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, 30 May 2012

Venison Surprize

I returned from the archives in London last fall with a hard drive full of JPEGS and vague but eager dreams of storing this information within some sort of database, with which I could map quantitively the psychology of social connections forged over food.  I had uncovered the records belonging to the Thursday's Club call'd the Royal Philosophers, an 18th century dining club semi-officially affiliated with the Royal Society, and the Philosophers' meticulous attendance and dinner records lent themselves well, I thought, to this sort of thing.

Here's the contents of the dinner books
found in the archives
(Please excuse my pinkie)
I had never really worked with these kinds of sources before, and my inspiration, admittedly, was at first largely literary.  The project I had in mind reminded me of that scene in David Lodge's Small World: An Academic Romance (1984) in which a respected novelist is invited to a new cutting edge academic department –– the Centre for Computational Stylistics –– only to witness his entire literary oeuvre deflated by the state-of-the-art computers into a single adjective: "greasy."  With a few effortless keystrokes, a machine could analyze a career's worth of subconscious mores and social hang-ups, revealing literary proclivities unnoticed by the naked eye.
30 years before the Digital Humanities
became an academic buzzword,
Lodge anticipated some of its
humorous pitfalls

Nearly 30 years after this fictional work was published, I stubbornly believed that the ability to analyze my 18th century records in a similar fashion would significantly contribute to our understandings of friendship and social networking.  Linking these patterns to the elaborate records of weekly meals shared by the Thursday's Club illustrates how consumption of particular dishes in particular contexts engendered new collective tastes and civic identities.  Indeed, the the era that exalted the so-called "man of taste" it is hard to dispute the fact that the provision, sharing and connoisseurship of food were integral to the making of the gentleman.

The problem was that my rudimentary Excel spreadsheet was full of holes and wasn't able to answer the queries that I asked of it.  So this past semester, I have been working with an OpenOffice database that allows me the flexibility to address a range of queries as well as generate new ones.

The same information in the OpenOffice database
Over the course of the summer, my worthy and efficacious readers will learn of my findings.  But because my very first post on Homo Gastronomicus, over one year ago, addressed the special status of venison among members of the Thursday's Club, I'll begin by playing around with the database as a tool ... to track man's love of tasty treats.

First, I tracked all the venison references made in the first fifteen years of the club's weekly meetings.  Below, I show how often it was served as a gift versus how often it was served in the bill of fare without reference nor further comment.  Venison was obviously something out of the ordinary, appearing as a gift 47% of the time it was served.  But that's nothing too surprising.
Moreover, out of the venison references listed in the bills of fare, the ones that were received as gifts were larger and more expensive cuts –– such as haunches and necks.  On the chart below, you can see that the venison dishes that frequently appeared on the normal bill of fare mostly comprised of pasties and pies, dishes typically prepared with less expensive cuts of meat mixed with giblets, vegetables and herbs.  (Gifts are marked as blue, while dishes on the regular bill of fare are red.)

Finally, I wondered what attendance looked like when a juicy haunch was gifted to the club.  One would think that it would be disproportionately higher.  After all, who would turn down this aristocratic delicacy, especially when washed down with a few glasses of claret?  Surely its consumption would be a pretty big deal.

But surprisingly, the mean attendance between 1748-1762 was only marginally higher when a haunch of venison was on the table.  Venison dinners attracted an average of 15.8 members per meeting, while the average attendance hovered around 15.5.   What does this mean?

It seems hard to believe that the members didn't care whether venison was served or not.  After all, venison was the most frequently gifted food to the club, and annual gifts of a haunch could secure honorary membership for the donor.  Perhaps the evidence suggests instead that gifts were not very well publicized.  Venison dinners, as a result, took place on a largely ad-hoc basis.  Sort of like a secret pop-up catering to the well-connected gentleman "in the know."

