Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 20 - Preserved Meats

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    IN the year 1799, at a place called Jacutsh, in Siberia, an enormous elephant was discovered embedded in a translucent block of ice, upwards of two hundred feet thick. The animal was as perfect in its entire fabric as on the day when it was submerged, and the wolves and foxes preyed upon its flesh for weeks. Upon an examination of its bones, the great Cuvier pronounced it to have belonged to an animal of the antediluvian world. We might fairly presume this to be the oldest specimen of preserved meat upon record, and Nature was therefore clearly the first discoverer of the process, although she took out no patent, nor made any secret of her method.
    The exclusion of the external air in this natural process, combined with the effect of a low degree of temperature which prevented fermentation taking place in the tissues themselves, man has long imitated. In the markets of St. Petersburg vast quantities of frozen provisions are to be found the great part of the year, and our own countrymen have taken advantage of the method to preserve Scotch and Irish salmon for the London. market.
    Our own illustrious Bacon was one of the first to recognize the vast importance of preserving animal food; and [-192-] the last experiment the great author of Experimental Philosophy performed, was that of "stuffing a fowl with snow to preserve it, which answered remarkably well," in the conduct of which he caught a cold, and presently died.
    Indeed, modern luxury has brought this process, in a modified form, into our own homes, and every man who possesses a refrigerator has the power of arresting for a time the natural decay of animal and vegetable substances. This mode of preservation is too evanescent, and at the same time too expensive and cumbersome, especially where transit is concerned, ever to prove of any great importance in temperate or warm latitudes.
    The more scientific and enduring method of excluding the air from the article to be preserved, has also long been practically known and roughly carried out. Good housewives of the old school would have stared, perhaps, if they could have been told, whilst boiling and corking down, hot and hot, their bottled gooseberries, that they were practising an art which, when performed a little more effectually, would prove one of the most valuable discoveries of modern times. But we do not exaggerate. The difference between the bottled gooseberries and the meats preserved in vacuo is only a question of degree, and the art of preserving a few vegetables from year to year, and of storing up whole herds of oxen and keeping them, if needs be, till doomsday, depends entirely upon the power of pumping out more or less atmospheric air from the vessels containing them.
    The first successful attempt at preserving meat by this latter process was made by M. Appart, in France, in the year 1811 ; and for his discovery the emperor rewarded him with a gift of 12,000 francs. His process was essen-[-193-]tially the same as that of the old housewife — he boiled his provisions, thereby getting rid of the greater portion of the air entangled in their substance, but instead of the clumsy method of corking, he hermetically sealed his cases at the proper moment with a plug of solder. This method was brought soon after to England, and remained the only one m use until the year 1839, when M. Fastier sold to :Mr. Goldner an improved process, by which a complete vacuum is formed in the canisters, thereby ensuring the preservation of their contents as long as the vacuum is maintained.
    This process, which is patented, is carried on by the firm of Messrs. Ritchie and M'Call, in Houndsditch. There is so much that is curious in their Establishment, that if our reader will walk with us, we will take a rapid survey of the actual manufacture, instead of entering into dry details.
    The room which we first enter is the larder — the people's larder. A. lord mayor would faint at the bare contemplation of such an embarrass des richesses. What juicy rounds — what plump turkeys —what lively turtle — what delicious sweetbreads  —what pendants of rare game — what tempting sucking pigs and succulent tomatas! Come next week and the whole carte will be changed; the week after, and you shall find a fresh remove. A. plethora in the market of any article is sure to attract the attention of the manufacturer. His duty is to buy of superfluity and sell to scarcity; and by this judicious management he can afford to sell the preserved cooked meats cheaper than they can be procured in the raw state in open market. We shall see presently how infinitely this principle of buying [-194-] in the cheapest and selling in the dearest market, and of storing for the future, can be extended, and what a vastly important principle it is.
    As we pass through the main court to the kitchen, we see a dozen fellows opening oysters, destined to be eaten perhaps by the next generation of opera-goers. Here is the room where the canisters are made — the armour of mail in which the provisions are dressed, to enable them to withstand the assaults of the enemy.
