My Year with Mrs. Beeton – Part 10 – Invalid Cookery

Even the chapter on cooking for the sick includes a colour plate of the recommended way to serve food in the sick-room.

As we approach the end of our year of adventures with Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, for our second to last post, let’s take a look at what Mrs. Beeton has to say about cooking for the sick.

Mrs. Beeton has reserved chapter 44 (43 pages) for Invalid Cookery.  She begins this chapter, as with most of her chapters with general observations on invalid cookery.  Before we begin to delve into the advice Mrs. Beeton gives us, remember that none of these home remedies are proven and should not be taken as medical advice.

Our favourite domestic advisor begins by telling us that when it comes to the diet for the sick, it is not possible to lay down universal laws on the diet of sick persons due to the fact that given any two persons suffering from disease, the temperament, the disease and the needs of the one may be entirely different from those of the other.  She stresses that in any given case, one patient may be in danger of collapse from weakness while the other may have a high fever.  “One may need to make blood and regain strength, the other may be suffering from a lifetime of overfeeding and underwork.  It is evident that to feed all these people alike would be ridiculous.  What suits some patients might injure others.” (p.1344)  She goes on to say that some invalids may find food a discomfort and for them the only solution may be to make the food pleasant to the eye and taste and easily digestible, remembering that “in the course of any long illness the human machine is so worn that the least extra strain may stop its working altogether.”

So, Mrs. Beeton’s advice when it comes to the sick room diet is this:  firstly, select food that will provide the necessary nourishment but is also easily digestible; and secondly, select foods that will “compensate for any waste or drain upon the system.”

We are told when acting as the carer of the sick that often untrained persons will give in to superstitious faith in the cravings of the sick and will go against doctor’s orders to gratify these cravings.  She tells us not to give into these superstitions and follow a doctor’s orders when it comes to feeding the sick.

We are advised by Mrs. Beeton that “overfeeding gives no strength.”  She says don’t give in to the mistaken idea that because all invalids are more or less weak, that their weakness should be cured by food.  Feed a sick person only as much food as they can handle.  It should not be “forgotten that not what a man swallows feeds him; but what he is able to digest and assimilate out of what he swallows.”  For this reason, it is not healthy to overload the digestive organs as they may then fail to work to their fullest.

Mrs. Beeton goes on to emphasize that diet can sometimes act as a cure.  She says: “there are not a few diseases where the only hope of cure or alleviation lies in rigid abstention from some sorts of food.  Diet can often cure where drugs are useless or worse.”  Remember that Mrs. Beeton was writing in the 19th century when diseases were still poorly understood and few drugs were available to cure disease.

Certain rules apply to all sick rooms we are told:

1 – Give little food often. 

2 – Let the food come at stated times and punctually.

3 – When there is no appetite, give such food as affords most nourishment for the least work, either to the digestive organs or to the teeth.

4 – Put the greatest amount of nourishment into the smallest space and let the food be already divided.

5 – Let such work of digestion as there must be fall on the part of the patient that is best able to bear it, and the doctor should be the best judge.

6 – Only so much as the patient is likely to eat should be taken into the sick-room, and what remains should be at once removed.

7 – In a case of infectious fever, all remans of food should be at once removed and burnt, and on no accounts eaten by another person.  The nurse should not take her meals in the sick-room.

8 – For a convalescent the food should be as varied as possible.

9 – For invalids, never make a large quantity of one thing.

10 – If a food may not be varied, the mode of serving may be.  A stray flower or new patterned plate is better than no variety at all.  Lay a clean cloth on the serving tray and let the dishes and silverware be clean and bright.  Gruel served in a tumbler is more appetizing than when served in a basin or cup and saucer.

11 – Let all kitchen utensils used in the preparation of invalid’s cookery be scrupulously clean.

12 – crumbs are the great enemy to a patient’s comfort.  Tuck a table napkin carefully around the patient’s shoulder before each time of feeding.

13 – If a feeding cup is used, scald it carefully and keep it quite clean.  Warm it before using it for any hot food.  Keep one for milk and one for beef tea or broth.

14 – No cooking should be done in the sick room.

When it comes to cooking for the sick room, Mrs. Beeton recommends meat teas, broths and some savoury jellies as excellent restoratives.  Additionally, she extolls the many virtues of milk for patients of all ages, especially children.  She also recommends eggs, which she says are easily digestible when lightly cooked but that overcooked insoluble eggs will generally tax a healthy a digestion and should be excluded.  Finally, fish is recommended for the sick as being light and easily digestible.  Seasonings and flavourings should be used sparingly or avoided altogether!

One of the most common sick-room remedies – beef tea – is covered at length and readers are reminded to be cautious in the preparation of beef tea and the proper method should be followed, and that beef tea should be prepared differently for invalids versus convalescents.  With the latter being provided with “a more savoury and palatable preparation of the beef tea.”  Mrs. Beeton provides us with 12 recipes for differing types of beef tea.

One of 12 recipes for beef tea included in the book. This one has been marked with an “X” by some previous owner for quick reference.

The final section of the chapter on Invalid Cookery includes a full section on Peptonized foods.  These are foods that are subject to a partial and artificial digestion by the addition of pepsin or pancreatic extract / liquor pancreaticus as it is called in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.  She recommends peptonized foods for those suffering from severe indigestion or also in cases of gastritis or dyspepsia.  According to the preamble to this chapter: “When the natural digestive juices are deficient, and the stomach is unable to properly perform its office, those who suffer from this cause may, by employing one of these valuable agents, be supplied with more varied food than they would otherwise be able to digest.”

This section also includes foods for diabetics such as almond bread and custard all using saccharine in the place of sugar.

For our home manager of the 19th and early 20th century, Mrs. Beeton’s advice on how to care for sick members of the household would no doubt have been invaluable!

Just us next month for the last instalment of our year with Mrs. Beeton when we look at holiday cooking and the preparation of the daunting suet pudding.

Kathleen Powell is the Supervisor of Historical Services / Curator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre and the proud owner of a 1912 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

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