Thursday, January 31, 2008

Restoring the Cooks Palate

January 31

The issue of the cook’s palate becoming dulled and insensitive seems to have become a non-issue – or perhaps when it happens nowadays the cook moves on and becomes a celebrity and makes TV appearances and writes books. It was certainly an issue for William Kitchiner, the eccentric author of The Cook’s Oracle, in 1817, and although - most unusually for the time - he cooked and cleaned up for himself, he did have some most considerate advice for those who employed a cook:

The Master, who wishes to enjoy the rare luxury of a table regularly well served in the best style, must treat his Cook as his friend—watch over her health with the tenderest care, and especially be sure her taste does not Suffer from her Stomach being deranged by Bilious Attacks.

Thc greatest care should be taken by the man of fashion, that his Cook's health be preserved : one hundredth part of the attention usually bestowed on his dog, or his horse,will suffice to regulate her animal state.

If worst came to worst, Dr. Kitchener had the solution:

If you find your Cook neglect his business, — that his Ragouts are too highly spiced or salted, and his cookery has too much of the ' haut goȗt,' — you may be sure that his Index of Taste wants regulating, — his Palate has lost its sensibility, — and it is high time to call in the assistance of the apothecary, — who will prepare him by two days' aqueous diet, and then administer a Potio Purgans — regulating the dose according to the greater or less insensibility of his Palate:—give him a day's rest. — " Purger encore" — let him have two days' rest after his second dose, and you may then hope to have at the head of your stoves a man altogether renovated. "
" Purger souvent" is the grand maxim in all kitchens where le Maitre d'Hotel has any regard for the reputation of his table. Les Bonnes Hommes de Bouche submit to the operation without a murmur; — to bind others, it should be made the first condition in hiring them. Those who refuse prove they were not born to become masters of their art; — and their indifference to fame will rank them, as they deserve, among those stupid slaves, who pass their lives in as much obscurity as their own stew-pans.

Not having ever worked in a professional kitchen, I cannot say with any certainty that this routine has been abandoned, but I suspect it has or surely Mr. Bourdain would have mentioned it at least briefly in his Kitchen Confidential.

For today’s recipe, I give you a simple bread and butter pudding from Dr.Kitchiner’s book. It should not need repeated tasting while in the making, and will not cause your cook (or yourself) to need the attention of your friendly local apothecary.

You must have a dish that will hold a quart,—wash and pick two ounces of currants ; strew a few at the bottom of the dish; cut about four layers of very thin Bread and Butter, and between each layer of Bread and Butter strew some currants ; then break four eggs in a basin, leaving out one white ; beat them well, and add four ounces of sugar and a drachm of nutmeg ; stir it well together with a pint of new milk ; pour it over about ten minutes before you put it in the oven,—it will take three quarters of an hour to bake.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Very Wild Meats.

Quotation for the Day …

A man's palate can, in time, become accustomed to anything. Napoleon Bonaparte.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Papal Penchant for Coffee.

January 30

There is a recurring, and probably apocryphal story, that pops up all the time in articles on the history of coffee, and it relates to Pope Clement VIII who was elected on this day in 1592. Ippolito Aldobrandini was of a distinguished Florentine family before he got the Big Job, and Italy was the place in Europe where the potential of coffee was first taken seriously. The problem was that coffee was an ‘Arab drink’, and Clement was as profoundly anti-Islam as he was anti-Semitic. On this basis his advisers wanted it banned, but unfortunately he (and no doubt another powerful lobby group) rather enjoyed it. So, the story goes, he had it baptized, thus converting it to a truly Christian drink. I have never seen a shred of evidence that there is a shred of truth in this story, but will reserve full approval until either I have time to research it, or – even better – someone else lets me know the truth.

There were, however, repeated attempts by leaders in various places to ban coffee in those early centuries of its progress through Europe. There were two broad reasons why this happened: (a) it was new and suspect on that ground alone, and (b) coffee making and drinking required special equipment so could not be done at home (at that stage) and therefore people gathered in coffee houses – with the potential for chatting about rebellion over a few cups.

There was one other interesting petition asking for the banning of coffee, and it is real enough – or at least the paper is real, although the actual writers and actual intent are not so certain. It is, however, absolutely hilarious. It is the Women’s Petition Against Coffee – a broadsheet dated 1674. The writers (‘several thousands of Buxome Good-Women) complain it makes their men impotent, and distracts them when they are sent out for the midwife. I give you an edited version below – it continues on for quite some time on the same theme. If you would like the full transcription, please email me.

To the Right Honorable the Keepers of the Liberties of Venus… The Humble Petition and Addrss of several Thousands of Buxome Good-Women, Languishing in Extremity of Want.


