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Victorian vs 21st Century railway food – tube expert Annie Mole investigates

Posted at 5:30 pm, February 8, 2012 in Food & Drink

While penning a London Underground homage to Charles Dickens for the Dickensian bicentennial celebrations, Tube expert Annie Mole and came across a lovely piece from The Cat’s Meat Shop blog of a Victorian gentleman’s impressions of railway food in London 1863. As @VictorianLondon aka Lee Jackson rightly says: “The descriptions of railway food are priceless and still hold true today”. We liked the idea so much that we asked her for some of her favourite parts of his findings and a few photos of food you will find in London mainline stations today that show we still have the same problems…

cornish pasties © Jovike

 Hot Cornish Pasties, Kings Cross Station © Jovike
‘… it is an incontrovertible fact, that at railway stations generally, and at London termini in particular, the ‘commissariat department’ is disgracefully managed. For a period of some weeks last year I was compelled (as the phrase goes), by circumstances over which I had no control, to lunch at a well-known terminus in this metropolis….

The rooms are large and commodious, the servants numerous, and the appointments, to all appearance, good; yet the viands exposed for sale on the counter, the quality of the meat supplied for an early dinner, and the attendance of the waiters are, one and all, execrable.

If you are inclined to ‘ feed ‘ at the bar, you will find nothing but stale pastry, musty ham, and flyblown buns. If you resort to the dining-room, you will be regaled with coarse-grained beef and flavourless mutton, underdone potatoes, and bad butter……’

smelly food © Annie Mole

Smelly food on the Tube © Annie Mole
‘Add to these peculiarities a general sulkiness of demeanour, and you may form some idea what it is to be waited on by these terrestrial Hebes. To give them their due, however, I will say that they all zealously defend the reputation of the establishment. ‘The buns was always considered excellent,’ – ‘We never had no complaints of the pastry before,’ – ‘These ham sandwiches musty and dear! Well, you was the fust as said so,‘ and so on.’

Burger King © Michael

Burger King, Waterloo Station © Michael
‘There is one traditional article of food that they persist in tendering, and the bare recollection of which is enough to induce dyspepsia. It is a huge oblong box of half-baked dough, containing dice-shaped nuggets of cold pale meat and pork-fat. This is cut up into slices, revealing a crust of some half an inch in thickness, and is dignified by the name of veal-pie.’

Cornish Pasties © Vissago Cornish Pasties, Paddington station © Vissago
‘Joking apart, the managers of our railway refreshment rooms have reason to be heartily ashamed of the manner in which they cater for the public. Everything they offer for sale is as bad as it is dear, and dear as it is bad. A man may dine comfortably in the City for less than a miserable lunch costs at these places. Let the Metropolitan Company look to it; and as their carriages are more commodious, and their fares cheaper than on most lines, let them see what improvement they can effect in their restaurants’

For more food on the Tube stories (including how King’s Cross Tube was closed twice due to burnt toast) visit Annie Mole’s London Underground Tube Diary or find her on Twitter @AnnieMole.

If you have some suggestions of good places to eat at railway and Tube stations, comment below.

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