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)

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The College Meat Affair Continue'd

In my last post, I described a pamphlet war that occurred at Queens College in Oxford, incited, ostensibly, by a group of students less than thrilled about the quality of the meat served at dinner.  The harsh words cast between the students and fellows can't be disregarded, but the question still lingers: was the boiled beef really that bad?  Or was it merely a convenient pretext for open rebellion (or a better cut)?

Thankfully, during my time at the college archive I was able to get my hands on the Cook's Accounts, which record all of the meat consumed at the college.  No, they don't tell us what kind of meat was being eaten, nor do they tell us how it was cooked.  But they might shed some additional light about what exactly transpired in May of 1748.

Wonder what keeps better, roast or boiled beef?
Here's what we know about what was happening on the week of the 6th of May, when the meat-related woes all began.

Remains from last week: 0.8.0 (This is the cost of the leftovers carried over from the previous week)
Total cost of meat brought in: 17.2.7 (enough said)  
Battels: 18.17.8 1/2 (This is how much, overall, that the students were charged for their meals) 
Remains: 1.0.0 (This is how much wasn't eaten during the week)

From this one entry, you can easily see that the leftovers at the end of the week on the 6th of May were more than twice the amount of leftovers from the previous week, suggesting that diners didn't eat as much as anticipated.  (Usually the "Remains" hovers around three of four shillings, so one pound, by comparison, is quite significant.)

What about the "Battels," the total amount students were charged for their meals?  We don't know the price each student was paying, but we do know that when this number was high, that means that a lot of students were showing up for dinner.  Some weeks, the price of "Battels" could get up to 35 pounds, so the figure represented here suggests that there were fewer people showing up –– and paying –– than usual.  From other accounts, I realized that the "Battels" charged to the students always exceeded the amount of meat that is actually consumed.  This isn't surprising, as the college wanted to ensure that no one would leave the meal hungry.

But in the weeks leading up to the protest, the disparity between the "Battels" charged to the students and the price of the meat brought in (as opposed to leftovers from the previous week) would be quite high.  What does that mean?

Well, that the students are paying for more meat that they can't eat, which results in an accumulation of leftovers.  Can a riot really be that far away??  

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Roasted and The Boiled

My last post about John James' complaints might shed some light upon the mediocrity of 18th century Oxbridge food, but it seems like sometimes, dear readers, the food got so bad that students felt compelled to take matters into their own hands.  In 1748, a war erupted between a group of students at Queens College in Oxford, who were dissatisfied with the meat served in the college dining hall, and the stodgy old fellows who sought to discipline them.
The scene of the Crime: Queens College Dining Hall
On May 6, 1748, the students formally complained about the boiled meat served at the commoner's table, which, so they claimed, "had often been bad before."  Finding no sympathy among the fellows, however, the hungry students decided to boycott the mid-day dinner the next day, "despairing of meeting with any thing fit to eat there," although they came back for supper in the evening to avoid charges of an open rebellion.  The boycott carried on for a week.

The Fellows' rebuttal, however, painted a different picture.  They claimed the students' actions occurred not "to desire a Redress of any Grievance from the Badness of the Meat, but to request an Alteration in the Method of dressing it or cutting it."

After all, the fellows pointed out, it was rather suspicious that the students boycotted their mid-day dinners, which happened to be serving boiled beef, but still hung around for supper, when roast beef was on the bill of fare.  And if the complaints were simply about taste, rather than a question of edibility, the fellows saw no need to heed them.

But how do we know who was in the right?  Was the meat genuinely bad?  Or was the whole affair concocted as a ruse to inject some much needed variety into the undergraduate diet?  Either way, the conflict betrays an important question; where is the tipping point whereby a matter of taste is transformed into a much larger struggle for agency and authority?

Stay tuned, my inquisitive readers, for more posts on this matter are forthcoming.   

Monday, 15 August 2011

Oatmeal: the Enlightenment Easy-Mac?

In 1778, John James, a curate's son, set off to Oxford to begin his undergraduate career at Queens College.  I had the chance to read some of his letters at the college's archives last week, and I admit I was pleasantly comforted to find that many of his concerns were uncannily similar to those of the present day.

