Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Ned Ward's Taste-Test

In 1709, the famous London journalist, Edward "Ned" Ward,  discusses a so-called “Vertuoso’s Club,” composed of Royal Society members who met at a London tavern every Thursday.  On one of these weekly meetings, a member brought an “Aegyptian Cargo of stinking Suppositories” and proceeded to list the miraculous medicinal effects of this exotic drug.  As cultivated gentlemen are wont to do, he duly passed free samples around to all of his fellow members.     

Ned Ward, London Lowlife

Ned Ward reports: 

“... every one nibbling at the sharp-end that had lain stewing in the Dregs, some nodding their Heads, as if they had found by the Taste, what Analogy it had with some other Species that was noted for its Vertue.  Others spitting out what they had chew’d and mumbl’d, for fear the Secret should produce some poysonous effect.  One declaring, it must be a great Dryer, because of the Spiciness of its Taste.  Another, That it was certainly a powerful Antiscorbutick, because so full of Saline Particles.  A Third, That he believ’d it was Antivenereal, because its biting Taste had some affinity with Guaicum.  A Fourth, Asserting it a great Narcotique, for that it had numb’d his Tongue, by conveying it to his Palate.  Thus the Jest went round, till every Member of the Club, who had the least skill in Physick, had most gravely deliver’d his Judgmatical Opinion."

In 1709 (over 30 years before the Thursday's Club was officially founded) the subjective nature of the sense of taste plagued even the most educated minds.  Every Club member tastes the same substance and uses his powers of the palate to situate the mystery substance into the existing body of medical knowledge: what it is, what does it do, how it is classified.  Yet every observation is different; everyone finds something peculiarly noteworthy about what he is tasting.   
The Italian scientist Marcello Malpighi's
 drawings of the tongue

Beginning in the 1650s and 1660s, scientists all over Europe began to investigate the sense of taste.   They studied the anatomy of the tongue, they tinkered with wine, beer and cider making, and they argued relentlessly about how many different flavors existed.  But they couldn't really get anywhere.  Why does what tastes salty to you taste sour to me?  Why do you like Madeira wine, but I prefer Claret?  Determined to find an answer, scientists eagerly whipped out their microscopes (which had only recently been invented) and tried to explain the unexplainable from their visual observations of salt and sugar particles (combined with taste tests, of course).    

But the joke was on them, as Ned Ward reveals in his story.  The club members gradually learn that the natives didn't ... well... they didn't actually eat the drug that had baffled their palates.  No indeed, it was intended for another bodily orifice altogether.  And these suppositories that the members were churning around in their mouths?  Yep.  They had all been used before.     

Needless to say, the "Vertuosos," after spitting and puking and yelling obscenities, saw this act as grounds for club expulsion.  

But what is Ward trying to tell us about taste?  Is he simply exasperated with the scientific elitism?  Or is he making fun of the emerging culture of connoisseurship that was popping up in fancy French taverns and coffee-houses all over London?  

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Earl of Marchmont's Misguided Generosity

A couple of posts ago, I pie-charted all of the gifts that the Thursday's Club received, and if you remember, "pickled salmon" came in second.  But while venison, the clear winner, was gifted by many different people over the years, all of the salmon came from one man.

Who was the Earl of Marchmont?

Turns out his name was Hugh Hume Campbell, a Scottish aristocrat who doubled as a (not terribly successful) politician.  He was elected a F.R.S. (Fellow of the Royal Society) in 1753.  But apparently membership in the most prestigious scientific organization in the world didn’t really do it for him.  He coveted membership in the dining club.

But why all this pickled salmon?  Every time he gifted it to the Club, it would recur on the weekly menus for the next month, suggesting that nobody really wanted to eat it.  (By contrast, when turtle appeared on the menu, it was always polished off that same evening.)  But since the salmon hadn't yet gone bad in a week –– that was the point of pickling –– the dish would reluctantly be placed on the table week after week in hopes that some naïve and particularly ravenous guest would take it off the Club's hands.  

Pickled salmon never appeared on the menu otherwise.  But what was it?  And what did it taste like? 

