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)

Friday, 30 December 2011

Resolutions for Blue-Stockings

Worthy Readers of this Blog might hath detected the Absence of the Hungry Quixote, who, being much engaged in the writing of her Dissertation, hath cruelly neglected to report upon her Peregrinations around the various Libraries and Archives of this Empire, all in the Service of finding pleasing, healthfull and oeconmical Lunches to be enjoy'd by young Scholars.

Fortunately, the Hungry Quixote has had the Opportunity to spend last week at the Huntington Library of San Marino, in hopes of educating her Self upon the Dishes most enjoyed by fashionable Gentlemen and Ladies of Leisure during the 18th century.  I particularly relished the letters penned by the well-known London socialite and Blue-Stocking, Elizabeth Montagu.  Her early letters don't betray many enlightened musings upon the flavors of the age; seems like girlfriend pretty much lived on tea and spa water from Bath and consumed, as a daily exercise regimen, "two dishes of chocolate" then a "walk round the garden, and at home before the family goes to breakfast."  However, as any promising young socialite is wont to do, she was all too eager to lend her opinions on the eating habits of others.

She looks pretty good:
Bath Water = Enlightenment Kombucha?
In 1740, she infers that a man's prodigious appetite might belie an unhealthy penchant for frugality, suggesting, "I believe, in his oeconomy, he saves a dinner when he is invited to supper, for he eat a forequarter of lamb, a chicken with a plentiful portion of ham, potted beef and jellies innumerable..." 

And then a few months later, she couldn't wait to be rid of an overly zealous locavore:

"We this day had an Epicure to dine with us who talk'd so much of eating that his conversation gave one a dinner, the Gentleman was just come from abroad and declared he thought nothing he had met in travelling equal to a Haunch of English Venison, and declared for his part he preferr'd England to any other Country because Eatables of all sorts were here in the greatest perfection.  He was so loquacious and so voracious it was impossible to determine whether he eat or talk'd most, but for two hours his unwarried employment was the praise and practice of eating..." 

Reading all of this talk of Gormandizing, however, made it impossible for me to suppress the growing Hunger in my Stomack.  And as long-time Readers of this Blog know that its Authoress is particularly fond of Salleting, around 12 of the clock I retired to the Botanick Gardens, lusting after the Delights of the Vegetable Kingdom.

The Desert Garden

The Chinese Garden offer'd pleasing Exotick Fare
But the prodigious Line hinder'd all Hope of Expediency
In the Rose Garden, I finally stumbled upon a Cafe, where the Reader will learn there were plenty of the choicest Sallets and sundry Dainties to be found:

Day One: The Holyday Special
Chicken, Blew Cheese, Pecans, Cranberries and Balsamick
Day Two: Thai Tofu Sallet:
Cashews, Cabbage, Carrots and Scallions
While I found the latter to be more grateful to my Taste, both Sallets were compos'd of the freshest of Ingredients and garnish'd with the most agreeable of Sawces.  To compleat my Felicity, I was not obligated to wait in Line for the Grill'd Items, but passed through the Cafe with expeditious Ease. This allowed me to pass my Lunch-Hour, as a Blue-Stocking would, among the Gayer and Politer Enjoyments of the Gardens.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas Merriment in 1734

Who knew that ECCO could contain such a wealth of 18th century musings on Christmas?

 "Round about the Cole Fire, or, Christmas Entertainments"
By Dick Merryman, 1734
Old customs might fade during periods of social and economic change, but one can usually still find traces of them rigidly adhered to in songs, children's games, and holiday traditions.  So I wasn't completely surprised to find that 18th century commentators, many of whom lived in such a rapidly transforming environment, liked to wax nostalgic about Christmas and the demise of old Holy Day customs.  You must understand, good People, one 1734 commentator tells us, that the manner of celebrating this great Course of Holydays is vastly different now to what it was in former Days.

How so?

Well, he tell us, an English Gentleman at the opening of this great Day, had all his Tenants and Neighbors enter'd his Hall by Day-break, the Strong-Beer was broach'd, and the Black-Jacks went plentifully about with Toast, Sugar, Nutmeg, and good Cheshire Cheese.

