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February 26, 2011

Persephone Reading Weekend: Kitchen Essays

When I started reading Agnes Jekyll's Kitchen Essays, I immediately started writing down wonderful quotes to share with you.  This was the first one: 'Your spinster aunt will certainly accuse you of undue extravagance after she has partaken freely of this dish.'  But then I stopped, because I just wanted to sink into this book,.  If you like food writing, or old cookbooks, or early 20th-century social history, or England between the wars, or gentle wit, I think you'd love it too.

Kitchen Essays is a series of pieces, gathered at the time into two books, that Agnes Jekyll wrote for The Times (London) in 1921 and 1922.  Each essay has a theme, from what to cook when your cook is away {...'similar experience may befall many of us, particularly at busy holiday times of the year, when cooks, whose mothers so often specialize in sudden and disastrous illnesses, may leave us to face problems we have never really envisaged before...'}, to 'A little dinner before the play,' to 'A little dinner after the play,' to 'Food for the punctual and the unpunctual.'  It doesn't matter that the situations she evokes seem so far removed from our current lives -- or do they?

...although this spirit is no longer publicly acclaimed and beribboned...many who have come down in the world are keeping it alive by gallant and uncomplaining toil, sweeping the rooms and cooking the dinner, mothering the family and cheering the bread-winner, within those narrow homes whither the vicissitudes of fortune have driven the dispossessed in yearly increasing numbers. ... Many such are daily learning to solve startling problems of house and kitchen, of garden and farm, in wholly unwonted surroundings, and in the thick housemaid's gloves and strong brogues which have replaced the 16-button Peau de Suedes and the dainty Court shoes of their luxurious past, are practicing the making of drudgery divine. ... Is it best to make the clean cut, definitely breaking with the old life ... or can we keep as far as may be in touch with our real friends, offering such simple and rare entertainment as changed circumstances permit? Can we not, without overstraining modest resources of storeroom and purse, make adequate provision for occasional friends from town who might welcome a health-giving change to country air from the confinement of the city?
There's something wistful and serious in this one. Everything is different, but everything is somehow the same.

It was also fun to read the recipes included in each essays (even the recipes have funny bits).  There's a recipe for lemon barley-water, which I keep reading about in books (I'm going to try making some next summer). Some of the food is a little frightening ('Having removed the brains from half a calf's head, put it in a stewpan with a little salt and water to cover...'), and some of it sounds absolutely wonderful. This is what I was reading yesterday while I was eating a tuna fish sandwich:

For the mid-day meal serve as the principal 'plat' a nicely cut and fried bread canape some six inches by four inches and one inch thick, and on to this spread a thick layer of well-made puree of chestnut with a couple of stoned and heated black plums at each corner. On this lay several delicately-cut slices of pheasant or turkey roasted or braised, and a little good gravy poured very hot over it. Or if chicken be the order of the day, make a bed of savoury rice on your canape, enriching it with sultanas steeped in hot wine or stock, and mixed with almonds split and grilled brown, and pieces of breast laid on it. Again, slices of goose or duck reposing on a mattress of thick apple sauce above the canape, or partridge breasts resting on softly-mashed potatoes and some mushrooms buttered, grilled and added piping hot. Even the familiar slice of roast mutton from the family joint would acquire additional merit if supplemented by a creamy layer of mashed turnips, and nice little pile of capers or a soubise sauce to add zest. All these might appear as off-shoots from the family dinner.
This is lunch, on a tray, for an invalid. But only if Mrs. Bridges is downstairs.

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Paperback Reader said...

I love food writing! I have this on my shelf and must dip into it for some of those delectable quotes!

Thank you for joining in Persephone Reading Weekend.

Nan said...

Thank you for this warm and quite touching review. I've just ordered the book. I've always been drawn to the cover and now I know the inside is just as wonderful. I'll just avert my eyes to tales of all those dead creatures!

Darlene said...

Oh this does sound wonderful and you had me at 'spinster'!

I have Mrs Rundell's cookery book and take delight from all the kitchen tips such as touching an egg with your tongue to see if it's fresh...blech!

lyn said...

Isn't the cover of the Classics edition gorgeous? I loved this, so modern in some ways but so much of its time in others. Excellent review.

Karen K. said...

I love that quote -- it immediately reminded me of Gosford Park. Must watch Upstairs, Downstairs immediately!

I love food writing and I'm really looking forward to the Good Food in England. And have you ever read Home Cooking or More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin? She was a writer for Gourmet before her untimely death in the 1990s. Her food essays were just delightful and remind me very much of these (though for modern cooks). She was a huge fan of English cookbooks and would have loved Kitchen Essays.

Thank you for visiting!

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