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, 4 January 2012

Crawfish Soop and Leveret Pye: Eating Local in 1750

While special occasions –– holidays, weddings and such –– are lovingly recorded and preserved for posterity in letters and printed ephemera, the quotidian rhythms of our lives can be much harder to discern.  Such is the case when it comes to the study of English eating habits during the Enlightenment.  One need not delve too deeply into the archives in order to find accounts of men regaling themselves with beef-steak and arrack punch.  But did people eat like this on a day to day basis?  Ehh.  It's a lot harder to tell.
Stowe in the 18th Century: Where the Magic Happened
Thankfully, I recently managed to get my hands on a day to day "Household Menu Book" detailing nearly a year of dinners and suppers served to an aristocratic family in Buckinghamshire.  The meals served ostensibly date from around 1750, and I found myself eagerly flipping through the pages, hoping that they would betray some sense of how dining in the country differed from the fare served in taverns and inns found in London.

Given its access to roads, ports, and people with overseas connections, I had always imagined 18th century London to be, much as it is now, some sort of mecca for foodies: a place where one could eat things that were simply unimaginable in other parts of the kingdom.  Indeed, it was not until 1766 when James Woodforde, the gourmandizing country parson out in Somerset, recorded his first experience with pineapple: "the first I ever saw or tasted."  I will be the first to admit, good readers, that 18th century caricatures such as Squire Western, Fielding's loveable country bumpkin, not to mention the standard 21st century hypocrisies, had unduly influenced my conceptions of rural dining, even among elites, which I (rather unjustly) deemed to consist of large joints of meat, little dressing, and a few boiled vegetables, washed down with consecutive bottles of Rhenish, Claret, Madeira and Port. (Ever heard of the notorious "four bottle man"?)  But the Stowe family's records demonstrates that the story was more complicated than that.

The most striking aspect of these menus is the number of French names affixed to dishes.  In addition to a host of fricassees and terrines, the Stowe family regularly dined on things like poupeton of pidgeon, chicken a la royalle, and, most hilariously, veal au bourgeois.  Such dishes were still relatively unfamiliar even in the 1750s; indeed, new culinary fashions presented such a problem for aspiring parvenus that someone deemed it necessary to publish a pamphlet entitled "An Explanation and a Translation of a Modern Bill of Fare" so that diners would not be afraid to touch what was placed on the dinner table.
Particularly Trendy Dishes needed to
be explained to the general public
But when one compares these "sample" bills of fare presented in the pamphlet to the real deal, it becomes evident that these French trends were absorbed in a very partial manner.  You never get an unabashed Francophone feast with the Stowe family, even when they entertain guests.  More common are melanges of the common and the exotic; good old "Scotch Collops" and "Beans and Bacon" are served alongside "chicken a la tartarre."

It is also likely that many dishes eaten by the family were hunted on the the estate.  I didn't see any pineapples or cantaloupes –– things that would be imported from overseas –– but "crawfish," for example, pops up in everything from soups to ragouts, as well as a host of things I hadn't ran across on many London tables, such as leverets, woodcocks, sturgeon and the unabashedly local "new laid eggs."

We also might be seeing the beginnings of the veritable "Sunday Roast" enjoyed by many British families today.  Each Sunday the Stowe family unfailingly dined on:

a) Calves Head (either "hashed" or served "a la francaise"
b) At least two additional animals "Rost."  One must be a red meat (beef, venison, etc) and the other is a lighter one, such as turkeys or rabbits.
c) A "Soop"
d) Some kind of "Ragout"
No other day of the week exhibited the same degree of consistency of dishes served as Sundays did.

So if living in the country didn't cause one to lose out on variety, I realized that maybe the most indicative evidence of the family's "localism" resided not in the dishes themselves but rather in the cook's extremely creative orthography in describing them.  "Mucherooms" "Vinison" and "a Chaine of Porcke Boild" abound.  I pounded my head against the table trying to figure out what "laekes" could possibly mean.  ("Latkes?" asked my colleague quizzically.  "Ahh!"  I finally realized.  "Leeks!")  It seems likely that this cook wasn't reading a lot of contemporary cookery books.

Going over these bills of fare provides an important glimpse into both the tastes of the family that ate these meals and the economy of the estate.  Yet my over-earnest speculations and hypotheses, regrettably, only serve to underscore how much we do not know.  We need to know more about this cook; how he (or she) learned how to prepare these dishes and came to work for this family.  We need to know how long it took to prepare these crawfish soops and ox-cheek ragouts.  We need to know what kinds of foods were grown and hunted in Buckinghamshire, and what kind of status they afforded those who ate them.  We need to know who deemed it necessary to celebrate every Sunday with a Calves Head Hashed.

And lest this Blog's regrettable lack of resolution proves unsatisfying to my virtuous Readers, I can only hope to regale their Imaginations with the following Bill of Fare, which was served for dinner at Stowe on Friday, June 28, 1750.

First Course
Tongue and Fowls Boil'd
Knuckle of Veal a la bourgeoise
Beans and Bacon
Pidgeon Pye

Chine of Mutton

2nd Course:
3 Rabbits Roasted
3 Turkeys Roasted
Cherry Tart
Ragout of Sweetbreads
Sheep's Tongues and Rump