Like many people I enjoy a good foodie programme, and would love to be invited to any of the amazing dinners that they feature. This got me thinking about the Royal Society Dining Club – would I have enjoyed one of their dinners? My colleague Joanna has written about the club before in her post Smoke, fire and culinary mirrors, so do have a read of this. I myself recently came across a book by Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a French geologist who was lucky enough to attend a dinner of the Club. He writes about the experience in his book ‘A journey through England and Scotland to the Hebrides in 1784’; this was originally published in 1797 but our copy is a revised English version from 1907.
This travelogue, designed to assess the state of science in England and Scotland, begins in London with our old friend Sir Joseph Banks who, as President of the Royal Society, presided over the Club’s meal. Faujas describes the food and drink and the atmosphere of the evening. It must be said that the company seems to receive more compliments than the food. Faujas described the food as being “of the solid kind” and noted, “In France, we commonly drink only one cup of good coffee after dinner: in England they drink five or six of the most detestable kind”. He mentions several different varieties of alcohol that were served – in fact the whole thing was a very boozy affair: “one must drink as many times as there are guests, for it would be thought a want of politeness in England to drink the health of more persons than one at a time.”
I used our Dining Club records to trace the meal Faujas attended. Although no exact date was given, Faujas helpfully noted that the health of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) was toasted as it was his birthday. This meant it was easy to identify the date of the dinner as 12 August 1784. The minutes of the meeting showed that Faujas had attended as a guest of Alexander Aubert FRS. There seem to have been 25 people present at the meal, and the menu is also available in the minutes for us to peruse. The dinner included a variety of meats and side dishes including a ‘lamb’s head’,’ soals’, ‘veal cutlets’ and ‘sallad’.
Suitably sated, Faujas went on to observe a meeting of the Society, remarking that “I should not wish to partake of similar dinners, if they were to be followed by settling the interest of a great nation, or discussing the best form of government; that would neither be wise nor prudent”, but luckily for Faujas the meeting was only in order to officially elect and celebrate the Fellowship of Charles Theodore, Elector Palatine of Bavaria (pictured below).
While my food envy remains strictly modern (lamb’s head, anyone??), I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at one of the eighteenth century dinners. If nothing else, my interest in food has led me to read Faujas’s account of his travels, which go beyond casual observations on food and drink to give a fascinating glimpse into Georgian Britain through its science, its developing industries and the people Faujas meets during his journey.