Toast? Sugar? Nutmeg?  Not too different from the challah French toast enjoyed nowadays.  There was no Christmas tree (that was a 19th century German import) but the decor was distinctly festive nonetheless:

The Rooms were embower'd with Holly, Ivy, Cypress, Bays, Laurel, and Mistleto, and a bouncing Christmas Log in the Chimney glowing like the Cheeks of a Country Milk-maid.

This surely put everyone in a celebratory mood, and our commentator assures us that the Lasses were as blithe and buxom as the Maids in good Queen Bess's Days, when they eat Sir-Loins of Roast Beef for Breakfast.   People are busy in the welcoming of guests, the man-servants were scuttling about preparing for the feast: drinking, carousing, womanizing.  Yes, all is happy in the household.

Minc'd Pye: Always a Favorite
After the toast and nutmeg, what else was consumed?  Dick Merryman, our Christmas expert, informs us that: every one in the Country where a Gentleman resided, possessed at least a Day of Pleasure in the Christmas Holydays; the Tables were all spread from the first to the last, the Sir-Loyns of beef, the Minc'd Pies, the Plumb Porridge, the Capons, Turkeys, Geese, and Plumb-Puddings, were all brought upon the board; and all those who had sharp Stomaches and sharp Knives eat heartily and were welcome...

Indeed, he makes quite a fuss about this Holy Day being an occasion for the landed gentry to revel in the spirit of generosity, and it is quite possible that this –– the slow but ceaseless erosion of old class hierarchies –– is what he is really complaining about when he longingly speaks of the old traditions.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Make Room for the Fat Alderman

I have spent the past few posts exploring the social dynamics of two rival 17th-18th century dining clubs, both of which met every Wednesday at separate rival taverns in the City of London.  But there were countless clubs and societies that met on a regular basis for the purposes of eating, drinking, conspiring and merry-making.  What makes the Wednesday's Club and the Centenary Club especially pertinent to the social history of dining?

One of the keys, I believe, resides within the professional identities of the men on the attendance rosters.  In addition to merchants, tradesmen, lawyers and doctors, I noticed that the number of aldermen represented in both clubs was uncommonly high.  Who were they?

Along with the Lord Mayor, these officials, each of whom represented one of London's 26 wards, wielded executive political authority within the Corporation of London.  This title was limited to an elite few; one had to own a sizable estate in order to even qualify for nomination.  Once appointed, aldermen held their offices for life.  To call them oligarchical would be of an understatement.

Coincidentally, the City Alderman possessed a unique cultural connection to the art of eating well, or, perhaps too well, I suppose.
A City Feast: Notice all the wasted food being ravaged by dogs in the corner
Gluttony and political corruption often went hand in hand

'Moderation' was an alien term to City politicians
Rowlandson, 1801 

  Just for kicks, I entered the term "fat alderman" into ECCO.  These were some of the hits I got:

Aldermen were often depicted as victims to
the medical consequences of overindulgence

"A fat alderman and a gluttonous knave have become synonymous terms."
          -- "The Batchelor, or Speculations of Geoffrey Wagstaffe" (1769)

"Next the fat alderman, 
whose pond'rous paunch,
is swell'd with turtle,
and with sav'ry haunch
as the last City-feast insur'd his fate,
where for the Public good he sweat
 –– and ate." 
       -- Ewan Clark (1769) 

These condemnations were often laced with accusations of political corruption.

"When shall the time come that an English alderman, like a Roman citizen, shall be contented with a frugal mess of turnips, ready to sacrifice his life for the good of his country, not the interest of his country to his belly?"
        -- "Freemasonry, the High Way to Hell" (1768)

So it's no great surprise that I started exploring these club records with an eye out for details of exquisite banquets and hefty bills.  Foodstuffs themselves are mentioned very sparingly in these two accounts, but I often ran across some curious notes.

In the summer for 1747, for example, the Wednesday's Club spent 6 pounds, 9 shillings, and 6 pence over the allocated 10 pounds for a dinner at Putney.  This record was accompanied by the grumbling resolution that these additional costs would be, in the future, collectively shared by all of the club members. 

Or take an example from the Centenary Club in 1765, when one member, "Mr Darker," bet a bottle of claret that the club had enjoyed two "venison dinners" in the past year.  But apparently Mr. Darker's memory had escaped him; we learn that he lost the bet.

And then there's the guy who tries to get out of being a paying club member and asks for "honorary status" instead by claiming that he has a bad case of gout.  Hmm.  Wonder why?  