Christchurch, not Queens, but you get the idea
A few examples:

--How to do one's own laundry: “I beg to be informed by my mother to what uses I must apply the napkins, and to what the towels; how long a pair of sheets must be used before they are washed, and what price I must set on a stock if my laundress should lose one" (October 9, 1778)

--Complaints about the college's food: “I am disgusted with the water and milk of Oxford.  Tea and coffee enervate and unhinge me for the whole day after."  (This is followed by an encomium to his parents on the virtues of hasty pudding).

--And thus proceeds to request a care package from good ol' mom: "This means no more than that I want a barrel of oatmeal, if you should have an opportunity of sending me one.”  

Oatmeal?  Really?  To the left you can see my favorite undergraduate snack procured from outside the college walls.  To each his own, I guess.  

And despite John James' protestations that "my eating almost never exceeds one shilling a day, except on very particular occasions" he has some trouble explaining to the parents why all his money has disappeared by the end of his first term.  "I cannot see," he claims "how [the expense] is swelled so high."

Ahh.  Such a familiar story.  

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Fun with Spoon Victuals in 1736

The other day, I posted a Bill of Fare designed for the workhouse at St. Martin in the Fields.  And while this might end up telling us something important about the gastronomical life of an 18th century urban pauper, one thing remains unanswered.  How do we know how all these sundry puddings and porridges dishes tasted?

A Workhouse Plan
Notice separate dining halls for men and women
I couldn't find any recipes from the existing workhouse records of St. Martin of the Fields, but today, I dug up a couple receipts in the overseers' minutes from a neighboring workhouse.  And considering that many of these 18th century workhouses seemed to spy on each other on a semi-regular basis (hoping to devise new ways of keep their poor alive and working on the cheap) I think it's very likely that there was a lot of recipe poaching going on too.

The following were recorded in 1736. 

'Milk Porridge' (Breakfast 5 days a week): "That to every gallon of milk there be two gallons of water and and a proportionable quantity of salt and half a pint of oatmeal."

Pease Porridge (Dinner on Mondays) "That the every gallon of liquor there be put one pint and a half of pease and that a hock of bacon of about six pounds be boil’d in the whole quantity of porridge to give it a savory taste.”

Plumb Pudding- (Dinner on Saturdays) "That to make sixteen plumb puddings there be such 15 lb suet, 15 lb raisins and 18 quarts of milk, two bushels and one peck of flower, three quarters of a pound of rice and one pound of salt.  Each of the puddings to be divided for men and women into sixteen parts and for boys and girls into twenty four parts."

But which one to choose, my voracious readers?!  Regrettably, I haven't yet had the chance to whip up any of these historic "spoon victuals" for myself.  However, I've attempted to approximate the experience of an 18th century pauper during my lunch break by sampling as many soupy porridge-like dishes as I can (all found within five minutes of an archive, of course).

The Runner Up: Unidentified Hungarian Goulash
(Consumed at Westminster City Archives, 4.00)
The Winner: Spinach Agnoshi
 (Consumed at LMA Archives, 4.50)

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Down and Out with a side of Water Gruel

To my esteemed and learned Readers,

I would be hardly the first Londonite Blogger to describe to you the loathsome scenes of Pillage and Violence that hath for the past several Days flash'd upon the Publick's TV screens around the Earth, as a motley horde of Jilts and Sponges hath cruelly pillaged the City of London, shattering windows, looting shops, and setting fire to the Streets.  And knowing that the Readers of this Blog most likely had more important things on their Minds (and being herself glued to the BBC anyways) it is on this account that the Authoress hath neglecteth her Pen.

And for those readers who knew that the Authoress had been residing in Hackney, rest assured that I had fled these previous Lodgings shortly before the Riots began, (having already realized that Kingsland Road offered nothing but a Path to Vice and Iniquity) and hath found refuge in a far more agreeable quarter of the West End.  Blessed Readers, the affair is over.  The Lady of Quality lives.

Yet just as the local bus performs its same course, whether it be empty or not, the Authoress methodically continues her investigation of the Common Diet at the Westminster City archives, combing though parish records in hopes of finding out about what was being eaten in workhouses.