    The kitchen itself is a spacious room, in which stand a series of vats. There is no fire visible, but look how simply those half-a-hundred canisters of green peas are being dressed. There they stand, up to their necks in a brown-looking mixture, very like chocolate; this is a solution of chloride of calcium, which does not boil under a temperature of 320 degrees. Steam-pipes ramify through this mixture, and warm it up to any degree that is required within its boiling-point. By this arrangement a great heat is obtained, without steam. The canisters containing the provisions were, previously to being placed in this bath, closed permanently down, with the exception of a small hole through the cover, not much bigger than the prick of a cobbler's awl. And now observe, the cook stands watching, not with a basting spoon, but with a soldering tool and a sponge. Steam issues in a small white jet from one of the covers; this drives all the enclosed air before it; and at the moment when experience tells him that the viands are done to a turn, he squeezes from the sponge a drop of water in the hole; the steam is instantly condensed, and as instantly he drops, with the other hand, a plug of molten solder, which hermetically seals it. Canister after [-195-] canister at the proper moment is closed in the same manner, until the whole are finished.
    Rounds of beef, of 50 lbs. weight, can be preserved by this method, which the old process did not allow of. Poultry and game, which also require large canisters, have to be watched with minute attention; and here the skill of the French cook is brought into play; the process being, however, in all precisely the same. The canisters we have just seen closed down, for anything the manufacturer yet knows to the contrary, may be entire failures. All the air may not have been extracted, or it may have crept in after the sealing process. In either case the meat is spoiled, and it is as well that this fact be ascertained ere it be discovered to the dismay of the arctic explorer, or of the ship's crew straitened for provisions.
    The testing-room gives the "warrant" to the provisions. Here all the canisters are brought, after they have been sealed, and submitted for several days, and sometimes for weeks, to a great heat. We see them piled in pyramids, the covers all facing us like a wall. As the light of the fire falls sideways upon the glittering metal, it discloses in an instant an unsound canister, as each cover is a perfect anaeroid barometer, marking with the greatest nicety the pressure upon it of the external air. They are all, we see, concave, and therefore good. In the next heap, however, there is a canister bulged, or convex; this is undoubtedly bad, and the attendant takes it out, and turns its contents into the manure heap.
    And here let us say a few words upon the great scandal of the Goldner canisters. All the world has been shocked at the alleged fraudulent victualling of the Hungarian Jew; [-196-] and in the universal and hasty condemnation passed upon the man, his process has well nigh been overwhelmed with him. A more absurd or unfortunate judgment could not have been come to, and we heartily join the lament of Dr. Lindley, in. his lecture at the Society of Arts, "That a highly ingenious chemical principle — one that was unimpeachable, and capable, when properly applied, of yielding the most satisfactory results — should stand a chance of being impugned, owing to its careless employment." In every word of this we fully agree, and it does seem suicidal folly on the part of the public to conceive a prejudice against a discovery which is of great public importance in a hygienic point of view, and which has been attested and proved by such scientific men as Daniell, Brande, and Graham.
    But, says our reader, how can you get over the disgusting disclosures in our dockyards? How explain away the affecting picture of hardened commissioners fainting from the awful smell given forth by the putrid contents of the inspected canisters, and only kept up to their work by smelling at that benificent nosegay, Burnett's disinfecting fluid? How excuse or explain away the offal found in the canisters? We can only answer these questions by begging our reader to examine with us the true particulars of the case, unbiased by mere penny-a-line statements, seasoned high with horror to astonish the public. The best refutation of the charge of failure brought against the preserved meats issued to the navy, and of the charge of fraud brought against the contractor, is to be found in the report called for by Mr. Miles, and which has been some time issued. By this document it appears that out of [-197-] 2,741,988 lbs. issued since the first introduction of these meats, 2,613,069lbs., or 95 per cent., proved good and very palatable to the sailors, their only complaint being that they had not any potatoes. Of the quantity condemned, only eighteen canisters were found to contain so-called offal, the vast majority being rejected on account of the putridity of their contents. Now, the question which immediately suggests itself is, How did this putrescence arise? We answer, from the carelessness, or, to say the least of it, from the want of knowledge, on the part of the Navy Board, of the delicate nature of the packages which they submitted to so much rough usage. If the canisters were received into store by the Victualling Office in an unsound condition, the blame rests with that department; for we have shown that unsound canisters declare themselves instantly by their convex appearance. Granted then, that the meat when delivered was sweet, what caused its subsequent putrescence? We will place one of these contract canisters on the tablet and let it answer the question itself. We have before us, as we write, one of the same lot as those forming the contract of 1846. It has been kept in a dry place, and has not been handled since it was first received in this country from Moldavia. Yet it looks as though it had been in the wars: its sides are indented, we might say battered; its top and bottom plates are sunken in; and it looks as though it had been besieged on all sides. And so it has. An enemy, omnipresent, sleepless, subtle, and determined, has never ceased to assault it since the first moment of its manufacture. Its battered armour shows the force that has been levelled at it, and the gallant man-[-198-]ner in which it has resisted. This enemy is the universal air. If this canister has had so hard a fight to maintain itself, kept close in the even atmosphere of the storehouse, what must have befallen those wilfully exposed to damp, knocked about from depot to depot — now in the arctic circle, now in the tropics — now bundled together in the holds of ships, now landed with as much care as pig-iron  —what but that they must in the long-run have succumbed to the ever-vigilant enemy?