What does one make of these excerpts?  They show us that eating well was certainly on the 18th century alderman's mind.  But is this evidence of insatiable bouts of gluttony?  Hardly.  Perhaps the image of the "fat alderman" is somewhat of an exaggeration.  Or perhaps the keeper of the books was particularly skilled in the arts of understatement.   

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Anatomy of Betrayal

In my last post, I brought up a very peculiar attendance record that seemed to indicate some degree of unhealthy strife among the Wednesday's Club members.  Here it is again.  Seems like the club basically stopped recording its meetings after a few months.  By 1695, eleven of these 20 members had been erased from the records.

The Wednesday's Club seemed to go on hiatus in April of 1694: Buy why?
But what happened?  Where did these men go?  To get to the bottom of this, I decided to look at the seven pages of rules instituted in 1695, designed “by the severall persons of this clubb for the better rule and government of this loving society.”

The first "rule" was particularly intriguing.  It states:

For Dismissing Old Members

“Wheras Mr. Johnson Senior, Mr Thatcher, Mr Hinde, Mr Johnson Junior, Mr Pooler, Mr Pickering, Mr Todd, Mr Dudson, Mr Barnes, Mr Owen and Mr Cheshire, former members of this Clubb have discontinued their appearances at this Clubb for Some time, and have met at a Separat Clubb at the Castle Tavern in Paternoster Row after the Place of meeting was by the majority of the votes of this Clubb upon on noting for that purpose given, fixed to be at the Fountaine Tavern at Aldersgate.  It is Ordered the said persons so discontinuing their appearances shall be dismissed from being members of this Clubb and that for the future this Clubb shall to consist of twenty members and no more. 

What have we here?  Up to now, I had thought that most of these eating clubs had decided to institute rules in order to prevent non-paying "stangers" from showing up to the tavern unannounced and mooching off of the pre-paid dinner.  The institutionalization of the Wednesday's Club –– manifested in its many rules governing dining, comportment and membership ––  apparently resulted from decidedly less happy circumstances.

Distance from the Fountain to the Castle Tavern
Courtesy of Google-Maps
But why did these guys leave and start their own club?  It certainly couldn't have been the commute; A quick search revealed that the walking distance between the the locations of the two taverns amounted to a paltry five minutes.

But as vast social, religious and political divisions can make themselves apparent within the smallest of distances, it was worth asking why the defectors went to Paternoster Row of all places.  In the early 18th century, this street was a mecca for booksellers and printers.  One contemporary described the streets being so jam packed with gentleman's coaches that regular folks couldn't even find a place to walk.  And apparently the Castle Tavern, the venue to which the members deserted, was a pretty classy place; a 1699 newspaper remarked that a Man and Woman could order "1/2 dozen Potch'd Eggs which were brought upon a Plate with as many Silver Spoons." 

But I still needed to know more about the circumstances of this desertion.  I tried to search the names of the deserters in order to answer this question, but I didn't come up with much.

Except for one thing:    
First Year of the Centenary Club: Looks like the defectors ended up here!
I know this is a little hard to read, but if you look closely, my efficacious readers will notice that the exact same names of the deserters showing up in founding document of the Centenary Club in 1695!  Because the rules and organization of both clubs were so similar, I had been convinced for some time that the two clubs had some sort of relationship with one another.  This document said it all.  

Still, the circumstances regarding this betrayal remain a mystery.  Was it a matter of religion?  (After all, London in the late Stuart age was marked by religious strife among Anglicans, Catholics, and myriad Dissenting groups; the Sacheverell riots were looming in the not too distant future.)  Or perhaps politics caused the split?  (The Centenary Club entertained Tory loyalties, but I am not sure as of yet where the Wednesday's Club allegiances lied.)  Or could this division have resulted from a personal squabble among a once cohesive group of friends?

More on this matter next time.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Mysteries in the Minute Books

I have been wondering lately how words –– not simply the ideas conveyed by them –– but the physical way words are put onto a page, can tell a story.
Fans gobbled up Samuel Richardson's novels,
most likely because the epistolary format
made his stories seem more "real" 

In our increasingly paperless age, it's easy to forget how important the ability to write once was.  During the 18th century, with more and more people gaining access to pens, paper and learning to read, letter writing became all the rage.  It's no coincidence that the epistolary novel –– entire 800 pagers written as a series of letters from different characters –– became so popular.  Just flip through one of Samuel Richardson's novels (I wouldn't attempt reading them, however, unless you have a lot of extra time on your hands) and it quickly becomes apparent that not only the content of letters, but also their execution –– the handwriting, the pens, the paper –– said a whole lot about your social status.

