Nothing brings people together like pie. The Kit-Cat club took its name from the mutton pies, called Kit-Cats, baked by innkeeper Christopher Catt, that were permanently on the group’s menu. Pies were washed down with drinks accompanied by toasts made to the most charming and beautiful ladies of the time. In time-honored tradition, conversation turned from ladies to other topics of interest for the aristocracy of the times. This often included art, literature, religion, and politics. While political discussion today is a conversational land mine, such discussion by the Kit-Cat club led to discussions of liberty, religious nonconformity, and helped shape the political structure of the Whig party, impacting British politics for over one hundred years. Not bad for a slice of mutton pie.
Members of the Calves Head Club let their hatred of King Charles I get wildly out of hand. The Calves-Head club notoriously sparked a riot by reportedly dressing up calves heads to resemble the recently executed monarch and other royalists (this is denied by members, post-riot). They lit a bonfire outside their clubhouse and allegedly tossed the heads into the fire to insult the recently executed King, infuriating people passing by. As drunken bonfires often do, this party descended into chaos after words were exchanged. The passers-by turned into a mob, who broke the windows and smashed up the inside of the clubhouse, ending the boisterous royal opposition of the Calves-Head Club.
Founded in 1718, the Hellfire Club (also known as the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe) existed to push the boundaries of proper society and make fun of the religious beliefs and social rules of the time. The motto of the group was Fais ce que tu voudras, or “Do what thou wilt.” Members dressed in mock monk costumes, would have relations with willing female guests of members who dressed in mock nun costumes, and feast on such delicacies as Holy Ghost Pie and Devil’s Loin. At one point, members kept a baboon dressed as a devil to entertain its guests. Political and public figures could find their reputations and careers destroyed by mere rumors of Hellfire Club membership.
Farts have always been funny, and the Farting Club structured a whole menu to facilitate this comedic purpose. At the height of their existence, author Edward Ward documented the menu that assisted the Farting Club in its primary mission of producing the loudest, most noxious flatulence. “[T]hey used to diet themselves against their Club-Nights with Cabbage, Onions, and Pease-Porridge.” This was supplemented with laxatives and washed down with juniper water and ale, ensuring the members turned into a literal gas bag. Once that horrific brew started to do their job, members were to stay in the room while a judge would determine the best fart of the evening, and woe to the member who had a “Brewer’s Miscarriage” and had to explain the brown stain in his breeches.
The Surly Club was a merry bunch of fellows who met once a week to “teach and perfect one another in the Art and Mystery of foul language.” Potential members were tested by how ill tempered and rude they could be. Members were expected to interrupt each other, talk back in the crudest way possible, insult, cajole, brag about their money or job, and be as nasty as they could be to mock any ceremony the group may try to conduct. Those who were caught doing something so rebellious as using manners or kind language were heaped with abuse and banned from the club.
The Beefsteak Club (1735-1867, revived 1966 to present day)
While there are several versions of how the Sublime Society of the Beefsteaks (commonly called “The Beefsteak Club”) was founded, the goal of the club was clear: Eat steak. Each week members ate a meal of steak, onions, and baked potatoes, washed down with a cup of porter, followed by toasted cheese. Members took an oath proclaiming, “So beef and liberty be my reward!” and donned blue coats and a waistcoat with shining brass buttons that proudly proclaimed “Beef and Liberty.” Members who became unruly they be bundled in a white sheet and taken from the room followed by another member carrying the official society sword. He would then be “brought back in the garb of penitence” (a.k.a. a table cloth).
On its surface, the Society of Dilettanti was founded around an interest in classical art. Qualification was simple. To be considered, one must simply have been to Italy and Greece, be a “young [man] of rank and fashion,” and possess an interest in the classical Italian artworks. But underneath its respectable surface, seems to have been similar to any college house party: an opportunity to get together and get drunk. The Society of Dilettanti is still active, although it is more focused on its charitable works and public service than on seeing ol’ Nigel fall-down drunk trying to copy the poses of Roman statuary.
For some good old fashioned family neglect, one could join the Everlasting Club, a drinking club that never closed its doors. Members divided the day into shifts, so there was always someone attending the clubhouse, day and night, three hundred sixty five days a year. This would ensure members would always find a friend at the club no matter when they stopped by for a pint. If someone missed their shift, the poor bastard on duty had to stay at their post until the next person came to relieve them. During the Great Fire of London, the attending member stayed at his post until the neighboring house was demolished to serve as a fire break. Even then, legend has it, he made sure the bottles were emptied and other Everlasting Club members directed him to leave.
