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)

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Tasteful Party-Planning 101

It may come as a great surprise to my noble and judicious readers that, every so often, this project feels a little out of control.  I keep trying to come back to this point that the physical sense of taste –– not just aesthetic "taste" as a means of judgment –– becomes a pretty big deal beginning in the late 17th century, but sometimes I question whether that is what the sources I read are really telling me.

It isn't difficult to find instances of people talking about eating.  But most of these eye-witness accounts seem interested in where people dined and with whom.  People mentioned what they ate quite frequently, but there is rarely much subjective description of what a meal actually tasted like.  We know from the explosion of novels and diaries in the 18th century that a great deal of importance was ascribed to the excavation of one's private thoughts, feelings and emotions.  But it has been becoming apparent that finding written evidence of an 18th century food orgasm will probably be even more elusive than finding written evidence of the regular kind (ahem, Robert Hooke).

The Consequences of Pigging out on Turtle,
a highly elite delicacy in the 18th-19th centuries

Which makes it hard to avoid the following question: were people talking about gorging themselves on turtle and pineapple because of the peculiar taste these dishes afforded?  Or simply because these things were luxuries?  Did Samuel Pepys bury his Parmesan during the Great Fire of London because he was such a cheese aficionado?  Or did he simply realize that a big block of imported parm was really freaking expensive?

The social prestige of choosing to eat particular foods can never be separated from the practice of food connoisseurship, but perhaps this little bill can make a case for "taste."

This was taken from the Freemason's Grand Feast of May 3, 1784:

Champagne: 128 bottles at 0.10.6 per bottle .....67.4.0
Burgundy: 40 bottles at 0.8 ............................. 16.0.0
Hockamore: 28 bottles at 0.8.0 ........................ 11.4.0
Claret: 104 bottles at 0.5.6 ................................28.12.0
Madeira: 37 bottles at 0.4.6 .............................. 8.6.6
Sherry: 65 bottles at 0.4.0 ................................ 13.0.0
Port: 147 bottles at 0.2.6 .................................. 18.7.6
Total: 549 bottles .............................................162.14.0

I wasn't sure what conclusion to draw from this until an actual champagne historian reassured me that it was a pretty safe bet to assume that these beverages were consumed in this order.  But one thing caught my eye; champagne is far and away the most expensive: 10 shillings 6 pence per bottle.  Port, consumed at the very end, is but a fraction of that.

Anyone who has ever thrown a dinner party knows that it is essential to start out with the gastronomic conversation pieces (all the better to impress the guests).  Then, once everyone is too drunk to care or notice, whip out the cheap stuff.

If these wines were solely status symbols, would the order in which they were consumed matter so much?  Probably not.  Neither would they be consumed from the lightest wine to the heaviest (also going on above) which we still do today, so that our fickle palates can properly appreciate each wine's subtle notes and flavors.