Glasse's chef d'oeuvre
Note that is is authored  anonymously
I decided to consult Hannah Glasse, one of the most esteemed celebrity chefs of the 18th century.  In her best-selling "The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy" the following recipe appeared:   

“The Jews way of Preserving Salmon, and all Sorts of Fish”

"Take either salmon, cod, or any large fish, cut off the head, wash it clean, then flour it and dip it in the yolks of eggs, and fry it in a great deal of oil..."

"have your pickle ready, made of the best white wine vinegar, in which you must boil a great many cloves of garlic and shallot, black and white pepper, Jamaica and long pepper, juniper berries and salt..."

"to have the pickle ready, first put a little pickle in, then a layer of fish, then pickle, then a little fish, and so lay them down very close; and to be well covered, put a little saffron in the pickle..."

The whole point of doing things the "Jews way," according to Glasse, was that you could ship it to the East Indies for months and it wouldn't go bad.  So, could Glasse be implying that pickled salmon was an 18th century version of gefilte fish?  And if so, what was Marchmont thinking?  Gefilte fish does the trick when you’re trying to remember the brutal slavery once endured by your people.  But no one really wants to see it again for the other 364 days of the year. 

Let’s see if Marchmont's salmon helped his chances with the Club.  

--Shortly after his election to the Royal Society, he starts sending salmon to the dining club, starting in April of 1754.  
--But he isn't nominated for membership in the Thursday’s Club until almost three years later: April 20, 1757.  (He gives salmon 8 times up to this point.)  
--And then, one week after his official nomination, he donates more salmon, and:

“Lord Macclesfield was so good to promise that he receive the thanks for the society to Lord Marchmont for it.”

This is a good sign.  Lord Macclesfield was not only the President of the Thursday's Club but President of the entire Royal Society.  With his blessing, things were definitely looking up.

But it seems like there were some doubts about Marchmont.  If he was nominated in April of 1754, the earliest he could be voted in would be July of 1754, when the Club had its annual meeting and elections.  But Marchmont wasn’t actually elected until 1759... 5 years after his nomination!

Did the salmon have something to do with it?  I think its very possible.  

(Post script:  Marchmont actually gets kicked out of the club for non-attendance in 1770, despite annual shipments of pickled salmon.  But even after he is ousted, he still sends a shipment two years later, for which the Club begrudgingly offered its thanks.  He died in 1794.)   

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Some Enlightenment Menu Porn

What kind of affair was dinner at the Thursday's Club?  Perhaps the attendance books can give us the best impression.  Below are two somewhat 'typical' dinners from 1766.  As you can see, meals were heavy on the meat, and light on the vegetables.  

Note also the number of members and the number of "visitors."  These meals occurred right after the club's annual business meeting (held the 4th Thursday of every July) when a ton or rules were passed concerning "strangers" dining at the club.  Here are some of the resolutions from that meeting:

--"Ordered that no strangers except such as are invited or introduced by the president, be admitted, without leave being obtained from the president or in his absence, from the majority of the members present."
-- "Ordered that no member ask for the introduction of more than two strangers on any one day."
-- "Ordered that no stranger be introduced into the room, till it be signified to him that leave hath been obtained for his admission."
-- "Ordered that the treasurer be desired to enter in the book the name of each stranger and that of the member who introduced him."
-- "Ordered that the treasurer be desired to read aloud each day, as soon after dinner as conveniently may be, the names of the company present as entered in his book."
-- "Ordered that these resolutions be transcribed ... and a copy of them be hung up ... outside the room in which the company meet every Thursday by half an hour past two." 

Why all these new rules?  Part of the reason is that the "old guard" who had founded the club in the 1740s, were all dying out by the 1760s.  With all this turnover, on some weeks, the club would have more visitors than members.    

Here's another menu from two years later, one of many, many, many venison donations.   

Venison is served three ways here: as a neck, as a haunch, and in pasty form.  What was a venison pasty?  Well -- sort of like a mini-pie.  They became extremely popular beginning in the 17th century; Samuel Pepys (probably one of the most well-known London foodies) records eating it 43 times in his famous diary.  Considering that eleven people showed up to this dinner, however, I highly doubt that it showed up as one measly single serving.     

The treasurer notes that the donor's health was "drank in Claret."  This happens almost every time a gift is received.  

Coming up next: Did the Thursday's Club get any food gifts that they didn't like?  Were they forced to eat it for decades out of propriety?  Did they grow so exasperated that they ended up kicking him out of the club?  

