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Season’s (Philosophical) Feastings

By Hannah L Wills, on 13 December 2017

Christmas is a time for overindulgence, so let’s have some tales of eighteenth-century feasting, with a twist from the history of science.

In my research, I examine the diary of Charles Blagden (1748-1820), physician, natural philosopher, and secretary to London’s Royal Society. One of the things I’ve been most struck by in my work on Blagden’s diary is the ever-presence of food and feasting within the social and scientific worlds of the late eighteenth century. Blagden’s diary reveals a near-daily itinerary of dining engagements where politicians, fellows of the Royal Society, and members of London’s well-to-do gathered to discuss news, politics, and the latest developments in natural knowledge over a range of lavish and often exotic meals. 

Scientific gatherings and feasts

A typical day for Blagden in the year 1795 began with a trip to the London home of Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, for breakfast. Though the diary gives little indication of the food on offer, it does reveal that at these gatherings participants discussed news, politics, and natural philosophy, all over breakfast. On some occasions, Blagden and Banks conducted experiments, as revealed in Blagden’s diary entry for 19 February 1795: ‘Breakfasted at Sir Joseph Banks’s. all civil: made some experiments on crystallisation of nitre’.[i] This experiment was one that investigated the properties of a key ingredient in the manufacture of saltpetre (potassium nitrate) used in the manufacture of explosives.

On Thursdays, before the weekly meetings of the Royal Society, Blagden attended the Royal Society Club, a dining club for fellows of the Society held at the Crown and Anchor Inn on the Strand. While meetings of the club were intended to be social, scientific matters were inevitably discussed while members feasted on a variety of foods.[ii] The Royal Society archives contain some of the menus from these meetings, which at a dinner held on 23 October 1783 included ‘A Turtle’, which had for several days before the dinner been allowed to roam at Banks’s London home, ‘Scate’ (the fish skate), ‘Harricot of Mutton’ (a mutton stew), ‘a Hare’, ‘another dish of Turtle’, ‘Potatoes’, ‘Cold Ribs of Lamb’, ‘Breast of Veal’, ‘Haddock’ and finally ‘more of the Turtle’.[iii]

Feasting as research

As well as being a convivial aid to the discussion of natural philosophical topics, eating was also a central part of investigating nature. At gatherings hosted by Banks, visitors indulged in the consumption of various plants and animals, many sourced from exotic locations. One entry in Blagden’s diary reveals a particular gathering during which guests enjoyed several nuts brought by the botanist Richard Molesworth, named in Blagden’s diary as ‘Buticosa’ and ‘Sawena’. Blagden described them as ‘both pleasant to eat; one a sort of buttery nut, the other larger & more like walnut’.[iv]

Such behaviour might seem eccentric and even dangerous to us depending on the kinds of exotic fare on offer. Banks was frequently targeted by contemporary satire with his ‘philosophical’ feasting caricatured in a sketch by the artist Thomas Rowlandson. In ‘The Fish Supper’ (below) we see Banks’s guests, possibly including Blagden, eagerly preparing to devour an alligator specimen, while Banks, on the right-hand side of the image, greedily gnaws on a snake.

Thomas Rowlandson, Sir Joseph Banks about to Eat an Alligator (‘The Fish Supper’), 1788, ink and watercolour on paper (Image credit: © Tate (2014), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Unported)

 

Festive feasting, with a bang

Experiments combined with dining did on occasion produce dangerous results. For a final festive example, we turn to an anecdote of the earlier eighteenth century. On Christmas Day 1750, Blagden’s contemporary Benjamin Franklin conducted an ill-fated experiment in cooking a turkey. Though today perhaps best known as one of the founding fathers of America, Franklin was also a renowned natural philosopher, famed for his electrical experiments. In April 1749, Franklin wrote a letter detailing an experiment he intended to make where ‘A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the electrical shock, and roasted by the electrical jack’.[v] Franklin repeated this experiment on Christmas Day the following year with disastrous results, describing it as:

an Experiment in Electricity that I desire never to repeat… I inadvertently took the whole [shock] thro’ my own Arms and Body… the flash was very great and the crack as loud as a Pistol; yet my Senses being instantly gone, I neither Saw the one nor heard the other’.[vi]

Franklin’s turkey cooking is definitely a dining experiment not to be tried at home!

 

 

References:

[i] Royal Society Library, Charles Blagden’s Diary Vol 3, entry dated 19 Feb 1795, f. 47r.

[ii] For more information on the dining clubs of the Royal Society, including its membership, see T. E. Allibone, The Royal Society and Its Dining Clubs (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1976).

[iii] Ibid., 121.

[iv] Royal Society Library, Charles Blagden’s Diary Vol 3, entry dated 17 Oct 1795, f. 70v.

[v] Meredith Man, ‘Ben Franklin on Cooking Turkey… with Electricity’, blog post for the New York Public Library website, published on 24 Nov 2014.

[vi] Ronald Clark, Benjamin Franklin: A Biography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983), 76.