That since ‘tis Reckon’d amonst the Glories of our Native Country, To be a Paradise for Women: The same in our Apprehensions can consist in nothing more than the brisk Activity of our men, who in former Ages were justly esteemed the Ablest Performers in Christendome; But to our unspeakable Grief, we find of late a very sensible Decay of that true Old English Vigour; our Gallants being in every way so Frenchified, that they are become meer Cock-sparrows, fluttering things that come on Sa sa, with a world of Fu[ry] but are not able to stand to it, and in the very first Charge fall down flat before us. Never did Men wear greater Breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever. There was a glorious Dispensation (‘twas surely in the Golden Age) when Lusty Ladds of seven or eight hundred years old Got Sons and Daughters; and we have read, how a Prince of Spain was forced to make a Law, that Men should not Repeat the Grand Kindness to their Wives above NINE times in a night; but Alas! Alas! Those forwards Days are gone; the dull Lubbers want a Spur now, rather than a Bridle; being so far from doing any works of Supererregation that we find them not capable of performing those Devoirs which their Duty, and our Expectations Exact.

The Occasion of which Insufferable Disaster, after a serious Enquiry, and Discussion of the Point by the Learned of the Faculty, we can Attribute to nothing more than the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish liquor called COFFEE, which Rifling Nature of her Choicest Treasures, and Drying up the Radi[c]al Moisture, has so Eunuch[t] our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts whence that unhappy Berrry is said to be brought.

For the continual sipping of this pittiful drink is enough to bewitch Men of two and twenty, and tie up the Codpice-point without a Charm. It renders them that use it as Lean as Famine, as Rivvel’d as Envy, or an old meager Hagg over-ridden by an Incubus. They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiffe but their Joints, nor standing but their Ears; …

The Recipe for the Day …

It was some long time before coffee was used as a recipe ingredient, and I refer you to the Coffee Archive for a selection. Today I thought I would take as my topic the other theme in the story, and I give you a recipe for Matrimonial Cake (or Matrimony Cake) – so called presumably because there are two distinct mixes, united in one dish. It is an oldish theme, and we have touched on it before with Matrimony pudding and sauce. This particular interpretation seems to have been a Canadian invention of the ‘30’s – although I stand to be corrected on that statement. This version is from an American newspaper (Elyria, Ohio) in 1933.

Matrimonial Cake
2 cups rolled oats
2 cups pastry flour
2 cups brown sugar
1 tsp soda
1 cup butter or oil
1 lb stoned dates
¼ cup brown sugar
juice of 1-2 lemons
1 ½ cups boiling water.
Cook slowly over a low fire until soft. Cool. Mix often to prevent burning.
Mix all dry ingredients with butter. Grease shallow cake pan. Cover with ½ of ingredients and then cover withdate filling and with balance of dry ingredients . Bake in oven at 325 degrees F. for about 45 minutes or until golden brown. When cold, serve with whipped cream. Serves about 15.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Restoring the Cooks Palate

Quotation for the Day …

Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow they may make it illegal. Anon.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Diet Gurus.

January 29

The story of Byron and his diet dilemma a few days ago created bit of feedback. It seems that the topic interests quite a few of you, and it whet my interest to see what the ‘experts’ have suggested over the years for the treatment of corpulence.

In a lovely bit of synchronicity, today is the birthday of the American novelist and essayist Edward Abbey (1927), who is the perpetrator of one of my favourite pithy sayings on the topic of diets.

‘Nobody seems more obsessed by diet than our anti-materialist, otherwordly, New Age, spiritual types. But if the material world is merely an illusion, an honest guru should be as content with Budweiser and bratwurst as with raw carrot juice, tofu, and seaweed slime.’

I started to work backwards, so have a few gleanings from the works of some nineteenth century physicians for you. It seems that they were all in agreement that less food and more exercise was the key, but it was in the details that they differed from each other, and in their attitude that they differ from modern gurus. No modern expert would get away with the patronising sexist approach of “A Physician” in 1828, who, in reference to the “fair readers” of his advice on the Reduction of Corpulency noted that:

‘It behoves them, however, to remember, that physical beauty is necessarily associated with the flowing curve, and the crescent, and, therefore, that to the perfection of beauty in the female figure, the existence of some degree of embonpoint, is absolutely necessary. Nature abhors, so to speak, the straight line and the angle, so commonly combined with leanness, almost as much as she does a vacuum.

He repeated ‘Old Parr’s rule, which was. ‘If you are inclined to get fat, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.’ He also suggested that ‘friction ought to claim particular notice, as a domestic exercise, from all ladies who are desirous of reducing their embonpoint. Half an hour a day, friction all over. Interesting.