Yes, dear readers.  And I'm afraid that this dude is the culprit.  More on him next time.  

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Pine Apples, Pickled Salmon, and other Edible Gifts

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.  

Friday, 22 April 2011

Getting in the Club: Haunches of Venison, Turtles and ‘Homerian’ Chines of Beef

In the past week, I’ve been spending my days at the Royal Society.  Right off the Mall, it overlooks tourists and fun-employed alike frolicking and picknicking in St. James Park.  And considering that it’s London in April, the weather has been unusually cooperative.  Indeed, dear readers, life could be worse. 

But it is a rare occasion to be in that library with other humans (requisite librarian on duty excluded) much less other humans not falling into geriatric categories.  Regardless, I have been trying to learn more about a little known dining club associated with the Society.

Christened “The Thursday's Club Called the Club of the Royal Philosophers” in 1743, I stumbled upon it by accident, but I realized that study of it has been limited to antiquarians (who were almost inevitably former members).  The last piece written on it was in 1971.  And no one had ever really addressed what it really meant to be a member of this club, and what roles food might have played in this. 

Fortunately, the archive contains official minute books as well as attendance records and menus dating back to 1747, so I set off to work on this question.  The minute books show that getting in could be a stressful process; membership was limited to 40 and elections were only held once a year.  (Sometimes annual elections would be postponed altogether if they didn’t feel like enough members had died or had been kicked out for non-attendance.)

But in an entry from May 3 1750, a loop-hole appeared.

“Resolved nem. con. that any nobleman or gentleman complimenting this company annually with venison not less than a haunch, shall during the continuance of such annuity be deemed an honorary member and admitted as often as he comes, without paying the fine which those members do who are elected by ballot.”

Why did they come up with this rule?  I turned to the attendance records, and found that a guy named Philip Yorke, (who upon his elevation into the Peerage became Viscount Royston) began gifting venison to the club.  He apparently started in 1748, which is duly recorded by the Society’s treasurer, and continued to do for almost two decades.  His last recorded donation is July 14, 1763, and he died the next year.

Venison donor extraordinaire
Venison was a very expensive meat, available primarily to the wealthy.  But it wasn’t the only item that warranted special status in the club.  At another meeting on October 4, 1750, the club minute books amend the rule. 

“Resolved nem. con. that any gentleman complimenting this society annually with a turtle should be considered as an honorary member.”

This time, the donor was a guy named Andrew Mitchel.  The Treasurer states the following:

“Andrew Mitchel, Esq., proposing to compliment this company with a turtle which he expects very soon from the West Indies.  it was resolved nem. con. that any gentleman giving a turtle annually should be considered as an honorary member during the payment of that annuity.”

Unlike York’s gift of venison, it didn’t take almost two years for the members to turn this unexpected food donation into a bona fide ticket to honorary membership.  The dates show us that the club resolved to amend the rule right then at the dinner itself, before members had even gotten to taste the goods.  In this case, the eager foodies might have spoken too soon, for at the next Thursday’s dinner, the treasurer writes that the turtle happened to die as the ship came up the channel.  In lieu of the turtle, the company had to make do with a dinner that included, among other things:

-calves head hashed
-tongue and udder
-leg of pork and pease
-turkey boiled with oysters

And finally, on June 27, 1751, we get one more amendment to the rules.

“Mr. Hanbury having this day entertained the company with the above mentioned chine of beef the length of which was 84 inches and the weight upward of 140 lbs, it was agreed nem. con that two such chines were equal to halfte a buck or a turtle and entitled the donor to be an honorary member of the Society.”

Beef was considered a national food, the bread and butter of Englishness.  Here's one of my favorite 18th century homages to it.  (Note the idolatrous French, who live on that weak and watery soup being carried in the foreground, salivating over the meat.)

Hogarth’s ‘The Gates of Calais, or The Roast Beef of Old England,’ 1749.  
But to the doctors, aristocrats and literati that were members of the Thursday's Club, it was no match for these more aristocratic delicacies. 
The rules concerning honorary membership and these ‘gifts’ were revoked in the 1770s.  Why was it?  And what does it all mean? 

All in good time, dear readers.  Stay tuned.