Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

LMB Part 3: Some Filthy Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything accounted for: even the lemons

But the same kind of thing continues.

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

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

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

Then I read this one.

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

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