I am always tickled when I find something in an old novel that mirrors an ultra-contemporary concern. Of course, most of the time it’s because the concern isn’t as ultra-contemporary as we tend to think, and the whole thing just reveals our ignorance about history. Which is all to the good. But I still wasn’t expecting Matthew Bramble to be an eighteenth-century locavore.
At the beginning of volume II of Humphry Clinker, Bramble gives Dr. Lewis one of his country mouse/city mouse spiels, in which he explains how awful London is compared to Wales. Not only is the country air cleaner and quieter and generally more pleasing, but the country food is also far superior:
I drink the virgin lymph, pure and crystalline as it gushes from the rock, or the sparkling beveridge, home-brewed from malt of my own making; or I indulge with cyder, which my own orchard affords; or with claret of the best growth, imported for my own use, by a correspondent on whose integrity I can depend; my bread is sweet and nourishing, made from my own wheat, ground in my own mill, and baked in my own oven; my table is, in a great measure, furnished from my own ground; my five-year old mutton, fed on the fragrant herbage of the mountains, that might vie with venison in juice and flavour; my delicious veal, fattened with nothing but the mother’s milk, that fills the dish with gravy; my poultry from the barn-door, that never knew confinement, but when they were at roost; my rabbits panting from the warren; my game fresh from the moors; my trout and salmon struggling from the stream; oysters from their native banks; and herrings, with other sea-fish, I can eat in four hours after they are taken—My sallads, roots, and pot-herbs, my own garden yields in plenty and perfection; the produce of the natural soil, prepared by moderate cultivation. The same soil affords all the different fruits which England may call her own, so that my desert is every day fresh-gathered from the tree; my dairy flows with nectarious tides of milk and cream, from whence we derive abundance of excellent butter, curds, and cheese; and the refuse fattens my pigs, that are destined for hams and bacon….
Mmm, nectarious tides of milk and cream…and the cultivation is moderate and, dare I say, sustainable! And what of the situation in London? Well, the drinking situation is abominable—“If I would drink water, I must quaff the maukish contents of an open acqueduct, exposed to all manner of defilement,” of which pollution “Human excrement is the least offensive part”—and the alcoholic beverages are shamefully adulterated. And the food!
The bread I eat in London, is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone-ashes; insipid to the taste, and destructive to the constitution. The good people are not ignorant of this adulteration; but they prefer it to wholsome bread, because it is whiter than the meal of corn: thus they sacrifice their taste and their health, and the lives of their tender infants, to a most absurd gratification of a mis-judging eye; and the miller, or the baker, is obliged to poison them and their families, in order to live by his profession.—The same monstrous depravity appears in their veal, which is bleached by repeated bleedings, and other villanous arts, till there is not a drop of juice left in the body, and the poor animal is paralytic before it dies; so void of all taste, nourishment, and savour, that a man might dine as comfortably on a white fricasee of kid-skin gloves, or chip hats from Leghorn.
As they have discharged the natural colour from their bread, their butchers-meat, and poultry, their cutlets, ragouts, fricassees, and sauces of all kinds; so they insist upon having the complexion of their pot-herbs mended, even at the hazard of their lives. Perhaps, you will hardly believe they can be so mad as to boil their greens with brass half-pence, in order to improve their colour; and yet nothing is more true….—As for the pork, it is an abominable carnivorous animal, fed with horse-flesh and distillers grains; and the poultry is all rotten, in consequence of a fever, occasioned by the infamous practice of sewing up the gut, that they may be the sooner fattened in coops, in consequence of this cruel retention.
Of the fish, I need say nothing in this hot weather, but that it comes sixty, seventy, fourscore, and a hundred miles by land-carriage….
Oh, no, you need say nothing more on that count. I especially like that Londoners are knowingly absurd, rather than simply defrauded—what could be more like the complaints of the contemporary food activist? Bramble does, however, part ways with (many of) them in his concluding remarks, the best part:
Now, all these enormities might be remedied with a very little attention to the article of police, or civil regulation; but the wise patriots of London have taken it into their heads, that all regulation is inconsistent with liberty; and that every man ought to live in his own way, without restraint—Nay, as there is not sense enough left among them, to be discomposed by the nuisances I have mentioned, they may, for aught I care, wallow in the mire of their own pollution.