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The Last Foodtaster in History? March 11, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval , trackback

 

Beachcombing has long thought that food tasting must have been among the very cushiest jobs to have had in the Middle Ages.

Why?

(i) No one is going to be stupid enough to kill a monarch or a duke by poisoning their food if they know there’s a taster around. You are safe. Beachcombing doubts there’s one example from history of a foodtaster dying of poisoning. Then if the food has gone off you are, in any case, only eating a little.

(ii) In just eating small amounts you are reserving your palate for the pyrotechnics of each separate dish. After all, how much does the diner actually ‘taste’ after the third mouthful? Certainly, when Beachcombing thinks of delicious meals he thinks of the first couple of bites.

(iii) Imagine the conversations you get to hear from the high table just over your shoulder where the Khan’s ambassador, a transvestite knight, and a unicorn salesman are all chatting to your boss – and what’s even better you are not part of any awkward silences, you just get to enjoy them…

(iv) The hours. Breakfast, lunch, evening meal… The rest of the day you can walk around the castle, annoy the monastic librarian asking after lost classics or just slum it in the marketplace spending your capital as His personal taster.

But this excellent profession has, of course, long since vanished, disappearing along with the Dukes and Kings that used to sustain it. Hell, the Chinese didn’t even have the decency to employ humans at the last Olympic games using mice tasters to assure that the athletes’ food was up to scratch. In a spirit then of antiquarianism – and partly inspired by an excellent meal he had today – Beachcombing has been dedicating the last couple of hours to the quest for the last salvor in history.

He thought that he had got lucky when he dug up a reference to the mad and bad Ceausescus bringing a food taster with them on their state visit to Buckingham Palace in 1978. After all, ‘the lay God, the heart of the Party and the Romanian nation, the heir of Caesar, Alexander the Great and Napoleon’ could hardly risk his health with a perfidious aristocrat in the room. Interestingly, Ceausecsu also insisted on bringing his own linen so terrified was he of being poisoned: it seems to have been a fixation with the Romanian tyrant.  The British to their eternal (though all too characteristic) shame made the bastard a knight.  Beachcombing wonders (rhetorically) what he would have done if he had had a sword in his hand and Nicolae on his knees before him.

However, Beach has come across rumours of other tasters elsewhere. It transpires – and here Beachcombing’s source is not all that he would like – that the taster of the Royal Japanese Family was only retired in 1989. Can anyone fill in the gaps here or come up with later food tasters? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Just possibly there are some still operating today in the Gulf or equatorial regions?

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11 March 2011: As soon as he wrote it Beachcombing felt that he would regret his crack about the Gulf or Equatorial Climes. And, in fact, Ostrich has emailed in with the news that the American President has a taster. Beachcombing quotes, thanks to Ostrich, from the ultra reliable Straight Dope. ‘According to a Washington Post article from July 1990, George H.W. Bush ate out at Washington restaurants a lot by presidential standards, about once a month, and when he did he brought along his own condiments, bottled water, and a taster. On at least one occasion the taster was seen to personally wash all of George and Barbara’s tableware before use and subsequently monitor its whereabouts, sample the food, supervise its service, and uncork and taste the first couple’s wine. Reports from early in Bill Clinton’s first term suggest inconsistent taster use: a March ‘93 Post account of an impromptu dinner with the Gores at a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, has a trio of Secret Service agents scrutinizing the preparation of Clinton’s food but not actually trying any. But an ‘official’ food taster (described as a ‘veteran of three presidencies’) turns up in a local paper’s feature on a Clinton get-together with Silicon Valley types in Los Gatos, California, a month earlier. And lest you think tasters are deployed only when the president ventures off government turf, a detachment of navy culinary specialists did the tasting (per the New York Times) at a congressional lunch held at the Capitol during George W. Bush’s inaugural festivities in 2001. One presumes security has gotten tighter since (a) the 9/11 attacks and (b) the descent of W’s approval ratings to depths previously plumbed only by hostage-crisis Jimmy Carter and athlete’s foot.’ Thanks Ostrich and fraternal salutations to the Straight Dope!