British? Or European?: George III’s dinner table and the taste of the nation, 1788-1801

By Rachel Rich and Lisa Smith

James Gillray, ‘Temperance enjoying a frugal meal’, 28 July 1792. Image credit: Wellcome Collections, London.

If we are what we eat, and the king is the father of the nation, then George III’s menus must have something to tell us about who the British people were at the end of the eighteenth century, as Britain moved from early modernity to modernity. As patriotism in the face of perceived French aggression gave way to a new sense of nationalism and national identity, it is revealing that the British persisted in giving their most elegant menu items French names and even French flavours.

Thanks to a grant from the British Academy (as part of their ‘Tackling the UK’s International Challenges’ scheme), we are–along with Adam Crymble–digitizing and analysing the royal household’s menus for each day when they were in residence at Kew Palace between 1788 and 1801. Doing this allows us to understand what was served each day, how it was served, and what kinds of ingredients were necessary to keep the kitchens going, and to keep the nation’s first family on their feet.

It is quickly apparent that the royal family’s meals were dependent on a number of networks. At Kew, food was prepared in one building, then carried to multiple buildings (the princesses, guests, and King, for example, all resided in different houses) and multiple dining rooms (even the main building had separate tables for the king, queen, equerries, etc.) around Kew. Kinship and friendship networks were at work providing local game and produce through the tradition of giving gifts of food.

Britain’s naval and imperial position in the world is well-documented in the menus, with numerous spices and condiments listed as staples of the grocery and oilery lists that had to be approved by the Board of Green Cloth. Britain’s place in Europe, even while France went through its revolution and war was declared, remained firm with French, German, Dutch and Italian dishes appearing frequently at their majesties’ table. As these overlapping and interlocking networks and trade routes suggest, to understand British identity is also to understand that Britain was a part of Europe, even as the metropole of an Empire that had yet to reach the height of its global power.

Writing about the late nineteenth century, April Bullock has argued that recipes were sources of cosmopolitanism, a way for aspiring middle-class men and women to experience the exoticism of abroad from the comfort of their own table. A century earlier, this kind of dining-chair travel was only available to the elite, and George III’s menus might, indeed, be representative of the ways in which people sought to recreate earlier experiences—of travel and adventure, or of the comfort they had known elsewhere—on a daily basis in the domestic realm. The question, though, is what the elite desire for foreign flavours in the domestic dining room actually meant. Does an ethnically German and proudly British King, for example, eat Dutch ‘Metworst’ and Italian ‘macarony’ because he is British or because he is foreign? And if Kew was the royal family’s retreat from the glare of public life, did the food they eat there reflect their real tastes or the fashion of the moment? 

Our diets are one of the areas that most quickly reveal how complex the construction of identity is. What we say about ourselves is one thing, but what we put into our bodies in another; our choices are bound by social and historical forces we seldom consider. It is far easier to assess other people’s choices. In the late eighteenth-century, one’s diet was treated as a symbol for personal qualities and morality. James Gillray, for example, regularly conflated nation, food, and identity in his political cartoons, as in ‘Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal’ (1792) where the King’s personal stinginess was extrapolated onto the national stage. 

The wonderful Georgian Papers Project has just launched an interesting exhibition on The Eighteenth Century’s Most Prominent Mental Health Patient, George III. When we think of the health of Georgian monarchs, George III’s case is often the first thing that comes to mind–and rightly so, given how evocative it is! However, as our project will show, the royal household’s menus and food accounts can offer other insights into the daily lives of the royal household members, particularly in terms of their health, diet, cultural choices, seasonality and supply, and personal relationships.

Although sources such as the ordinary royal menus have often been overlooked, whether owing to the difficulty of interpreting them or to their ordinary domestic nature, they are–quite literally–accounts of national importance.  After all, what the king chose to eat (or not) shaped the culture and politics of the emerging British nation.


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