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)

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

LMB Part 3: Some Filthy Business

There has been a fair amount of disciplinary cross-pollination between historians and cultural anthropologists for some time now, but I think it's only been relatively recently that historians have started to take an interest in ... well, essentially, the material culture of garbage.  Dirty clothes, discarded dishes and empty bottles have all begun to command respect in their own right, as opposed to being mere sign-posts to navigate the lives of the wealthy and powerful.  (Just take a peek inside the Wellcome Collection and you'll see what I mean.)

The lamentably perishable nature of food can make this sort of study kind of tricky, for it can't really be dug up and displayed in a museum.  But it still got me thinking about the less conspicuous components of the Lord Mayor's Banquet of 1727, ie. the clean-up.  

The book records every expense of the banquet in meticulous detail ... all the way down to the "52 loads of rubbish" taken out after the banquet was over.  (It came to 5 pounds and 4 shillings, in case you were wondering.)  

And there was a lot more to deal with than simply taking out the trash:    

"ORDERED that Mr Bennett the wine cooper to this committee do forthwith take away from the Guildhall all the empty bottles and allow this committee one shilling and six pence a dozen when delivered at his house."

There you have it: 18th century recycling.  They didn't call it the enlightenment for nothing.

After cleaning up, of course, comes perhaps the dirtiest, most unpalatable deed of all: paying the tradesmen.  But at this point, the records start to get a little strange.  Here's what they said about the cooks: 

"THIS committee ordered the cooks bill amounting to one thousand one hundred and seventy five pounds to be read which having examined they settled and allowed at the summe of one thousand one hundred pounds."

This is a ton of money, but it doesn't mean that the cooks made out like bandits.  The cooks had to go out and buy literally everything in order to make the extravagant dishes discussed in this post and also this post.  No, my friends, all those dainties certainly don't come cheap.  This point aside, the excerpt doesn't really provide any concrete details about what exactly went down when the bill was being "examined."  But it's worth wondering why the cooks ended up being paid seventy-five pounds less than the bill acknowledges.  Did the committee just run over budget?  Was the food overcooked?

Everything accounted for: even the lemons

But the same kind of thing continues.

"ORDERED that a bill for wine from Mr Alexander amounting to one hundred and three pounds eighteen shillings be passed at one hundred and three pounds."

"ORDERED likewise that another bill for wine from Mr Razor amounting to eighty five pounds sixteen shillings and three pence be passed at eighty five pounds."

Wine merchants, confectioners and cooks are getting nickeled and dimed right and left.  Was this evidence of some good old fashioned old corruption, or just a bunch of old curmudgeons?  Either way, I found this very unnerving, especially knowing that the committee didn't seem to think twice about expensing their own "planning meeting" dinners.  

Then I read this one.

"This committee proceeded to examine a bill for wine from Mr Leglize amounting to two pounds nineteen shillings as also a bill for wine from Mr Minett of three pounds three shillings and likewise a bill from Mr Argent for wine of two pounds 14 shillings but being sampled only for the committee to taste they directed the same to be paid by Mr Samuel Bennett [the head wine cooper] and to be charged in his account.

These wine merchants were trying to charge the committee all this money –– 3 pounds wasn't anything to sneeze at in those days –– just for a taste?!  But how do you measure a 'taste'?  Who was trying to cheat whom?

Thursday, 16 June 2011

LMB Part 2: Who gets the Alamode Pyes??

Two posts ago, I addressed some of more peculiar dishes served at the 1727 Lord Mayor's Banquet.  But  it wasn't as if everyone there was eating the same thing.  Almost every table in Guildhall (there were twenty of them) had a separate bill of fare that had to be approved far in advance of the feast.
Official LMB Invitation
Note that late-comers to the Banquet
(after 3pm) won't be admitted
So I started to think about who was eating what.  What were specifically "royal foods"?  Much has been made by historians about ladies' affinities for sugar.  Do these assumptions hold up?  Finally, what about the King's entourage of servants –– the yeomen, the horse grenadiers, the musicians –– many of whom were entertained in nearby taverns.  What do these meals say about the specific tastes of different social ranks?
The following dishes were served only at the King's Table:
--Red Deer collar'd (other tables got venison, but not the animal in its entirety.)
--Italian Collops
--Olio Pattys

But the aldermen seemed to get some dishes that the King didn't get.  
--Basilick Squabbs
--Indian Creame
--March Pan (Marzipan?)
--Royall Harts

And the servants, surprisingly, seem to be the only ones who get good old English "Sir Loynes of Beef" on the menu.