    An inspection of one of the putrid canisters shows us the exact manner in which the enemy obtained entrance. At one portion of the case where the tin has been cut, in fitting in the top, the iron is exposed; on this unguarded point, moisture, acting as a nimble ally of the air, has seized, and, singularly enough, has spread like an erysipelatous disease under the tin, until it has eaten its way through at some weak point. The admission of the air of course immediately caused the putrefaction of its contents. Here clearly moisture was the cause of all the mischief — the saline moisture of the sea to which it had been carelessly exposed.
    The proof of this was seen in the return of the condition of the meats issued to Capt. Austin's expedition in search of Sir John Franklin. To his ships, the Assistance and Resolute, 86,614 lbs. of a. superior quality of corned beef, manufactured by Messrs. Gamble, of London, were issued. Of this quantity, 35,150 lbs. were consumed on the voyage, and only 18 lbs. were discovered to be bad. On the return of the ships, however, a further quantity of 726 lbs. was found to be putrid, and since the remainder has been returned into the store, 1,226 lbs. have been condemned, [-199-] and the rest is understood to be in a very unsatisfactory condition.
    Now, from this it is clear that the meat was perfectly sound when shipped, and that it was not until the full effect of the sea air was felt by the canisters, that the meats began to perish.
    The weak point of the metal envelope having been discovered, a great many remedies suggest themselves, the best of which will be adopted by the manufacturer; and there is reason to believe that even the most wilful negligence will not in future render these canisters liable to corrosion; of course, we speak within certain limits, as we could no more expect meat to keep that it was determined to spoil, than we, could steel goods to retain their polish after having been dipped in the sea. The ordinary carelessness of sailors, however, must be provided against. The importance of accomplishing this, to a nation of islanders, must be evident. England, with regard to her dependencies and foreign countries, is like a city situated in the midst of a desert; vast foodless tracts have to be traversed by her ships, the camels of the ocean; and if these provisions are not entirely to be depended on, the position of the mariners might be likened to the people of a caravan whose water-bags are liable at any moment, without previous warning, to burst, and to discharge the means of preserving life into the thirsting sands.
    Properly secured, however, this method of preserving food must prove of infinite advantage in annihilating the last vestige of that terrible disease, the sea scurvy. The discovery of the anti-scorbutic effects of lime-juice has in a great measure banished this disease from our [-200-] navy, and the terrible ravages it once committed. are now almost matters of history. It is worth while to recall a few instances, however, to show its effects upon large bodies of men, because it still lingers in a subdued form in the merchant service.
    The expedition of Admiral Anson, undertaken in the middle of the last century, in order to intercept the treasure galleons of the Spaniards, consisted of three ships, the Gloucester, the Centurion, and the Tryal (a provision ship). The number of men on board when he left England was 961, and out of these he had lost, by the time he reached the island of Juan Fernandez, 626, all of scurvy. At this island, where fresh provisions were procurable, the malady stopped, as if by magic, and for the reason which we shall set forth by-and-by. Again, the Channel fleet, in 1799, under Sir C. Hardy, had 3,500 sick of this fatal disease, and within four months of a subsequent year, 6,064 were sent to Haslar similarly afflicted.
