Book Review — The Greedy Queen – Eating With Victoria

The Greedy Queen – Eating With Victoria
Annie Gray
Profile Books, 2017

Queen Victoria was one of the most interesting characters in history, whether you look at her from the perspective of royalty, parent, or politician. But what about Victoria’s life in food? She certainly did love to eat, as food historian Dr. Annie Gray points out in this detailed work about not just Victoria’s own meals but about how food was procured, prepared, and eaten within the royal palaces during the Victorian era.

From corruption and theft to kitchens that often flooded with backed-up sewage, right down to the variance in menus for staff, courtiers, and the royal family (the kitchens sometimes needed to turn out thousands of meals per day, most with extensive multi-course menus), Gray covers it all, from Victoria’s first meal as Queen to her last.

Along the way, Victoria, like many women of her day and for every generation since, struggled with her weight and her heavy, multi-course meals caused her endless indigestion and weight gain as she aged. Despite the many dishes, plus an omnipresent groaning sideboard -— you know, an extra roast or two, just in case you’re still a bit peckish — accounts of dining with Victoria don’t sound particularly pleasant; she reportedly wolfed her food and wasn’t a great conversationalist.

Gray offers extensive exploration of the royal kitchen accounts, including the difficulties in keeping quality staff, and spends a good amount of time discussing farm and garden initiatives implemented by Victoria and Albert at all the castles, including the Swiss Cottage built at Osbourne for the royal children with its own smaller-scale working kitchen. Food was obviously important to Victoria.

There are places where Gray seemingly contradicts herself — Victoria was a daring eater, with a love of Indian food and and a willingness to try new things, or she was set in her ways (it took her decades to agree to change from French service to the now-standard Russian, she ate lamb or mutton at most meals) — but there was undoubtedly a lot of information, menus, and recipes to sift through.

Gray includes a collection of recipes for some of Victoria’s favourite dishes, modernized, thankfully for current kitchens and palates.

While The Greedy Queen can get a bit dry in places, it’s mostly a fun look at Victorian kitchens, cooking techniques, and trends. The insight into Victoria herself is less revealing, but I’m not sure that matters much.

Best Non-Fiction of 2017

There was less non-fiction in my 2017 reading list, but so much of it was incredibly inspiring, and I really had trouble coming up with my favourites, although #1 and #2 just blew me away.

1. Les Parisiennes
Anne Sebba
This is a wholly comprehensive look at Parisienne women during WW2. Edith Piaf, for instance, worked with the Germans so she could smuggle identity papers into concentration camps. Other women hid or smuggled Jews, catalogued stolen artwork, worked as spies, and spread resistance notices. Many women, like Colette, tried to ignore the whole thing, while some, like Chanel, thought their best bet was to collaborate. Masterfully researched, the book covers so many people it can sometimes be difficult to follow, but it does astound with the bravery and courage these women exhibited in the face of rape, torture, concentration camps, and death.

2. Hannah’s Dress: Berlin 1904 – 2014
Pascale Hugues
I LOVED the premise of this book, which is not about a dress, but rather a small street and its history. The author, a French ex-pat, researches her street in Berlin, tracking down and telling the stories of some of the many people who lived there, including the descendants of some of the well-to-do Jews (lawyers, doctors) who fled or who were killed by the Nazis. She finds some German families too, with their own tales of woe, and even some recent neighbours (like Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream, who hosted David Bowie in his flat during the 70s). The book falters in the translation, which is clunky in parts, and when Hugues is telling her own story about the present-day changes to the street, she often comes across as weirdly judgmental but this could also be a translation issue. Nonetheless, a really cool book that is worth a read.

3. We Were Feminists Once: From Riotgrrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement
Andi Zeisler
If everything is empowering to women, then nothing is actually empowering. Zeisler looks at the commodification of feminism and how it’s become just another way to sell things to women (while mostly still making us feel bad about ourselves). Read this, think about your choices, and understand both how you’re being marketed to and how to avoid it. Also, is “empowerment” just a pink, glittery, watered-down, inoffensive term for personal “power”? 

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