Why was this?  At first I thought that the aldermen (who are actually organizing the feast) might be more interested in more fashionable, exotic fare while the King's table would rely on the tried and true staples of centuries past.  But it's hard to tell.  French terms –– "blamange" "a la Spring" and "Alamode Pyes"–– pop up often at the more elite tables, although the dinners get less and less interesting as you move down the social scale.

Guildhall: Where the Magic Happened
Damn ... that's a lot of work for just two cooks and four confectioners working under them.  I mean, they had a team of about 50 servants to help out, but still!

So the reader can imagine my sigh of relief when I noticed that the party-planners gave the cooks a little token of appreciation just before the big day.  

ORDERED that the cooks have two bottles of canary, four bottles of white port, and six bottles of red port delivered them ...  for their refreshment.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

For Love and Hunger

It is an unfortunate truth, good readers, that all good meals must inevitably come to an end.  In the last few days, having been compelled to leave the comforts of Clerkenwell, I have been navigating far less amiable gastronomic waters.  So instead of lamenting the lack of good coffee and efficient, reasonably priced lunch around Guildhall, I will today acquaint my readers with a recent expedition to Kentish Town, where I was able to Tom-Sawyer some unwitting friends into accompanying me to a theatre production of Henry Fielding's 1749 novel Tom Jones. 
Henry Fielding, from an engraving by
a portrait by Joshua Reynolds

Volumes upon volumes have been published about T.J., which the humble Lady of Quality has neither the space nor the sufficient literary expertise to fully explicate for her worthily time-constrained readers.  However, Tom Jones addresses, at length, two of her favorite subjects –– food and sex –– upon which she might deign to say a word or two.  

The Author –– a character in of himself –– introduces himself as the maitre’d, likening his story to a ‘Bill of Fare to the Feast.”  Yet this is hardly your Lord Mayors Banquet of the previous post, where select invitees pretty much have to eat what's put on the table in front of them.  Nope, this is more like a public tavern, or "ordinary," where anyone is welcome to stay and eat (or walk out, if it's not to your taste) ... as long as you're willing to pay the bill.  

Appetites –– both sexual and gustatory –– are major themes in the novel.  While well-meaning Tom never wavers in his affection for his childhood sweetheart, he is constantly finding himself in the beds of other women.

In that vein, feel free to watch a cinematic testament to the arts of seduction from the 1963 movie version. 

But what about Tom's first love interest, the lovely Sophia Western?  Surely she, at least, must have been a paragon of feminine fastidiousness.  After all, melodramatically losing your appetite (and wasting away) over matters of the heart was all the rage in the 18th century.  Think Clarissa Harlowe: the quintessential Lifetime heroine of the 1740s.  

But Sophia?  Not so much.  Throughout the novel, we are constantly reminded of her fondness for "dainties."  At one point she's locked up in her room and refuses to eat, but when her servant mentions that there are eggs stuffed inside of it, she promptly gives up on the hunger strike and "began to dissect the fowl."  Indeed, the Author reports: "The eggs of pullets, partridges, pheasants, etc, were.... the favorite dainties of Sophia."  She doesn't have the will-power to resist.   

And that's just it, dear readers.  Sometimes we're just too hungry to care about our lofty ideals.  Check out some of these mediocre Guildhall lunches.  A pullet stuffed with eggs is suddenly sounding pretty good.... 

This mystery dish claims to be a jacket potato (2.50)

 "Classic Pork" Bahn-mi with insufficient pork  (3.95) 

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Lord Mayor's Banquet Extravaganza of 1727: Part One

Very exciting news, loyal readers.  It took a while to get into the LMA's special "conservation room," but man, did the wait pay off.  Upon the pages of this immaculately preserved leather tome are the complete party planning records for one of the most extravagant yet fabulous sounding dinners I have ever dreamt of tasting.

Good times had on Lord Mayor's Day
What's the occasion, you might ask?  The entertainment was designed for the Lord Mayor's Banquet of October 30, 1727, an event put on annually by the Corporation of London.  The whole point was to commemorate the 'swearing in' of the newly elected Lord Mayor from the court of Aldermen.  But this wasn't just any regular old Lord Mayor's Banquet.  George II, the new, very recently crowned King, was also planning to attend the dinner, which didn't happen all too often.  And while it's true that that there was no shortage of (mostly Tory) haters who saw the feast as a bastion of corruption and excess, most of London's movers and shakers (excluding Jacobites and such) were in the mood to celebrate.

The careful attention paid to planning and executing a banquet of this magnitude is revealed in the 20 or so different meetings that took place over the month of October, where absolutely nothing was left up to chance.  Below is an excerpt from the meeting held on October 13, 1727.

