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)

Monday, 31 October 2011

Lessons in Coin Collecting

What might a humble coin collector tell us about the 18th century meal?  In my last couple of posts, I introduced a new character to my worthy readers: Josiah Colebrooke, the punctilious treasurer to the Thursday's Club.

(New readers: you can catch up here.)

But I haven't yet figured out why he had such a bone to pick with the Earl of Chesterfield: the man who sought to enter the club based on a display of wit rather than a delectable edible gift, thereby going against the club rules.

Who was Josiah Colebrooke, after all?  An apothecary by trade, his long-standing membership in both the Society of Antiquaries and the Thursday's Club (he was the treasurer to both) suggests that he was dedicated to learning, self-improvement and the study of the past.

In 1776, shortly after his death, I found this document (to the left) advertising the auction of his most prized possession:  his coin collection.  Turns out that the guy had amassed a lot of them over the course of his life.  The document runs seven pages long.

The records show that Colebrooke possessed a variety of Roman, Greek and Byzantine coins, but the great majority were of English origin.  For a man of such dedication, I was surprised to find that most of them weren't terribly valuable; most cost between a pound or two: a respectable sum for the average guy, I suppose, but by no means a fortune.

I mean, Colebrooke was constantly asking his fellow Thursday's Club members to shell out a guinea (1 pound and 1 shilling) left and right to pay for all their "venison carriages" and bottles of claret.  His beloved coin collection would have been a pittance to them.  

(The priciest one, in case you were wondering, cost nearly seven pounds and is described as: "A very fine penny of Henry I, with the young face, very scarce.")
A penny of Henry I:
Who knows if this was  Colebrooke's most treasured coin?
I scoured ECCO for traces of Josiah Colebrooke, and found that he is remembered best for his accounting skills, his interest in antiquarian studies, and his coins.  But what might knowledge of his hobbies have to do with his obsession with keeping to "club rules" and his hostility to the Earl of Chesterfield?

A couple ideas:

In Colebrooke's letter of protest over the admission of Chesterfield, he draws a distinction between principles of admission based on substantial forms, such as may be tasted, and ephemeral, immeasurable things such as wit and humour.  Perhaps there's a parallel between Colebrooke's love of coins for their material uniqueness rather than their monetary value (otherwise, he wouldn't be collecting them!) and his privileging of ingestible foods over ineffable performances of "wit."

When venison was gifted to the club, it was served
as a haunch, as a neck, and in pasty form.
Additionally, learning a little more about Colebrooke's professional and social life makes it ever more apparent that he and the Earl of Chesterfield were born in very different social worlds.  Colebrooke was a guy with a day-job and no title, and ended up spending his free time keeping the books for the clubs he participated in.  In the same letter of protest to the club, he doesn't hesitate to single out Chesterfield's elite status.

"a nobleman chosen a member of a dining club for communicating a petition to the king, will appear very abstruse ... posterity will be at a loss, to know whether this petition etc was not a name given to some new dish of that nobleman's invention" 

Well, I'm not quite convinced that any 21st century reader would be fooled into thinking a "petition" was an Enlightenment delicacy.  Regardless, does Colebrooke suspect that the perception of Chesterfield's apparent "wittiness" is informed by his noble birth?  Maybe.  For even if venison and turtle were known as elite foods, they actually seem to level the playing field within the confines of the club.  After all, anyone –– nobleman or gentleman, the rules say –– may present them as gifts and reap the social rewards.  And once served up on the table, everyone is entitled to appreciate them.

We often think of "taste" as marking distinctions between individuals rather than bringing people together.  But for the petulant Mr. Colebrooke, it seems like the provision and sharing of food created for him a "common taste" that softened status distinctions within the society.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Meeting Questionable Standards in 1757

Did I mention that the year 1757 –– the same year that this conflict between Mr. Colebrooke and Lord Chesterfield went down –– was kind of a big deal in the history of "taste" among philosophers?

(For readers just catching up, my last post outlined a controversy within the Thursday's Club over the question of "wit" as an adequate criterion for honorary membership.)

For Hume, food was always
an apt metaphor
(Can't you tell?)
First, in 1757, David Hume penned his famous essay "Of the Standard of Taste," which likened the art of flavor detection to that of aesthetic judgment.  Both of these faculties, according to Hume, operated in the same way:  

Wherever the organs are so fine as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: this we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense....

Gustatory taste, for Hume, was a particularly apt example of aesthetic taste: our faculty of judgment.  But virtually on Hume's heels came the publication of Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.
If sweet was beautiful, what
tasted sublime?

Does anyone out there in the republic of bloggers happen to know what Edmund Burke's favorite food was?  The Enquiry makes him out to be quite the sugar fiend.  Indeed, "sweetness," in Burke's opinion, was "the beautiful of the taste."

But Burke didn't hold much confidence in our tongues.  After all, he asked, how can we really quantify the quality of our taste?  Do we truly enjoy the flavor of foods in of themselves, or do we simply enjoy the sensation of feeling full?  Do we really like the taste of opium?  Or do we like how it makes us feel?  Depending on our unique physiological constitutions, the sense of taste could be relentlessly subjective.  

Did the members of the Thursday's Club draw upon either of these ideas when it came to the subject of Lord Chesterfield and his witty letter?  As I write this, I'm still not sure.