Friday, 18 May 2012

Adventures of a Bouillon Cube: c. 1750

Who plays the English tastemaker?  The cook?  Or the customer always right?  This question has reared its head several times as I've been mining old newspapers for references to sauces and condiments.  Unlike the main ingredient, such as a chine of beef or a leg of mutton, the garnishing powerfully illustrates the individual's will in the construction of a national "taste."  Late 18th century advertisers believed that the application of a sauce could transform British cuisine into French, Italian, American or even Indian food.  As much as plumb pudding and roast beef were considered hallmarks of English cuisine, it appears that the possibility of choice, variety, and convenience of good eating were also crucial parts of that story.

Meet Elizabeth Dubois.  I haven't been able to find much biographical information about her as of yet; it seems like she might have been married to someone in the book trade.  I have only heard of her through her advertisements printed in the 1740s and 1750s as a seller of delicious and practical "Portable Soups" all over London.

She starts running the ads in the London Evening Post for what appears to be solid cubes of bouillon in 1744.  "This useful Commodity never spoils if kept dry," she claims, "and is dissolved in a few Minutes in boiling Water; and for Gravy Sauce is much cheaper and better than any usually made on the Spot."  Apparently, the single-serving sized cubes were the brainchildren of her uncle, the reputed cook to the late Duke of Argyll, invented while the Duke was engaged with wars overseas.  But she points out that they are perfect for other occasions ranging from long hunts "when the chace proves long" (you could chew it like a protein bar) to prolonged naval engagements abroad (when the diet of salted meats rendered good English gravy particularly difficult to obtain.)
As advertised in the London Daily Advertiser, 1747
A new (portable) means of preserving the flavors of herbs and fresh meat?  And it happened to be cheaper by the dozen (with a nifty tin box thrown in)?  Indeed, Dubois's advertising scheme had a sophisticated plan of attack.
A 21st century incarnation of Mrs Dubois's invention
But Mrs Dubois was constantly revising her advertising scheme.  In late 1749, she starts offering a special soup made of "shell and other types of fish, which is very palatable" for her customers who keep Lent.  Clearly, she saw these folk as an important untapped market.

Before long, she begins to expand her enterprise, selling her products in taverns and coffee shops all over London: from Billingsgate to Westminster, from her own place in Long-Acre all the way to Bath.

As her market expanded beyond the parish,
she vigilantly protected her ideas from theft
Bath, you say?!  The fact that her bouillon cubes made it all the way to this famous spa-town over one hundred miles away suggests that she believed that these portable soups would appeal to a fashionable health conscious crowd.  Wonder if Elizabeth Montagu, given her love of spa water and other health fads, ever got into these.

Service becomes more and more personalized.  After a few years, Du Bois begins to encourage customers to experiment with mixing her four flavors –– veal, chicken, mutton and "gravy" –– to their own personal liking.  She suggests adding salt to taste.  But still unsatisfied, she decides to take custom-orders beginning in October, 1752.  An ad in the London Evening Post proclaims:

"Having been often asked, why I did not make some solid Soups of Venison, this is to inform such who may be inclined to send their own Meats, of what kind soever, with Directions as to what Spice or Herb are approved, may have their Commands punctually obeyed by their laudable Servant Elizabeth Du Bois, at tte Golden Head ... near Long-Acre; where her strong Gravy Soup, Mutton Broth, Veal Broth, and Chicken Broth, may be had in the utmost Perfection..." 

Who knows whether her venture succeeded?  I never hear of her after 1756.  Regardless, Elizabeth Dubois's marketing ploys suggest that conceptions of eating "on the go" changed drastically around mid-century.  No longer would bread and hard cheese monopolize the market on portable foods.  Moreover, Du Bois wasn't just selling five different types of bouillon cubes.  Her use of culinary expertise –– selling something you couldn't get at home –– and her regard for customer choice imply that she was also selling an idea of English convenience to bring to the the most far flung corners of the earth.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Bringing on the Sauce

Well before the early 19th century culinary celebrity Antonin Careme postulated the four classic French "mother sauces," France enjoyed an international reputation for its rich and flavorful seasonings.  The introduction of fricassees and ragouts into the British culinary lexicon was lauded by bon-vivants, yet decried by cultural commentators.  "I look upon a French ragout to be as pernicious to the stomach as a glass of spirits ... [f]or as I in everything love what is simple and natural," Isaac Bickerstaff observed in the Tatler in 1709, "so particularly in my food."