"Mr Bowler Miller and Mr Pead (Cooks) attended this Committee and laid before them the Bill of Fare and Drafts of the Tables for the ensuing Entertainment. 
ORDERED: That the said Mr Pead and Mr Miller be two of the Cooks to be Employed by this Committee in Dressing the Dinner and that they bring their proposals next Monday at two of the Clock in the Afternoon. And it is recommended to them to provide the said Entertainment in the most Elegant and Magnificent manner.

Elegant and Magnificent?  Those are some rather lofty expectations.  Judge for yourself.  I've listed a few highlights from their proposal.

The Standards:
--  "Dry’d Tongue" 
-- "20 Dishes cold Pyes fill'd with all sorts of Fowle" 
-- "2 haunches of Venison and Udder in Raggoo"

Particularly tasty looking:   
--  "Orange loaves, Lemon Tart, Tanzey, Rice Pudding with Cherry and Apricock Fritters
-- "Raggoos of Mushrooms, Morrells, and Truffles of Pease" 

Complete culinary mysteries: 
-- "10 plates of Indian Creame of sorts stuck with Almonds in coloured and fine green Citrons" 
-- "Olio Pattys" 

Admittedly, the descriptions of these dishes don't always adopt the same level of hyperbole that relentlessly plagues the 21st century menu.  That doesn't meant that the dinner itself wasn't meant to impress.  Check out the table arrangement below.  

Plan for the King's Table
That's certainly a lot of plates on the table, and I suppose it looks rather cluttered to the modern eye.  Today we expect individualized courses served in progression –– an appetizer, followed by a main course, and finished by a dessert.  But dining in the 18th century was usually done in a style known as “a la francaise.”  Each "course" involved an array of different dishes, which were placed on the table at once.  Diners could then choose what they wanted according to their individual tastes.  It was totally feasible to start out with some artichoke bottoms and a plum pudding, have some fruit in the middle, and later snack on some "fish in jelly."  Sweet dishes and savory dishes were served side by side.  

Having spent the morning consumed by these many novelties on an empty stomach, I decided that, for lunch, I would embark on a gastronomic adventure of my own.  Indeed, my curiosity had been aroused by a recently imported craze that has been taking the UK by storm.  Behold, noble readers: the English Burrito. 

Black beans, fajita vegetables, rice, guac, sour cream, salsa, cheese
Hmm.  Eh.  I guess they tried.  But the thing almost fell apart in my hands, the ratios were all messed up, and the "spicy" salsa was mild at best.  My vain and idle hopes were crushed, but I returned to the archive resolute that a Papalote Pit-Stop would be high on my agenda upon my return to the New World.

Friday, 3 June 2011

The Missionite Abroad

Dear Reader,

Only two Months hath pass'd since I first journey'd to this Kingdom, but Experience hath already shewn that one need not look far in this Towne to find a goodly Meal.  It is hard to walk outside and turn the Corner without being offer’d the choicest Selection of Pyes, Curries and sweet Puddings.  Nor can I open my Lap Top without reading twenty new Tweets rhapsodizing upon Pop-Up Burgers, Flat Whites and Custard Doughnuts.  Yet I confess, gentle Reader, that from Time to Time I long for my native Fare, and I often wonder how my Missionite Brethren would find the peculiar Tastes of this foreign Land.

Sean, a Paragon of Missionite Taste
My former Flat-Mate, Sean, for example, loyally follows the Missionite Diet.  Doth this gentle Creature entertain an Appetite for Cheese and Plumb Puddings, Sausage Rolls and Scotch Eggs?  Nay, gentle reader!  How could he rehearse with his Band, or exercise at the Climbing Gym, with both Body and Soul fatigue'd by these odious made-dishes?  No, this delicate Palate craves but the finest of Dainties: Crackers of Spirulina season'd with Algae Flakes, the elegant pleasures of the Gogi-Berrie.  He likes neither meat, nor stews, nor salt, and had never tasted Gltutenous Ales straight.  Excellent lentils, tofu steaks, sprouts, fruit; those are his daily fare, and were it not for sustainably raised fish of which he is also is very fond, he would be a true Pythagorean.

For weeks I endeavour’d to find these Dainties in London with no Reward.  But only yesterday, Lady Fortune hath decided to smile upon this hungry Quixote.  Just up E----- Road, I stumbl’d upon a virtuous Missionite Grocer, who was so kindly as to allow me to wander inside.  