What does this have to do with the subject of my most recent musings: 18th century London eating clubs?  Well, what I love about handling these minute books is that, in doing so, I can appreciate how precious they were to these respective clubs.  Notes are often scribbled in margins to save space.  Buying a new book was always dutifully recorded in expense reports.  For example, the Wednesday's Club included this note in its minute book:

"Mr Treasurer Bate was requested to have a new minute book prepared to be ready for this society against the commencement of the new century 1800, the present book having been in use upwards of One Hundred Years."  

"Preparing" a minute book involved more than we might think, however, and often required binding together a series of loose pages at a not insignificant cost.  It is telling that Samuel Pepys, the great Restoration diarist, bound his cookery books; he didn't bind his porn.  Indeed, the Centenary Club made quite a big fuss about having their books bound, proclaiming:

"The Ancient Register of the Club at the Half Moon Tavern, London, was new bound in the year 1780, when Henry Cranke, Esq, auditor of Bridewell and Bethlam Hospitals, was High Steward."  

Given that the ability to transcribe events was so important, we must take particular notice, then, when written records don't look so pretty.  I was looking at the Wednesday's Club minute book the other day –– a heavy leather-bound volume of records from 1687 to 1815 –– and one page in particular caught my eye as unusual.

What is going on here?  Given that the Wednesday's Club was so meticulous about keeping its attendance records, I was surprised to find that this one from 1694 was so ... well ... unfinished.  Why do the records just stop in April?  Did the club simply cease to meet?  Did these guys have a fight?  A falling out?  And what's up with the squiggles and crossed out names?

It might not look like much, dear readers, but I suspect that this unfinished record bespeaks some kind of larger conflict among the club's members, the origins of which I am determined to investigate.  I'll report my findings in the next post.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Getting Sloshed with Mr. Steward

There is a card game that the Authoress of this Blog used to quite enjoy playing back in her college days.  Cursed with the rather indecorous name of "Asshole," the game was, essentially, a race to get rid of one's cards first and become the "President," where one could invoke a series of self-serving and arbitrary rules upon the other players.

18th Century Playing Cards
Not sure as of yet whether "Asshole" was played
The rest of the players would continue to get rid of their cards until the last man to hold a card was declared the "Asshole." This unfortunate player would not only have to forfeit his or her best cards to the President in future games, but would also be coerced into a series of symbolically degrading rituals.  (The most common of these was having to drink large quantities of very cheap and unpalatable canned beer.)

But where did this game originate?  Where did the rules come from?  In the past few days, I have been looking at the rules inscribed in two 18th century club minute books  –– those belonging to the Wednesday's Club and the Centenary Club –– and I was struck by their similarities.  Indeed, it appears as if the social dynamics suggested by these club rules shared many of the same traits as this ubiquitous 21st century college drinking game.

I'll point out a few examples...

Egotistical yet unproductive rules enacted to coddle the President's ego and reaffirm the status quo were in full force.  The Wednesday's club rule book declares  "if any member of this clubb shall during the time of the clubb call the steward by any office other than Mr. Steward, such members shall for every offense forfeit and pay to the steward for the use of this Society 6 pence."  (This rule is very frequently enacted by 21st century college-age "Presidents.")

Members of club were all equals before the rules
but that doesn't prevent the Steward from getting a special title
(I also enjoyed the goose drawing c. 1685) 
The injunction to drink (or not to drink) becomes the prerogative of the President.  For example, "in case any member of this society shall talke, or otherwise interrupt the steward or his deputy during the time the names of the members of this society are calling over, such member shall forfeit and pay to the steward for the time being for the the use of the society for every such offense 3d."

Indeed, the level of drunkenness among members was strictly policed by the President, who also controlled who, when and to whom toasts were raised.  Further, "Any member that shall at any time during the club come to be disordered by drinke," the Centenary Club's rule-book stated, "shall forfeit 6d."  Bringing a drunk friend cost a shilling.  As I read on in the minute book, however, the antics of the members made it clear that the club took a very liberal view of drunkenness.  

