A Victorian cow butchery diagram. Click the picture to go to Miss Mary’s Victorian and Vintage Archive, where I found the picture

Hello hello! I have not disappeared off the face of the blogosphere, I have just been working very hard finishing a chapter which is now done – hooray! Raise a glass of buttered beer! It is the season for trying that recipe actually, I highly recommend making a thermos of it and heading out for a lovely walk in the woods. Try it – it’s the new mulled wine!

Speaking of beer, contrary to the title, this post is not just about beef, it is really about the phrase “Beef, bread and beer” (though the order of the foodstuffs varies, as you’ll see in the first quote) which I first noted in the background post on beer itself. As I said in that post, the phrase appears to denote hospitality in William Kemp’s A Knack to Know a Knave (1594):

My father in his lyfe time gave hospitality to all strangers, and Distressed traueillers, his table was neuer emptie of bread, beefe And beere

I’ve since spotted this in number of other places, so I thought it might be worth investigating:

Then no more ado, but I pray thee go with me abord,
Thou shalt be sure to haue poore Mariners cheare:
Harme shalt thou haue none, I promise thee at a word,
Thou shalt be sure to haue bread, beefe, and beare.

Robert Wilson, The Pedlers Prophecie, 1595

As well as finding it in plays, like the two examples above, it turns up in other kinds of writing. A 1606 pamphlet recounting the entertainments put on by Robert Cecil at Theobalds for the visiting King of Denmark points out that the host’s hospitality extended to all those who might require it, not just his noble guests. The town had apparently become so busy with people flocking to see the royal visit that there was not enough room at the inn, as it were, for everyone:

there was not lodging to bee had for many commers thether, not victualls for their moneyes, wherof many of good sort complained, & might haue fasted, had they not beene prouided for in that honorable house. Such was the bountie of this Noble Earle in his large allowance to all Officers for that time, that Beefe, Breade, Beere, Wine, and other Vyandes, was not denyed to any that were either acquainted in the house with the Officers, or anye their friends which wold seek it, as many found to their great comfort and honor of the honorable Patrone of that house.

H.R., The most royall and honourable entertainement, of the famous and renowmed king, Christiern the fourth, King of Denmarke. 1606

Beef, bread and beer, while still associated firmly with hospitality, does seem to be at the “basics” end of the hospitality scale, something for the common folk perhaps. Here’s another example:

And where the Porters lodge, did yeelde beefe, bread and beere,
The Kitchen, Haul, & Parlor to, now wantes it twice a yeere:
Now Seruingmen may sing, adue you golden dayes,
Meere miserie hath taken place, where plentie purchast prayse.

Gervase Markham, A health to the gentlemanly profession of seruingmen, 1598

This is part of a song reported by Markham (it’s not clear whether he wrote the song or has just heard it), and, like much of the text, it laments the “decay of hospitality”, blaming it on, amongst other things, excessive spending on such luxuries as “costly and fashionate Apparrel”. The honest and dedicated servingmen, unlike their selfish employers, apparently regret this change as much as Markham. Beef, bread and beer seems to stand for a kind of honest generosity, something basic and fueling, down to earth, and available for everyone – officers, servingmen and visitors alike.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given their apparent status as the staples of a good diet, beef, bread and beer also turn up in several travel narratives. I found a few examples, but here’s my favourite, the seafarer Luke Foxe describing the provisions for his expedition to investigate the North-West Passage:

I was Victualed compleatly for 18 Moneths, that whether the Baker, Brewer, Butcher, and other, were Mr. of their Arts or professionsor no I know not, but this I am sure of, I had excellent fat Beefe, strong Beere, good wheaten Bread, good Iseland Ling, Butter and Cheese of the best, admirable Sacke and Aqua-vita, Pease, Oat-meale, Wheat-meale, Oyle, Spice, Suger, Fruit and Rice; with Chyrurgerie, as Sirrups, lulips, condits, treSingle illegible letterhissis, antidotes, balsoms, gummes, vnguents, implaisters, oyles, potions, suppositors, and purging Pils, and if I had wanted Instruments my Chyrurgion had enough.

Luke Foxe, North-West Fox, 1635

Note how, while Foxe describes a number of other provisions, he foregrounds beef, beer and bread and his cooks are “the Baker, Brewer, Butcher, and other” – clearly the three Bs are considered the essentials. However, those travelling on other ships, perhaps those without master bakers on board, would have to make do with the slightly less appealing beef, biscuit and beer, which is mentioned in a few texts including Richard Hakluyt’s The principal nauigations, voyages, traffiques and discoueries of the English nation made by sea or ouer-land (1599-1600).

The earliest example of the phrase I have found (and of course please note that this is by no means an exhaustive study, just a brief lurk around EEBO on a wintery Friday afternoon!) comes from Holinshed’s Chronicle (first published in 1577):

for they were woont to haue banketing at euerie station, a thing commonlie practised by the religious in old time, wherewith to linke in the commons vnto them, whom anie man may lead whither he will by the bellie, or as Latimer said, with beefe, bread and beere

As you can see, that this clearly points to an earlier usage, but I’m really not sure who the Latimer in question is. I thought it might be Hugh Latimer, but a cursory EEBO search of his works turned up nothing that looks remotely like the phrase.

So, it seems like beef, when accompanied by bread and beer, was the food of the traveling worker – a hospitable welcome for those touring about great houses with their employers and a staple on the high seas for the adventuring seafarer. Beer was a very common drink in early modern England, it was drunk by all at any hour of the day, with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Servants and other workers were often provided with beer as part of their payment, particularly in country houses which often had their own breweries. If beer was a part of everyday life, then I suppose this little phrase suggests that beef and bread were too. It seems to me that “beef, bread and beer” is the early modern equivalent of the 20th century’s “meat and two veg”, representing a balanced meal in the eyes of the consumers of the time. In fact, the combination is still alive and well today as a trip down to your local chain pub will no doubt attest – I refer to the ubiquitous “burger and a pint” deals that can be found on many a high street!

I’m currently trawling through the early modern cookbooks for a good beef recipe to try out soon, I will keep you posted and hopefully have a follow up post within a week or two. After that, I think it will be time to get Christmassy.


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