For my Readers Perusal, I hath attached a Bill of Fare for my Missionite Supper, design'd to please Sean's tender Palate:

First Course
Raw Flax Crackers

Second Course
Wasabi Wheatgrass Kale Chips 
Organic Zucchini
Taifun Organic smoked Tofu

To Drink: 
Karma Kombucha (Ginger)

Even with the 10% Off Yoga Practitioners Discount, the total came to nearly 15 pounds, a costly expense, methinks, for a rather simple Supper.  But as my Thoughts and Opinions are not intended for my own Wealth and Gain, but solely for the Benefit of the noble Publick, I obligingly spared the Expense. 

Clockwise: Raw Flax Crackers, Organic Zuchini,
Smoked Tofu Steak, Kale Chips
To Drink
And the Review:

--Karma Kombucha: How my palate had long'd for this tart and healthful Nectar!  The Taste was not excessively sweet, but cool and refreshing, although the Savours of Ginger were slightly too subtle for my Taste.

--Raw Handmade Flax Crackers: At first, these brightly crimson cover'd dainties confounded both the Eye and Tongue.  For who hath tasted a Cracker containing Beetroot, Apples and Melons?  But I found its hints of Nuts and Cinnamon mild and nice.  I confess, dear Reader, I ate them all.  

--Organic Taifun Smoked Tofu: It proclaim'd to be season'd with almonds and sesame seeds, but this added little to the overall Flavour, which was insufficiently smoked and a little too salty to my taste.  But it added a pleasant Texture nevertheless. 

--The Wasabi Wheatgrass Raw Dehydrated Kale Chips were the definite winner.  Even though they came from Camden High Street (sufficiently Local in Origin) the relish of Tahini and lemon, coupl’d with its grateful Crunch, hath tasted just like Home.  

And so I am as ever, your faithful and obliging

New Arabella,

Post-script- The Zucchini, the only Item upon which the Authoress could practice her arts of Cookery, was, in case you are wondering, excellent good.  

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Tasteful Party-Planning 101

It may come as a great surprise to my noble and judicious readers that, every so often, this project feels a little out of control.  I keep trying to come back to this point that the physical sense of taste –– not just aesthetic "taste" as a means of judgment –– becomes a pretty big deal beginning in the late 17th century, but sometimes I question whether that is what the sources I read are really telling me.

It isn't difficult to find instances of people talking about eating.  But most of these eye-witness accounts seem interested in where people dined and with whom.  People mentioned what they ate quite frequently, but there is rarely much subjective description of what a meal actually tasted like.  We know from the explosion of novels and diaries in the 18th century that a great deal of importance was ascribed to the excavation of one's private thoughts, feelings and emotions.  But it has been becoming apparent that finding written evidence of an 18th century food orgasm will probably be even more elusive than finding written evidence of the regular kind (ahem, Robert Hooke).

The Consequences of Pigging out on Turtle,
a highly elite delicacy in the 18th-19th centuries

Which makes it hard to avoid the following question: were people talking about gorging themselves on turtle and pineapple because of the peculiar taste these dishes afforded?  Or simply because these things were luxuries?  Did Samuel Pepys bury his Parmesan during the Great Fire of London because he was such a cheese aficionado?  Or did he simply realize that a big block of imported parm was really freaking expensive?

The social prestige of choosing to eat particular foods can never be separated from the practice of food connoisseurship, but perhaps this little bill can make a case for "taste."

This was taken from the Freemason's Grand Feast of May 3, 1784:

Champagne: 128 bottles at 0.10.6 per bottle .....67.4.0
Burgundy: 40 bottles at 0.8 ............................. 16.0.0
Hockamore: 28 bottles at 0.8.0 ........................ 11.4.0
Claret: 104 bottles at 0.5.6 ................................28.12.0
Madeira: 37 bottles at 0.4.6 .............................. 8.6.6
Sherry: 65 bottles at 0.4.0 ................................ 13.0.0
Port: 147 bottles at 0.2.6 .................................. 18.7.6
Total: 549 bottles .............................................162.14.0

I wasn't sure what conclusion to draw from this until an actual champagne historian reassured me that it was a pretty safe bet to assume that these beverages were consumed in this order.  But one thing caught my eye; champagne is far and away the most expensive: 10 shillings 6 pence per bottle.  Port, consumed at the very end, is but a fraction of that.

Anyone who has ever thrown a dinner party knows that it is essential to start out with the gastronomic conversation pieces (all the better to impress the guests).  Then, once everyone is too drunk to care or notice, whip out the cheap stuff.

If these wines were solely status symbols, would the order in which they were consumed matter so much?  Probably not.  Neither would they be consumed from the lightest wine to the heaviest (also going on above) which we still do today, so that our fickle palates can properly appreciate each wine's subtle notes and flavors.