Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Recipes and culinary advice from Lady Jekyll, D. B. E. - go up to dress for dinner, feeling that you have done your duty

I posted a recipe yesterday, a first here.  I had to consider how to write the recipe - the rhetoric of recipes.  Although I chose, in the end, a standard format, I could have written it like this:

Fry the shallots.  Sauté the mushrooms.  Sauté the onions.  Add the green beans to the onions and steam for a few minutes in a seasoned cream sauce.  Add the mushrooms and simmer for a few minutes.  Serve topped with the fried shallots.

This is fundamentally the same recipe, in a lot less space.  The fact is that the exact measures of the ingredients, in this dish, are mere suggestions, and almost all are correctable on the spot.  It’s an easy dish, prepared using standard methods and ordinary ingredients.  Or so I can say now, having prepared it many times.  For most cooks, including me, a few years ago, this recipe is utterly useless.

I have in front of me Kitchen Essays, with Recipes and Their Occasions by Lady Jekyll, D. B. E. (Dame Commander of the British Empire), a collection of her columns, “short essays in cookery,” from The Times of London, circa 1922.  Her chapter titles gives part of the flavor of the book:

“Le Mot Juste” in Food
Luncheon for a Motor Excursion in Winter
For Men Only
Food for Artists and Speakers
Food for the Punctual and the Unpunctual
For the Too Thin
For the Too Fat

A taste of the prose:

There is nothing like Work, as Mr. Bernard Shaw reminds us (or was it Play?), to make a man or woman really selfish.  But with that excellent pacificator, Home-cured Tongue, danger can be temporarily averted and appetite allayed…  Once experienced, it will be in perpetual session, “by request,” on the sideboard, and no understudies in glasses or rolled, out of tins, can supplant the genuine article. (80)

A recipe follows, a mix of specifics (“of saltpetre ¼ lb., and 1 ½ lb. black treacle”) and unspecifics (“To be smoked for 2 days in a wood-fire chimney before boiling, and steeping with abundant vegetables and herbs, a few cloves and peppercorns, garnished with home-made glaze and a little aspic-jelly”).  Aspic, that’s Lady Jekyll’s answer to everything.  An entire meal encased in aspic, yee-um.  Here is the actual end of the recipe:

The result will repay the trouble, although unfairly, for ever one sows and another reaps. (81)

Lady Jekyll assumes that the reader knows how to fill in the gaps.  Or, actually, that the reader has a hired cook.  I imagine, week after week, the lady of the house handing her Times to her cook, saying, “This, please,” Sardines à la Sackville, Chicken à la Maryland and Oatmeal Sunday Pudding (all dishes for the too thin).  The recipe for Sardines à la Sackville begins “Make a nice purée of potato a little moister than the ordinary mashed preparation” (187).  She inserts the word “nice” into any number of recipes, and who would argue with her.  You prefer a potato purée that is not nice?

I do not need to imagine that hired help.  Chapter II is titled “In the Cook’s Absence.”  It ends:

Leaving these instructions before your kitchen-maid’s eyes, the sound of your stimulating words of hope and faith in her ears, you will be able, as hitherto, to transfer most of the burden on to her shoulders, and go up to dress for dinner, feeling that you have done your duty; but, as Mrs. Wharton told us in a recent admirable novel, “the worst of doing one’s duty is that it unfits us often for doing anything else.” (31)

Speaking of which, I thought I was taking the week off.  I am, I am, starting now.


  1. Food for the Punctual and the Unpunctual

    What, no Pudding for the Pious?

    Have you checked out any of Quid Plura's adventures in medieval recipe-following? Rather interesting, this history of recipes business.

    Have a great Thanksgiving!!!

  2. I'm not sure how pious Lady Jekyll is.

    I have seen some of the Quid Plura adventures in medieval cuisine. Medieval recipes are often similarly compact.

    Yes, Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. You've got to love anachronistic recipe books. I remember being traumatised by a recipe for turtle soup in my grandmother's Mrs Beeton's which began with buying the turtle. It instructed you to choose a turtle with agile flippers and a fine mobile head (to eat - not keep as an adorable pet, please note.) Then you had to keep it in a dark box for two two weeks hand-feeding it nothing but bread. And after a fortnight of presumably not bonding with it, you of course slaughtered it for the supper table. (Or perhaps this was the maid servant's job...)

  4. No, Mrs. Beeton was not going to kill that turtle! She doesn't just assume a maid - she assumes a staff. Her book is nominally about how to run a household, but that household is a lot like a small business.

    The agile flippers and mobile head are wonderful details, but useful. You don't want to buy a sick turtle!

  5. Thank you for correcting my mistake over at Books I Done Read before taking off! (As I said over there, I need to use the Johnny Depp movie to keep those two straight!)

  6. I should see that Johnny Depp movie. He is obviously a good fit for the part.

  7. Fantastic recipe post! I like that Lady Jekyll, she sounds like a woman who makes sure other people get things done :-)

  8. Willa, I do believe you are correct. I strongly recommend this book, by the way, to anyone interested in material for their book blog. Just page through it, and something odd and hilarious will pop out.