Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels featuring Sherlock Holmes contain a lot of little details about Victorian society, its culture, available technology and social conventions. As I was re-reading all the canonical stories earlier this year for the umpteenth time, my attention was inadvertently drawn to food, of all things. I found it interesting to observe what kinds of dishes were served, at what times, and who prepared them. Once I’d finished reading the stories, I decided to make an attempt to reconstruct Sherlock’s typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The first thing to note: Holmes himself didn’t do any cooking at all. Naturally, as a proper Victorian gentleman he wasn’t expected or supposed to do anything round the house. This is where the likes of Mrs Hudson would come in.
She was his landlady, and as such she not only rented out the rooms at 221B Baker Street, but also did all the cleaning, tidying, washing – and cooking. In the stories, she is but a secondary character and we don’t get to learn much about her. However, we do know that Holmes, a sworn bachelor, vitally depended on her services.
Generally speaking, Sherlock’s dietary needs seem to have been rather simple. He may have been a complicated character in other respects, but when it came to food, he was definitely not a fussy eater. There are a few delicacies mentioned, but those were reserved for special occasions and typically prepared by someone other than Mrs Hudson.
Without further ado, let me give you an overview of Sherlock’s typical menu. It will give us some insights into Victorian cuisine, and it might inspire you to do some cooking yourself. (I’ve included links to select – modern – recipes throughout.)
In A Study in Scarlet Watson tells us that Holmes had his breakfast quite early: “It was rare for him to be up after ten at night, and he had invariably breakfasted and gone out before I rose in the morning;” which is to say probably around 7am or earlier. Sometimes he had only coffee for breakfast (The Adventure of Six Napoleons), but more often Mrs Hudson would prepare a hearty breakfast that is still considered traditional in many countries: ham and eggs, rashers (thin slices of bacon) and eggs (The Sign of Four, The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb), toast or toast crumbs and hard-boiled eggs (The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, The Problem of Thor Bridge).
An egg a day keeps the doctor away! Not so sure about bacon, though…
Busy doing his investigative work, Holmes tended to pop out for lunch, just grabbing a sandwich (The Red-Headed League, A Study in Scarlet) or having a “hasty luncheon” in a restaurant (The Adventure of the Six Napoleons). We aren’t told what that consisted of, but back at home, Mrs Hudson would serve something like cold beef and a beer (A Study in Scarlet).
Unless he was away visiting a client, Holmes’ dinners would start around 7pm. They were prepared by Mrs Hudson and eaten at home. Green beans (The Adventure of the Three Students) may sound uninspiring, but a delicacy such as woodcock, presumably roast, could also be on the menu (The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle).
Nowadays, a cold supper might refer to dishes such as potato, tuna, pasta or chicken salads or something whipped up using leftovers. From the context of Doyle’s stories, it was a late-evening meal which took place after 9pm, and so presumably a light one.
However, the single most lavish meal mentioned in any of the stories was the one Holmes ordered from a restaurant. He had it delivered to Baker Street for a 9pm supper, in expectation of important company (The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor). It was clearly not a typical meal, as this is how Watson described the event:
“It was after five o’clock when Sherlock Holmes left me, but I had no time to be lonely, for within an hour there arrived a confectioner’s man with a very large flat box. This he unpacked with the help of a youth whom he had brought with him, and presently, to my very great astonishment, a quite epicurean little cold supper began to be laid out upon our humble lodging-house mahogany. There were a couple of brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, a pâté de foie gras pie with a group of ancient and cobwebby bottles. Having laid out all these luxuries, my two visitors vanished away, like the genii of the Arabian Nights, with no explanation save that the things had been paid for and were ordered to this address.”
Apparently, Mrs Hudson had a night off that day, which I’m sure she appreciated.
There was also a meal consisting of cold partridge and a bottle of Montrachet (a type of white wine), prepared in advance by Mrs Hudson and left on the sideboard. (The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger)
The only time Holmes had fish was when he and Watson caught a trout and later that day had it for supper. (The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place)
What do you think of Holmes’ diet? Is it in any way similar to yours? Are there any dishes mentioned here you’d like to try? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!