2nd October

Scottish Dietary Prejudices

after Sir John Lauder and John Kay’s Original Portraits

Sir John Lauder, on his travels in France in the 1660s, was not a little amazed to see his hosts one day preparing among other things for the daily meal ‘upright puddock stools’, which they called potirons or champignons. They rose overnight, he noted, and grew in ‘humid, moisty places’ as in Scotland. The French fried them in a pan with butter, vinegar, salt and spice, and ate them greedily, surprised that he did not eat as heartily of them as they did. ‘But my prejudice hindered me,’ Lauder rather ruefully admitted.

More than a century later, Dr Joseph Black and his friend Dr James Hutton, in the service of free and objective inquiry, set out to overturn a similarly narrow dietary prejudice. It was surely inconsistent, they argued, to abstain from the consumption of hard-shelled creatures of the land, while those of the sea were considered delicacies. If oysters, why not snails, for instance? Snails were known to be nutritious, wholesome and even to have healing properties. The Italians, like the epicures of antiquity, held them in high esteem. The two philosophers resolved to expose the absurd objections of their countrymen to the eating of snails.

Having procured a quantity, they caused them to be stewed for dinner. No guests were invited to the banquet. The snails were served – but theory and practice were found to be separated by a great gulf. Far from exciting their appetites, the smoking dish had diametrically the opposite effect, and neither party felt much inclination to partake of it. Disgusted though they both were by the snails, however, each retained his awe for the other; and so began with infinite exertion to swallow, in very small quantities, the mess that was prompting involuntary internal symptoms of revolt.

Dr Black at length delicately broke the ice, as if to sound the opinion of his companion.

‘Doctor,’ he said, in his precise and quiet manner, ‘Doctor, do you not think that they taste a little – a very little queer?’

‘Damned queer! Damned queer, indeed!’ Dr Hutton at once responded. ‘Tak them awa, tak them awa!’ And, starting up from the table, he gave full vent to his feelings of abhorrence.

Reader: Tam Dean Burn
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
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