What is this?!

Table setting riddle, Smithson Riddle Book. Photo: Kat Despain

Smithson, Eliza. Smithson Riddle Book. Manuscript: Cookbook. Doncaster, England: 1790-1840. From McGill University Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, http://mcgill.worldcat.org/oclc/1062569371.

Look closely at this page from an 1804 British manuscript and you might notice the diagram for a table setting. Do the labels reveal what diners might have enjoyed for dinner at a 19th-century mansion? Well, yes and no. While it shows what will be on the table and where, the names of the dishes themselves are only given as riddles. A Baronet? (Sir Loin!)

This single page was our first clue that such a puzzling pastime existed. It is mentioned neither by food scholars nor social historians.

And so, our hunt began, and turned into The Riddle Project.

Such disguised dishes appeared on what were known as “Enigmatic Bills of Fare,” puzzling menus for the pleasure of diners in 18th and 19th century Britain.

These menus are still puzzling today, and not only for obvious reasons. What was the purpose of these soirées? Were diners expected to identify solutions before receiving their supper? Or were such Bills of Fare written mementos of a fine dining experience that included stimulating company and conversation?

To answer these questions, we first had to find more examples. To date we have found dozens of Enigmatic Bills of Fare from North America and the UK containing hundreds of unique riddles.

We are now looking for solutions sets. To do this and provide reading pleasure we have made riddles from our menus accessible online. Find out more here, and please send any ideas about solutions to @McGillLib,  @McGill_ROAAr or email Nathalie [dot] cooke [at] mcgill.ca.

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