    All this suffering, all this death, was entirely owing to the improper nature of the food eaten by the sailors; salt junk, and an absence of fresh vegetables, starved the blood of its most valuable constituents; a general degradation of the tissues ensued, and the very life-blood oozed out in consequence at every pore. Salt junk is still for six days a week the main food of the navy — on the seventh the preserved provisions are served out. It seems difficult to conceive why the Admiralty should persist in supplying this unwholesome food whilst the preserved meats are much less expensive. The last contract for salt junk was made at 3l. 9s. 6d. per barrel of 208 lbs., or at about 6Ύd. [-201-] per lb. This stuff, all chemical analysis has proved to be utterly unable to maintain the muscular power of man. The method in which it is prepared takes from it all its valuable qualities. Liebig, in his "Researches on Chemistry," says, "It is obvious that if flesh employed as food is again to become flesh in the body, if it is to retain the power of reproducing itself in its original condition, none of the constituents of raw flesh ought to be withdrawn from it during its preparation for food. If its composition be altered in any way; if one of its constituents which belong essentially to its constitution be removed, a corresponding variation must take place in the power of that piece of flesh to reassume in the living body the original form and quality on which its properties in the living organization depend. It follows from this that boiled flesh, when eaten without the soup formed in boiling it, is so much the less adapted for nutrition the greater the quantity of the water in which it has been boiled and the longer the duration of the boiling." Can anything be more clear than that the navy is mainly victualled with a food which has the tendency of lowering the blood-making powers of the body, and consequently of laying the constitution open to the attacks of disease, as well as of keeping the muscular force below its natural standard?
    The persistence in this kind of food is the more extraordinary when we find that the yearly saving to the Admiralty by the adoption of the preserved meats, for only one day in the week, has been 10,000l; or the difference between junk at 6Ύd per lb., and good cooked corned beef, freed of bone, at 5d. per lb. And even to keep up the semblance of health in the sailors, to keep at arm's length the [-202-] dread scurvy, the utmost watchfulness is required to make the men take the necessary dose of lime-juice which supplies to the blood the amount of potass not to be found in the food, and which is absolutely essential to health. This corrective sailors look upon as a. medicine; and indeed, when persisted in from day to day, it really becomes very disagreeable — a fact long discovered in the captain's cabin, where cranberries and preserved apples are used instead. Is it surprising, therefore, that Jack, whenever he can, shirks the infliction, and suffers now and then the attacks of his enemy in consequence?
    In the merchant service, where no such sanitary surveillance is exercised over the men, scurvy is still rife, and the Dreadnought hospital-ship is at all times full of it. It is clear, then, that the prevalent sea-dietary is a degrading dietary; it is deficient in the albumen, the soluble phosphates, in the kreatine, and in the kreatinine, necessary to sustain vigorous life, and where lime-juice is deficient, a want of that potass which forms so active a principle of the blood. Now, all these desiderata are supplied in the preserved meats, with the sailor's instinctive addition of "a few potatoes." The canister beef parts with none of its blood-making properties in cooking, and the potatoes, which could be prepared with them, would supply the due amount of acid or potass necessary. We make this little recipe a present to the Admiralty, with the full certainty that it would be the saving of thousands a-year to the country, and that it would afford a far more palatable food than Jack has hitherto obtained.
    But a vastly more important question than even that of victualling the navy with cheap and wholesome food is [-203-] that of victualling the masses at home. What gives rise to the vast majority of disease in our hospitals? What is at this moment deteriorating the lower stratum of the population? — the want of a sufficient supply of nitrogenized food. Those who live by the wear and tear of their muscles are condemned by the present high price of meat to subsist upon food that cannot restore the power that is expended. In the income and expenditure of the human body, in short, they ate living upon their capital, and of course sooner or later they must use themselves up. Bread is cheap, because free-trade pours the full sheaves of bountiful foreign lands into our eagerly-spread lap. Why should we not have meat too?
    The much-abused Goldner, now a ruined man, has pioneered the way by which we may obtain supplies that seem almost boundless. When he first entered into contracts with the navy, finding beef in this country so dear, he looked about him for a. cheaper market. A Hungarian by birth, he naturally bethought him of the vast plains of Moldavia, where immense herds of the finest cattle in the world are pastured. Here he found that meat cost him absolutely nothing, the hide, hoofs, and horns, sent to Constantinople for exportation, paying the entire price of the beast. Consequently, he set up his manufactory at Galatz, on the Danube, in the immediate vicinity of his supplies, and from this establishment he issued to the navy, as we have said before, two and a half millions pounds of meat, 95 per cent. of which proved good and palatable to the sailors. This same meat an eminent London house would be glad to supply in any quantities at 3d. per lb. And this, be it remembered, is solid dressed meat, or equal [-204-] to a pound and a. half of raw beef; so that, in fact, excellent animal food, such as we ourselves have been partaking for some time, is obtainable according to the rate of 2d. per lb. We say this is as good news to the poor labourer as the quartern loaf at 4d.; and if capital would only turn its attention to the supplies of animal food which by means of this preserving process might be poured into this country, every man might have a slice of good beef sandwiched between his free-trade bread.