Rather alarmingly, he also advised restriction of liquids – as low as 16 or 20 ounces in a day, specifying ‘Of liquid aliment, the best is cyder, perry, light acidulous wines, tea, and water. The wines to be preferred are, Red Hermitage, Rhenish, Hock, Barsac, Claret, and Champagne; but those who can do without wine will be most successful in their plan of reduction. Cream of tartar and water forms a useful drink for the corpulent.”

I don’t suppose there is any profit in cream of tartar and water for the weight loss industry.

Another physician (in 1863) recommended hot baths to promote copious perspiration, and diet of course, but insisted that more fat is required for ‘hard brain-workers’.

A few leaned to giving culinary advice. Here is a physician in 1850:

“ I cannot help pausing an instant to speak of the absurdity of our usual way of dressing macaroni. After being boiled and made palatable, it is sprinkled with cheese, and placed before the fire, so as to form a tough, rancid, empyreumatic crust, nauseous and indigestible in the extreme. Boiled till soft, and eaten with French mustard or jam, it makes a soluble and wholesome diet, pleasing to the palate and the reason.”

Friction (or ‘dry rubbing’ with or without powder’), a tight band around the abdomen (enables exercise to be taken with more facility; and ‘appears also by pressure, to afford some assistance to the absorption of fat’), and even bleeding and purging were suggested in some cases by the macaroni-doctor. He liked the idea of bitter tonics too – because “they enable the stomach to digest more easily and rapidly, and therefore be contented with a smaller quantity of really nourishing food.”

Byron believed in the slimming power of vinegar, but one physician claimed that it only produced thinness by ‘injuring the digestive organs’, and in fact he felt that the opposite was what was indicated due to the ‘chemical affinity of alkalies for fat’. He therefore prescribed what was in essence a slightly soapy solution of ‘liquor potassae’, so long as this was not used in inappropriate cases however, such as in debilitated gouty subjects and chronic stone in the bladder, else much harm would be done.

In the spirit of Edward Abbey and his remarks on silly diet gurus, just to spite those silly gurus, I give you several decidedly un-dietary carrot recipes.

Sweet Carrots. (Entremets.)
Boil quite tender some fine highly-flavoured carrots, press the water from them, and rub them through the back .of a fine hair-sieve; put them into a clean saucepan or stewpan, and dry them thoroughly over a gentle fire; then add a slice of fresh butter, and when this is dissolved and well mixed with them, strew in a dessertspoonful or more of powdered sugar, and a little salt; next, stir in by degrees some good cream, and when this is quite absorbed, and the carrots again appear dry, dish and serve them quickly with small sippets, a la Reine placed round them.
[Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery, 1858]

Carrots a la Orleans.
TAKE a few young carrots, turn them of an equal size, and cut them in slices of about the eighth of an inch thick, and blanch them well. Next lay them on a towel to drain; put them into a stew-pan with a lump of sugar and a little broth, and let them boil over a large fire. When reduced to glaze, add a good bit of fresh butter and a little salt. Mind that the butter must adhere to the carrots when you serve up, as no sauce must be seen.
[Louis Eustache Ude, The French Cook, 1822]

Ragout Of Carrots
Scrape your carrots, and scald them in boiling water; cut them in long fillets, and put them to stew, with some butter, salt, pepper, and chopped parsley. When the carrots are done, before you serve, add some yolks of eggs. If you wish to make a ragout of carrots in a different mode, put them into a stewpan with small pieces of bacon, salt, pepper, chives, and parsley; moisten with jus and stock; then stew slowly till done enough.
[French Cookery adapted for English Families; Frances Crawford. 1853]

Tomorrow’s Story …

A Papal Penchant for Coffee.

Quotation for the Day …

I've been on a constant diet for the last two decades. I've lost a total of 789 pounds. By all accounts, I should be hanging from a charm bracelet. Erma Bombeck

Monday, January 28, 2008

On Coconuts.

January 28

Francis Drake may not have been responsible for bringing the potato to England, but he did have some interesting food experiences. On this day in 1578 in the Cape Verde islands he was in search of provisions, and came across the coconut.

“Yet the next day (28th) our General sent to view the island [Mayo, Cape Verde], and the likelihoods that might be there of provision of victuals, … Amongst other things we found here a kind of fruit called cocos, which because it is the fruit groweth in clusters, hard at the top of the stem of the tree, as big every several fruit as a man's head; but having taken off the uttermost bark, which you shall find to be very full of strings or sinews, as I may term them, you shall come to a hard shell, which may hold in quantity of liquor a pint commonly, or some a quart, and some less. Within that shell, of the thickness of half-an-inch good, you shall have a kind of hard substance and very white, no less good and sweet than almonds; within that again, a certain clear liquor, which being drunk, you shall not only find it very delicate and sweet, but most comfortable and cordial.”