For it seemed like Colebrooke's biggest bone to pick with Chesterfield was not whether a "standard of wit" could be devised.  Why of course it could!  (Guess he wasn't much of a skeptic.)  Instead, he appears more concerned about what the antiquarians of the future would think.

"The great difficulty and labour under is, how this minute may be interpreted by some future philosopher  into whose hands this manuscript may possibly fall ... when a higher entertainment is offered to our understandings, unless the ingredients that compose it are specified, posterity will be at a loss, to know whether this petition etc was not a name given to some new dish of that nobleman's invention..."

It's always comforting to know that even 250 years ago, someone was expecting that I would come along and try to explain the wheelings and dealings of this club to the entire blogosphere.  But I don't really know whether Colebrooke, by saying this, is merely rationalizing a dislike for the Earl of Chesterfield.  If he's so concerned about posterity, what aspect of the club's prestige is he trying to protect? 

Friday, 21 October 2011

A Dash of Wit at the Dinner Table

The Earl of Chesterfield:
A potential honorary member?  
So I've been racking my brain going over this minor confrontation within the Thursday's Club that occurred in 1757.  In October of that year, the Earl of Chesterfield (the guy pictured to the right) wrote a letter to the king that was apparently so witty and snarky that his cousin (who happened to be a long-term member) proposed him as an honorary member of the club.

But this wasn't taken too kindly by Josiah Colebrooke –– apothecary, antiquarian, and the club's faithful treasurer.  After all, if my readers remember, honorary membership was only bestowed upon those who had graced the club dining table with a) a haunch (or greater) of venison b) a turtle, or c) an exceptionally large chine of beef.

And Lord Chesterfield had done none of those things.

What to do?  In protest, Colebrooke pens a long epistle in which he asks for a copy of the letter to transcribe in the club minute books.

Here's an excerpt:

"A nobleman chose a member of a dining club, for communicating a petition to the King, will appear very abstruse, unless a description further than the word petition implys, be added; every one knows the meaning of the words Venison, Turtle, and Chine of Beef, the things are objects of our senses, we know the tast of them, but when a higher entertainment is offered to our understandings, unless the Ingredients that compose it are specifyed, Posterity will be at a loss, to know whether this petition etc was not a name given to some new dish of that Nobleman's invention.  You will pardon my taking up so much of your time, but as my records have hitherto taken notice of Substantial forms only, such as may be tasted, Tho Wit and Humour entertain the mind, yet as it will be very difficult to express them in a bill Fare without giving them at full length, I must beg the favour of you to furnish me with a Copy of this Petition..."

A sense of humor is all fine and dandy, Colebrooke seems to say, but how on earth does one measure it?  Indeed, while the sense of taste had been shown to be utterly subjective in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the art of flavor detection seemed pretty manageable when set beside the art of conversation.

So what happened?  Alas, dear readers.  The five empty pages in the minute book that follow this epistolary supplication testify to the failure of Colebrooke's plea.

Hopes Thwarted, Letter Lost: Empty Pages 

Will Lord Chesterfield get into the Thursday's Club?  Does Colebrooke make an ultimatum?  And how do contemporary understandings of "wit" and "taste" in the mid-18th century influence the course of events?

Readers, there is much much more to this story, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Peripatetic Imbiber

I recently noticed something both curious and delightful during my thrice-weekly commute to Berkeley via Montgomery Street.

(For those unacquainted with the Authoress’s current whereabouts, the Lady of Quality has of since departed from the UK and now resides next to a strip club in a particularly libertine quarter of North Beach, San Francisco.)

But I digress.  Taking notice of the immanent opening of this Coffee-Bar made me realize how urban rhythms are so often dictated by patterns of taste, connoisseurship, and, of course, caffeine addiction.  When I was working at the Westminster City Archives back in August, for example, it was always a delight to conclude my commute at Old Pye Street, where I would down a deliciously decadent flat white before spending the rest of the day monotonously scrolling through parish soup-house records on microfilm.  (I mean, with a name like this, how could one not expect to find something appetizing?) 

At Old Pye Street: Perking up to study paupers
I’m not sure if this San Francisco Coffee-Bar will offer flat whites (an Australian concoction of creamy espresso infused goodness).  Nevertheless, I find it very probable that this establishment will soon be incorporated into my morning commute.

Indeed, urban topographies are inflected by thousands of minute decisions having to do with our culinary preferences and how far we are willing to walk for them.  But to what extent did this hold true in 18th century London?  Judging from this map below of the City, it seems like little has changed. 

19 coffee houses concentrated in about 3 blocks?  That’s a tough act to follow, even for 21st century San Francisco.  But it shows us how savvy coffee shop proprietors were quick to set up shop wherever they could expect to profit from the sustained pedestrian traffic of financiers and merchants, who were equally eager for the caffeine fix and the exchange of information.  Not only were coffee-houses intimately associated with financial institutions, but every so often, they became the financial institutions themselves.  Jonathan's (number 9 on the map above) grew into the London Stock Exchange, and Lloyd's (number 17) became the insurance company that still exists today.  

At last: Flat Whites at NEAT
Post-Script- For those of my Readers, who, having managed to get through this post, are now desirious of a flat white, I finally managed to order one at NEAT Cafe in Darien, CT.  (And, in case the photo to the right isn't enough to whet your appetite, it was so good that it even managed to sway my generally caffeine-averse companion.)  Next time any of my readers happen to find themselves in Fairfield County, it is most certainly worthy of a detour.