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, 26 July 2011

A Recipe for Disaster

Most kind, loyal and efficacious readers!  As this blog passes its third month in existence, and I sentimentally browse through previous posts, I must confess that, in the course of my research thus far, my thoughts and opinions have been skewed towards tastes of a more metropolitan nature.  But the time has come, I think, to carry this project beyond the environs of London alone.   And having had, on a few occasions, the opportunity to experience the mystique of Oxbridge dining myself, I started to believe that the tastes of 18th century collegiate life –– where rank determined, among other things, your place at the dinner table –– might be a worthy subject of study.  
A college dinner at Hertford (2009
But as I was examining some printed documents before descending into the quagmires of commons, letters, diaries and buttery books, I found a rather unorthodox "receipt."  I've attached it below.

“My next Receipt is to make an Head of an House.  But of these there are Two Sorts, the G-----r Kind and the Dobson Kind.  

To make up the Latter,
Recipe an Old Heavy Country Parson, extract all Remains of common Sense, and common Honesty, and then put in Gravity, Formality, Hypocrisy and Pretended Conscience, of each a Large Quantity."


“To make One of the other Kind, instead of a Country Parson, take a Plotting, Intriguing, rakish, Drinking, Whoring, Fellow of a College. Distil him down to a Rigid Disciplinarian; then prepare him after the foregoing manner. But add to the Composition, of Pride, Ambition, Knavery, Envy, Malice, and Revenge, of each a Large Handful."

What have we here?  Turns out the author was Nicholas Amhurst, a polemical pamphleteer who, after being expelled from Oxford in the early 18th century, spent the rest of his life trying to smear his alma mater with a treasonous, Jacobite label.  (Most of the good stuff was published in Terae Filius: A Secret History of Oxford.)  But these little receipts reminded me of the puzzling Bill of Fare for King George II's Christmas dinner, which I posted about two months ago.  Why are so many pieces of 18th century satire styled in the language of the edible?  Are satirists using the genres of the "receipt" and the "bill of fare" simply because they were so current in the contemporary cultural imagination?  (Cookbook publications sky-rocketed throughout the 18th century.)  Or do these things, I wonder, tell us anything about how cookery was perceived itself?  

Saturday, 23 July 2011

R.S. Mystery Money

I haven't blogged about the Thursday's Club in a while, but I was back at Carlton Terrace last week browsing through a few things before I head off to other archives.  And quite by accident, I found the following piece of paper folded into the Thursday's Club minute book.

This one (dated the 28th of June, 1790) was one of four scraps of paper that listed the attendance at the anniversary dinners.  What can we find out from this?  Well, there were 22 attendees, 7 of whom weren't members but attended as guests of others.  (The Thursday's Club rule books constantly complain about excessive numbers of "strangers" attending the dinners and passed a flurry of rules to manage the party crashers.)

But what particularly interests me is the note written underneath the list of names: "Seven shillings found under the table."

You're probably thinking, my judicious Readers, that this little note is hardly extraordinary.  Nevertheless, it might provide some insight into how respectability factored into how these dinners.  Why didn't anyone claim the money for himself?  Or why didn't the man who found it simply pocket it himself and keep his mouth shut?  In 1784, the Club and the Crown and Anchor Tavern decided that dinner would be charged at 4 shillings a head, so 7 shillings wasn't insubstantial.  We only know that, ultimately, the money was deemed the property of the club.

The Thursday's Club certainly catered to the upper strata of society, (one had to be a fellow of the Royal Society in order to even qualify for membership) but within that category, we can see that there are peers, doctors, officers and commoners alike present at the dinner.  And once you're in, it seems, everyone governed himself according to the same rules of propriety.

Post-Script: Regrettably, the Thursday's Club stopped recording their Bills of Fare in 1786, so I wasn't able to find out what they actually ate for dinner that day.  However, I have previously mentioned that the Royal Society offers an excellent (and ridiculously cheap) lunch for readers and fellows alike.  
A Healthfull and Nourishing Sallet for 2.75
I am very pleased to report that the spirit of Mr. Evelyn, F.R.S is alive and well over here.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Overcooked Turbot and Toasted Cheese

I was randomly trolling one of my favorite sites –– 18th Century Journals Online –– the other night and came across this little quote from The Humourist:

“At Dinner we had many Excuses from
 the Lady of the House for our indifferent Fare,
 and she had as many Declarations from us,
 her Guests, that all was very good.”

