Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Mrs. Ramsay and the bay leaf - peering into the dish in To the Lighthouse

This is a piece about how readers change.  And about food.

The long dinner chapter of To the Lighthouse (1928), Chapter XVII of “The Window,” what a masterpiece.  It does so much.  Here is a taste.

… and an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off.  The cook had spent three days over that dish.  And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes.  And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought. (100)

Mrs. Ramsay thinks of celebration but also death, that love “bear[s] in its bosom the seeds of death.”  Then the outside intrudes on her and the dinner guests praise the dish, a boeuf en daube, and mock English cooking as “an abomination (they agreed).”  I have to say, I ate so well in London, the English food included.  No doubt circa 1910, the time of the novel, things were not so good.

The stew is first mentioned about twenty pages earlier, in Ch. XVI.  Mrs. Ramsay is nervous about her big dinner:

… and they were having Mildred’s masterpiece – Boeuf en Daube.  Everything depended upon things being served up to the precise moment they were ready.  The beef, the bay leaf, and the wine – all must be done to a turn.  To keep it waiting was out of the question… things had to be kept hot; the Boeuf en Daube would be entirely spoilt.  (80)

When I last read To the Lighthouse, maybe twenty-five years ago, I suppose I nodded along, sympathizing with Mrs. Ramsay’s anxiety.  This time, though – do you cook? – you saw it, right?  “The bay leaf must be done to a turn”?  The bay leaf!

Boeuf en daube is beef stewed in wine, and is not a difficult dish.  It is classic Provence country cooking, not imperial cuisine.  I can make a daube – come over some time.  One good way to agitate bookish Twitter is to say a book is or is not “difficult,” because the word can mean different things.  In fact, daube is difficult in three ways – let’s use a recipe attributed to Julia Child:

1. The list of ingredients is long.  Nothing exotic, but many pieces.

2.  The preparation ideally takes, as the cook has told Mrs. Ramsay, three days, which requires planning.  One day of marinating, one day of checking the stewpot, one day of just sitting there until reheated.  The amount of work by the cook is, mostly, minimal, although see below.  I am assuming the Ramsay vacation house has a stove.

3.  At one point, you have to make a basic roux, and you could burn that.  I mean, I could.  Pay attention!

Otherwise, this is a forgiving and flexible dish.  It will not be “entirely spoilt,” nor spoilt at all, if reheated.  The meat was actually “done to a turn” the day before the dinner.

As for the bay leaf, and for that matter the wine and many other ingredients, you just toss them in your Dutch oven, or your daubière if you have one, and put it in the oven.

Mrs. Ramsay does not understand what her cook has told her.  Apparently, at some point in the past, there was some fuss over bay leaves.  Perhaps the cook insisted that she could not make a certain dish because there were no bay leaves, and now Mrs. Ramsay fixates on them.  “Done to a turn” may be the cook’s phrase, too.

Now, having said this, the logistics of getting the food to the table at the right temperature for a dinner of twelve or more is a challenge.  Then there is the question of the stove.  A cook at the time often functioned more like a naval engineer, keeping a complex and temperamental machine operating at a consistent temperature.  Too bad Kipling never wrote a story about this, a great cook and the things she can make her Victorian stove do.  Keeping dishes hot required real skill.  We have it easy, now.

I wonder if I had any idea what boeuf en daube was when I first read this novel.  Now that I know, and even know how to make it myself, an entire extra little dimension of the story unfolds.

So this is one way we change as readers.  We learn things.


  1. In learning how to cook, I started to appreciate these topics showing up in my readings and the extra dimension that unfolded since I could understand what is involved. I could take the detail a lot less for granted, and realized how important such granularity can be.

    Even more for me more as a reader is the experience of hosting a dinner party like this. This is something I can look back on where the watery images of time fades away regarding the details of pulling it all together, but can remember the joy or sharing a meal with friends and family.
    I guess it's another way of saying the "extra little dimensions" cover more than the details of the meal, and cover the meal itself. This has become one of my favorite passages because of just those reasons.

  2. It's a great, great scene. A landmark. I have to say, I remember some dramatic instances of putting it all together! And I was making that dinner. Mrs. Ramsay's job is to manage the staff.

    I have always been attentive to food in literature, because I am a glutton. But it helps to actually know something about the subject, too.

  3. I have a fuzzy memory of this dish (book). This was at a time when I gobbled books down so fast. No speed tasting for me, now, but to linger longer on every page. Time passes. A reader's palate becomes more appreciative of the fine details, I suppose. All I remember is that the book was ruthlessly detail-driven. And plain ruthless.

  4. I've also been attentive to food in literature, and I think you're right that she is repeating things the cook has told her. As someone who learned to cook long after I'd been reading about cooking for years, I still think about all the cakes that "fall" because a child jumped anywhere near the oven and about the roasted meat dishes that got "dried out" because they cooked too long while waiting for someone to arrive.