From the Classified Section, The Daily Post, Wed, January 6 1731.

Fortunately for us, the naysayers didn't prevail.  If we take a look at contemporary newspapers, it becomes obvious that cosmopolitan Londoners loved to season their food with exotic sauces and condiments.  So important were these novel commodities that in 1739, the London and Country Journal felt compelled to report the breakage of a single bottle of soy sauce at the Custom House.  "Soy is a rich catchup," the article explained, "the best is made in India, and gives the highest Gust of any Sauce in the World."

By the late 18th century, enthusiasm for bottled condiments seemed to reach its height.  Many of these bottled sauces were advertised especially for merchants, traders, and men in the navy.  And while the condiments weren't exactly 'English,' this doesn't mean that there wasn't some sort of patriotic message implied –– why shouldn't people on the go be able to enjoy the fruits of the British commercial empire?

I did a little sleuthing, and found five major condiment retailers operating in late 18th century London:

1.  T. Young, 44 Bond Street.  While many vendors obtained their goods from abroad, this guy whipped up his sauces in-house.  On April 4, 1788, he advertised a concoction of "extracts from the Gorgona Anchovies.  This sauce, which is most general, and one of the best Sauces for most kinds of fish, has many advantages over the common mode made use of."  He followed up on the success of his "essence of anchovies" with a new sauce specifically designed to be eaten with "real and mock Turtle, Game Pies, and roasted Game and Fowl or any kind, but is a great heightened and finisher of all kinds of Fricandos, Harricoes, Daubs, Stews, and Hashes."

I also noticed a dramatic rise of "sauce-boat"
advertisements in the 18th century
(Here's a simple pewter one)
2.  Skill and Son, Italian and French Warehouse, 15 Strand, near Charing Cross.  While they touted themselves as the cheese-merchants to the Prince of Wales (the hard partying glutton later to be crowned George IV) the tone of their ads seem to cater more so to the polite middle classes, emphasizing their "family friendly" nature and convenience –– using their products, a meal could reputedly take only two minutes time to prepare.  They also win out in terms of variety; 16 different sauces and 12 different vinegars –– ranging from "imperial sauce" to "walnut ketchup" to "chilly vinegar" –– appear in their ads.

3.  J. Burgess, No 107 Strand.  He competed with T. Young to prepare the best essences of anchovies, which produced "an excellent sauce in a few minutes, for all kinds of Tendons, Harricots, French Pyes, Ragouts, Cutlets, Collops, Stewed Beef, Pigs Ears and Feet, Broiled and Brazed Poultry of all kinds."  Added bonus: each bottle of sauce came with printed recipe suggestions.  J. Burgess also dealt in a bunch of other foreign delicacies as far flung as "Bengal Currie Powder" to authentic reindeer tongues from Russia.

Purveyers of sauce had to innovate to stay relevant
The World (1787) 
4.  The New Warehouse for Foreign Rarities, No, 79, New Bond-Street.  Seemed to specialize in "sauce verte a la d'Artois" priced at 4 shillings a bottle.  Ouch!  For that, one could buy a whole dinner at a nice tavern.  
** If any kindly readers of this Blog happened to know what exactly that entailed, as contemporary cookery books abounded in different versions of 'green sauce,' and would care to share this important information with the Authoress, she would be incredibly grateful.  

5.  The Depository, No 34, St James Market.  Didn't advertise as much but touted its "sauce a la Provencal" 'Saluci tout fait" and "Remoulade."  With these three sauces, the ad explains, "there is scarcely three dishes in French, English or Italian Cookery, that cannot be made either with any one, or any two of them combined."

One mere bottle can fashion boring old beef-steaks into specialties of three different culinary traditions? Well, who can argue with that?