None of these rules and penalties –– either then or now –– carried any real meaning.  These assertions of status and hierarchy are purely symbolic, holding true only among the participants in a clearly demarcated space and time.

After all, we always say, it's "just a game."

Yet the fact that two distinct 18th century social clubs ascribed to "rules" that are so similar to those espoused by boisterous college students today is thought-provoking.  Historical distance from our objects of inquiry can easily fool us into attributing more profundity to the purpose of these clubs than they really deserve.  Indeed, I'm finding that, for many of them, the professed agenda amounted to little other than a night of laughs and intoxication.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Predilection for (Food) Collection

As this Blog enters its seventh month of existence, my wise and efficacious readers most likely have gathered that the records of the Royal Society's semi-official dining club, "The Thursday's Club called the Royal Philosophers," have proven essential to the Lady of Quality's dissertation research.  Indeed, for 38 years –– from 1748 through 1785 –– this club assiduously recorded everything the members ate for dinner, from "Beef-Stake Pye" all the way down to the butter and cheese.

But alas.  In 1786, for some unknown reason, the treasurer ceased to record the 'Bill of Fare' in the dinner books.  (However, he unflaggingly continued to keep the attendance records for years.)

Why?  Did the Bill of Fare no longer matter to him?

In Annals of the Royal Society Club, published in 1917,  Sir Archibald Geikie attributes this unfortunate event to mere happenstance, proclaiming the two minutes of extra work being "too much for the increasingly feeble fingers of the devoted treasurer."

But I'm skeptical.  After all, the treasurer's hand-writing post-1786 resembles that of a man in perfectly good health (even for a physician, no less).  Thus, noble readers, I here propose an alternative explanation.  The 'Bill of Fare' ceased to be recorded in 1786 because it was no longer integral to the club's identity.

I implore you, noble reader, to hear me out.

Knowledge in the 18th century was often gleaned by
collecting and classifying like objects.
So why not food?
First, what we think of as "scientific research" today was, during the 18th century, heavily intertwined with the practice of antiquarian collecting (read more about it in my last post.)   Writing down what was eaten every week was an act of empirical observation.  When "chines of beef" were donated to the club, the treasurer would always weigh and measure them, duly recording his findings in the dinner books.  This zest for documentation also extended to the flavors of different foods.  For a bunch of guys who were trying exotic fruits for the very first time, the collective consensus that the flavor of cantaloupe was "equal if not superior to pine apple," was not just a piece of subjective whimsy.  It was a serious attempt to deduce standards of taste.  "Science" wasn't done in labs in those days; it was practiced in places like taverns and coffee-houses.  And more often than not, people would experiment on themselves.

Indeed, discerning the different flavors of fruit was a serious matter
But not only was the 'Bill of Fare' a matter of empirical observation; it also forged a "common taste" shared among the members.  I have already mentioned that members of the Thursday's Club did not all share the same social rank.  Sure, all of them were well-off by the standards of the day, but they could range from nobles to apothecaries, from politicians to poets.  By writing down everything that they ate, they were proclaiming to the world, and to posterity, that they were men who were cosmopolitan enough to know what a pineapple tasted like, but preferred the English "Apple Pye" to all other sweets.  They were men who happily dined on "Calves Head Hashed" and "Tongues and Udders," but disdained suspiciously French "Fricassees."  They were men who, by means of their urban street-smarts and savoir-faire, could dine on twenty different kinds of fresh fish and have cauliflowers in winter.  

By 1786, the Bill of Fare no longer performed the same scientific and social "work" that it once did.  Antiquarian collecting was losing relevance as the principal means of organizing knowledge.  And pineapples and cantaloupes were no longer complete edible novelties to those who could afford them.

In the 19th century, we start getting the menu with all of its a la carte options.  But the 18th century 'Bill of Fare' was an entirely different beast.

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.  

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Invasion, Beheadings and Jacobite Toasts: Not Your Grandmother's Newspaper Clippings

My last post suggested how an unlikely source –– a list of wagers made among friends –– may provide a glimpse into what went on behind the doors of the 18th century tavern.  But not every eating club doubled as a gambling club, and I have had to resign myself to the fact that the material for this project, no matter how hard I look, will most likely not come served on a magnificent platter, but rather will be gleaned from a haphazard potpourri of scraps.  So be it, I say.
"The Loyal Packet" records international
politics and the Jacobite Uprising at home
(Check out the note at the bottom)

If any wagers were made among members of the Wednesday's Club, which in terms of its middling, upwardly mobile social composition was very similar to the Centenary Club, they weren't recorded ... save for a failed lottery ticket.  But in 1715, I did find three newspaper clippings glued into the pages of its large leather-bound record book.