Find below a Bill of Fare from the workhouse at St Martin in the Fields (est 1725).  This one was recorded in 1774:

I would much rather have eaten at the Foundling's Hospital (check out their Bill of Fare) than have to stomach this stuff.  Sorry to say, but I don't think the fact that the water gruel was sweetened with "sugar and spice" would have rendered it much tastier.  Does this Bill of Fare represent simply the cheapest food the overseers could find?  I wonder if features of this dietary –– the alternation of specific meals on certain days, the ad-hoc nature of supper (bread always served with some kind of dairy) –– reflect the overseers' perceptions of the pauper's palate?

I couldn't find too much about the meal from the workhouse rules, but from what I gather, it was a pretty bare-bones existence:

"The master take care that every person in health be kept to work ... from Lady Day to Michaelmas from 6 o'clock in the morning till six at night, and from Michaelmas to Lady Day from 8 o'clock to 4 ... and that they be allowed one hours time for breakfasting, and one hour for dinner, and that they leave of work an hour sooner on Saturdays."

Wonder if there were any complaints?  

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Tasting Ambition, Smelling Confusion

In my last post, I suggested that the analysis of "taste" –– what did it tell us? what was it used for? –– was a subject of great interest among botanists, physicians and other sundry early members of the Royal Society.  Yet as time went on, it seemed as if the Baconian optimism that once charged scientific studies of taste seemed to wane.  Perhaps the record of a scientific project I found in the archives might shed some light on why and how this occurred.

“Tasts and smells” was one of three principle categories in the F.R.S physician John Rutty’s attempted overhaul of the Materia Medica. a project undertaken in 1729-30 in order to both “reduce the knowledge … to a greater certainty,” (in his words) and sever it from the “farrago of superstitions and incredible virtues with which botanic writers abound.”  But despite measuring tastes and smells the best he could –– collecting testimonies of past authors, his own experiences, as well as those of an assistant acting as a blind taster –– he still ran into problems.  “The difficulties attending an account of taste and smell [result] from not only our inability to express by words many Ideas we receive this way,” he remarked, “but also from the diversity of both in different persons.”  Not only do subjective experiences differ, but even existing flavor vocabularies were deemed unreliable approximations of the true essence of things.  

Thus, Rutty’s only recourse is to dumb his system down to the lowest common flavor denominators, ignoring subtler notes and aromas as “useless and perplexing” and trying to pin-point “predominant qualities” upon which most tasters could agree.  The project –– weighed down with too many ambiguities –– must have inevitably failed, as I never heard it mentioned again after 1730.   

But this silence can be unnerving.  Does it mean that scientists no longer cared about studying taste?  Did they give up?  Or has the stage of the cultural conversation moved elsewhere?  

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Lost Illusions

"There may be found many Mechanical Inventions, to improve our Senses of Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, Touching, as well as we have improved that of Seeing by Optick Glasses."

I pulled this quote from Robert Hooke's 1665 scientific best-seller, Micrographia, a work that did much to attract scientific attention to the formerly unseen.  But did Hooke's sensory optimism ever come to pass?

One would think so.  In the early days of the Royal Society, the sense of taste garnered a great deal of scientific interest.  Tongues (human, bovine, and elephantine) were pricked, poked, sliced into pieces and slid under a microscope in order to understand how sapid particles imparted the sensations of sweetness and saltiness.  Scientists assiduously debated the number of flavors (and flavor combinations) that existed.  And I was particularly amused to read Robert Boyle's attempt to trick unwitting subjects into believing a mystery substance made of roots could taste like a delicious raspberry wine.  Equipped with state-of-the-art single lens microscopes, it seemed as if an army of chemists, botanists and anatomists would be able to explain the tricky subject of taste preferences in no time.

Yet the more research that was poured into understanding the sense of taste, the less the sense of taste actually seemed to be understood.  By the dawn of the 18th century, John Houghton's Newsletter reveals a much more pessimistic attitude regarding any standardized measurement of the gustatory sense:

“Tis to be wish’d there were discovered a good theory of smell, as also of taste, etc. but ‘tis rather to be wish’d for than expected; but if it could be done, we should then make a considerable improvement of the art of perfuming.”

In less than forty years, Hooke's enthusiasm had given way to distanced, practical resignation.  Why this change in sentiment?  Perhaps the question isn't "what did scientists say about taste?" but rather, "Why did scientists give up on taste?"