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."