Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Much Depends on Dinner.

January 22

The English poet Lord George Gordon Byron was born on this day in 1788. He is best known to foodies as the source of the quotation that inspired the title of the wonderful book by Margaret Visser, Much Depends on Dinner.

The quotation is from The Island, and the full stanza reads:

“All human history attests That happiness for man, - the hungry sinner! - Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.”

The sub-title of Margaret Visser’s book is The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal, which is ironic, given that Byron found negotiating the meal table to be full of perils , having a troubled relationship with food – perhaps even so far as having what we would call an eating disorder.

His journals and letters certainly suggest an unhealthy attitude to eating. He is known to have struggled with his weight, loving good food but occasionally adopting severe weight loss regimes involving crash diets (becoming ‘a leguminous-eating Ascetic’), intense exercise regimes, purging and sweating.

His sister Augusta commented in a letter to another that “his way is to fast till he is famished & then devour more than his stomach in that weak state can bear - & so on”

A couple of his own letters will also illustrate:

“Sunday, I dined with the Lord Holland in St. James's Square. Large party …. Stuffed myself with sturgeon, and exceeded in champagne and wine in general, but not to confusion of head. When I do dine, I gorge like an Arab or a Boa snake, on fish and vegetables, but no meat. I am always better, however, on my tea and biscuit than any other regimen, and even that sparingly.”


“To-day I have boxed one hour - written an ode to Napoleon Buonaparte - copied it - eaten six biscuits - drunk four bottles of soda water.”

Byron did not like to be seen eating, and his romantic views of women preferred that they be seen in an ethereal light, not doing something so gross as eating. He refused to eat with his wife when she was obviously pregnant, and had his meals sent to another room.

“A woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad and Champagne, the only true feminine & becoming viands.”

Presumably, if it was OK for women to eat lobsters, a very delicate way to eat them would be to avoid the pesky shells altogether and have them potted. This recipe is from a domestic medical text.

To Pot Lobsters.
Take out the meat as whole as you can; split the tail, and remove the gut: if the inside be not watery, add that. Season with mace, nutmeg, white pepper, salt, and a clove or two, in the finest powder. Lay a little fine butter at the bottom of the pan, and the lobster smooth over I; cover it with butter, and bake it gently. When done, pour the whole on the bottom of a sieve; and with a fork lay the pieces into potting pots, some of each sort, with the seasoning about it. When cold, pour clarified butter over it, but not hot. It will be good next day; or highly seasoned, and thick covered with butter, it will keep some time.
[Thomas Cooper, M.D. A Treatise of Domestic Medicine, intended for families, in which the treatment of common disorders are alphabetically enumerated. To which is added, a Practical System of Domestic Cookery, …also The Art of Preserving. 1824] {American}

Tomorrow’s Story …

Odds and Ends for Dinner.

Quotation for the Day …

Man is a carnivorous production,
And must have meals, at least one meal a day;
He cannot live, like woodcocks, upon suction,
But, like the shark and tiger, must have prey;
Although his anatomical construction
Bears vegetables, in a grumbling way,
Your laboring people think beyond all question,
Beef, veal, and mutton better for digestion.”
Lord Byron (1788-1824.) Don Juan

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

on a whim I stopped by my local used bookshop today and was very happy to find a copy of Margaret Visser's book on the shelf for $3. it is as fantastic as you have said.

the original Byron is worth reading as well, if you have time for that sort of thing. very foodiful. this is Canto XIII, from which that quote is taken; I hadn't the patience to read any more than just the one canto for now.