- Carnivorous Empire: The Global Growth of Victorian Britain’s Meat Markets
In arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, first published serially in Britain and America in 1912, four European adventurers find themselves trapped upon a South American plateau where “the ordinary laws of Nature are suspended” and animals from the Jurassic age “have been artificially conserved” (35). The dire consequences of this predicament are made clear to Doyle’s protagonists when their base camp is ransacked by “some strange and powerful creature,” this creature having evidently developed a taste for the civilized convenience of modern meat: “[Our stores] were strewn at random all over the ground, and one tin of meat had been crushed into pieces so as to extract the contents” (106). While the band has expected their supplies of preserved Australian mutton and Chicago beef to sustain their lives in the primordial wilds, they come to realize that their airtight rations have served instead as an hors d’oeuvre to prehistoric beasts now set to prey upon fresh human flesh.
Doyle’s image of a dinosaur devouring twentieth-century processed meat invited his readers to look back through deep geological time to confront the carnivorous brutality that marked their own evolutionary development. But it perhaps also prompted them to reflect upon the dramatic impact of the modern world on their contemporary existence. Though tinned meat sourced from the Americas and Australasia could be found in many British households in the Edwardian period, it was nevertheless a relatively recent culinary innovation and one that had demanded that Victorian consumers get to grips with the extraordinary idea of eating animals from distant parts of the earth killed many months earlier (fig. 1). “In this Age of Tin we need not go far in search of strange food; all manner of outlandish things are now preserved and sent home to our own doors,” remarked one late nineteenth-century commentator, contemplating his local grocer’s ready capacity to “supply us with Australian beef and mutton” (Strandling 749).
Other Victorian commentators encouraged their fellow meat-eaters to try these new, strange forms of preserved protein. While Doyle used tinned [End Page 177]
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meat as a device to dramatize a distinctly modern encounter with prehistoric life, then, it is noteworthy that some half-century earlier the physician and writer Andrew Wynter had turned to prehistoric death as a means of naturalizing the “outlandish” idea of tinned meat. The death in question related to the perfectly preserved body of an “enormous elephant” found frozen in Siberian ice at the end of the eighteenth century, whose corpse was pronounced by “the great Cuvier” to “have belonged to an animal of the ante-diluvian world” (191). The fact that the beast’s thawed flesh had been safely consumed by foxes and wolves led Wynter to contend that it represented “the oldest specimen of preserved meat upon record”; “Nature was therefore clearly the first discoverer of the process,” he proposed (191). For Wynter, however, freezing meat was at once “too evanescent” and “too expensive and cumbersome” a preservation process to be developed as a means of feeding Britain’s growing, urbanizing population. He argued instead that canning furnished his nation with “the more scientific and enduring method” with which to make good on the planet’s “almost boundless” capacity to produce good protein cheaply (192). Thus he looked forward to a future in which “every man might have a slice of good beef sandwiched between his free-trade bread” (203–04). But he also expected that a shift toward imported preserved meat would see national tastes diversify as per capita consumption rates increased. The development of canning meant there was nothing “to prevent all the world from pouring its abundance into the lap of England, and her children from becoming the best-fed population on the earth,” Wynter concluded, as he reflected upon the prospect of his countrymen feasting on [End Page 178] tinned...