A couple of posts back I talked about my mother’s pity for those who had to subsist on tea kettle broth or, to give it another of its names, toast water.  It was nothing more than hot water poured over bread, or better, toast that gave the water a  little color..

” In Devon, Somerset, Dorset, and Wilts, the breakfast commonly consists of tea-kettle broth, a milk broth or sop, or bread broth (consisting of bread, hot water, salt, pepper, and a little milk or a little fat of some kind, boiled together), or broth from bacon liquor with condiments, eaten with or followed by bread and treacle, and with or without tea or coffee.” (British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1860). Thanks to Adam Balic.

The The Frugal Cook by an on-line friend of mine, Fiona Beckett offers a modern version.

I’ve just been experimenting with what must be the most frugal drink of all: toast water which is, exactly as described, water infused with a slice of toast. It’s actually rather nicer than it sounds – it has a faint caramelly flavour which I think I’d want to accentuate by infusing two slices of toast in the recommended amount of water but that would obviously be rather less thrifty. (Thanks to Sheila Hamilton).

Fiona Beckett has a photo of dark brown toast infusing and some background on tea kettle broth as a drink for invalids and in the nineteenth century.  Invoking the trend toward interesting non-alcoholic drinks, she also suggests that it might even be the new green tea, made with whole wheat bread and a spoonful of honey and served chilled.

And why not?  If dark breads and polenta have shaken off the aura of poverty and become chic, why not tea kettle broth?  The upgrading of peasant foods to elite status is one of the great themes of the past twenty or thirty years.

Just a few days ago  the blog Simple Italy reviewed Pamela Johns’ Cucina Povera.  It has some moving stories of peasant poverty and a photograph of a woman winnowing farro in a basket. It included recipes for bean and pasta dishes that, like chilled tea kettle broth, I have added to my long list of “to try.”

Yet to make these acceptable, these authors must adjust the recipes to contemporary tastes. They include ingredients such as extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and cherry tomatoes when any salt would have been welcome to poor Italians. They talk about saving every scrap of bread to make crumbs to put on top of spaghetti. I don’t have a quarrel with this. I admire the attempt to find new and interesting recipes and I understand that the authors need to make a living.

Yet by all accounts spaghetti was far beyond the reach of eight out of ten Italians until well after World War II.  And as to drinks, as Carol Helstosky reports in Garlic and Oil,  “The poor in Naples collected their neighbors’s pasta water to drink, in the late nineteenth century and in the early 1950s” (153-54).

It’s just one more reminder that contemporary cookbooks cannot be taken as food history.  They would never sell if they were. An almost unimaginable gulf separates the food of twenty-first century Americans and Europeans from–dare I say it?–their grandparents.  Michael Pollan may argue that we should eat nothing that our grandmothers would not recognise as food. The problem is we have no way of recognizing what most of our grandparents recognized as food.


Thanks to Adam Balic and Sheila P. Hamilton for the links.

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