This finding got me wondering: what can these scraps of paper reveal about the inner lives of the club members?  Why do we hold onto newspaper clippings?  Or if not newspaper clippings –– only my grandmother does that –– what about links?

News didn't come cheap in those days, so papers were often left behind in eating and drinking establishments such as taverns and coffeehouses, where they then could be picked up, re-used and read aloud to groups of friends.  On the bottom of one clipping is a handwritten note: "presented to the Clubb by Mr Bate."   But who is this guy?  I couldn't find record or mention of him anywhere else, which suggests that Mr Bate showed up as the guest of someone else.

More importantly, why are these documents presented to the club?  Two of the papers are separate issues of "The Norwich Gazette, or, The Loyal Packet" both of which discuss the 1715 Jacobite Uprising led by "The Old Pretender," the son of the deposed King James II.  Specifically, the rather triumphalist tone of the "Loyal Packet" papers, which are published before the actual invasion took place, proclaim the ensuing defeat of the Pretender, whilst fully explicating the consequences of treasonous behavior, ie.

James Stuart, the Old Pretender
Invaded England in 1715
"They have actually begun to build a Scaffold in Westminster Hall for the Trial of the Earl of Oxford..."

Guess the Jacobite Rising of 1715 was no laughing matter for members of the Wednesday's Club, who quickly scribbled a new rule into their already seven-page long list of club rules.

17th August 1715
It is this day ordered by this society (nem con) that for the future no health shall bee begun by any member of this society on this club night besides the King's, to the Church as by Law established, the absent Members, and healths of the persons present, upon the forfeiture of halfe a crowne to the use of this Society.

The men of the Fountain Tavern apparently had the little tolerance for any Jacobite funny business.  (The third newspaper, in case you were wondering, is an issue of the London Gazette from shortly before the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  Obviously some kind of conversation about political loyalty was going on.) 

What does this tell us?  Because these clubs met so regularly, it is all too easy to forget that living in the 18th century was fraught with threats of invasion (in 1715, and again in 1745) and war being waged overseas on an almost constant basis.  In various places and in various ways, I've tried to suggest that the performance of taste within the communal meal had significant social stakes.  Who is to say that it didn't have political stakes as well?   

Friday, 23 September 2011

Who is William Innys?

Greetings, noble reader!  For the past week, the Authoress of this Blog has been immersed in a sea of Excel tables, trying to trace the popularity of Stew'd Cucumber, Hunting PuddingMock Turtle and Soup Santé.  And given that we are often most drawn to data we can visualize with the Eye, I suspect that my avid Readers are desirious of another Pye Chart.  But as we can never do more Injury to Truth, than by discovering too much of it, on some occasions, I humbly beg leave to redirect the Publick's attention to the practices of yet another Society not hitherto discussed by the Authoress of this Blog.  Permit me to educate you, dear reader, upon the Centenary Club.

Actually, the club was nameless throughout their first 100 years of existence; only in 1795 did they rename themselves (rather smugly, after their own anniversary).

Anyway, this club supped more often than they dined, which in the 18th century was usually a lighter meal, with fewer options, than the fare usually discussed on this Blog.  But what did the members do after supper was over?  Well, just the same thing as any other club of red-blooded gentlemen did in 18th century London ... they gambled.  Even though the Centenary Club's rule book states that "Any member who shall at any time during the club come to be disordered by drink, shall forfeit 6d," I suspect that, given all the bets (made, inevitably, in bottles of claret) going on, they took a very liberal view of the term "disordered."

Roulette was popular by the 18th century.  But I'm not really sure
what games the Centenary Club played; the minute books don't say.
The lists of wagers scrawled in the minute book's pages offer some interesting clues when it comes to that impossible question: what did members talk about when they all got together?  Many of the bets deal with rather quotidian events: the ages of other members, who will be elected "high steward," or whether the club will ever get out of debt.  Other wagers provide a glimpse into the pretty merciless world beyond the tavern doors; one note attests that "the scaffolds belonging to Mr Wells and Mr Saxon would not be struck by the next month" (1701).  King of gives a new meaning to the idea of a "polite and commercial people."

