This is one of those historical English oddities that is just begging to be shared. Life is filled with random celebrations, but for Samuel Pepys, one annual meal was held for a reason that most of us might find a little… unusual.
Samuel Pepys is known for the private diaries that he kept during the 1660s. Incredibly detailed, they provide a fascinating glimpse of 17th century London. Among the events witnessed and recorded by Pepys were the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague, and the Second Dutch War. He also recorded much of his daily life, which is how we know that he was quite a food lover. Some meals were discussed at length, both in terms of content and his enjoyment, or lack thereof.
We can read about his diarrhoea, ulcers, and various other health complaints over the course of the decade that he kept his diary. But there was one event worth remembering. On March 26, 1658, Pepys underwent surgery to remove a bladder stone. As far as we can tell, he had suffered from stones from an early age, and it seems to have run in the family. But this bladder stone was particularly painful, enough so to require surgery in an era when surgery was still less than sanitary. Sparing you the gory details, let’s just say he underwent surgery without any anaesthetic or antiseptic. Not even anything to dull the pain. And the incision…if you must, click here. The stone was reportedly the size of a billiard ball. He kept it as a paperweight.
Pepys made a remarkably speedy recovery from the operation, considering the circumstances. The would never completely healed but this was a small price to pay for the loss of the painful stone and surviving the surgery.
Hence the feast.
This day it is two years since it pleased God that I was cut of the stone at Mrs. Turner’s in Salisbury Court. And did resolve while I live to keep it a festival, as I did the last year at my house, and for ever to have Mrs. Turner and her company with me. (1660)
Every year, on the anniversary of the operation or not long after, Pepys would hold a celebratory dinner. The feast for 1662 is described thus:
I had a pretty dinner for them. A brace of stewed carps, six roasted chickens, and a jowl of salmon, hot, for the first course; a tanzy and two neats’ tongues, and cheese the second; and were very merry all the afternoon, talking and singing and piping upon the flageolet.
The following year he wrote:
This day is five years since it pleased God to preserve me at my being cut of the stone, of which I bless God I am in all respects well. Only now and then upon taking cold I have some pain, but otherwise in very good health always. (1663)
The feast for 1663 included rabbit, chicken, mutton, carp, lamb, pigeon, lobster, lamprey, anchovies, and much wine.
Since he only kept his diary for a few years, we do not know how long he continued this tradition, but it is possible he kept it going until his death in 1703.
A more detailed look at Pepys’ stone feasts is available at Food History Jottings, the blog of food historian Ivan Day.