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, 25 July 2012

Mutton Chops à la Mode

From antiquity to the present, cookbooks have taught us about the social protocols, the dining rituals, and the flavors of the past.  18th century Britons were no exception; they were fascinated by everything from the Roman epicure Apicius and his tales of exotic fish sauces to the sumptuous banquets described in The Forme of Cury, a medieval cookery book compiled by the cook to Richard II (1377-1399).  But only recently have the scholars of our day started to take them seriously.[1]

Late 18th century antiquarians began
 to take interest in their own culinary heritage,
 largely drawing on old cookery books.
The study of cookbooks is undoubtedly important when we think about how people imagined food and cooking, but think about it for one moment ... when was the last time you ever made something you found in a cookbook?  Let's admit it; the more intrepid among us might attempt to replicate every recipe, daunting as that may be.  But most of the time, I mostly like to read the recipe and look at the pictures, fantasizing about the meal that I will some day make time to prepare.

So if we want to know more about the actual habits of eating during the long 18th century, perhaps we should consider some alternate culinary sources.  In this spirit, I have been logging nearly 40 consecutive years of tavern menus into a database (with some much needed and much appreciated help, of course.)[2] 

We've found that real dining habits lagged significantly behind those described in cookery books.  Take, for example, two dishes with which 18th century Britons enjoyed a love/hate relationship: the "fricassee" (a fried meat dish coated in sauce) and the "ragout" (a similarly highly seasoned dish featured chopped up meat stewed in gravy, wine, herbs and spices).  Derailed as pernicious French importations in 1700, these dishes were initially blamed for everything from inciting sympathy for the Catholic religion to disguising the flavor of rancid meat.[3]

Yet even the most patriotic of British cookery book authors soon began to incorporate them into their culinary repertoire.[4]  By the 1740s, there are tons of recipes such as these, leading one to think that the dishes had been all but acculturated.  Tavern menus, however, tell a different story.  The first of these dishes did not appear at the table until 1758.  Apparently it went over well, for it gradually became integrated into the tavern bills of fare.  Yet acculturation happened slowly, and seemed to be treated more as a novelty than a dinner staple.  Below, I flagged all dishes of self-proclaimed French lineage (dishes, for example, styled a la daube, or a la mode, in addition to ragouts, fricassees and harricots.   
Graphing the Growth of 'French' Influence in Meals
at  the Mitre Tavern, Fleet Street
This doesn't mean, however, that tavern fare was unsophisticated.  To the contrary, I've found evidence of immense variety in tavern fare impressive even to urbane 21st century diners.  You might have heard of Paul Greenburg's Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food,  where he points out that, today, the vast majority of restaurants offer, at most, four varieties: cod, salmon, sea bass, and tuna.  Not the case in early modern London.   Indeed, while cod and salmon made indelible marks on the English palate, so too did mackeral, trout, carp, soles, whitings, skate, lobsters, oysters, plaice, eels, thornbacks, ling, haddock and halibut.  I've graphed them according to their seasonality using Gephi, a new data visualization software, below.

Every 'Fish' Dish from 1748-1757
at the Thursday's Club on the Mitre Tavern, Fleet Street
(Charted According to Season)
We need to recognize that metropolitan public dining cultures in the 18th century were quite distinct than the ones discussed in the cookery books with which we've grown so familiar.  Culinary fashions and flavors varied significantly when one chose to eat out, but this didn't mean that taste and connoisseurship mattered less in these contexts.

In the coming posts, I will highlight some other ways in which cultures of 'eating out' were evolving over the 18th century.

[1] See Steven Mennell, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present.  Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1996 and Gilly Lehmann, The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in 18th Century Britain. London, Prospect Books, 1993.
[2] This has been an ongoing component of the Thursday Club Project, which has focused on the “Thursday’s Club call’d the Royal Philosophers,” a dining club semi-officially connected to the Royal Society.  (RS Archives: RSC Papers.)
[3] For example, see the criticisms of the “present luxurious and fantastical manners of eating” in Weekly Journal or British Gazeteer (London, England) Saturday April 15, 1727, Issue 101. 
[4] Despite devoting an entire chapter to criticizing the frivolity and expense of French sauces, Hannah Glasse includes numerous recipes for ragouts and fricassees in her well-received The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.  London, 1747.