreign.
In 1859, The Curiosities of Food was published in London by Peter Lund Simmonds. At that time, Simmonds joined other Londoners such as George Dodd, author of The Food of London, in a quest to understand food at home and abroad. By then, 400 million people had been added to the British Empire, each nation bringing a food culture that seemed exotic to the ordinary Victorian. Simmonds’ book was the first truly global account of food, and it reflected a fascination with all things foreign.
Following in the tradition of Victorian publishers, the title continues: Or, The Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained From The Animal Kingdom. The book is rich with information, anecdotes, and literary allusions to all kinds of fleshy ingredients, from fish to horses.
Simmonds is conscious of the thin line between food that evokes nausea and food that indulges the most indulgent gastronome, yet some of the food he discusses is hard to stomach. Horsemeat, for example, may delight a Frenchman, but it will disgust a Briton, and his chapter about horsemeat reveals his dry British humor: “At Paris, where all eccentricities are found and even encouraged…horsemeat was all the rage.” Simmonds reflects upon his inclusion of the animal’s flesh in his book by wondering if Londoners would soon be requesting, “A piece o’ horse, my kingdom for a piece o’ horse.”
Even more amusing is his observation that horsemeat had been sold as other types of meat, such as venison, in restaurants. Unfortunately, this stomach-turning note presaged the 2013 discovery that beef sold at a Tesco’s supermarket in the UK had actually been processed with horsemeat. Simmonds laments the practice of disguising beef in any way, describing the then-popular technique of “blowing the meat,” inserting a tube into a piece of meat to blow air into the flesh. This caused the meat to appear “plump and glistening,” as Frederick Accum described in his book on the adulteration of food in the early 1800s.
The Curiosities of Food contains history, science, and literature. Simmonds includes Roman history on the same page as a description of contemporary food fads, such as the arrival of “condensed” eggs in London’s markets. Readers will not only consume history and poetry, they will learn about plant classifications and geography.
John Milton, quoted in The Curiosities of Food
…Of fish that with their fins, and shining scales,
Glide under the green wave, in sculls that oft Bank the mid sea: part single, or with mate,
Grazed the seaweed their pasture, and through groves
Of coral stray; or sporting with quick glance,
Show to the sun their waved coats dropt with gold.
He ends the book with a summation of the breadth and variety of foods eaten across the globe and invites us to join him in understanding the world better by exploring the food eaten by those who occupied foreign lands and ate unimaginable fare. “Who shall venture to determine what is good eating?” he asks, and it’s a good question during our era of food-related obsessions and value judgments.