The name ‘coconut’ is a puzzle, and the OED almost gives up on it, eventually seeming to agree with the opinion that it comes from a Spanish or Portuguese word indicating a grin or grimacing expression – referencing the appearance produced by the three ‘holes’ at the base. One of the OED’s own supporting quotations however (from 1555) suggests that it may have been an ‘Indian’ word for the cry of a monkey, as the holes ‘doo represent the gesture and fygure of the cattes cauled Mammone, that is munkeys, when they crye: which crye the Indians caule coca.’ The credibility of this writer is somewhat in doubt as he says there are four holes in the coconut shell (‘there are seene two holes, and aboue them two other naturall holes’), whereas most of us can only identify three – so perhaps the expert had never seen one himself.

That the coconut is an incredibly useful tree and fruit has never been in doubt. One Polynesian wanderer in the 1840’s summed up its usefulness by quoting:

‘The Indian’s nut alone,
Is clothing, meat,and trencher, drink and can,
Boat, cable, sail, and needle – all in one.’

It seems to me that there is too much dried, sweetened (for Goodness’ Sake!), packaged, dessicated coconut in the world. Coconuts with their hard shells don’t have the packing and transport problems of soft and rapidly ripening fruit like the banana for example, but of course the problem for those of us without a single machete in the kitchen is how to extract and shred the flesh. I understand that there are special gadgets that will do this, but I do not have one. Do they work? If they do, I will try recipes such as the following, taken from The Indian Cookery Book, published By Thacker, Spink & Co., Calcutta, circa 1900.

Cocoanut Rice Pudding
Soak a breakfastcupful of fine rice in water until quite soft; scoop out the contents of a hard cocoanut; extract all the milk with a little boiling-hot water, then boil the rice in it, sweeten it to taste with some date jagree or treacle, and put in a few grains of aniseed. Pour the mixture into a buttered pudding-dish and bake it slightly.

Cocoanut Pittas
Scrape finely a cocoanut, brown it with some jagree and a few grains of the black cardamom seed, and set it aside; then prepare a pastry of finely-sifted rice-flour (it must be kneaded with boiling-hot water, and will not roll out); take as much as the size of a duck's egg, and press it out flat in the palm of your hand to the size of a large saucer; put a tablespoonful of the fried cocoanut into it, and close it up in a half-moon shape, with the help of a little water. Have a wide-mouthed large earthen pot of boiling water; stretch and tie over its mouth a napkin, and steam the pittas or cakes over them; they will be ready in half an hour, and may be eaten hot or cold.

Cocoanut Cheesecakes
Grate a good-sized nut very fine, and add to it four or five spoonfuls of rich syrup and one spoonful of rose-water; set it over a few coals, and keep stirring till it is mixed; then take it off the fire and let it cool; next mix the yolks of two eggs well with it, and bake in small paps in the shape of cheesecakes. The pastry for the pans must be made with flour and yokes of eggs, rolled as thin as possible; wet the tops of the cakes with rose-water; sift some refined sugar over them, and bake them in an oven at a gentle heat.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Diet Gurus.

Quotation for the Day …

One of these nuts is a meal for a man, both meat and drink [on coconuts]. Marco Polo.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Cakes for Australia Day

Today is Australia Day, so I give you a selection of cake recipes from a lovely little charity cookbook compiled by the Women’s Auxiliary for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The book is undated but looks to be from the late 60’s, or perhaps 70's.

Early Settler’s Birthday Cake.
Cream 2 cups dripping with 2 cups sugar. Add 1 emu egg, beating well. Flavour with vanilla.
Sift two teaspoons soda and 4 teaspoons cream of tartar with 6 cups flour. Add this a little at a time alternately with 2 cups milk. Add 2 cups currants.
Bake in 3 large tins in moderate oven.

Butterscotch Cake.
2 cups S.R. flour, pinch salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 cup brown sugar, ½ cup shortening, 2 eggs, ½ cup strong, cold coffee (1 tablespoon coffee essence in half cup cold water) ¼ cup milk.
Combine milk and coffee, sift flour and salt, cream butter and sugar, add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add essence, then flour alternately with liquid and beat batter until smooth.
Bake in 8 inch pans in moderate oven 25-30 minutes.