Public Executions: All fun and games for these guys?
But over a long century and then some, one name got stuck in my mind.  It was that of an otherwise unremarkable club member named William Innys, who took part in the club from mid-1717 to his death in 1756.

Who was this guy?  Well, we know that he was a livery-man; in 1749 he was chosen to officiate as the master of the Worshipful Company of Stationers on Lord Mayor's Day.   Contemporary printed documents refer to him as a Bookseller.  And the guy obviously liked to play fast and loose with his bottles of claret, as he happened to lay more wagers, and pay more fines, than anybody.

On May 5, 1736, Innys "paid ... a bottle of wine for laying a wager during the club time without having first obtained leave of the high steward, conforming to the order of the club."

And in December of that same year, it is written "Mr Innys do pay a bottle of wine for usurping upon the power of the high steward in declaring before his high steward."

A few years later, he is fined again (twice!) for using "reflecting" language.  I could go on and on.

Yes, this William Innys was quite the rabble-rouser; kind of like that slightly obnoxious friend who can perpetually be counted on to get too drunk and spend the rest of the evening trying to push everyone's buttons.  But you got to love him, because he's been in the club for a long time, and, well, he always makes the evening more memorable.  And I confess, dear readers, that as I turned the pages of this old leather-bound tome, I began to develop an affection for William Innys.  I grew concerned when I got to the 1750s and noticed that he was attending meetings with far less frequency.  The last time he came to the club was in late June, 1755.  In 1756, a written note confirmed my gravest fears.

William Innys .............. dead.

At the top of the page, you can see the club's note of William Innys's death
But what kind relics, I wonder, might ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) hold onto for the sake of Posterity's Curiosity?    I eagerly typed in William Innys's name and found this:

Yep ... and it was held over dinner

That's right; I guess they auctioned off all of Innys's books after his death.  Given that his life was more or less bound up with the printing industry, it isn't very surprising that Innys was quite the literary man.  He was an avid reader of Cervantes (Don Quixote) and Milton (Paradise Lost) but seemed to have no taste for the Richardsonian epistolary epics that took the 1740s by storm.  Neither was he a stranger to science, having owned Newton's Principia Mathematica, the anatomical work of Boerhaave and von Haller, and copies of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions.  His books suggest that he was a religious man (he owned various sermons and devotions) but also was a lover of history and natural philosophy.  

Innys happily straddled the worlds of the Ancients and the Moderns alike.    

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Men of the Upper Crust

My last post took a peek at the sweet treats most frequently served to the Thursday's Club over 1748-49, when the club first started recording its weekly dinners.  40 years later, the club mysteriously stopped recording its meals.  But what happened in between then?

Joseph Banks: Botanist, Collector, Gastronome
(I think he looks the part)

The club had witnessed some pretty significant changes over this period.  In 1779, the botanist Joseph Banks (most famous for his travels with Captain Cook) was elected President of the Society.  Banks was quite the dinner party aficionado; he headed the Thursday's Club for 42 years, and it was said that when he wasn't collecting exotic plants abroad, he patronized 12 different eating clubs in London. 

Then, in 1784, the club relocated from the Mitre Tavern to the popular Crown and Anchor on the Strand (only after drawing up a few new dinner provisions, which you can read about here).  The Crown and Anchor appears quite frequently in accounts of 18th century public dining.  Because of its large size and central location, it served as venue for everything from political rallies to charity events to Masonic meetings.   

So what did members get for dessert at this new location, almost 40 years after my last post?  You would think that, given the changed venue, and the greater availability of sugar and exotic fruits, we would see a little more creativity in the offerings. 

But lo and behold; my amateur "Pye Chart" reveals virtually the same sugary culprits: Gooseberry Pye, Marrow Pudding, and the marked persistence of the apple.  There are a few variations, of course –– dumplings and tarts popping up every now and then –– but pye remains the most ubiquitous form of pastry.  There are a few new additions, such as "Almond Cake," "Hunting Pudding" "Blamange" and the rather mysterious "Fruit Pyes," but these dishes are few and far between.      

