What to serve a British naval officer for dinner in 1795? Reader, I researched it. After many months of war service in the Mediterranean, Captain Edward Trewin has returned to England. His ship is laid up for repairs in Portsmouth but, for reasons I hope you will find intriguing, he did not immediately go home. When Edward finally does make it back to his family in Falmouth, he and his wife Julia cannot find much to talk about — at least at first. However, they do distract themselves by eating and drinking rather a lot. As a writer, I am more than two centuries, a continent, and an ocean away from these goings on, but I still have to decide what these characters are going to be consuming and imbibing.
No doubt many other writers have researched the food of this period in more depth and with more background knowledge than I, but I so enjoyed looking into the subject that I want to share what I did find. By the way, this is the first blog post to spring out of my novel in progress, so I’m excited about that, too. Thanks for reading and your comments and questions are very welcome!
The internet is one obvious way to discover more about food, cooking, and dining in Georgian times, but I already owned a couple of history-related cookbooks so that’s where I started. Except for the occasional foray to validate a word or check spelling in the online OED1, I have yet to go further. If you are interested in researching meals and food that might be served in the late Eighteenth Century, I have a couple of recommendations for you.
Especially when writing about naval families, or events arising in or around ships of the Royal Navy, Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels is an indispensable resource. This carefully researched compendium of recipes was created as a companion book to the enthralling Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian. The authors, the late Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and her daughter Lisa Grossman Thomas, clearly loved those novels and their protagonists — as do I. According to Mrs. Grossman’s obituary in the New York Times, she and Ms. Thomas
set out to recreate 18th-century cooking, a feat akin to reproducing the orchestral sound of the period. They went in scholarly pursuit of food sources and in their Long Island kitchen prepared meals totally unacceptable to today’s dietary wonts.
The results were chronicled in Lobscouse and Spotted Dog. It served up the flavor of life before the main in the Royal Navy and the recipes for dishes a hungry sailor might enjoy.
These authors were probably far more familiar with the doings of Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey than I will ever be. Without question, they were highly attuned to all of O’Brian’s references to food and drink. Thanks to their organization as well as their digressions, I have been able to solve the problem of what might be served at a grand shipboard dinner as well as how to make coffee that would best please a sailor. I benefitted particularly from the list of recipes by category (savory pies, savory puddings, sweet puddings, etc.) and the descriptions of wine and liquors.
Trying to describe family dinners of the period, as well as soirees, routs, and visits to taverns and coffee houses, I found myself wondering what a cook or housewife might have found in the market during certain months, as well as how various foodstuffs could be prepared by or served to my characters. I have not yet got my hands on a book mentioned in the preface to Lobscouse and Spotted Dog — a 1747 recipe book known as The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse — but I hope to consult it eventually.
What I did have on hand was a facsimile copy of A New System of Domestic Cookery by Mrs. Rundell, first published in 1806. The subtitle is “Formed Upon Principles of Economy; and Adapted to the Use of Private Families.” Wikipedia says that Mary Eliza Rundell has been called “the original domestic goddess” and her book “a publishing sensation” and “the most famous cookery book of its time.” It ran to over 67 editions. My copy came from Persephone Books in London. The Persephone edition is a beautiful little volume with flowered endpapers. It contains a section at the back titled “Bills of Fare, Family Dinners, &c,” which is a “List of various articles in season in different months.” Supremely useful for historical novelists! If you would like to know, for example, what fish or meat or vegetable or fruit was likely to be available in April during the last of the Eighteenth Century, this near-contemporary list would be an excellent place to start. One may also find within this book specific suggestions for five family dinners, a section titled “General Remarks on Dinners,” which sets out items that could be served for various courses, and directions to servants, including recipes for pomade and stain removal, and all sorts of tips for household management.
Soon I will be off to London and then the Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford. In London, I plan to visit the Dennis Severs House in the East End, along with friends who are also writers. By all accounts, the experience of touring this Eighteenth Century silk weaver’s house deeply engages the senses, so I will certainly have in mind Mrs. Rundell, her predecessor Mrs. Glasse, and the talented ladies who produced Lobscouse and Spotted Dog.
1 I’m so fortunate that I can access the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary through the auspices of my local library, which is part of the exemplary Timberland Regional Library system. I worship at their feet.