Hi and welcome back! Today, I was enjoying an interesting news story: someone found a 121-year-old chocolate bar in someone’s attic. It was a gift to someone’s soldier ancestor from Queen Victoria herself. These finds are incredibly rare — and very important as well. Today, Lord Snow Presides over these rare glimpses into one of the most human parts of our past.
The Chocolate Bar of Doom.
Set your Wayback Machines for 1900. At the time, England was smack in the middle of the Second Boer War, which ran from 1899 to 1902 in South Africa. The first Boer War broke out in 1880. If you’re wondering, the British eventually won with what sound like really dirty — and costly — tactics.
At the start of the second Boer War, it sounds like British spirits were pretty high. They had some nice victories at the start. Maybe that feeling of optimism over the war’s progress inspired Queen Victoria to commission chocolate bars in tins for the soldiers fighting for her empire.
It sounds like a lavish gift. She commissioned three different chocolate companies in Britain (Fry, Cadbury, and Rowntree) to produce 100k+ of these tins and chocolate bars. Each flat, rectangular tin held a half-pound of plain chocolate. And she had each tin inscribed in her handwriting to wish the recipient “a happy New Year.” Ironically, the owners of all three of these companies opposed the Boer Wars on religious grounds — so they took the commision but didn’t want to brand the bars. It took some talking for them to brand even some of those bars.
Most soldiers ate the chocolate — but many saved their tins as keepsakes. I can see why. They’re not huge or anything, and being fairly flat they’d be easy to stash away somewhere.
Lost and Found: One Chocolate Bar.
And that’s exactly what Sir Henry Edward Paston-Bedingfeld did with his. However, he never ate the chocolate in his tin. No, instead he kept the whole shebang! He stashed the tin in the case that held the helmet he’d worn during his time in the war.
He died, passing his belongings to his daughter, Frances Greathead. She in turn died just last year at the very ripe old age of 100.
As the National Trust was cataloguing her stuff, they found the helmet case — and in it, the tin and its chocolate bar. The candy was even still in its original wrapping. Obviously, historians are very excited to find it.
We found a similar bar last year that had belonged to an Australian, Banjo Paterson (he wrote “Waltzing Matilda” too). He’d likely bought his from a British soldier. But this one was the property of an actual British soldier who’d served in the war.
The Intimate Ephemera of Food.
I just live for these finds. Food history’s been a passion of mine for many years. Heck, before I started Roll to Disbelieve, I almost started a food history blog. It would have reproduced Italian Renaissance dishes from period recipes.
(Mr. Captain is the one who suggested I blog instead about the one topic I never tire of discussing. And so here we are!)
Still, though, food history is where I retreat when religious wackadoodlery starts to get to me.
However, it’s rare for us to find foodstuffs from the distant past. Obviously, mostly that’s because once people make food, they tend to eat it. If they don’t, it tends to dissolve over time. (Not always. But I’m just saying: it tends to.) It usually takes a big disaster to preserve prepared foodstuffs for the long haul.
One of the first examples of such preserved food I ever saw was the stuff that got frozen in time by Pompeii’s explosion in 79 CE. I’d have been very young indeed when I stared wide-eyed at pictures of recovered bread and olives in a bowl. But as that first link tells us, archaeologists are still finding food preserved in those ruins.
And we find it everywhere, really, just not often. Sometimes, ancient people buried it with their dead. Other times, they burned it as offerings. At other times still, people kept it as keepsakes of special events. Of course, sometimes they fled disasters with it still on their tables — or overturned in bowls.
Like medieval- and Renaissance-era underwear, food is just such an intimate part of the human situation. And like that underwear, it’s not easy to find.
The Magic Preservative in Chocolate Bars.
Candies in general (and cakes to a certain extent) get a major lift in the preservation department thanks to a magic ingredient it contains: sugar.
Sugar is a natural preservative. Whether it’s actual sugar or honey, it’s apparently both acidic and hygroscopic. That means that it kills most bacteria that tries to invade it, and it contains very little moisture — though it sucks moisture in from its surrounding environment if it can, and that’s largely what causes even sweet foodstuffs to rot away to nothing.
That’s how we can find chocolate bars, pots of honey, and fruitcakes and whatnot that look remarkably well-preserved. I wouldn’t eat them myself, but apparently some people try bits of what they find and say it’s “almost edible” or even better than that. I can believe it.
(Roll to Disbelieve does not in any way advocate the trying of ancient foodstuffs. I can’t even watch videos of people eating old MREs. That is seriously disgusting! I’m just sayin’, people do that sometimes and report that the food was remarkably well-preserved.)
Today, Lord Snow Presides over a historical find that connects us tightly to the people of our past.
NEXT UP: F’real, nobody better be surprised about this Matt Gaetz thing. We’ll explore why tomorrow — see you then!
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About Lord Snow Presides (LSP)
Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow was my very sweet white cat. He actually knew quite a bit. Though he’s passed on, he now presides over a suggested topic for the day. Of course, please feel free to chime in with anything on your mind: there’s no official topic on these days. We especially welcome pet pictures!