To me, this suggests that the club members, whilst at the Mitre, cultivated a particular proclivity for the dish, which was, by the 1780s, ingrained as an unwritten tradition.  Apple Pie was, of course, believed to be a quintessential English dish in the 18th century; I've run across a couple poems about it throughout the course of my research.  You certainly can't say that about the suspiciously francophillic "Blamange."  

To the right, I've added an example "menu page" that demonstrates how the information was set down on the page at this time.  Notice all the repetition; the second half of the menu looks like a mirror image of the first half, and the roast (here a 'chine of mutton') constitutes the center piece.  I'm pretty sure this list resembles the way the dinner looked like when it was set upon the table.  It doesn't look like a modern-day menu in the slightest, with a progression from appetizer to main course to dessert.  But it doesn't say whether there was any rhyme or reason as to how the dishes were eaten.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Sweet Teeth

Zounds!  It's been a long day, good readers, and the Authoress of this Blog confesses that she has spent the past few hours recovering from her foray into the world of data, forms, and countless spreadsheets.  Entering 40 years of dinners into a database is no walk in the park, and working with a program that refuses to recognize anything other than the Gregorian Calendar (England used the Julian until 1752) doesn't make matters any easier.

So for today, I'm going to examine just the first two years of available records from the Thursday's Club, which begin in March, 1748.  (Mind you, these aren't the first meetings of the club's official incarnation ... the 1743-1747 records have been lost.)   And I suspect that going through everything set on the table –– from the profusion of pidgeon pyes to the perennial supplements of butter and cheese –– might fatigue my readers' tender appetites.  So, what the hell, let's just start with dessert.  

The pie-chart below breaks down all of the desserts consumed at the weekly meetings at the Mitre Tavern (the weekly meeting place) between 1748-1749.

I won't lie, readers; I was a little taken aback by my findings.  No Malaga Watermelons, no Jamaica Pepper, no Parmesan Cheese expertly aged to survive both fire and burial.  Instead, "Apple Pye," a rather ubiquitous and versatile dish that was consumed by the rich and poor alike, appeared on the table most often in these years.  Never since the Cider Craze of the 1670s have I witnessed such enthusiasm for the fruit.  A slight variation on this theme –– Apple Pye "Creamed" –– came in fourth, after Plumb and Marrow Pudding, respectively.  We get apple custard, which actually sounds pretty tasty, only once, but all in all, apple concoctions (codlings included) constitute nearly 40% of the desserts.  Seems like the most favored desserts of the R.S. primarily contained local fruits that corresponded to the rhythms of the season. 

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Eating between the Lines

You might have noticed, my avid readers, that the Authoress of this Blog has revealed a fair amount of cynicism when it comes to the 21st century feasibility of adopting an 18th century work-house diet.  At least it doesn't sound like very much fun.  But everything, I fear, is relative, and I don't want to demonize the workhouse overseers as a bunch of hypocritical cheapskate skallywags straight out of a Dickens novel.  

The New Poor Law of 1834 stipulated that every workhouse must have a bill of fare, but in the 18th century this wasn't required.  There was usually a diet table of some sorts, but this doesn't mean that it was always rigidly adhered to.  I've run across a bunch of announcements that the poor would, on certain days, be dining on things like "beans and bacon" and "mackarel ... as they master shall think convenient."  At one workhouse, I found out that a baronet was shelling out twenty pounds a year during the 1720s to ensure that the poor had roast beef for dinner every Sunday.

Economy was certainly a key element in the provision of the workhouse diet, and there were, at times, painful cutbacks –– my heart nearly broke, gentle readers, when in 1769 a cheaper and substantially less tasty-sounding broth was substituted for pudding at one workhouse on account of the latter's expense –– but overseers wanted the food to be more than just palatable, and often sent provisions back if the basics didn’t measure up to standards.
When in Rome...
(Rachel's Organic 'Divine Rice' Pudding)
And for the record, my friends, it "answered well"

When a vendor offered one London workhouse four different kinds of rice at different prices in 1796, the overseers opted for the second most expensive kind, deeming that the cheapest kind, "did not answer so well ... as to make rice milk."  And they only went with this upscale East India rice after whipping up some rice milk using the free sample, serving it up for dinner, and then informing the committee that, yes, indeed, the “poor were satisfied therewith."

We can't underestimate the centrality of the “bang” in contemporaries' desire to get their bang for the buck.

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)