Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Of Etiquette, Food and Man

Beautifully designed drinking horn from the 1300s.
Man has been distinguished from other animals in various ways; but perhaps there is no particular in which he exhibits so marked a difference from the rest of creation—not even in the prehensile faculty resident in his hand—as in the objection to raw food, meat, and vegetables. He approximates to his inferior contemporaries only in the matter of fruit, salads, and oysters, not to mention wild-duck. He entertains no sympathy with the cannibal, who judges the flavour of his enemy improved by temporary commitment to a subterranean larder; yet, to be sure, he keeps his grouse and his venison till it approaches the condition of spoon-meat.

It naturally ensues, from the absence or scantiness of explicit or systematic information connected with the opening stages of such inquiries as the present, that the student is compelled to draw his own inferences from indirect or unwitting allusion; but so long as conjecture and hypothesis are not too freely indulged, this class of evidence is, as a rule, tolerably trustworthy, and is, moreover, open to verification.

When we pass from an examination of the state of the question as regarded Cookery in very early times among us, before an even more valuable art—that of Printing—was discovered, we shall find ourselves face to face with a rich and long chronological series of books on the Mystery, the titles and fore-fronts of which are often not without a kind of fragrance and goût.

As the space allotted to me is limited, and as the sketch left by Warner of the convivial habits and household arrangements of the Saxons or Normans in this island, as well as of the monastic institutions, is more copious than any which I could offer, it may be best to refer simply to his elaborate preface. But it may be pointed out generally that the establishment of the Norman sway not only purged of some of their Anglo-Danish barbarism the tables of the nobility and the higher classes, but did much to spread among the poor a thriftier manipulation of the articles of food by a resort to broths, messes, and hot-pots. In the poorer districts, in Normandy as well as in Brittany, Duke William would probably find very little alteration in the mode of preparing victuals from that which was in use in his day, eight hundred years ago, if (like another Arthur) he should return among his ancient compatriots; but in his adopted country he would see that there had been a considerable revolt from the common saucepan—not to add from the pseudo-Arthurian bag-pudding; and that the English artisan, if he could get a rump-steak or a leg of mutton once a week, was content to starve on the other six days.

Those who desire to be more amply informed of the domestic economy of the ancient court, and to study the minutiae, into which I am precluded from entering, can easily gratify themselves in the pages of "The Ordinances and Regulations for the Government of the Royal Household," 1790; "The Northumberland Household Book;" and the various printed volumes of "Privy Purse Expenses" of royal and great personages, including "The Household Roll of Bishop Swinfield (1289-90)."

The late Mr. Green, in his "History of the English People" (1880-3, 4 vols. 8vo), does not seem to have concerned himself about the kitchens or gardens of the nation which he undertook to describe. Yet, what conspicuous elements these have been in our social and domestic progress, and what civilising factors!

To a proper and accurate appreciation of the cookery of ancient times among ourselves, a knowledge of its condition in other more or less neighbouring countries, and of the surrounding influences and conditions which marked the dawn of the art in England, and its slow transition to a luxurious excess, would be in strictness necessary; but I am tempted to refer the reader to an admirable series of papers which appeared on this subject in Barker's "Domestic Architecture," and were collected in 1861, under the title of "Our English Home: its Early History and Progress." In this little volume the author, who does not give his name, has drawn together in a succinct compass the collateral information which will help to render the following pages more luminous and interesting. An essay might be written on the appointments of the table only, their introduction, development, and multiplication.

The history and antiquities of the Culinary Art among the Greeks are handled with his usual care and skill by M.J.A. St. John in his "Manners and Customs of Ancient Greece," 1842; and in the Bibliaor Hebrew Scriptures we get an indirect insight into the method of cooking from the forms of sacrifice.

The earliest legend which remains to us of Hellenic gastronomy is associated with cannibalism. It is the story of Pelops—an episode almost pre-Homeric, where a certain rudimentary knowledge of dressing flesh, and even of disguising its real nature, is implied in the tale, as it descends to us; and the next in order of times is perhaps the familiar passage in the Odyssey, recounting the adventures of Odysseus and his companions in the cave of Polyphemus. Here, again, we are introduced to a rude society of cave-dwellers, who eat human flesh, if not as an habitual diet, yet not only without reluctance, but with relish and enjoyment.

The Phagetica of Ennius, of which fragments remain, seems to be the most ancient treatise of the kind in Roman literature. It is supposed to relate an account of edible fishes; but in a complete state the work may very well have amounted to a general Manual on the subject. In relation even to Homer, the Phagetica is comparatively modern, following the Odyssey at a distance of some six centuries; and in the interval it is extremely likely that anthropophagy had become rarer among the Greeks, and that if they still continued to be cooking animals, they were relinquishing the practice of cooking one another.


From "Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine" by W. Carew Hazlitt, 1902

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