Rachel Laudan

From grim to chic: tea kettle broth

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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5 thoughts on “From grim to chic: tea kettle broth

  1. C.M. Mayo

    Fascinating. It’s an important point that contemporary cook books can be misleading. Given the realities of most of humanity, it really is a very unusual and expensive proposition to publish a book, and of course this was especially so in the past, before digital publishing.

  2. Ineke Berentschot

    To be sick in our childhood – I am born in 1952 on a little farm in Holland – was some sort of joy. Our mother sold some oranges. And we were allowed to eat pieces of bread in warm milk.
    The bread was white. The bread was of a good quality in those days: long risen; elastic and firm inner structure.
    After my childhood bread in Holland became worse, sort of cartboard in the evening of the baking day.
    Nowadays you can find good white bread, or bake it yourself. And now when I like to eat ‘milkbread’ I immediately recognize the structure of the good white bread when I was a child. (Or is it the care of my mother that I taste?)

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Ah Ineke, thanks for sharing.

      It sounds as if our mothers did much the same when we were sick. For me. An orange. Or hot lemonade with the grated rind to clear the nose. And good bread toasted with butter (I didn’t like soggy bread). But the bread was good then, at least if you chose your baker carefully as my parents did (my grandmother was a baker’s daughter).

      And yes, I make my own. The bread in Mexico has declined horribly.

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