When I started my blog I impulsively chose “victualling” [vit’ling] as my URL. In Massachusetts, restaurants still need to get a “common victualers” license when they open and I’ve often marveled at the survival of such a quaint term. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry when I set up my blog I would have thought to choose common victualer, with a single L, as my URL.
The term dates far back into English history. In 1714 there were four common victualers in Boston, one of whom was a woman. Victualers were distinguished from innholders in that they didn’t necessarily offer overnight accommodations for humans and animals, just meals and, of course equally important, drink. They also provisioned ships with long-lasting cooked food such as potted meats. Their places of business were invariably called either victualing houses or cellars, and they were cheaper and more basic than taverns, coffee houses, or restorators, all of which they outnumbered. In 1810 Boston had over 50 victualers but only seven taverns and coffee houses, and one restorator.
Over time I’ve realized what a perfect term common victualing is for my approach to the history of American restaurants. Here’s how.
1) I consider alcoholic beverages a critical factor in restaurant history. This country has long had deep divisions over the way alcohol should be consumed and by whom. It has even battled over whether Americans should drink at all and these battles have profoundly shaped our restaurants. One of the most notable differences between eating places in the 19th and 20th centuries is how many in the latter century – and now — serve neither fermented nor distilled alcoholic beverages.
2) I am more interested in the commonplace eatery than in rarified fine dining. I’m not inordinately fascinated with the most elite restaurants and when I do look at them I don’t treat them with special reverence. I take the position that common restaurants have been more important in the course of history.
3) The most important kind of food to victualers was meat and the early victualers were probably butchers with stands in public markets where they cooked meat on the spot for their customers. I always try to get to the “meat” of the story, even when my subject seems trivial – but I also appreciate how critical animal protein, including fish and fowl, has always been to American restaurant-goers.
4) Because they were cheap, sold liquor, and hosted market vendors and sailors, upright citizens held victualing establishments in low esteem. As a focus of moralistic outrage, they are of special interest because when I’m lucky enough to find a tirade against them it reveals something about the values of the time. The same can be said of how fast food chains catalyze criticism today.
The term victualing house pretty much fell out of use by about 1840 when it was replaced by the synonymous “eating house.”
© Jan Whitaker, 2011