This month, we're taking a look at the important role food has played at the Inn throughout its history. Concerns over its supply, quality and cost have arisen time and again over the centuries, occupying the attention of barristers, Benchers and staff, and dinners have of course marked some of the Inn's most important occasions. Dining has for a long time formed a key element of the Inn's educational programme - keeping 'commons' was for a long time a crucial qualification for a student's Call to the Bar, and the Inn's fine food is still shared and enjoyed at many qualifying sessions.
The age-old office of Reader has always been associated with dining on a grand scale. As well as lecturing Middle Templars on matters of statute law, the Reader was also required to lay on the accompanying feasts at his personal expense. As the Inn grew in size, this became such a burden that Readers began to pay a fine of £200 in order to dispense with the whole matter. On the Reader's 'venison day', certain servants and officers were entitled to venison pasties, but this became a cause of considerable confusion in 1756. Such were the 'disputes and quarrels' over which among them were entitled to ten pasties that the Officers of the Inn submitted a petition to the Bench, explaining the confusion, noting that among other issues 'the wash pot thinks he has a Right to have the third Pastie' and that 'on the last Venison day we had not sufficient at the Buttery Table for our dinners'.
Petition of various Servants for the matter of the pasties to be settled, 1756
In 1761, the Reader’s Feast illustrated well the divide between those dining at the bench Table and those dining ‘Below the Bench’. The Cook’s proposed dinner saw Westmorland Hams, chickens, puddings, soup, jellies and fish being ordered in considerable quantities for the Bench, while those below were provided simply with ham, ‘fowles’, orange puddings, greens, carrots and turnips.
Cook’s proposed Dinner for Readers’ Feast, Lent 1761
The Inn's Parliament has long been well catered for. The Archive holds bills for Parliament Suppers, which list gurnard, pippins, sugar and spice, artichokes, sole, capons, buttered eggs, breast of mutton and strong beer among the refreshments enjoyed at these events.
Parliament Supper Bill, Hilary Term 1618
As early as the 17th century, food was causing controversy at the Inn. June’s Archive of the Month looked at Charles I’s 1631 complaint about the eating of meat during Lent, and in the same decade a committee was appointed by Parliament to investigate the high cost of Commons at the Inn. They produced a report laying out a seventeen-point conclusion, which included advised requirements concerning the delivery of beef by weight, ensuring the beer was tilted when being poured, and that eight eggs between four men be served on a Saturday night, at one half-penny apiece.
Front page of the report of the Committee on Commons, 1636
In the late 18th century, one William Fidoe served as Chief Cook for a number of years, and many of his records survive. His scheme for Commons for a year paints a vivid and detailed picture of how the regular members dined at the Inn. For example, Fridays in Michaelmas Term featured ‘Oysters Fresh Fish, proper Sauce, Loin of Mutton pickles & Horse Radish’, on a Tuesday in Easter term, ‘Neck of Veal, One hundred Asparagus’ would be served, and on Saturdays in Trinity Term the gentlemen could look forward to ‘Leg of Lamb & Collyflower, Strawberrys & Cream’.