Some people consider looking at other people’s travel pictures a torture. Some, like John Montague and Francis Dashwood (who was also leading the Dilettanti Society) loved talking about the Ottoman Empire so much they created a society dedicated to tales of travel, The Divan Club was only open to men who had traveled to the Ottoman Empire, or who intended to make the journey. They dressed in Ottoman-style clothing and met over dinner to talk about the culture and art of the region until they disbanded in the mid 1700s. Although the Divan Club was short lived, Dashwood wasn’t done with dining societies yet – he would go on to found the 1746 version of the Hellfire Club.
The Golden Fleece club was primarily comprised of merchants and tradesmen with the primary goal of drinking away a tough day at work full of wheeling and dealing at clubs. Also “that they might sleep without repentance, and rist the next day with a strong propensity to the same practices.” They took particular delight in names they gave members to match their characteristics, such as Sir Rumbus Rattle, Sir Talkative Do-little, Sir Nimmy Sneer, Sir Sipall Paylittle, and Sir Nicholas Ninny Sip-all (Timbs, pg. 173). The club seems to have drunk their days away until the fraternity became “dull,” and “fell into the dumps.” Party’s over, Sir Boozy Prate-all!
The Little Club, according to historian John TImbs, celebrated large personalities in small-statured bodies (pg. 177). Invitations were sent only to those five feet and under, those accustomed to not having their feet touch the ground in chairs, to having tabletops uncomfortably high, and having to use stools to reach shelves and cabinets. To accommodate members who met this qualification, they removed all the furnishings built for average height, replacing them with furnishings that fit their smaller stature. Even the door was made lower in a deliberate effort to make entering the room an uncomfortable experience for anyone taller than five feet. Anyone who bumped their head on the five-foot doorframe was considered unqualified to join the Club.
Some things never change. College guys form clubs, talk sports, drink too much, and smash up every window in their college quad. Granted, not all of these clubs were as destructive under the guise of being a respectable cricket club as the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. As the Wisden Cricketer (2010) said about the Bullingdon Club, it “actually used cricket merely as a respectable front for the mischievous, destructive or self-indulgent tendencies of its members.” In 1894, they were accused of breaking lights, doors, around the Peckerwater Quad at Christ church, and as an finale, smashed 468 windows around the quad. This feat was repeated in 1927, after which they were no longer allowed to meet anywhere around Oxford University.
Oxford University has a long history of dining and social clubs to cater to the wealthy and elite. The Phoenix Club gave these members an opportunity to show off their alcohol tolerance. Historian, Evelyn Lord noted that dining was the stated purpose, with each member expected to host a dinner. But the Phoenix Club were better known for their ability to consume massive amounts of alcohol. Lord notes that members were not permitted to take “more than two dozen bottles of sherry or port from the cellar per week.” (pg. 70). This stunning amount of booze led to rounds of complaints about noise coming from the club’s meeting places, and may have led to more than one death from club membership.
The English tradition of dining clubs was carried over to the Canadian territories in the 1700s, but with a very Canadian twist. To celebrate the emergence of the fur trade in the Northwest territories, members of the Beaver Club were dedicated to consuming only meat they acquired in the Canadian territories. This of course, was venison, quail, bear, buffalo, and fruits, vegetables, and grains. Members dressed in their finest, and wore a large gold medal with “Fortitude in Distress” on a blue ribbon around their neck. But the best part of the meal were the after-dinner fun, where members would sit on the floor and pretending to paddle a canoe as they loudly (and drunkenly, as one story has the group drinking 120 bottles of wine) told stories of great voyages.
The Roxburghe Club was dedicated to reprinting ancient literature, but author John Timbs (pg 187-193) questions whether this focus was shoved aside for more immediate pleasures, “It may, however, be questioned whether “the dinner” of the Club were not more important than the literature.” A club menu featured in Timb’s book shows a glutton’s dream variety. It included turtle cuts, chicken, ham, haddock, lamb, tongue, whitings, quail, prawns, and various tarts and puddings. With those mouth-watering menus comes progressively larger dinner and drink bills, despite decreasing member numbers. The memoirs of member Joseph Haselwood reprimand the other members for their gluttony. He said, “Your cits are the only men for a feast; and therefore, behold us, like locusts, travelling to devour the good things of the land, eastward oh!”
