Simanaitis Says

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FOR DINNER LAST evening, we had baked potatoes, the sort that are wrapped and zapped in a microwave for 12 minutes the pair (our microwave is a baby one). Wife Dottie is the purist; she likes them with nothing more than a little butter and some shredded cheese. I jazz mine up after zapping, with onions and diced jalapeños, together with the shredded cheese and butter.

This reminded me of nineteenth-century baked potato street food, as described in Mayhew’s London, 1861.

Mayhew’s London; Being Selections from “London Labour and the London Poor,” by Henry Mayhew, edited by Peter Quennell, Bracken Books, 1984.

In 1851, Henry Mayhew wrote London Labour and the London Poor, a comprehensive social study of the city’s common folk. Ten years later, Mayhew updated and expanded the work into three volumes. Mayhew’s London is a condensation of Mayhew’s 1861 work, edited by Peter Quennell, 1905–1993, English biographer, literary historian, poet, and critic.

Elements of this informative and entertaining abridgment have appeared twice here at SimanaitisSays: “Mayhew’s Comestibles” and “Get Me To the Church On Time! Or Maybe Not.” Today’s tidbits are about London’s Baked Potato Man and his tasty product. All quotes are Quennell’s from Mayhew’s original.

A Relatively New Street Food. “The baked potato trade, in the way it is at present carried on, has not been known more than fifteen years in the streets. Before that, potatoes were sometimes roasted as chestnuts are now, but only on a small scale. The trade is more profitable than that in fruit, but continues for but six months of the year.”

I’d suspect baked potatoes would have been great London street food in colder times of year. Just for the record, potatoes are worshipped year around in Wife Dottie’s née Kemp/originally Kempff family.

Above, Still Life, by Sharon Kuroki, c. 1975. Below, a family tradition, last evening.

Assembling the Goods. “There are usually from 280 to 300 potatoes in the cwt.; these are cleaned by the huckster, and, when dried, taken in baskets, about a quarter cwt. at the time, to the baker’s to be cooked…. The charge for baking is 9d. the cwt.”

I wondered if “huckster” meant the same thing to Mayhew as it does to us today: According to Merriam-Webster, a huckster is “a hawker, peddler…. selling things out of the back of wagons, in narrow alleys, and on the fringes of towns for years (though nowadays, they’re more likely to plug their wares on television or the Internet.”

The word huckster, M-W continues, “has been with us for over 800 years, and it derives from the Middle Dutch word hokester, which in turn comes from the verb hoeken, meaning ‘to peddle.’ ”

Yep, though venues change, people are people.

Hawking the Product. The potatoes “are taken home from the bakehouse in a basket, with a yard and a half of green baize in which they are covered up, and so protected from the cold. The huckster then places them in his can, which consists of a tin with a half-lid; it stands on four legs, and had a large handle to it, while an iron fire-pot is suspended immediately beneath the vessel which is used for holding the potatoes.”

“Directly over the fire-pot is a boiler for hot water, This is concealed within the vessel, and serves to keep the potatoes always hot. Outside the vessel where the potatoes are kept is, at one end, a small compartment for butter and salt, and at the other end another compartment for fresh charcoal. Above the boiler, and beside the lid, is a small pipe carrying off the steam.”

The Baked Potato Man. Image from Mayhew’s London.

Elegance Counts. “These potato-cans are sometimes brightly polished, sometimes painted red, and occasionally brass-mounted. Some of the handsomest are all brass, and some are highly ornamented with brass-mountings. Great pride is taken in the cans. The baked-potato man usually devotes half an hour to polishing them up, and they are mostly kept as bright as silver.”

“The handsomest potato-can is now in Shoreditch. It cost ten guineas, and is of brass mounted with German silver. There are three lamps attached to it, with coloured glass, and of a style to accord with that of the machine; each lamp cost 5s.”

Mayhew neglects to mention the price of mid-Victorian baked potato street food. Our Vons has Side Delights Bakeables ready to zap for 99¢ each. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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