Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fashionable Food.

Fashionable Food.

I hope you enjoy the following extract from a lengthy piece in London Society (1867) on the Curiosities of Fashion in the Matter of One’s Food, the wily and wonderful ways of cooks, and how to roast a peacock.

Fashion is society's Chancellor of the Exchequer, and fails not to tax the lieges with ingenuity and unrelenting sternness of purpose . … You prefer an old-fashioned English dinner, full, substantial, abundant, and materialistic, to the lightness and insubstantiality of a diner à la Russe, but then - the fashion! … Fashion makes you wear a hat that pinches your ample brow, and puts on Amanda's head a bonnet that does not become her. Fashion tempts you to live on a thousand a year when your income is only eight hundred. …
But perhaps the most personal and humiliating of Fashion's  salle à manger are safe from its vexatious intrusion. As sternly as an Abernethy to a dyspeptic patient, it says to society, “This thou shalt eat, and this thou shalt not eat. This dish is vulgar; yonder plat is obsolete; none but the canaille partake of melted butter; only the ignorant immerse their souls in beer.” And changeable as that sex which is supposed to worship it most humbly, Fashion proscribes in 1863 what it sanctioned in 1763; and approves now, what in the days when George III was king - consule planes - it most sternly condemned. The meals which now do (too often) coldly furnish forth the table were regarded with contempt by our great-great-grand fathers. Fancy Sir Roger de Coverley examining a salmi des perdrix or a pate de foie gras! In like manner the Honourable Fitzplantagenet Smith would regard as 'deuced low' the boar's head that delighted his cavalier ancestor, or the peacock pie that smoked upon Elizabethan boards.
… In the year 1272, the then Lord Mayor of London issued an edict which fixed the prices to be paid for certain articles of provisions at the pence; a goose for fivepence; a wild goose, fourponce; pigeons, three for one penny; mallards, three for a halfpenny; a plover, one penny; a partridge, three-halfpence; a dozen of larks, one penny halfpenny; a pheasant, fourpence; a heron, sixpence; a swan, three shillings; a crane, three shillings; the best peacock, one penny; the best coney, with skin, fourpence; and the best lamb, from Christmas to Lent, sixpence, at other times of the year, fourpence.
Now, out of the foregoing list of edibles, Fashion nowadays would strike the mallard, the heron, the swan, and the crane, and would look askant at the peacock. But the peacock was of old right royal bird, that figured splendidly at the banquets of the great, and this is how the medieval cooks dished up the mediaeval dainty: “Take and flay off the skin with the feathers, tail, and the neck and head thereon; then take the skin and all the feathers and lay it on the table abroad, and strew thereon ground cumin. Then take the peacock and roast him, and baste him with raw yelks of eggs; and when he is roasted, take him off and let him cool awhile; then take him and sew him in his skin, and gild his comb, and so serve him forth with the last course.”

... In a fish-tariff issued by Edward I, mention is made of ' congers, lampreys, and sea-hogs.' Fancy Lady Mayfair inviting her guests to partake of a sea-hog! In the Earl of Northumberland^ Household Book we find allowed for 'my Lord and Ladie's table,' 'ij. pecys of salt fische, vj. pecys of salt fische, vj. becormed herryng, iiij. white herryng, or a dish of sproots (sprats).' Certes, a deep draught of Canary or Malvoisie would be needed to wash down so dry a repast!

… The great ministers of Fashion, its agents in enforcing its decrees upon unhappy society, have been the cooks - always a potent, a conceited, and, sooth to say, an ignorant fraternity. From the days of Aristoxenes and Archestratus to those of Ude - Ude, who refused four hundred a year and a carriage when offered by the Duke of Richmond, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, because there was no Opera at Dublin - from the days of Archestratus to those of Ude, they have studied rather the display of their inventive powers than the laws of physiology and the stomachs of their patrons. Ben Jonson furnishes us with an admirable description of one of these gentry, who are more solicitous about the invention of wonderful novelties than the provision of a wholesome and sufficient dinner :- ' A master cook!' exclaims the poet;

Why, he’s the man of men
For a professor; he designs, he draws,
He paints, he carves, he builds, he fortifies;
Makes citadels of curious fowl and fish.
Some he dry-dishes, some moats around with broths,
Mounts marrow-bones, cuts fifty-angled custards
Tears bulwark pies, and for his outerworks
He raiseth ramparts of immortal crust;
And teacheth all the tactics at one dinner:
What ranks, what files to put his dishes in;
The whole art military. Then he knows
The influence of the stars upon his meats,
And all their seasons, tempers, qualities;
And so to fit his relishes and sauces,
He has Nature in a pot, ‘bove all the chemists
Or airy brethren of the Rosy-Cross.
He is an architect, an engineer,
A soldier, a physician, a philosopher,
A general mathematician!

It is the cooks who are responsible for the untasteful monstrosities and semi-poisonous plâts that still figure in our bills of fare. Just as the cooks of ancient Rome served up to their patrons the membranous parts of the matrices of a sow, the echinus or sea-hedgehog, the flesh of young hawks, and especially rejoiced in a whole pig, boiled on one side and roasted on the other—the belly stuffed with thrushes, and yolks of eggs, and hens, and spiced meats; so the cooks of modern London love to disguise our food with an infinite variety of flavours, until the natural is entirely lost, and the most curious examiner is at a loss to detect the component parts of any particular dish. The ancient cooks, with a vegetable, could counterfeit the shape and the taste of fish and flesh. We are told that a king of Bithynia having, in one of his expeditions, strayed to a great distance from the seaside, conceived a violent longing for a small fish called aphy, either a pilchard, an anchovy, or a herring. His cook was a genius, however, and could conquer obstacles. He had no aphy, but he had a turnip. This he cut into a perfect imitation of the fish; then fried in oil, salted, and powdered thoroughly with the grains of a dozen black poppies. His majesty ate, and was delighted! Never had he eaten a more delicious aphy! But our modern cooks are not inferior to the ancient. Give them a partridge or a pheasant, a veal cutlet or a mutton chop, and they will so dish you up each savoury article that nothing of its original flavour shall be discernible. O Fashion! O cooks! O confectioners ! We are your slaves, your victims; and our stomachs the laboratories in which you coolly carry out your experiments. Look, for instance, at vegetables: no food more wholesome, or more simple, and yet how the cooks do torture and manipulate them, until the salutary properties of these cibi innocentes utterly disappear!

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