I’ve looked at zillions of committee books and minutes dealing with dinners of various kinds, and while these sources are useful in deciphering who was at a particular meal, and sometimes what is served, it’s difficult to figure out what the experience of the dinner was like.  At the end of the day, of course, the sensation of taste can only be physically experienced alone, but social context profoundly influences the performance of taste.  Nobody dares to criticize the food while he is a guest in a stranger’s home.  The commensality of the table causes the picky connoisseur to fall silent.

So if propriety obscures the nitty gritty politics of the dinner table, we can often only piece together the experience of the meal from what we hear in retrospect –– the complaints.  I already mentioned the finicky Freemason who withdrew from the Brethren in 1790 because he got a bad seat at dinner, but I’ve run across a slew of other complaints too.  After the Sons of the Clergy Banquet held on the 14th of May, 1789, the minute book stated,

“After the steward and their deputies had dined, the dinner was served up in the hall at 2 past 5 o clock the tables were covered with great profusion, the turbot was fine and in great plenty. In fact ... every person was perfectly satisfied.  The wine was served by Mr Lewis master of the new London Tavern Cheapside and NO COMPLAINT.” 

Did I mention that the said Mr Lewis wined and dined them on champagne in order to get the gig?  (It's in the minutes.)  
This guy looks pretty serious about his meal,
but who knows if the fowl was cooked to his liking?
Rowlandson, "The Glutton"

Similarly, at a meeting recorded on Feb 17, 1784, the Thursday's Club minute books record:

“Mr Simkin [the Crown and Anchor proprietor] has made such promises of mending the commons so greatly that no person will in future complain of his dinners…”[1]

Complaining of his dinners?  With the profusion of venison and turtle gifts to the Club, I didn’t know there were any problems until I ran across these things.  But these little asides tell us a lot about the more subjective side of dining.  Nobody wants to whine in public, and we don't exactly know who is complaining, but it's important to keep in mind that diners were, in addition to reveling about the new dishes they were eating, also grumbling and whining about the quality of what they were eating and how it was served.  In any case, it seems like more and more people were developing ‘complaints’ in the latter end of the 18th century.  It might just be a coincidence that all of these things occur within a ten year time frame, but I wonder if the notion of respectable dining was changing in some way.  And if so, why? 

[1] My favorite new stipulation being, “When toasted cheese is called for, he be allowed to charge it.”

Saturday, 16 July 2011

A "Got-Milk" Ad, Circa 1800

"The House Committee do hereby give Notice that they are willing to receive proposals for supplying this hospital with Milk..."  

Milk Advertising Copy: 1800
Could this be the first ever "Got Milk" ad?  This little excerpt also turned up in the Foundlings Sub-Committee Minutes.  The many daily and weekly newspapers that sprung up throughout the 18th century spawned zillions of advertisements, but I was particularly amused by this one.

Why so amusing?  Well, mostly the fact that it is so forthright in its demands.  The milk must be delivered "free of every expense" and "in such quantities as may be wanted daily." 

I guess that in 1800, the mantra of 'the customer was always right' was as alive as ever.  Or was it?  This particular committee was particularly persnickety when it came to the weekly inspections of hospital staples ––meat, beer, bread and cheese –– and would often send things back if the butter was found too "indifferent" or the beer too "new."   

Friday, 15 July 2011

Sweet Charity and Pease Puddings

I can't really decide what to make of the Foundling Hospital.  Founded in 1741, it was the first real organization designed for housing abandoned children (providing a venue for babies to be abandoned other than the church doorsteps).  There have been quite a few books published on it during the last hundred years or so, but I haven't run across anything that takes the food eaten there into account in any detail.  So what was the story?

In browsing the minute books, which I've been doing over the last couple of weeks, I often run across little details (food related or otherwise) that warm my heart, such as:

-- "The School Master requested the usual allowance of one guinea for children's toys" (1800)

-- "On the 17th of October yearly [the children] have a holliday of roast beef and plumb pudding for dinner" (1758)

-- "Ordered that the children have a holliday on the first fine day of next week" (1797)

The consensus among historians is that the diet here was generally better than that of the parish workhouses, but, obviously, the provisions seem a lot more meagre than a lot of the material I've looked at.  The first Sub-committee minute book stipulates that "the diet allowed ... be plain and simple, a small broth pottage and milk, meat and vegetables alternately, their bread coarse and their drink water."  

Sounds pretty bare-bones.  But check out this diet table; I found it in a book of miscellaneous documents dated between 1755 and 1762.
Notice how "dinner" was constantly subject to revision
Of course, then as now, there was no free lunch,  and the children did everything from making clothing and nets to working in the kitchen or garden be rendered, as the minute books put it, "more useful to the Publick" the goal ultimately being to apprentice them out somewhere.  There were also dire consequences for misbehaving; I've run across several occasions where children were locked up for a week and fed only bread and water.

