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, 18 July 2011

Overcooked Turbot and Toasted Cheese

I was randomly trolling one of my favorite sites –– 18th Century Journals Online –– the other night and came across this little quote from The Humourist:

“At Dinner we had many Excuses from
 the Lady of the House for our indifferent Fare,
 and she had as many Declarations from us,
 her Guests, that all was very good.”

I’ve looked at zillions of committee books and minutes dealing with dinners of various kinds, and while these sources are useful in deciphering who was at a particular meal, and sometimes what is served, it’s difficult to figure out what the experience of the dinner was like.  At the end of the day, of course, the sensation of taste can only be physically experienced alone, but social context profoundly influences the performance of taste.  Nobody dares to criticize the food while he is a guest in a stranger’s home.  The commensality of the table causes the picky connoisseur to fall silent.

So if propriety obscures the nitty gritty politics of the dinner table, we can often only piece together the experience of the meal from what we hear in retrospect –– the complaints.  I already mentioned the finicky Freemason who withdrew from the Brethren in 1790 because he got a bad seat at dinner, but I’ve run across a slew of other complaints too.  After the Sons of the Clergy Banquet held on the 14th of May, 1789, the minute book stated,

“After the steward and their deputies had dined, the dinner was served up in the hall at 2 past 5 o clock the tables were covered with great profusion, the turbot was fine and in great plenty. In fact ... every person was perfectly satisfied.  The wine was served by Mr Lewis master of the new London Tavern Cheapside and NO COMPLAINT.” 

Did I mention that the said Mr Lewis wined and dined them on champagne in order to get the gig?  (It's in the minutes.)  
This guy looks pretty serious about his meal,
but who knows if the fowl was cooked to his liking?
Rowlandson, "The Glutton"

Similarly, at a meeting recorded on Feb 17, 1784, the Thursday's Club minute books record:

“Mr Simkin [the Crown and Anchor proprietor] has made such promises of mending the commons so greatly that no person will in future complain of his dinners…”[1]

Complaining of his dinners?  With the profusion of venison and turtle gifts to the Club, I didn’t know there were any problems until I ran across these things.  But these little asides tell us a lot about the more subjective side of dining.  Nobody wants to whine in public, and we don't exactly know who is complaining, but it's important to keep in mind that diners were, in addition to reveling about the new dishes they were eating, also grumbling and whining about the quality of what they were eating and how it was served.  In any case, it seems like more and more people were developing ‘complaints’ in the latter end of the 18th century.  It might just be a coincidence that all of these things occur within a ten year time frame, but I wonder if the notion of respectable dining was changing in some way.  And if so, why? 

[1] My favorite new stipulation being, “When toasted cheese is called for, he be allowed to charge it.”