Mission Loaf.
Put in saucepan and bring to the boil – 1 tablespoon butter, 1 cup stoned dates, 1 tablespoon full walnuts, 1 teaspooon carb soda, 1 cup boiling water, ¾ cup sugar.
Allow to cool and add – 1 egg well beaten, 1 cup S.R. flour, ½ cup plain flour, 1 tablespoon cocoa.
Bake 2 minutes.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Getting a Grip on Sausages.

January 25

Virginia Woolf the English writer was born on this day in 1882. She was born into a family that had wealth, social standing, and a rich intellectual and literary life. She became famous as a novelist, slightly infamous as a member of the ‘Bloomsbury Group, and ultimately she became a tragic story herself.

In addition to her published, public, writing, Woolf kept a journal. Early in World War II, on March 8, 1941 she wrote:

“And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.”

Less than three weeks later, on March 28, fearful of the return of the mental illness which had plagued her all her life, she loaded up her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the river Ouse near her Sussex home.

There are many references to food in Virginia Woolf’s diaries, and it is clear that it was one of the pleasures in her life. Even though she noted the pleasant anticipation of cooking her wartime dinner, perhaps her diary entry also tells of her awareness of her fragile hold on day to day things. Or perhaps it was a writer’s awareness that writing about it is a way of getting a grip on any subject at all.

I give you a wartime sausage-meat recipe, from Ministry of Food Facts Leaflets produced in 1941.

Meat Roll.
(Mrs. L. Harbourne)
First of all, soak a large slice of bread in milk. Now mix together ¼ lb minced veal, ¼ lb. minced beef, ¼ lb. sausage meat and a few minced bacon pieces. Add to them a small onion or one or two spring onions (if you can get them) sliced finely, a grated raw potato and salt and pepper to taste. Squeeze the milk out of the slice of bread and mash the bread into the meat mixture. If you can spare it, bind the mixture with a small beaten egg; otherwise use the milk in which the bread was soaked. If necessary, add enough white breadcrumbs to make the mixture firm enough to shape into a roll. Sprinkle thickly with brown breadcrumbs or medium oatmeal that has been toasted in an oven, put into a greased baking tin, cover with butter or margarine paper, and bake in good oven for an hour.
This roll can be served hot or cold. It looks most attractive when decorated with strips of anchovy or some sliced, cooked carrot sprinkled with a little chopped parsley.

Monday’s Story …

On Coconuts.

Quotation for the Day …

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. Virginia Woolf, ‘A room of one’s own.’

Thursday, January 24, 2008

An anthropologist does dinner.

January 24

Desmond (John) Morris the English anthropologist and author of The Naked Ape was born on this day in 1928. Is there anyone better qualified than he to comment on our dining behaviour?

“Observe diners arriving at any restaurant and you will see them make a bee-line for the wall seats. No one ever voluntarily selects a centre table in an open space. Open seating positions are only taken when all wall seats are occupied. This dates back to a primeval feeding practice of avoiding sudden attack during the deep concentration involved in consuming food.”

The Hirsute variety of Ape still faces this risk of course, whereas we, the Naked Therefore Fully Clothed variety of Ape have evolved and become civilised. Consequently, the risks associated with dining are far, far, more complicated.

Sitting against the wall in the breakfast nook does not protect from attack within the ranks. The family mealtable, since we evolved enough to be able to have “relationships” and their associated “issues”, can be fraught. Winston Churchill was well aware of this when he said “My wife and I tried to breakfast together, but we had to stop or our marriage would have been wrecked.”

Progress does sometime pay off however. We have dispensed largely with etiquette – that perilous quicksand of ever shifting, uncertain social rules that were broken at considerable cost in previous times. We are left with a few little situations to negotiate, - how to escape before the inevitable dishwasher stacking argument, to risk taking a good bottle of wine and have it disappear into the host's cellar and a poor one offered at dinner, and how to divide up the bill at a restaurant, for example. It was not always quite so simple.

I give you a random list of nineteenth century etiquette rules, for your edification.

When the various members of the party are assembled in the drawing room, the mistress of the house, or the master, supposing him a bachelor or a widower, points out to you the lady you are to lead into the dining room. You, the lady indicated, will have to take precedence according to rank. … The rank of ladies is decided by that of their male relatives … As the lady’s rank gives the precedence, so it decides the order of procession to the dining room.

Coming down stairs, give the lady to the wall; lead her into the room, and seat yourself beside her.

If you pass to dine merely from one room to another, offer your left arm to the lady.

Both ladies and gentlemen remove their gloves when they sit down to dinner.

It is considered vulgar to take fish or soup twice.

Eat peas with a dessert spoon, and curry also.