Most distressing, however, is to find that the minute books are punctuated by things like this:  
Bill of Fare for The Trustees Anniversary Dinner: May, 1787
On the menu: "Tonderoons de Veau" "Duckling Roast" and "Mock Turtle" 
Very suspicious.  Very suspicious indeed.  But can we blame these guys?  The minute books seem to indicate that the hospital relied on these kinds of charity dinners to solicit funding, not unlike the celebrity-studded fundraisers we have today.  (Handel's orotorios were also apparently big money-makers for the hospital.)

Dietaries and Bills of Fare are very good at showing what people were eating.  But how were they eating?  What did dining mean in this institution?  That's up next.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A Connection of One's Own, or Tis Three Weeks Since

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” a noble woman once said.  But in addition to this Certitude, gentle readers, which, I believe amounts to veritable Law, there is, these Days, one additional Necessity.  Nay, this Authoress needs no Room (or Closet) of her own; but only a solid Wifi Connection, the persistent absence of which has hindered the Frequency of her Posts.  Therefore, wouldst thou, gentle reader, allow the Authoress of this Blog to offer her humble Apologies for her hiatus from the Pen, heretofore employed to educate the efficacious Publick upon the Tastes and Cookery enjoyed in these Modern Times.  But before she proceeds to her Accounts of Lunch enjoyed in the Archives, this Authoress thought it would interest her Readers to read of a True Account that occurred Three Weeks Ago. 

The Hero of this Tale
The Hero of this Following Post was an avid connoisseur of foods of all kinds.  He was particularly well acquainted with the Salted Meats of Parma, the Cheeses of Bethmale, and all of the Flemish Sours that have exercised themselves upon the refined Palate.  Yet as a youth, he had spent much time in examining the tree of his genealogy, which, emblazoned with many an emblematic mark of honour and heroic achievement of his Scotch Ancestors, hung upon the well-varnished wainscot of his hall.  And it came to pass, noble reader, that he came to be beckoned northwards in order to visit these ancient and noble Relations, and, by the bye, taste some of the local fare too. 

Alas, worthy Reader.  Lady Fortune did not favour our weary Traveler, as he arrived in the City of Edinburgh confront’d with a violent downpour of Rain.  Having difficulty finding suitable Lodgings –– all the Rooms being fill'd with Patrons of Bon Jovi –– and running low on Provisions, we (for the Authoress of this Blog happened to be there as well) stumbled upon The D------- Tavern on H----- Street.  And around One Of the Clock, we dined.   


--Haggis with Turnip Hash with Fried Duck Egg – This dish was admirably good, upon spearing the Egg, it hath melted over all over the Dish, the Taste of which was well deserving of Mr Burns' Encomium.  

--Devilled Ox Liver, Bacon, Mushrooms on Toast – The Liver, cut in slices, was well stew'd with Vegetables and Spices, giving the dish a rich and delicate Flavour.

--Bedfordshire Clanger- This oddly shaped Pye was made from three quarters minc’d meat, and one quarter stewed Peaches.  Yet regardless of its Shape it hath pleased the need for sweet and savory at once, and was serv’d with a fresh and healthful Sallet of Arugala

Our meal was wash'd down with Tankards of Ale, but my learned Readers must know that it would be a grave misfortune to leave this wild and mysterious Country without treating oneself to the delights of their Spirituous Liquors.  

This one fit the bill.  Peaty and smoky, a Bumper of this fine Whisky soon seduc'd our Palates with the mysterious Allures of the Scotch Countryside.  The kind of thing that is perfect for Toasts of more aqueous intentions, confesses,

Your humble and and obedient Servant,


Monday, 4 July 2011

Please Sir, I want some more Boil'd Beef and Greens

It's been a long day, dear readers.  As the authoress pours her way through minute book upon minute book of the Foundling Hospital Sub-Committee  –– reading about bread inspections, frugal dinners of boiled mutton and cabbage, and the occasional "bundle of dead children" –– it is difficult to keep the imagination from wandering over to the festivities happening on the other side of the pond.  

I can't help thinking that these poor foundlings could really use a bite of Americana: a burger.  

But long before the burger had assumed its place in the American culinary lexicon, the beef-steak had already been fashioned into a quintessential symbol of Englishness.  Unlike French fricassees and raggoos, drowned in sauces to the point where you couldn't be sure what you were eating (which patriots were quick to claim was rancid meat) English beef, for the most part, came to the table roasted and unadorned.  What you see was what you got.  Check out the piece of meat roasting over the spit in the bottom left corner below, in plain view of the company.     

