Once again, the inspiration for this post was provided by a chance sighting of a reference in our archive catalogue whilst I was looking for something completely different. That said, I challenge anyone not to have their interest piqued by the following:

“Letter from Sir Joseph Banks, Revesby Abbey to Charles Blagden, King’s Road, Great Ormond Street. Discusses interview for draughtsman, Mr Johnston who will stay for a fortnight – discusses the ladies request for music – discusses turtle.”

I couldn’t help but wonder, what about the turtle? Was it a pet, a scientific curiosity, or destined for dinner? And why on earth was Sir Joseph Banks, then President of the Royal Society, concerning himself with such a creature? I had to find out.

Upon further investigation I discovered we have three letters from Joseph Banks to Charles Blagden, all written in October 1783, in which the unfortunate turtle makes its fleeting appearance. From the first of these, dated October  7th (ref. CB/1/1/91), Banks seems to be continuing an ongoing discussion, as he writes:  “I wrote full directions about the turtle last week”. The handwriting is rather difficult to decipher, but it seems that Banks has been seeking advice as to the quality and provenance of the turtle, and at this point it is apparently very much alive.

By the 13th, however, things are looking rather bleak for the creature: “Out of his element is my poor turtle I suppose if he is at any time in danger of his life I beg it may be savd(?) by an incision in his throat and his body presented to the Club.” (ref. CB/1/1/92)

By the 29th the turtle’s fate is set, although some confusion ensues as it appears that Blagden had wished to see the turtle dissected, but Banks had not fully anticipated this and had promised its body elsewhere (as mentioned in his previous letter). Whilst not apologising for this Banks does at least admit his carelessness “you slightly hinted it after I had destined it for the Club”, although he then goes on to justify this, “thinking that dead turtles could not be great rarities in a country where so many live and annually arrive” (ref. CB/1/1/96)

I would love to see the other side of the correspondence, and to know whether the Club  enjoyed its gift of turtle. I would also be interested to know if Blagden had a particular interest in turtles – a letter written to him by his brother John (as part of a longer account of a trip he made in August 1775) records that John had “ fed twice on turtle and so plentifully that I am perfectly satisfied” (ref. CB/1/2/46).

Illustration of a turtle, by Richard Bradley

An interest in food and drink can be seen in a number of our other archives and printed books, and to describe them further is perhaps the topic for a future post. Suffice it to say that the Royal Society has had at least one Food Committee, and I believe that at least one Dining Club is still going strong.

An interest in food has also apparently been a factor in the love life of at least one Fellow of the Society, although sadly we have no indication of what Lady Banks thought about the turtle. In his Biographical Memoir of Nicholas Kurti, J.H. Sanders records that:

“During the war Nicholas met his future wife, Giana, at a coffee party. The conversation covered many subjects; Nicholas telephoned her subsequently and reminded her of their meeting. He recalled ‘There was silence, and then she said “Ah, you are the one who can cook”’. They were married in 1946, and had two daughters.” (p.307)

Kurti was both extremely keen on food and equally keen to understand the science behind cookery, and apparently remarked “I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.” In this endeavour, he not only collaborated with Raymond Blanc on his book and television series Blanc mange, but encouraged other Fellows to contribute recipes and culinary advice to a collection which was published as the wonderfully-titled But the crackling is superb. He also presented a Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution, entitled The physicist in the kitchen, which sounds like it must have been a highly memorable occasion.

What I like most about these examples is the way in which they present such universal concerns. Most of us are keen to know where our next meal is coming from, and many share Kurti’s interest in how cookery actually works – I know I certainly do. I find it highly reassuring to know that in addition to complicated scientific matters our collections also contain material which is much more readily applicable to every-day life, not to mention hapless turtles and molecular gastronomy!

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