I should have had the curry: A Matter of Privilege

Laurie Wadsworth's picture

Author: Laurie Wadsworth

H-Nutrition Series: Figures

Commissioning Editors: Kristen Ann Ehrenberger and Nina Holmes


High above the North Atlantic, lunch consisted of lamb shank. Sitting in a jet heading west to home, I struggled to cut the large piece of rubbery connective tissue placed in front of me. There was no possible way to separate anything edible from that tight ball of tissue. Contemplating this failed meal led to a reflection on the previous two weeks, when I had taken a pilgrimage to understand malnutrition occurrences of the mid-19th century. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), minimal rations could not support fighting and injured troops of the British Army. Additionally, poor-quality coal made cooking-temperature control impossible (1). The toughened, overcooked meats and unseasoned broths were inedible. Hospital meals were limited to a single meal daily instead of the planned two, due to the untrained cooks and lower rations (2). Food allotted to fighting and recuperating troops dropped to ½ lb. vegetables (2 potatoes and an onion) and 4 lbs. meat for a month during the major offensive of the winter of 1854-1855 (2).

Why did this occur? To answer this question, research over the previous two weeks had taken me to the British Library and the Nightingale Museum in London. This involved reading reports and private papers of Florence Nightingale and chef, Alexis Soyer, who independently volunteered to travel to Turkey to address the food situations in hospitals and camps (1, 2). From a nutritional viewpoint at this time, foods were seen as either carboniferous or nitrogenous, which were understood as being restorative and reparative, respectively (2). It would be over a half century before the concept of a vitamin was proposed (3). 

To interpret the readings required a shift in my thinking processes. I needed to suspend my 21st-century perspectives and move to the knowledge and value systems of 1850s Britain. Without this change in thought patterns, it would be impossible to begin to understand the environment within which lay the foodservice and nutrition issues of the Crimean War. I walked through London neighbourhoods of Mayfair and Bloomsbury and sat pondering in squares where Nightingale and Soyer had lived. A visit to the London Museum helped to immerse me in the look and broader history of the time period under study. Walking through Soho where the 1854 cholera outbreak transpired brought forth the clash between medical sciences and miasmatists as paradigms were set to shift (4). 

The reflection as I traveled home and back into the world of current knowledge and values came from the inedible lamb shank that served as the conduit between the two time periods. I was faced with a food similar to what army troops saw every day in the Crimea (1, 2). My meal, though, consisted of other courses – a salad with smoked salmon and a fantastic cheese course after the entrée. I almost laughed out loud with a new realization. I saw things through my current lens, complete with all the privilege that entails. For a nanosecond after being unable to eat the lamb, I thought that I should have chosen the curry option, a definite state of privilege. Then the lamb shank spoke to me. This reflection helped me recognize the next step in this historical research. In all the readings and thinking completed, the perspectives of the troops had not been taken into account in a specific manner. Adding context from all levels of the British Army could help me see through the privilege of the writers who had lived above the working class. With this memorable airline meal came the message that I could not forget the voices of the malnourished fighting and injured troops in this story.

Figure 1: British soldiers arriving at the Scutari Hospital, Turkey from Balaclava, Crimea. 

Figure of one of four sculpted bronze panels on the plinth of the Florence Nightingale Statue, Waterloo Place, St. James, London. The statue is adjascent to the Guards Crimean War memorial. Sculptor: Arthur George Walker. Photograph credit: L.A. Wadsworth ©

References Cited

  1. Soyer, A. (1857). Soyer’s culinary campaign: being historical reminiscences of the late war with the Art of plain cooking and Military and Civil Institutions, The Army, Navy, Public, etc. London: Routledge and Company.

  2. Nightingale, F. (1858). Notes on the health, efficiency, and hospital administration of the British Army. Founded chiefly on the experiences of the late war. London: Harrison and Sons.

  3. Griminger, P. (1972). Casimir Funk – a biographical sketch. Journal of Nutrition, 102: 1105-1114.

  4. Johnson, S. (2006). The ghost map. The story of London’s most terrifying epidemic – and how it changed science, cities, and the modern world. New York: Riverhead Books, The Penguin Group.