Friday, 12 July 2013

Ingesting the collection

Today's post is about food and my particular research interest - collections. Sometimes inspiration comes from the strangest of places, and who'd have thought that an animated film about a band of misfit pirates would get me thinking about different ways we practice and experience collecting? But that's just what The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists did when I saw it at the cinema last year. The film, made by Aardman and based on the book by the very funny Gideon Defoe, tells the tale of a group of Pirates who meet a young Charles Darwin and - well. It's very convoluted, but essentially, they end up attempting to rescue the very last dodo on earth from the clutches of a maniacally evil Queen Victoria, who wants to serve it up for dinner in her fine dining club which specialises in consuming the rarest beasties in existence.

I wish I could give you the context for this scene, which involves Queen Victoria hiding in a dumb waiter and Charles Darwin covered in feathers,'re going to have to watch the film. Image source.
Queen V's evil dining club doesn't have any basis in royal reality, sadly, but it does seem that Darwin was a part of something called the 'Glutton Club' whilst at Cambridge which he reminisces about rather fondly;
My feelings overpower me when I think of the simple, the elegant, Glutton club & that day of victory and triumph & inward-glorying, which some call sublime, but the wise know it to be the full round feeling from a contented dinner (source)
Charlie, I know how you feel.

The Glutton Club, according to popular belief, seems to have been a place where the members could enjoy feasting on rare species, particularly birds (no mention of dodos, which were extinct by this point), although I haven't found any reliable sources to verify this yet. Perhaps we want to believe this of Darwin because it seems like a disgracefully arrogant hobby, deliciously at odds with his fascination with the natural world and our image of him as a benevolent and gentle man of science.

Another nineteenth-century figure associated with the quest to eat the rarest things on earth is William Buckland, a flamboyant geologist whose popular lectures at Oxford were attended by Thomas Arnold, John Ruskin, and Charles Lyell. Buckland is reported to have eaten mice on toast regularly, as well as puppies, hedgehogs, and, most outrageously, a human heart. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records that Buckland was on a mission to taste every animal species, and charitably suggests that this was part of a British mission to improve the diet and tastes of its poorly nourished nation. Stephen Jay Gould, in his book Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle also suggests that there were practical uses of this 'systematic gustatory survey', but nothing on the subject is recorded in Buckland's biography, The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland, written by his daughter Elizabeth. Perhaps the relish with which Buckland carried out his task rendered the subject unsuitable for inclusion in his biography. Either way, the tale of Buckland's gastronomic zeal, like that of Darwin's Glutton Club, has proved rather compelling, and is gloriously recounted all over the web. Why are we so fascinated by these stories?

William Buckland looking surprisingly svelte (source)

Buckland had various interests in the way of food - he is recorded as taking a special interest in the diet of the boys whilst head of Westminster School, spearheading the reform of the school menu (a sort of Victorian Jamie Oliver?), and one of his research interests was in corprolites (fossilized faeces) and what they could tell us about the diet and digestion of now extinct creatures, which actually led him to some significant paleontological insights. One of his pupils recounted his memories of Buckland for The Life and Correspondence, including this brilliant but possibly terrifying episode from an undergraduate lecture;
He had in his hand a huge hyena's skull. He suddenly dashed down the steps, rushed, skull in hand, at the first undergraduate on the front bench and shouted, "What rules the world?" The youth, terrified, threw himself against the next back seat, and answered not a word. He rushed then on me, pointing the hyena full in my face; "What rules the world?" "I haven't an idea", I said. "The stomach, sir" he cried (again mounting his rostrum), "rules the world. The great ones eat the less, and the less the lesser still."
I think Buckland's onto something here - eating as an act of power. There's a reason we use the analogy of the food chain to talk about hierarchies and power relationships. In fact, if Buckland's bizarre eating habits were merely a way of carrying out the exploratory culinary aims of the Zoological Society which he helped to found, wasn't he doing so with the aim of creating a strong, imperial nation, one with healthy and robust citizens capable of commanding the empire? Wouldn't his acts of eating then be constructed as potential acts of dominance, not only over the poor creatures on his plate, but also the people of the British colonies?

In many ways, the purported pursuits of Buckland and the Glutton Club are a kind of collecting strategy, only they're not arranging their collections beautifully in cabinets, they're ingesting them. Just as some theories of collecting behaviour see such activity as a material strategy for asserting personal, institutional, or even national dominance, we can read this kind of eating/collecting as another such strategy. The desire to incorporate, which eating as collecting seems to suggest, confirms the theory that all collections lead ultimately back to the collector, which might be an individual or an entity as large as the state. Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists suggests this directly, through the figure of Victoria, the Empress.

To sign off, two things.

Firstly, for a fantastic post on this kind of encyclopaedic eating, (and a picture of Queen Victoria's game larder in 1857 - perhaps she was part of a scoffer's club after all?!) check out Ivan Day's blog Food History Jottings.

Secondly, a marvellous quote from famous collector, Catherine the Great, which I found in Werner Muensterberger's book Collecting: An Unruly Passion. Quizzed on her motivation for collecting, Catherine says
It is not for love of art; it is voraciousness. I am not an amateur. I am a gourmandizer.

Mary Addyman

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