Before Charles Darwin traveled to the Galapagos Islands and became a controversial figure for his theory of evolution, he developed a reputation for adventure as a member of Cambridge University’s Glutton Club, students who literally ate their research.They were infamous for seeking out “birds and beasts which were before unknown to human palate.” His experience at the Glutton Club led to Darwin’s later taste-testing of other exotic meats such as Puma, iguana, armadillos, giant tortoise (and tried to drink their urine, but said it was “limpid,”, and had only a very slightly bitter taste”), the ostrich-like lesser rhea, and a rodent believed to be an agouti, meat Darwin declared as “the best I ever tasted.”
London’s Acclimatisation Society believed in biodiversity – even if it was forced. The club were firm believers that animals and plants could be introduced and adapt to any climate over time. Furthermore, they believed it could even enhance the native species. They completely ignored the fact that these species took several thousands of years to adapt to their original climate. In the London chapter, biodiversity wasn’t the only thing on the menu, dining experiences at the club included many of the species the group sought to acclimatize, reportedly including African eland (antelope) and American partridges.
Let’s clear the air, here: The Cannibal Club did not consume human meat. It’s not one of those clubs, thank goodness. Its official symbol is a mace carved to look like a man chewing on a human thigh bone (in the most racist way we can imagine in modern times). But the club was more interested in the practice of cannibalism. Luckily, none of the members were known to have actually partaken in this taboo. Yet even the club’s interest in cannibalism is questionable. Dane Kennedy’s biography of its founder, Sir Richard Francis Burton, makes the Cannibal Club sound more like a bunch of guys getting together to talk about things like ethnicity, sexuality, and other areas where they held opinions that would shock ‘polite’ society.
Even the most dedicated scientists need to step out of the lab. Ya know, get out and drink with their buddies and talk shop at the clubs. The X Club gave some of the most dedicated scientific minds of the time a chance to discuss their research and findings over dinner, focusing on the outcomes of their research rather than trying to integrate religious principles into their findings. The X-Club’s name even followed the scientific principle of change and advancement. As founding member Herbert Spencer noted, “it committed to nothing.” The X-Club were strong proponents of science over religion during a time when it was very much not okay to separate the two. There was only one rule for the X Club: There are no rules. Anyone suggesting that the club even keep minutes would be shot down, as that violated the only rule.
Ichthyophagous Club: (New York, 1880 – 1887): Extreme Seafood
Many people like a good cut of salmon or a chilled oyster on the half shell. The Ichthyophagous Club took aquatic eating much farther. Their goal was simple. Eat as many unusual marine creatures as possible to prove that there were many undiscovered species fit for human consumption. They would serve punch and a plate of fish that would test even modern diners. Some fare was considered strange at the time but are on many modern menus. The clubs would serve mussels, salmon, and lobster, which many of us know and love today. But some of the group’s menu items never made it on to the modern palate such as starfish, porpoise steak, and periwinkles.
New York’s Thirteen Club feared no superstition. Members walked into the dining room under a ladder. They hosted dinners seated at thirteen tables, with exactly thirteen items on the menu. They ate cakes decorated with black cats and had a jolly time smashing mirrors, spilling salt, and undermining superstitions. Their love of thirteen led to efforts to remove the stigma of the number. Members would write to judges to request prisoners not be hung on the thirteenth of the month. And they sat at Table 13 at restaurants and other clubs.
New York’s Explorers Club is sounds like one of those clubs that focus on just travel. But they ended up with an intense reputation. It was dedicated to scientific exploration and multidisciplinary research. It is most notorious for their 47th Annual Banquet in 1951 than the actual activities of the club. They famously consumed flesh of a wooly mammoth, a 250,000 year old beast discovered in an Alaskan glacier. But the reality is slightly less jaw-dropping. Yale University scientists found, based on a sample of the leftover meat from that dinner, that guests were actually consuming green sea turtle. As one of the Yale researchers said, “To me, this was a joke that no one got. It’s like a Halloween party where you put your hand in spaghetti, but they tell you it’s brains. In this case, everyone believed it.”
Where did we find this stuff? Here Are Our Sources: