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, 24 February 2012

The Best Vegetable of the Salad Kind

When it comes to history of the early modern salad, F.R.S. John Evelyn usually gets most of the attention.  Famous for his vegetable friendly cookery book, Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets (1699) he helped define the salad as "certain Esculent Plants and Herbs, improv'd by Culture, Industry, and Art of the Gard'ner ... to be eaten Raw or Green, Blanch'd or Candied..."

John Evelyn, author of Acetaria, 1699
Don't get me wrong; Acetaria is a fine piece of work.  He even teaches you how to make salad dressing: "the Yolks of fresh and new-laid Eggs, boil'd moderately hard, to be mingl'd and mash'd with the Mustard, Oyl, and Vinegar."  Little different, Reader, from the dressings I throw together today.  And in case you are unsure just how to plate the salad at your next dinner party, Evelyn has you covered.  "That the Saladiere, (Sallet-Dishes) be of Porcelane, or of the Holland-Delft-Ware; neither too deep nor shallow..."

But Evelyn was hardly the only intellectual to pay attention to the vegetable kingdom.

I noticed a gentleman by the name of Philip Miller who began to attend dinners of the Thursday's Club in the Spring of 1752.  He dined with the club frequently, attending two to three dinners a month on average.  But he was always noted down as a "visitor."  Of whom?  I wondered.  Where did he come from?

Apparently, Miller was anxious to please.  For three consecutive weeks during the summer of 1753, Mr. Miller entertained the club with Aegyptian lettuces.  What did this mean?

Apparently Miller had some serious botanical connections.  He had been appointed chief gardener to the Chelsea Physic Garden since 1722.  This garden, founded in 1673, was designed for the purpose of growing new medicinal herbs and plants.  In fact, written into the garden's lease was the requirement that the garden provide 50 seedling samples to the Royal Society each year, until the total of 1000 had been provided.  Miller excelled at this task.

Philip Miller also authored the widely-read The Gardener's Dictionary, which classified 14 different kinds of lettuce, ranging from the "common garden" varieties to progressively more exotic and esteemed "Silesia" "Aleppo" and "Black Cos."  Lettuces were valued in those days for their delicate qualities; coarser varieties, Miller attested, were only appropriate for "stewing rather than salleting."

I enjoyed flipping through this manual, as it provides a nice glimpse into the tastes of contemporary Londoners as set apart from the rest of the kingdom.  "The most valuable of all the Sorts of Lettuces in England are the Versailles, the Silesia, and Cos," Miller claims, "tho' some People are very fond of the Royal and Imperial Lettuces; but they seldom sell so well in the London Markets as the other, nor are so generally esteem'd.

Guess Miller's expertise worked in his favor; he was elected a full-time member in July of 1753.  The minute book noted, however, that Miller hadn't exactly been a stranger all this time:

"Mr Phillip Miller having been an Antient Member of this Society but being out of Town when the regulation of the Society was made in 1749 and having Applyed as a Candidate ever since June 1752 it was unanimously Agreed that the present Vacancy should be supplyed." 

Oh the suspense!  Miller is voted in, and another guy is kicked out.  
I don't know about you, Reader, but for me, there's a touch of melancholy to this story.  Once content to go out and share a meal with his friends and colleagues, Miller must have been slightly taken aback to return from "out of town, " only to be coldly greeted as a "visitor," and then be pushed to the margins of the coterie for an entire year.  Sounds pretty harsh.

What provoked the need for these men to institutionalize their weekly meals, to demarcate for them a specific time and place?  And how did the formation of clubs affect friendships, acquaintance networks, the unspoken protocols of social life?  For Philip Miller was not unlike an English Rip van Winkle.  Time passes in his absence, and he eventually wakes up groggy and slightly baffled, forced to face the consequences of falling too long asleep.

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