By Rachel Rich
Lately I’ve been thinking about whether the kitchen at Kew, c. 1789, should be considered as a domestic space or a public one. The reason this has been on my mind is because I’ve been working with Lisa Smith and Adam Crymble on a project we’ve provisionally called ‘The King’s Dinner.’ Thanks to the Steward at Kew, who kept a detailed ledger of all the meals served during the King’s time in residence there between 1789 and 1797, we know everything that made it to the twelve separate tables in the Palace, every day at dinner time. This rich source may not exactly tell us what each person ate or how much, and it doesn’t say much about how the meals were ordered and selected. But it is the closest I feel I’ve ever come to being able to witness a household’s eating from the past.
I’m thinking about whether to consider these meals as public or private because of what other questions that might lead me to ask. Should I be considering what the George III menus tell us about domestic eating habits in the late eighteenth century? I can see that the names of the dishes are in the fashionable style of contemporary English cooking which gave French names to reliably familiar English meals.
And I can see that there was a version here of the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy, even if it was on a much grander scale. It makes sense to me to think about how food was used to encode social relations within homes where master and servant ate food produced in the same kitchens, and from the same supply chains, while marking our hierarchy through the relative degree of elaboration that went into the dishes served at the different tables.
If, however, I start to think of the Palace less as a private home and more as a public—or at least semi-public—institution, then I think about the scale on which things were done, and what that meant about labour, organization, and time management. Food is very time sensitive in many ways. There is the question of seasons, and of eating the right produce when it is at its best. This may have mattered to King George, whose keen interest in agriculture had gained him the nickname Farmer George. In the coming months I am hoping to look carefully at the vegetables that were served in each month, and about how important seasonality was at the Royal table.
Food is also time sensitive because of the time it takes to cook each dish. All foods can be ruined through over cooking, while some foods are also dangerous if undercooked. Kitchen staff needed to know about timing, and given the difficulty of calculating cooking times with their contemporary cooking technologies, I assume they employed a combination of modern time management with more traditional sense-time for measuring the readiness of dishes.
Finally, food is time bound in that meals eaten communally need to be ready at the appointed time, and everyone who is sharing a table needs to know at what time they ought to make an appearance, if they are to share the meal. With twelve tables to serve, how did each dish reach the right table at the right time? Thinking about the management of the ‘home’ that was Kew Palace seems to offer a wonderful opportunity for thinking about how food timing shaped the operation of a semi-public institution with many inhabitants from across the social spectrum.
There were twelve daily dinners served at Kew each day including their Majesties’ Dinner, the Equerries dinner, dinner for various pages, grooms, and kitchen staff. Social hierarchy marked out who could share a table, but also the amount of food that was served, and the diversity of dishes. For their majesties, an elaborate meal was always prepared. On 6 December 1789, the dinner was comprised of:
Soupe Sante, 4 chickens, tendrons of lamb; mutton cotellets; Emince of Pullets; 71/2 Veal Collops; a haunch of venison; 2 large soles; a leg of Portland mutton; 83/4 muttons; Richmond duck; Capon; 3 pigs trotters; asparagus; potted meat; Genoise; ¾ prawns; celery and pomme de terre.
It was a lot of food—but I don’t exactly know who was sitting at the table, so I don’t know how much of it was specifically designated as surplus food. This is one of many questions I have been considering over the last few days.
This is the first in a series of posts in which Lisa, Adam and I are planning to explore this amazing source from a range of different angles. In this way we hope to develop ideas about national identity, class, and domestic labour, health, and nutrition, in relation to a unique household which was at once completely different from, but also emblematic of, all the other household in Britain.