  5. Mrs. Ramsay like a great conductor, orchestrating the lives of all around her, keeping them ticking along, keeping order, arranging marriages and dinners, and then one day Poof! she is gone, and left the house and family (in part 2) with the wind blowing through broken windows, ceilings falling, graves unattended and the niceties unobserved.

  6. I don't know, I've always read for the details, the material side of literature. Crusoe hauling all that stuff off of the sinking ship. Who knows how many times I read that scene as a kid. So I deny the generalization, I guess. I now have a better of idea of what to do with the details, or what authors do with them. "Fondle the details," as Nabokov wrote.

    Anyway, it is a superb scene.

    Those cakes and roasts, though, that can happen. Depends on the cake, and the stove, and likely the stability of the floor. Those old coal stoves, those were hard to operate. Today we can just turn down the temperature to keep the roast warm and moist. Easy.

    Do great conductors know the basic principals of the timpani and the oboe and so on? I would think they do. But maybe they don't.

  7. Here we have Chris Kimball on the joys of cooking with a Victorian coal stove. He wrote a book about it (haven't read), and there is also a documentary (seen some of).

  8. This is a great reading of the scene. It goes along with Woolf's running theme of people having very little understanding of (or interest in) other people's real lives. Mrs Ramsay has heard just enough about what the cook does to be upset at the thought of things going wrong. The triumph of the cook in the face of all this adversity will be Mrs Ramsay's triumph, so the higher the stakes, the greater the victory for our hostess. Also, possibly, the cook has made it a habit of exaggerating the difficulty of the work. But we never hear from cooks or other servants in Woolf's novels, just from the people who employ them.

    Ma femme has been reading a lot of Julia Child lately (the cookbooks, her autobiography, her letters, etc). It's crazy how involved most of her recipes are. "Clear a week in your calendar and gather your ingredients" etc. "You will need to be brave and confident" etc. She's very like a field marshall before a battle. The chapter on omelets reads like a fight for survival.

  9. "exaggerating" - I was wondering. The difference, in boeuf en daube, between "time from start to table" and "time actually doing something" is quite high. But of course I the cook, or employer of the cook, brag that it takes three days. For a full two of which the stew is just sitting in the refrigerator.

    Two old servants do get a voice in the "Time Passes," when they put the house back together after the years of neglect. One notes that the cook had treated the other servants particularly well. "They lived well in those days."

    I could not find an actual book with Child's recipe, and fear that the website version I found trims off a lot of her dramatic prose. Even the recipe itself - look, the exact dimensions of the orange zest in the bouquet garni, this cannot possibly matter.

  10. I had an obsession with To the Lighthouse when I first read it in high school, and have read it many times since. But to your point the import, broadly speaking, of the boeuf on daube scene had escaped me. And then, for the first time ever, I had boeuf en daube just last week at the home of a friend In Paris. He is currently completely obsessed with the dish. And I must say that everything seemed done to a turn.

    I should send him a French copy of To the Lighthouse with the passage tagged.

  11. Yes, send the passage. It is pretty famous. Just search for "Boeuf en daube" and see how many of the top links are Woolfish in some way.

    It is a dish with a thousand authentic microregional variations, so it is a good focus of obsession. There are white wine versions! Crazy!

  12. Thanks for this post; not only did it explain the daube background (which had of course escaped me, who cook only simple things) but it got me to pull out my copy of the book, which I haven't read since 2012, and getting lost in that made me realize I need to reread it (so many echoes back and forth! the mention of having "no letters" on p. 12 getting a callback on p. 128 with "It's odd that one scarcely gets anything worth having by post"!). What a wonderful writer, what a wonderful book.

  13. Nowadays cooking is even more a matter of engineering: getting everything to come out at the same time. The microwave helps in some ways, hurts in others: most of us have four burners but only one microwave, and except when just reheating you usually can nuke only one thing at a time.

  14. What a book, right? Just "Time Passes" plus the long dinner chapter - a landmark book.

    We are so rich in tools now. I suppose the sous vide machine and the Instant Pot create their own opportunities and headaches. But I don't even have a microwave, what do I know.

  15. In other words, it's only a stew and as such isn't fundamentally different from its English or Irish varieties. The wine and olive oil add a southern flavor, sure, but it's still a farmer's dish so the notion of being done to a turn can't possibly apply here.

  16. The stew is different than its English cousins in that it has far more ingredients with a much greater variety of flavor, and the key French idea is to blend all of those diverse flavors into one amazing new flavor.

    Thus the "third day" of preparation, during which the stew is just sitting in the cellar (or your refrigeration), blending. If you make a daube and serve it right away, it will be wonderful. But the leftovers will be even better. Granting the metaphor of "done to a turn" (no spit is involved!), the turning was done the day before the dinner. But Mrs. Ramsay does not seem to know that.

    The cook may have done more actual work gathering the ingredients, which would all have to be hauled up to the Hebrides by someone. Going by what is in the text, the dinner had a soup course, a meat course (the stew, presumably with potatoes or rice), and fruit for dessert, which does not sound so difficult.