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, 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.