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, 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.