The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Features December 8, 2006

Back in Time: 1800s English Style Feasting, Dancing
Drink and Be Merry: Three gentlemen enjoying glasses of Madeira in a Cruishank engraving.

Oberlin is filled with passionate people, always taking up one project or another. While one person is busy organizing a student circus, another is teaching an ExCo on shamanic shapeshifting.

In the case of junior Aaron Walker, it is the Royal Naval Banquet, Song-Session and Ball, scheduled to take place next Friday.

“I spent my semester giving my life to it,” he said.

In a way, Walker has been preparing for this event ever since he saw a television series chronicle the life of fictional character Horatio Hornblower, an officer in the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.  The shows were based upon eleven novels written by C. S. Forester.

“If I could put a bracelet around my hand saying, ‘What Would Horatio Hornblower Do?’ and people would understand what ‘WWHHD’ meant, I would do it. I wrote my college application essay on this dude. To me, his character represents a greater civility and humanity between people,” said Walker.

Walker hopes to emulate the point in British history during which Hornblower would have lived, loosely defined as the time of the Napoleonic Wars or the Regency Period, when the British Royal Navy was the most consistently victorious navy in the world. During this time of prosperity, a rather lavish culture developed surrounding entertainment.

“I feel that in creating this event, what I’m going to do is create a really immersive environment, pulling together not only dishes, not only the appropriate dancing, not only putting costumes into it and rigmarole, but hopefully it will inspire [people],” said Walker.

Walker also hopes that the banquet will stand out from the other Oberlin parties.

“Except for Drag Ball [Oberlin parties] don’t have a consistent atmosphere that lures you in,” he said.

The event is certainly unique —Oberlin has never before been offered an experience such as the one that Walker is suggesting. He had to jump through numerous hoops in order to organize an activity where nothing could be carried over from a status quo. Starting from scratch was a lot of work.

 “I spent so much time with ResEd; I had so many trials and tribulations doing this, so frankly — if I were just doing this once, it would never at all be worth it,” he said.

There will be three parts to this grand affair. An elaborate dinner will be held, and later an English contra dance and song session will take place. The Oberlin Contra Dance Club will be in charge of the dance itself.

Walker pointed out the dances were like those seen in the film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. While it is not certain that the dances will be the precise ones performed in the Regency Period, it can be certain that music from this era will be played.

The song session will also be dated.

“Our songs may be very loud, and hopefully pester people in nearby rooms, because I love singing English songs very loudly,” said Walker, offering to demonstrate with a tune.

The setting, too, will attempt to remain true to the period.

“Imagine this being sort of an extension of a very grand admiral’s cabin, perhaps in Portsmouth,” said Walker.

The wait staff, or servants, will be dressed as sailors in the theme of the night.

For the guests, costumes will be available for rental the Thursday before the event. During the Regency Period, Britain was swept by a craze for exaggerating the English style, a trend that caught on when the French started copying the British in their fashion choices.

“This is the height of male fashion,” said Walker, describing an outfit of breeches or trousers, buckled boots, stockings, high-collared shirts with or without ruffles and silk neckties.

For female fashion, the Regency period was not quite as groundbreaking. The empire waist dress was popular then, as it has often been throughout history. However, there were slight improvements. Shawls were introduced for the first time, as well as the previously oriental paisley. Turbans even made a brief appearance as threads of exoticism wove their way into the fashion scene.

Whatever guests choose to wear, they should not come dressed as a pirate. According to Walker, during the Regency period, pirates dressed just like everyone else: the stylized Johnny Depp look did not exist.

Walker and his head cook, sophomore Benjamin Striner, have done extensive research on the menu. For dinner, Walker’s staff of Striner, first-years Douglas Winslow, Ellen Cohan, Ayelet Singer, sophomore Leah Pin and junior Emily Newhouse will serve leg of lamb in caper sauce, creamed turnips and carrots, ship’s biscuit and a variety of desserts. In the Oberlin style, there will be vegan options for everything.

In addition, a few alcoholic drinks will be served. Walker had initially hoped to serve grog, but in the end compromised with catering services to serve wine, wassail (a hot mulled cider) and negus (a period punch).

 “It will be Madeira wine, which was particularly sought after in that period. In fact, the custom was to take it twice around the horn – Cape Horn – and thus it would be fit [to drink],” said Walker.

The banquet will begin in Wilder Main, moving to Wilder 115 for the contra dance. This will allow paying guests to continue to enjoy the meal while anyone can go to the dance, which is free admission. Tickets for various portions of the event can be bought at Wilder desk.

“We’re going to create a world for people to experience,” said Walker.


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