Mad, Bad and Fad

Web-Ready-Byron-Private-DinnerReluctant to leave the warmth of Lord Byron’s library, I slipped into the hallway and headed for the study.  Periodic lightening strikes helped guide my way and kept me from tripping over any errant animal roving about the house.

From the looks of things upon my arrival in the study, Lord Byron seemed to be exceptionally talented at being messy. Stockings and “whatnot” were tossed about with abandon.  It appeared that Byron had not only enjoyed some company earlier in the evening, he was also afflicted with a lazy valet.  Well this was a tad awkward.  Was this the setting of a clandestine visit with Claire Clairmont perhaps?  After all, she had a raging crush on Byron so strong that it compelled her to travel to Lake Geneva with her stepsister, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, in order to spend time with him.

Lord Byron was dashingly good looking, knew it and worked it.  He exuded Regency hip.  So attractive was he that his name became a coveted adjective for gentlemen to be described with. Women swooned from his “Byronic”  good looks.   Perpetuating his image though prompted Byron to be obsessed with his weight.

Unfortunately, his appetite was a determined force to be reckoned with; he made excuses for it by saying he had a “morbid propensity to fatten”.  Not truly, Byron just really, really liked to eat and drink and was very good at it too.

There was one other thing in Byron’s life that really irritated him. He was born with a club foot and was mortified by it his entire life.  Not willing to be inconvenienced by either science or common sense, he was convinced that his club foot was the result of his mother refusing to give up her corset during her pregnancy – he never forgave her.  He was fixated with drawing the eyes of those who looked at him upwards and away from his foot.  He did not want any stares to pause at a robust waist.   Maintaining his raffish appearance drove him to be a vanguard of the “fad diet”.

With these thoughts in mind, I moved across the study to a small table set for private dining.  Only a desperate, yet intrepid, eater would taste what lay before me.  I leaned in and took one eye-watering sniff.  The boiled potatoes looked to be smashed down with the back of the fork and reeked of vinegar. It appeared that he had thrown caution to the wind and almost finished off the boiled cabbage that shared the plate.  A small carafe of white wine and plain crackers rounded off the unfortunate looking meal.  One of his ex-lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, described Lord Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.  Maybe he was just hungry?

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As I stood there considering the unpleasantness of this misguided Regency weight loss regimen, my toe kicked something under the table. A torpedo bottle!  A grand early design for a soda water bottle.  Its shape required it to remain on its side, thereby keeping the cork moist and sealing in the water’s effervescence.  Hmmm, soda water could further help dampen a zealous appetite.

Maybe it was true, Lord Byron preferred to eat alone and would fill up on such foods so as not to be hungry and eat at social gatherings.  Byron once wrote that he “found the sight of a woman eating as repulsive, unless she was eating Champagne and Lobster of course”.  The rogue!

Meanwhile Back at the Buffet…

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It was still a dark and stormy night.

With my foodie instincts on high alert, I reached the sideboard at last! What had this small group of five English free-thinking writers eaten tonight? The candles were burning low, but I was able to see what I had traveled there for.

Interesting…, it appeared that the Napoleonic wars and the cold weather caused by the eruption of Mt. Tambora had little effect on with what Lord Byron entertained his guests, with one exception. I had hoped to find Fraise du Bois, but alas, no alpine woodland strawberries to be seen.

The fierce weather outside could not distract me from a glorious cheesy smell wafting up from a plate of rather innocent looking little puff pastries. Their aroma was braver than their appearance – mummmm, no mistaking the pungent, savory smell of Gruyere cheese. The cook wisely used plenty of it in baking them. They appeared to be Petits Choux Ramecains, a particularly delicious edible in the early 19th century.

Also sharing the table were plates of Sweetmeat and Jam tartlets, sliced ham, dried apricots, candied ginger and Gateaux Madeleines. Unfortunately, several plates were emptied of what they had once held, sigh.

So despite war, cold temperatures and stormy weather, Byron was still able to be a generous host. The rather simple cold buffet offerings looked to be inspired by a French chef cooking for an English nobleman plagued with a prodigious amount of debt. Not surprising, Geneva was only recently liberated from French control and Lord Byron was an enthusiastic Napoleon groupie. His private horse carriage was custom-made to duplicate one of Napoleon’s.

I noticed an abundance of sweets and only one choice of meat offered – unusual for a typical late-night meal during this overtly carnivorous period. It may be that the chef was mindful of the guest’s proclivities – Percy Shelley had a weakness for sweets and was also a vocal vegetarian. The choice still appeared limited though, perhaps due to Byron’s avoidance of eating with his guests? He remained exceedingly fixated on the degree of rotundity of his waist.

Had Byron eaten earlier? I think I will take a peek in his private writing room next door for any indication.

The Specter That Haunts a Midnight Pillow

WP-Final-Mary-WindowIn a surreal atmosphere ripe for imagination, Lord Byron challenged his guests to each write a ghost story.

It was well past the witching hour when Mary Shelley finally placed her head upon her pillow for a night’s rest.

Storms rippled across the lake and lightning strikes illuminated her windows momentarily before plunging them back into pitchy darkness.

She could not sleep and fell into a restless state of “waking dreams”.  Sweet slumber eluded her and she was drawn instead into a vision of a hideous phantasm…