Taste of Life: When chicken and beef essence, and beef tea was ‘too healthy’ to be consumed for enjoyment during rail travel - Hindustan Times
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Taste of Life: When chicken and beef essence, and beef tea was ‘too healthy’ to be consumed for enjoyment during rail travel

ByChinmay Damle
Nov 30, 2023 06:20 AM IST

Surgeon-Captain WH Burke urged Indian Medical Service in the Bombay, Madras, and Bengal presidencies to request railway companies in India to set up more refreshment rooms at stations as luncheon basket containing beef tea and chicken essence was not recommended for healthy passengers

Pune: In April 1892, Surgeon-Captain WH Burke, assistant surgeon at David Sassoon Hospital, Poona, wrote a letter to several senior members of the Indian Medical Service in the Bombay, Madras, and Bengal presidencies urging them to request the railway companies in India to establish more refreshment rooms at the railway stations across India. The letter was peculiar since the demand made by Burke for refreshment rooms had arisen due to certain advice printed in several erstwhile travel guides.

Surgeon-Captain WH Burke urged Indian Medical Service in the Bombay, Madras, and Bengal presidencies to request railway companies in India to set up more refreshment rooms at stations as luncheon basket containing beef tea and chicken essence was not recommended for healthy passengers. (AP (PIC FOR REPRESENTATION))
Surgeon-Captain WH Burke urged Indian Medical Service in the Bombay, Madras, and Bengal presidencies to request railway companies in India to set up more refreshment rooms at stations as luncheon basket containing beef tea and chicken essence was not recommended for healthy passengers. (AP (PIC FOR REPRESENTATION))

Not many trains on the trunk lines then were provided with well-equipped dining cars. On the famous Bombay-Poona Express a passenger could obtain a dinner at a moderate price hardly equalled in the best hotels in India. But passengers travelling on several other trains were largely dependent on refreshment rooms. It was best, advised several tourist guides, to carry a luncheon basket which should include in addition to a cold chicken, biscuits, potted meats, Swiss milk, methylated spirits, tea spirits, beef tea, and chicken essence. Such luncheon baskets were available in some stores in big cities.

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The inclusion of beef tea and chicken essence in the list of foods in the luncheon basket had irked Burke. The essence of chicken or beef could be used in cooking, but they were not to be recommended to healthy passengers who did not have “sick stomach” or “depressed metabolism”; beef tea was an article of diet chiefly used by invalids, on account of its easy digestion and nutritious qualities; it was not to be consumed for enjoyment during travel, he wrote in the letter.

The commercially available essence of beef and essence of chicken were transparent jellies of a fine flavour, containing “all the salts and stimulating properties of beef and chicken”, as claimed by several cookbook authors and commercial manufacturers. These essences were put up in glass jars for sale and, therefore, would remain quite free from any metallic taste. Both the beef and chicken essence were best administered cold. Beef tea jelly was a good and cheap preparation. It resembled the essence of beef but was not as concentrated. It could be either taken cold or added to hot water and flavoured according to taste. Concentrated beef tea was a solid preparation, put up in skins, and when dissolved in hot water made a very palatable beef tea. Beef lozenges were made by carefully evaporating the essence of beef to one-sixteenth of its bulk. They were warranted to be the pure extract of the best Scotch ox beef.

In case of extreme exhaustion, one teaspoon of the essence of beef was to be administered as often as the patient could take it; in less urgent cases, it was to be taken three times daily, with a small piece of bread and a little wine. Tea or broth made similarly from mutton or veal was not so easily digested, claimed several advertisements in the late nineteenth century.

Essence of chicken, beef, veal or venison was advised to be made at home by some physicians. One of the widely accepted recipes was given by Miss Parloa in her book “Companion to Housekeeping” published in 1887 – “Draw and clean a fowl weighing about five pounds. Remove the greater part of the fat. Cut the fowl into small pieces, and place it in a stew pan, adding three pints of cold water. Place it on the fire, and heat slowly to the boiling point. Skim carefully, and set back where it will simmer for three hours. At the end of that time add one small slice of carrot, one-fourth of a small onion, and one clove. Cook for half an hour longer, and then strain. Put the liquid in a cool place”. Essence of chicken and beef was added to many dishes like “timbales des oeufs au jus de volaille” (chicken dish).

Beef tea was made at home by lean beef, first cut into small pieces, placed in cold water, in the proportion of a pound to a pint, and allowed to simmer over a slow fire, thus extracting the savoury juices of the meat. However, manufacturers of the essence of beef and chicken, and beef tea often claimed that their products were more economical than beef tea prepared at home and that they kept good for any length of time.

Essence of chicken was recommended as a cure for “depressed metabolism”. “Depressed metabolism” was perhaps one of the most common of all the conditions in the mid-nineteenth century Britain and India that a general practitioner was called upon to deal with. Drastic methods of raising the so-called “metabolic rate” included the administration by mouth of compounds of the nitrophenol group. Such methods, however, were contra-indicated, and the practitioner relied on the prescription of such foods as meat extracts and homemade broths. One of the accepted meat preparations was the essence of chicken which was claimed by several physicians to be outstandingly effective in raising the so-called “metabolic rate”. The essence of chicken and beef tea was also used for several other maladies, including anaemia and general weakness. Beef tea was used as a stimulant during the treatment of pneumonia.

This interest in the essence of beef and beef tea was due to an article written by Dr Robert Christison in the “Monthly Journal of Medicine” in January 1855. Christison was a Scottish toxicologist and physician who served as president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and as president of the British Medical Association. In the article, he presented several clinical trials he had conducted which seemed to establish the efficacy of the essence of chicken, the essence of beef, and beef tea as a cure for indigestion, anaemia, and “depressed metabolism”.

But before this, Charles Morehead, the Scottish physician who rose to eminence in the Indian Medical Service and the founding principal of the Grant Medical College in Bombay, had used beef tea effectively to treat children recovering from measles in Bombay and Poona.

The Central School at Byculla, Bombay, was meant for the education of children of the European soldiers of Bombay, Poona, and Nasik. The children were partly of unmixed European extraction and partly Indo-Britons. In 1830, around 350 children, both sexes included, and their ages from 3 to 16, studied and lived at the school. A separate hospital was built to treat sick wards in the late 1820s.

From October 1832 to April 1852, measles prevailed in the schools in the Bombay Presidency. Morehead held the medical charge of the Central School then. He wrote in his clinical notes that from 1845 onwards, children recovering from measles were administered beef tea every day for a month and that he found the treatment highly effective. He included beef tea in the standard treatment protocol for children suffering from measles and anaemia. He visited hospitals in Poona and Kirkee cantonments in 1846 and requested the doctors there to test the efficacy of beef tea in the treatment of debilitated soldiers.

Burke agreed with the benefits of the essence of chicken, the essence of beef, and beef tea. But not everybody could tolerate sufficient protein, he argued. Advertisements appearing in newspapers would induce healthy passengers to consume large amounts of beef tea during their travel and that would be detrimental to their health, he wrote in his letter. If the railway companies opened more refreshment rooms, passengers would eat there and not pay heed to travel guides, he hoped.

However, no action seems to have been taken. Advertisements and travel guides continued mentioning beef tea and essences of chicken and beef till several decades later.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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