    Why should not this principle, found to answer commercially in Moldavia, be extended to every country where nature has supplied animal life in abundance? Why should countless turtle lie squandered about on the sands in Honduras, whilst there are other people besides aldermen and millionares in this country who love good living? Why should we not hear the cry, "Turtle soup, hot, a penny a basin!" The notion at first may seem absurd; but who would have believed, ten years ago, in "Prime pineapples, a halfpenny a slice?"
    At Varna, upon the Black Sea, fowls are only 1Όd. each. (That is, they were before the war.) Hear this with secret satisfaction, ye plump but costly Dorkings, that fatten only for well-kept tables; your occupation might well-nigh be gone, and the day for England not far distant when the wish of Francis the First for Frenchmen might be fulfilled, that "every poor man might have a fowl in his pot." The sea, too, might yield its treasures for the great bulk of the people. Why should not the surplus salmon of Sweden and Nova Scotia be preserved? — or Norway, prodigal in lobsters, pour its contributions into the Haymarket, and make supplies at Scott's a little more [-205-] moderate? What is there, in short, to prevent all the world from pouring its abundance into the lap of England, and her children from becoming the best-fed population on the earth?
    And you, poor bachelors, for whom cookery books were never invented — you, who have striven so long to maintain a miserable existence, oscillating between the wretched alternative of a chop or a steak — you, to whom dressing a joint is a deliberate act entailing upon yourselves the regular descent into cold and hash — you, to whom a leg of mutton is but an evanescent joy of the hour, followed by the too lasting leaden, cold, uncomfortable reality — how great is :your emancipation!
    According to Mr. William Farr's statistical table just published, only one woman in four has the luck of a husband; what the average will be when every man can get a good dinner and variety, we fear, for their sakes, to contemplate. If men marry — as a young friend of ours stoutly maintains — only to get the buttons sewn on their shirts, to have the cold mutton quickly eaten up, and to be rejoiced now and then with a pickle — if, we say, this is the truth, why, good luck to the poor women. Household joys will stand little chance, we fear, against the new "household provisions," and the canister meats will prove powerful allies of Malthus.
    And we have not yet exhausted the wonders of this discovery. We all know how in story books the magician has but to stamp his foot, and immediately a gorgeous feast rises out of the ground before his guest. Really, it seems the province of the people of this wonderful century to make all those old fairy stories — at which the eye of [-206-] childhood used to stare with astonishment — plain everyday matters of fact. Feasts hidden for years leap up at a moment's notice, and the plenty of the past is ever ready to subserve to the wants of the present.
    We were the other day at a house not a hundred miles from Burlington-gardens, where wits are wont to congregate, the host himself the keenest-thoughted of them all. The feast of reason and the flow of soul, vulgar as the truth may appear, has a wonderful tendency to promote the flow of the gastric secretions; at least, on this occasion there was a general call for anything but ethereal viands, and so the banquet spread before us as we spoke. Fish, flesh, and game; and fruit delicious sent a fragrant odour through the room. Now fell we to.
    "This pheasant is delicious."
    "I am delighted to hear it," said the host; "he gave up the ghost just ten years ago."
    "Nonsense: but this wild duck?"
    "Tumbled over with a broken wing, I see by the fracture, in the same year."
    "I suppose," said a doubting guest, "you will say next this milk is not foaming fresh from the cow?"
    "Milked," replied our imperturbable host, "when my little godson was born, that now struts about in breeches."
    "Come, now, what is the most juvenile dish on the table?" was demanded, with a general voice.
    "These apples; taste them."
    "I could swear they swung on the branch this morning," said a sceptic, tasting a slice critically.
    "Well, I will give you my word that a nourishing [-207-] neighbourhood up Paddington way now stands over the field where they were grown."
    " Let us have a look at the water-mark," said a doubting lawyer, inspecting a canister as he would a forged bill. There was the date upon it of — what for provisions seemed — a far remote age.
   "I shall expect next a fresh olive grown by Horace, to draw on his Sabine wine," chimed in a poet.
    "What a. pity we can't bottle up all the surplus brats," said the father of a family.
    "Yes, the day may come when one might order up his grandfather, like a fine old bottle of the vintage of 1790."
    "God forbid !" shuddered the inheritor of an entailed estate.
    And so the badinage went on. But we have given enough sterling proof of the value of the intention to excuse a joke or two, and conclude, ere we leave our reader like one of the canisters — an exhausted receiver.