“If the dinner is defective the misfortune is irreparable; when the long-expected dinner-hour arrives, one eats but does not dine; the dinner-hour passes, and the diner is sad, for, as the philosopher has said, a man can dine only once a day.” — Theodore Child, Delicate Feasting (1890)Those with deeper pockets wedded spectacle to surfeit. One winter’s night in 1476 the fabulously wealthy Florentine Benedetto Salutati hosted a banquet. He spared no expense. A first course of petite pine-nut cakes, gilded and doused in milk and served in small majolica bowls greeted guests. Eight silver platters of gelatin of capon’s breast followed. Next came twelve courses of various meats representing the bounty of barnyard and forest: great haunches of venison and ham, a bevy of roasted pheasants, partridges, capons and chickens, all accompanied by thick slabs of blancmange. Fearing that his guests might weary of this parade of animal flesh, Salutati ushered in two live peacocks, their breasts pinned with silk ribbons and their feet affixed to silver platters. From their beaks curled tendrils of incense. Then came the piéce de resistance: a large covered platter, also of silver. When Salutati’s attendants lifted its lid, out flew a flock of birds.For all their inventive excess, the regal feasts of prosperous commoners could not match those of true royalty. England’s Henry VIII, for example, boasted an appetite as invariable as it was insatiable. His favorite dishes he ordered to be brought to him, even when he journeyed abroad. Before visiting France in 1534, he dispatched a communiqué across the Channel. “It is the king’s special commandment,” it read, that all of the artichokes “be kept for him.”
Joseph Stalin, it was reported, would become “very cantankerous” if served a substandard banana.Other monarchs had their gustatory quirks. Soup France’s Louis XIV slurped to the point of chronic diarrhea, and gluttony overtook him at his wedding feast to such a degree that he ate himself impotent (much to his bride’s chagrin no doubt). Even the Revolution did little to discomfit the royal belly. So ravenous was the restored king Louis XVIII that attendants had to supply him with pork cutlets between meals.
The distaff side matched their male counterparts bite for bite. Catherine de Medicis, the Italian-born wife of France’s King Henry II, regularly sickened herself on roast chicken and heaps of cibrèo, a thick Florentine ragout of rooster gizzard, liver, testicles and comb mixed with beans and egg yolks and served on toast. Britain’s Queen Victoria too suffered unremitting peckishness. When Lord Melbourne, one of her ministers, advised her to eat only when she was hungry, she replied, “I am always hungry.”
“The farmer is not a man: he is the plow of the one who eats the bread.” — Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion (1973)Subjects expected their sovereigns to be hungry. Power rested on conspicuous excess. Abstemiousness occasioned distrust. In 888, Guido, Duke of Spoleto, a contender for the throne of the Frankish kingdom, found his bid derailed by his small appetite. Quipped the archbishop of Metz, one of Guido’s critics: “No one who is content with a modest meal can reign over us.”“I went into the workhouse on Sunday last (April 30) after church…. I asked them [the inmates] how they lived, whether they had sufficient [food] … they said, that if they could be allowed four ounces more bread three times a week, which was the day in which they had their pea-soup, they should have all they could wish for.” — The Parish and the Union; Or, The Poor and the Poor Laws Under the Old System and the New (1837)
Keen to emulate their antecedents, new money ate as voraciously as old. This was no more true than in nineteenth-century United States, where it seemed anyone who struck gold spent it on lavish refection. The American self-made millionaire, James Buchanan Brady, better known as “Diamond Jim,” exemplified Gilded Age excess, breakfasting daily on beefsteak, chops, eggs, pancakes, fried potatoes, hominy, cornbread, muffins and a beaker of milk. Mid-mornings he snacked on oysters and clams. For lunch came more shellfish accompanied by two or three deviled crabs, a pair of broiled lobsters, a joint of beef, a salad and several fruit pies. To round out the meal and to make, in his words, “the food set better,” he would polish off a box of chocolates.
When meals didn’t “set better,” they set decidedly worse. About the time that Diamond Jim was inhaling crustaceans by the dozen, a certain Mr. Rogerson (nationality and profession unknown) reportedly gorged himself to such a miserable extent that at meal’s end he committed suicide.