It is not elegant to gnaw Indian corn. The kernels should be scored with a knife, scraped off into the plate, and then eaten with a fork. Ladies should be particularly careful how they manage so ticklish a dainty, lest the exhibition rub off a little desirable romance.

To shine at the dinner-table requires much conversant practice with polite life. A double duty devolves upon the gentlemen, that of feeding with elegance, and of attending to their fair neighbours.

Today’s recipe gives a tiny nod to anthropologists and archeologists and ancient historians. It is from Modern Ways with an Ancient Food. Addressed to Mothers. It is an advertising booklet for the Hecker brand of ‘farina’, which is the Italian word for flour, but in this case is the same as ‘Cream of Wheat’, which is essentially ‘cornflour’ made from wheat, not corn, which is quite confusing, I must say.

I chose this recipe because it sounds awful in the way that is sometimes quite tasty, in the secret-eating kind of way.

Cream-Farina Cheese Sandwich Filling.
2 tablespoons uncooked Cream-Farina
1 ¼ cups ( ¼ lb) grated cheese
⅛ teaspoon pepper
1 cup strained tomato pulp
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup ( ¼ lb.) cooked ham, ground or chopped
Heat strained tomato pulp in double boiler; add salt and Cream-Farina and cook 7-8 minutes with frequent stirring. Add grated cheese and heat until melted. Remove from fire, add remaining ingredients, and allow to cool before spreading on bread.
Makes 1 ½ cups filling.

Please confess if you’ve ever made this.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Getting a Grip on Sausages.

Quotation for the Day …

I expected (purely on statistical grounds) to die ten years ago … something has gone wrong with my prediction because I am still here, and I have a feeling that part of the reason could be that I have managed to maintain a deep disrespect for all the health police, the faddist gurus and the diet fascists who plague our bookstalls, radio stations and newsagents. Desmond Morris.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Odds and Ends for Dinner.

January 23

Our old friend Parson James Woodforde has given us much wonderful information about the dining habits of the middle class in the second half of the eighteenth century. He was clearly a man who enjoyed his food, and frequently made quite detailed report of his dinners. On this day in 1795 however, he was uninspired, noting simply: “Dinner to day, odds and ends &c.” One can almost hear the plaintive, disappointed voice.

He uses this same phrase in other entries, not telling us any other information. There are people who cook specifically to have leftovers, – I am one of them myself – there are others who abhor the idea, and are either much more calculating cooks than I am and are able to prepare just the right amount for one meal, or they are more daring and are able to dump the remains into the garbage.

The problem with leftovers (if it is a problem), is largely in the name, which hints at toothprints and saliva residue at best, and loss of flavour and serious bacteriological contamination at worst. What else to call them? Parson Woodford’s other phrase, ‘heatups’, is no better. ‘Re-cycled’ sounds ethically correct but somehow not delicious.

One eighteenth century author tried hard with ‘secondary cookery’, which at least is a little intriguing. The full title of the book is The family save-all, a system of secondary cookery, and it was published in 1861. It is a fascinating book, and the author tries valiantly to add excitement to many dishes that surely do need it, by renaming them in they style of a ‘Capital Dinner from Ox-Cheek’ and ‘Capital Soup from Cow Heels’.

My favourite is this one:

A Marbled Dish of Remnants.
A sort of marbled mass is sometimes made by shaking together in a mould remnants of various coloured Blanc-manges cut nearly of the same size, and then filling it up with a clear jelly.

His creativity falls short of glamourising some dishes however:

Economical Dish of Baked Faggots.
Leaves of Mangel Wurzel as a Table Vegetable.
Delicious Pie of Sheep’s Head and Trotters.
Tails, Various Uses Of.
Various ways of Cooking and re-Cooking that unmanageable dish, Ox-heart.

The book contains much other useful advice on such things as getting rid of vermin, removing stains from clothing, etc, and a whole lot of other things that you didn’t even realise you needed to know, such as:

Important Hints on Breathing.


How to Eat an Egg with Satisfaction !
WHAT ! mean to insinuate that, after all these years, we don't know how to eat eggs properly ? Never mind: don't be above taking a hint. By the usual mode of introducing the salt into a boiled egg, it will not incorporate with the egg; the result is, you get either a quantity of salt without egg, or egg without salt. In order to make the two mix properly, after cutting off the top of the egg, put in a drop of water, tea, coffee, or other warm liquid that may be on the table ; then add the salt, and stir. The result is far more agreeable - the drop of liquid is not tasted.

And this very useful idea, using ‘English chilies’. I don’t believe I have ever read the phrase before.

