An important figure in food history and food writing is Lieut.-Col. Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, active at the end of the 1800s and until the First World War. He was an acknowledged influence on Elizabeth David, the greatest food writer of our time and probably any other.
As a restaurant reviewer and author of books on food and travel he was a progenitor of today’s Rachel Rays, Anthony Bourdains, Jaime Olivers, etc. That he could write circles around any of them is less relevant now given how culinary interest is conveyed today primarily in visual form.
At the same time his ability with the pen – his humour, great knowledge, and affable spirit – makes the work attractive and one of the reasons it still attracts attention.
This soldier-writer joined an elite infantry regiment after his education. He was a gastronome-in-training on the long years in garrison in India and elsewhere. Upon retirement at 40 he alighted in London as a (never-married) man-about-town, blasé as he called himself with exaggeration.
He opened a cookery school for the West End bon ton.
He also wrote novels, plays, and the books for stage and ballet productions. He knew his way around literary and bohemian London while bringing an upper-crust, post-Harrow sensibility to it all.
I don’t know if he knew Oscar Wilde, or William Morris, but is the type of figure for whom such associations would have been natural.
In his first book, published at turn of the century and later reissued in new editions, he reviewed numerous London restaurants of different types.
This essay reviews a Jewish restaurant, Goldstein’s. It is the type of restaurant I discussed earlier that was at one time common in Western cities: the home-style restaurant vs. the delicatessen. Extracts of the menu (via Hathitrust, here) and the Colonel’s opinions appear above.
He was impressed with the meal almost to a dish, and I was struck too by the respectful tone toward Jewish customs and rites. Too often in 19th century writing and well into the 20th century for that matter, general writers (American, English, European, etc.) disclosed prejudice, casual or worse, when writing about Jews or Jewish customs.
It was hard-edged in some cases, George Sala is an example, and makes their work hard-going.
Often, such writers were equally derisive of people of African or other non-WASP background. The Irish too came in for their share of abuse on this account.
Newnham-Davis appears completely free of any such animus, and is notable for that reason alone. True, his meal was hosted, but that doesn’t account for the open nature of his essay: I think he was just like that. Perhaps his experience in artistic and bohemian circles inclined him to a greater toleration than the average writer showed then.
Eliza Acton, another Victorian food writer of great influence on Elizabeth David, writing earlier than Newnham-Davis, showed a similar toleration and interest in Jewish cookery and ritual customs. It is unlikely Newnham-Davis was unfamiliar with her work.
The Colonel’s essay on the Cheshire Cheese tavern is very good too, it’s in the same volume. He drank beer there (bitter ale) but the account is mostly of the atmosphere, food, and people he encountered.
The book in toto is much more than a curio: it is a direct link to our modern food culture. Food studies are aware of his importance, as testified for example by Andrea Broomfield’s article Soldier of the Fork published in the journal Gastronomica a few years ago, see here.*
She focuses on his conscious, successful attempt to bring the culture of eating out to the prosperous middle and upper classes who lacked experience due to the fast-disappearing cozy domesticity of Victorian social life.
Most of the dishes on the Goldstein menu are familiar to any who know Jewish eating of European (Ashkenazi) origin. He was also served examples of its deli kitchen, including what appears to be something similar to Montreal smoked meat or New York pastrami.
The Colonel protested against the plenty on the table – too much for one dinner – but he got through many similar long meals at their Edwardian height of fashion. Did it contribute to his relatively early demise? Hard to say. He died in his mid-60s during a late new stint in the army, he was put in charge of a keep for German POWs.
*See in the comments where I link a pdf of Prof. Broomfield’s full article courtesy her website which makes it available among other of her writings.