"A Dog Turn-spit in a Kitchen" by Thomas Rowlandson
Note the dog –– hard at work –– at the top center: 
I think I mentioned its special status within the Thursday's Club before, but the fashionable and cosmopolitan Royal Society wasn't the only place where beef was treated as something beyond simply a a tasty treat.  In 1761, the Lord Mayors Banquet planning committee passed a resolution that “... two chines of roast beef be provided for sideboard in the hall with two flags, one the Standard of England and the other the City Army."   

We don't really know if these chines on display were meant to be eaten or simply displayed, and we obviously can't use the Lord Mayor's Feast as an indicator of the typical English diet.  Odes to beef are all over the place in 18th century English history, but it's worthwhile to compare all this jingoistic hyperbole to the actual records of what people are eating.  So I was pretty excited to find, going through these Foundlings' Dietaries, a stipulation (given in 1758) that the children should get a dinner of roast beef and plumb pudding for dinner every 17th of October (that being the date of the Hospital's Charter).  

Seems like beef –– unlike venison and turtle soup –– was deemed a morally acceptable treat for even the poorest of the poor.  For most people, beef was deemed to be every Englishman's bread and butter, but for the poor foundlings, it was synonymous with celebration.  But the beef consumed by the poor foundlings didn't exactly fall into the same category as the delectable prime, tender, dry aged cuts enjoyed at steak-houses today.  The Hospital's butchers' bills indicate that, most of the time, the children were dining on cheap shoulder clods, "veiny pieces" and cuts "with gristle, for roasting."  In fact, a hospital physician complained in 1776 about children having to swallow large pieces of meat whole, as the quality of the meat was so poor (and the knives so bad) that they weren't even able to cut it.   

No, my gentle readers, it seems like not every foundling had a Squire Allworthy to help him out of some pretty dire situations.  Perhaps the symbolic weight accorded to English beef could come into conflict with an enjoyable meal.  But Burger Monday awaits, so I wearily lay down my pen, confesses, 

Your ever obliging and affectionate,


Friday, 1 July 2011

The Common Taste

I've talked a lot in this blog about the eating habits of the wealthy.  But, unsurprisingly, it was only a small number of people who were enjoying "basilick squabbs" and tureens of turtle soup on a regular basis.  But with food prices steadily decreasing throughout the 18th century, and even provincial shops being able to offer their customers three or four different varieties of tea and coffee, it's worth wondering: did the poor have a palate?  

"An Oyster-Seller," from Cries of London
Paul Sandby, 1759
(Recently viewed by this blogger in the
London Museum)
The taste psychology of the poor is tricky to discern, as we usually only get to look at their eating habits through the insouciantly sated lens of the moneyed.  We hear a lot about how the poor are, on a regular basis, selling food to the rich. Walking around the streets of London in the 18th century, one was bound to encounter costermongers selling everything from oysters and fruit to pies and sausages.  In 1773, James Boswell described Jessops Tavern as a place that offered no food, but "a woman attended with mutton pies, which anybody might purchase."  Boswell's final verdict: "pretty good."

Servants also had access to fine food, and it has already been observed that, since they often got to dine on their masters’ leftovers, they generally ate far better than others of their station.  But did they adopt their masters' tastes?  

Let's see what some of the literary big-shots have to say.  Daniel Defoe loved to complain about the low quality of service in those days.  So just for fun, I searched all of his anti-servant rants for the Dickensian keywords for the idle poor: “venison” “turtle soup” “gold spoon.”  Nada.  Defoe seemed more inclined to think that servants preferred to steal their masters’ fine food and sell it for a profit.

J. Swift

What about Jonathan Swift?  In Directions to Servants, (1731) his semi-absurd guide to cheating, extorting, and generally creating health-hazards for masters throughout Britain, I've extracted the following tidbits: 

"To save time and trouble, cut your apples and onions with the same knife, for the well-bred gentry love the taste of an onion in every thing they eat."


"Place birds in the dripping pan, where the fat of roasted mutton or beef falling on the birds, will serve to baste them ... for what cook of any spirit would lose her time in picking larks, wheat-ears, and other small birds?" 

But nowhere does he actually promote eating the masters’ food.  Rather, he is most likely to advise extorting them by mixing foods together that are meant to be separate.  This kind of misbehavior is satirically purported to give dishes a “high” or “French” taste, as if onion and oil in everything is all too often mistaken for the flavor of money and sophistication.  

So maybe published sources aren't the best way to go on this one.  But what do the archives tell us?

That's coming up next.