Home-made Cayenne Pepper, of superior Flavour.
Those who desire to obtain good Cayenne Pepper, free from adulteration and poisonous colouring matter, should make it of English chilies. By so doing they half the heat of the foreign. A hundred large chilies, costing only two shillings, will produce about two ounces of cayenne - thus the superior home-made is as cheap as the commonest red pepper. The following is the way to make it:—Take away the stalks, and put the pods into a colander ; set it before the fire for about twelve hours, by which time they will be dry. Then pour them into a mortar, with one-fourth their weight in salt, and pound and rub them till they are as fine as possible; sift through a little muslin, and then pound the residue, and sift again.

Tomorrow’s Story …

An anthropologist does dinner.

Quotation for the Day …

Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with ...
Robert Farrar Capon.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Much Depends on Dinner.

January 22

The English poet Lord George Gordon Byron was born on this day in 1788. He is best known to foodies as the source of the quotation that inspired the title of the wonderful book by Margaret Visser, Much Depends on Dinner.

The quotation is from The Island, and the full stanza reads:

“All human history attests That happiness for man, - the hungry sinner! - Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.”

The sub-title of Margaret Visser’s book is The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal, which is ironic, given that Byron found negotiating the meal table to be full of perils , having a troubled relationship with food – perhaps even so far as having what we would call an eating disorder.

His journals and letters certainly suggest an unhealthy attitude to eating. He is known to have struggled with his weight, loving good food but occasionally adopting severe weight loss regimes involving crash diets (becoming ‘a leguminous-eating Ascetic’), intense exercise regimes, purging and sweating.

His sister Augusta commented in a letter to another that “his way is to fast till he is famished & then devour more than his stomach in that weak state can bear - & so on”

A couple of his own letters will also illustrate:

“Sunday, I dined with the Lord Holland in St. James's Square. Large party …. Stuffed myself with sturgeon, and exceeded in champagne and wine in general, but not to confusion of head. When I do dine, I gorge like an Arab or a Boa snake, on fish and vegetables, but no meat. I am always better, however, on my tea and biscuit than any other regimen, and even that sparingly.”


“To-day I have boxed one hour - written an ode to Napoleon Buonaparte - copied it - eaten six biscuits - drunk four bottles of soda water.”

Byron did not like to be seen eating, and his romantic views of women preferred that they be seen in an ethereal light, not doing something so gross as eating. He refused to eat with his wife when she was obviously pregnant, and had his meals sent to another room.

“A woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad and Champagne, the only true feminine & becoming viands.”

Presumably, if it was OK for women to eat lobsters, a very delicate way to eat them would be to avoid the pesky shells altogether and have them potted. This recipe is from a domestic medical text.

To Pot Lobsters.
Take out the meat as whole as you can; split the tail, and remove the gut: if the inside be not watery, add that. Season with mace, nutmeg, white pepper, salt, and a clove or two, in the finest powder. Lay a little fine butter at the bottom of the pan, and the lobster smooth over I; cover it with butter, and bake it gently. When done, pour the whole on the bottom of a sieve; and with a fork lay the pieces into potting pots, some of each sort, with the seasoning about it. When cold, pour clarified butter over it, but not hot. It will be good next day; or highly seasoned, and thick covered with butter, it will keep some time.
[Thomas Cooper, M.D. A Treatise of Domestic Medicine, intended for families, in which the treatment of common disorders are alphabetically enumerated. To which is added, a Practical System of Domestic Cookery, …also The Art of Preserving. 1824] {American}

Tomorrow’s Story …

Odds and Ends for Dinner.

Quotation for the Day …

Man is a carnivorous production,
And must have meals, at least one meal a day;
He cannot live, like woodcocks, upon suction,
But, like the shark and tiger, must have prey;
Although his anatomical construction
Bears vegetables, in a grumbling way,
Your laboring people think beyond all question,
Beef, veal, and mutton better for digestion.”
Lord Byron (1788-1824.) Don Juan

Monday, January 21, 2008

TV Cook, Number One.

January 21

The whole TV celebrity chef thing started on this day in 1937 when the French restaurateur Marcel Boulestin demonstrated how to make an omelette on the BBC program Cook’s Night Out.

His full name was Xavier Marcel Boulestin (1878-1943), and he was a man of many and varied talents. His obituary in The Times described him as ‘music critic, novelist, both in French and English, actor, caricaturist, designer and decorator, broadcaster and restaurateur’ whose cookery lessons by television ‘were greatly helped by the expressiveness of his face and of his gestures.’

Boulestin must have been a man of great stamina too. He wrote for Vogue magazine, taught cookery at Fortnum & Mason, and wrote three books - Simple French Cooking for English Homes, What Shall We Have Today, and The Conduct of the Kitchen. He also found time to run his restaurant: in 1925 it was the Restaurant Français in Leicester Square, and two years later he moved to Covent Garden and opened the Restaurant Boulestin.

