Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Friday, 18 May 2012

Adventures of a Bouillon Cube: c. 1750

Who plays the English tastemaker?  The cook?  Or the customer always right?  This question has reared its head several times as I've been mining old newspapers for references to sauces and condiments.  Unlike the main ingredient, such as a chine of beef or a leg of mutton, the garnishing powerfully illustrates the individual's will in the construction of a national "taste."  Late 18th century advertisers believed that the application of a sauce could transform British cuisine into French, Italian, American or even Indian food.  As much as plumb pudding and roast beef were considered hallmarks of English cuisine, it appears that the possibility of choice, variety, and convenience of good eating were also crucial parts of that story.

Meet Elizabeth Dubois.  I haven't been able to find much biographical information about her as of yet; it seems like she might have been married to someone in the book trade.  I have only heard of her through her advertisements printed in the 1740s and 1750s as a seller of delicious and practical "Portable Soups" all over London.

She starts running the ads in the London Evening Post for what appears to be solid cubes of bouillon in 1744.  "This useful Commodity never spoils if kept dry," she claims, "and is dissolved in a few Minutes in boiling Water; and for Gravy Sauce is much cheaper and better than any usually made on the Spot."  Apparently, the single-serving sized cubes were the brainchildren of her uncle, the reputed cook to the late Duke of Argyll, invented while the Duke was engaged with wars overseas.  But she points out that they are perfect for other occasions ranging from long hunts "when the chace proves long" (you could chew it like a protein bar) to prolonged naval engagements abroad (when the diet of salted meats rendered good English gravy particularly difficult to obtain.)
As advertised in the London Daily Advertiser, 1747
A new (portable) means of preserving the flavors of herbs and fresh meat?  And it happened to be cheaper by the dozen (with a nifty tin box thrown in)?  Indeed, Dubois's advertising scheme had a sophisticated plan of attack.
A 21st century incarnation of Mrs Dubois's invention
But Mrs Dubois was constantly revising her advertising scheme.  In late 1749, she starts offering a special soup made of "shell and other types of fish, which is very palatable" for her customers who keep Lent.  Clearly, she saw these folk as an important untapped market.

Before long, she begins to expand her enterprise, selling her products in taverns and coffee shops all over London: from Billingsgate to Westminster, from her own place in Long-Acre all the way to Bath.

As her market expanded beyond the parish,
she vigilantly protected her ideas from theft
Bath, you say?!  The fact that her bouillon cubes made it all the way to this famous spa-town over one hundred miles away suggests that she believed that these portable soups would appeal to a fashionable health conscious crowd.  Wonder if Elizabeth Montagu, given her love of spa water and other health fads, ever got into these.

Service becomes more and more personalized.  After a few years, Du Bois begins to encourage customers to experiment with mixing her four flavors –– veal, chicken, mutton and "gravy" –– to their own personal liking.  She suggests adding salt to taste.  But still unsatisfied, she decides to take custom-orders beginning in October, 1752.  An ad in the London Evening Post proclaims:

"Having been often asked, why I did not make some solid Soups of Venison, this is to inform such who may be inclined to send their own Meats, of what kind soever, with Directions as to what Spice or Herb are approved, may have their Commands punctually obeyed by their laudable Servant Elizabeth Du Bois, at tte Golden Head ... near Long-Acre; where her strong Gravy Soup, Mutton Broth, Veal Broth, and Chicken Broth, may be had in the utmost Perfection..." 

Who knows whether her venture succeeded?  I never hear of her after 1756.  Regardless, Elizabeth Dubois's marketing ploys suggest that conceptions of eating "on the go" changed drastically around mid-century.  No longer would bread and hard cheese monopolize the market on portable foods.  Moreover, Du Bois wasn't just selling five different types of bouillon cubes.  Her use of culinary expertise –– selling something you couldn't get at home –– and her regard for customer choice imply that she was also selling an idea of English convenience to bring to the the most far flung corners of the earth.