The Epicure’s Almanack
Yes, I have a new research book…one I’m really enjoying. It’s The Epicure’s Almanack (1815) edited and annotated by Janet Ing Freeman. The introduction alone was nearly worth the rather hefty price. It included basic information I’d never known or understood before, such as what it means for a business to be a “house”, “tavern”, or “shop”. “Shops” don’t have designated space for eating, but are only for “take out”. “Taverns” (as opposed to public houses) are dedicated to wine, not beer and ale. Many—indeed it would appear most—coffee shops and pubic houses also kept rooms that people could hire, and were in fact, a form of inn or hotel.
A few favorite tidbits:
John o’Groat’s, near modern Piccadilly Circus, had tables laid ready for dining (cloths, silverware, glasses, and even had a priced menu on the table just like what we’re used to today.
You could get a curry in London as early as 1773 (at the Mistress of Norris Coffee-House in Haymarket), and there was even a curry house with hookahs! It was opened by Deen Mahomed, who later went on to open bath houses in Brighton, received a royal warrant from both George IV and William IV, and even published a treatise on “shampooing”. I’ve located the treatise on Google Books, but have yet to follow the rabbit down the hole and read it. Hoping for insight into the hammams of the era (which, unlike bagnios, were respectable).
The Chapter Coffee-House had all the British newspapers, as well as most of the monthly journals, magazines, reviews, and circulating pamphlets. Much like a library, the patrons did not speak, except when placing orders with the waiters.
One of the amusements of fairs, boxing matches, etc. was “tossing the pieman”. You threw up a coin, the pieman called heads or tails, and if he was right, he kept the coin and gave you nothing. If he was wrong, you got your pie and kept your money.
People, even fashionable ones, actually lived at the hotels and inns and coffee-houses. They list a widowed countess who made her home at just such a place in Mayfair during the Season. There’s also plenty of information about the cost of food items and whole meals, as well as the cost of rooms. A person whose means might not stretch to renting a house could take a decent suite of rooms in a good part of town (two bed chambers and a private saloon, meals included) for somewhere between 20-30 guineas a month.
Tattersalls had a coffee-room of its own, where they kept a registry of bets of the turf, and where they held a high court to determine the legality of disputed debts of honor. I love this bit “You may sometimes behold a right honorable selling a well-bred puppy, with a pedigree longer even than his own will be for generations to come.”
Lest you think the book only covers the haunts of Mayfair and St. James’s, there are also interesting notes about places like the Sessions’ Eating-House (across from the Old Bailey), whose “principal business is to supply the poor prisoners, and those good Christians who visit them in prison.” It also warns those who visit certain taverns near the docks to be wary of East India Crimps (men who shanghai you into service).
All-in-all, I’m going to call it money very well spent! Ideas for new books are already swirling ...