The King's Meal
A popularizing historian cooks up the past
by Lauren Collins, November 21, 2011
ABSTRACT: PROFILE of British historian Lucy Worsley. In the name of history, Lucy Worsley has spent the night in a Tudor rope bed, forsworn showers for a week, and toiled as a sixteenth-century laundress. Worsley is the chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the nonprofit organization that runs the Tower of London, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Kew Palace, and the Banqueting House at Whitehall. She is the author of three books, the latest of which, “If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home” (it comes out in the U.S. next year), accompanied a four-part BBC television series of the same name. In a land of ponderous dons, Dr. Lucy, a thirty-seven-year-old bluestocking with a barrette, has caused a sensation. For one episode, Worsley, who seemed to be wearing nothing but a marcel wave, reenacted an Art Deco-era bubble bath. Worsley was born in Reading in 1973. She went to Oxford and got a Ph.D. in art history at the University of Sussex, working her way up on the stately-homes circuit before landing the Historic Royal Palaces position, in 2003. She is often described as being very “jolly hockey sticks,” which is an English way of saying that she’s enthusiastic, perhaps overly so. She’s also a disciple of experimental archeology, which uses artifacts to channel the physical experience of everyday life in another era. Food and drink are perhaps the most effective of her tools for revivifying the past. This fall’s events at Historic Royal Palaces included “To the Queen’s Taste” and a “Historic Cheese Tasting Session.” At Kew Palace, Worsley and a team of more than a dozen curators and other employees are restoring a set of Georgian kitchens that have remained untouched since 1818. Worsley’s detractors accuse her of practicing History Lite, in which anecdote triumphs over evidence. At times, her reliance on sex and scatology to enliven history verges on shtick. Worsley, for her part, is more than happy to play the ham. On a recent Saturday, she and the writer and a few others attempted to whip up the dinner that King George III ate on the evening of February 6, 1789. Marc Meltonville, the co-head of the Historic Kitchens team at Historic Royal Palaces, was in the former buttery at Hampton Court Palace. Near the stove was a sheaf of Xeroxes from the 1725 edition of “Court Cookery; or, the Compleat English Cook.” “What we’re having to do,” Meltonville said, “is retrofit a meal. We have the menu but no recipes.” He melted some butter in a copper saucepan and dumped in a pint of good gravy he had made the previous night. Downstairs, a leg of mutton was roasting in front of Henry VIII’s great fireplace. The meal took place in Worsley’s office, which overlooks the Chapel Court. The barley soup looked like bilge, but it was delicious: fallish, with a farmyard undertone and none of the virtuousness that normally accompanies recipes involving pulses. The spinach had the nutmeggy warmth of a pie. The mutton tasted like a normal roast, except that it was cooked more uniformly.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley