As readers might remember from my last post, I’ve been tracking the actions of a rather peculiar 18th century dining club: “The Thursday’s Club Called the Club of the Royal Philosophers.” My questions are these: what did membership mean to the men whose names appeared in the weekly attendance records? And what role did food play in all of this? I already mentioned a few especially noteworthy gifts donated to the Club –– venison, turtle, and exceptionally large “chines” of beef –– received with so much enthusiasm that the official rules of the club were amended to bestow the donors with “honorary” membership status. But these three foods were not the only gifts recorded in the Club’s attendance books.
Venison is, by a long shot, the most frequently gifted food. But the club also received various types of fish, vegetables and fruit for their weekly dinners. These gifts warranted neither honorary membership status for donors nor an appreciative toast in claret (as was the custom for venison). But they were noted in the record books nonetheless, and it is important to point out that these gifts were no trivial matter in contemporary English society. The “Pine Apple” for example, made its English debut in 1674, and quickly became one of the most fashionable foods of the 18th century. Its exotic and inexplicable taste confounded some of the biggest philosophers of the day. For example, In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690, John Locke wrote:
“He that thinks otherwise, let him try if any words
can give him a taste of a pine apple, and make him
have the same idea of the relish of that celebrated delicious fruit.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t take the treasurer’s comments lightly, when one evening in June, 1753, he remarks that Mr. Miller had entertained the Club with “Four Cantaloupe Melons, better than Pine Apple.”
But the pineapple is only one example of the extraordinarily cosmopolitan nature of many of these culinary gifts. 400 pound turtles weren’t exactly native to England. Neither were the “Water Melons” (brought from both Malaga and Lisbon in 1752). Nor were the “Aegyptian Lettuces” (courtesy of Mr Miller) donated to the Club for three consecutive weeks in June, 1763. Salmon, the second most frequently gifted food, might not have held quite the same caché that turtle did, but in February, 1760, the treasurer notes that a gift of salmon (courtesy of the Earl of Marchmont) had been “pickled after the manner they pickle it to send to the East Indies.”
Clearly, the novelty of these gifts had much to do with their far flung origins. Dining with the Thursday’s Club meant not only that you were going to enjoy the company of some of the most respected scientific minds of London, but you were also going to eat something not easily obtained at home.
Were these exotic gifts an attempt to retain an aura of exclusivity in a world increasingly subject to new money and vulgar displays of wealth? Or did the members, true to the Royal Society’s love of scientific inquiry, sample these new foods as some sort of experiment? How receptive were Club members to these gastronomic prostrations? And most importantly, where does “taste” –– both aesthetic and gustatory –– fit into this?
More on that next time.