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, 7 March 2012

How to Talk to an Epicure

The eponymous "Foodie" is a controversial figure in the 21st century.  In some respects, it is a mark of cultivation, cosmopolitanism and social wherewithal.  The foodie is lauded and respected for his ability to detect a host of subtle nuances within a dish on shows like Top Chef and No Reservations.  Foodie-friendly events dealing with everything from beer to truffles to cheese are burgeoning around the globe.  Likewise, existence of scholarly organizations such as the Oxford Symposium on Cookery –– whereby panelists sometimes offer audience-members 'free samples' while presenting their papers –– testify to a rapprochement between the food studies as a dispassionate academic field and the sensuous cultivation of the palate.
The Dinners at the Oxford Symposium, in the Authoress's humble opinion
exceed all Conference Fare in both Flavour and Company
On the other hand, spoofs of foodies –– their unpalatable elitism, their solipsistic world-weariness, their terribly self-indulgent blogging habits –– are constantly portrayed in the media as subjects of satire, spoofed on everything from Portlandia to The Simpsons.

What did people think about the "foodie" of 18th century England, if such a type even existed?  I'm only just beginning to research this topic, but it appears as if he was hardly any less controversial than today.  Scholars of 18th century Britain will know that contemporaries cast an equivocal eye upon connoisseurs of all sorts: "virtuosos" "collectors" and "dilettantes."  The "epicure" –– I use it here to mean indicate a connoisseur of food –– was anything but exempt.

The periodical ran through 1754-1756
It was published on a weekly basis
Check out this issue of this 18th century periodical to the right.  This paper wasn't exactly serious business; but was widely circulated in London and was acknowledged to have "just views of the surface of life, and in a very sprightly manner."  You know the type of thing.  Beach reading.

Anyway, in 1756, an entire article was devoted to the travails of the bon-vivant.  "There are a sort of men," remarks the author, "whose chief pride is a good taste (as they call it) and a great stomach: and the whole business of their lives is included in their breakfast, dinner and supper."  

But that's not all.  He goes on to describe a gentleman (aptly named "Mr Cramwell") who boasts of chairing a dining club.  The sole criterion of membership?  All it took was the happenstance to work for a trade that allowed each member to procure the most elite and utterly delectable edible treats for the table.  A country squire supplied the game, a captain of a ship trading to the West Indies was contracted to bring a "sufficient cargo of turtle every voyage," and a Flanderkin Bird-Merchant enabled the club to feast on "Ortolans as plenty as pidgeons."

But what sort of qualities did this 18th century "epicure" possess?  The Connoisseur brings up three points:

1)  The 18th century epicure always seems to be male; in my research thus far, I have yet to run across a woman revealed to profess proclivities for fine food.  And while women gathered in salons (Elizabeth Montagu's coterie of Blue-Stockings being one of the most famous) the fare described was usually limited to tea and an assortment of light "dainties" hardly akin to the exquisite dinners enjoyed in all-male dining clubs convening in bustling London taverns.
Thomas Rowlandson, "The Glutton"
2)  I had supposed that the epicure would be associated with the enterprising and urbane bourgeois rather than the titled nobility.  After all, cultivating "taste" was a rather radical thing in those days, a means for the socially astute self-made man to contest the court's rigid and sterile monopoly on culture  But not in the case of the epicure, it seems.  Indeed, the article suggests that foodie-ism was hardly an affliction of the well-to-do, but could be detected in men "of whatever rank and denomination, whether they regale themselves with turtle, or devour shoulders of mutton and peck-loaves for wagers, whether a Duke at White's, or a chairman at Blue-Posts..."
Glasse's chef d'oeuvre:
Look like food porn to you?
3)  Finally, while labeling oneself an "epicure" attempts to depart from the morally debased associations with gluttony, the author makes clear that the former was just a fashionable gloss for the latter.  "As the politeness of the French language has distinguished every glutton by the title of Bon Vivant," the author states, "and the courtesy of our own has honoured their beastly gluttony by the name of Good Living, the epicure thinks to eat and drink himself into your good opinion, and recommend himself to your esteem by an exquisite bill of fare."  Yet in many respects, the epicure was more sinful than the glutton, for he fetishized the biologically necessary act of eating.  By the end of the article, Mr Cramwell loses his appetite and lies in bed frantically perusing Hannah Glasse's popular cookery manual –– The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy –– as a gastro-pornographic text, scanning recipes in hopes of reviving his limp and withered appetite.

For thousands of years, the communal meal has been conceived of as a fundamentally "sociable" activity.  Yet it appears that the entry of the foodie into metropolitan life turned ideas about "polite sociability" –– a traditional hallmark of 18th century culture –– upside down.