Sadly, the details and transcript of that first program no longer exist, or so I am told. I wonder why Boulestin chose an omelette to cook for his first show? Because it is so simple anyone can do it, or because it is so tricky it is difficult to get it just right? He certainly chose a classic, with no international boundaries, and a long history. The word was originally ‘amulet’, from the same word used to mean a thin plate such as the blade of a sword or knife – so the same origin as ‘laminate’ and ‘lamina’.

By some terrible oversight, I don’t have a single one of Boulestin’s cookbooks, but it hardly matters as the following recipe for a 'lamina of eggs' proves that some things have not changed for centuries. I could have picked an earlier version, but this early eighteenth century recipe is just fine: the only concession to the era is the final flourish of verjuice, butter, and sugar.

Amulet, to make.
Take twelve Eggs, beat them and strain them, put to them three or four spoonfuls of Cream, then put in a little Salt, and having your frying-pan ready with some Butter very hot, pour it in, and when you have fryed it a little, turn over both sides into the middle; then turn it on the other side, and when it is fryed, serve it on the Table with Verjuice, Butter, and Sugar.
From: Salmon, William. The family dicitionary, or houshold companion …. 1710.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Much Depends on Dinner.

Quotation for the Day …

Do not be afraid to talk about food. Food which is worth eating is worth discussing. And there is the occult power of words which somehow will develop its qualities. Marcel Boulestin

Friday, January 18, 2008

Just for Fun.

Today, purely for fun, I give you this satirical bill of fare, found in a nineteenth century journal, found in turn via the wonderful Google Books resource. I give it as it is spelled and numbered.


From MS.Ashmole (Oxford), No. 826, fol.179


Imps. 4 ffancies, 2 boyld and 2 rosted.
2. A large dish of carrett doucets.
3. 4 dysshes of andyrons.
4. 6 pelican chickins.
5. Six birds of paradice.
6. Two phœnxes, a cock and a hen.
7. Four pair of elephants pettitoes.
8. A green dragon springcock.
9. A rhinocerus boyld in alligant.
10. A calves head boyled wth a pudding in
ye belly.
11. A sowced owle.
12. A dish of Irish hartshorne, boyled to a jelly.
13. 4 golden horseshooes disolv’d through a woodcocks bill.
14. Sixe tame lyons
in greene sawce.
15. A lyons
16. A haunch of a beare larded.
17. A whole horse sowced after
ye Russian fashion.
18. 12 sucking puppies of a Capadocian bitch.
19. 6 dozen of ostriges rosted.
20. A leg of an eagle carbonadoed.
21. The pluck of a grampus stewed.
22. An apes tayle in sippitts.
23. Two she beares served up whole.
24. Foure black swans, 2 in a dish.
25. 2 dozen of white blackbirds, 6 in a dish
26. A large dish of cuckow twinckles.
27. Two cocatrices and 3 baboones boyled.
28. Two dryed salamanders.
29. A dish of modicumes boyld in barbary viniger.
29. The jole of a whale butterd in barbary viniger.
30. A grosse of canary birds rosted.
31. A shole of red herrings
wth bells about their necks.
32. Two porpoises pickled.
33. Two porcupines parboyld.
34. Two dozen of Welshambassodars.
35. A dish of bonitoes, currflying fishes with sorrel sopps.


1. A West Indian Cheese.
2. A hundred of cacus nutts.
3. A dish of pyne apples.
4. 6 pompions quodled.
5. A dish of puffes
6. A tame panther, swimming inwhite broth.
7. A crocadill baked in a pye, looking out of
ye lid and laughing at ye company.

I have no idea about the authenticity of this manuscript, but assume that the learned gentlemen who contributed to the Retrospective Review in 1853 would vouch for it. It is now on my list of Interesting Things to Investigate.

There is an apocryphal story around this time of a man called Bankes (or Banks) who owned a dancing horse shoed with silver and who may have been a vintner. Perhaps it is he? A large part of the satirical fun is lost if you dont know the story behind the satirical story. If you do know it, please do tell us all in the comments, or email me if you would prefer.

Monday's Story ...

TV Cook, Number One.

Quotation for the Day …

It's important to watch what you eat. Otherwise, how are you going to get it into your mouth ? Matt Diamond.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

An unfortunate invitation.

January 17

January 17 1920 was the first new day of that Noble Experiment, Prohibition. It was also the twenty-first birthday of that less-than-noble person, Al Capone – which I find an amusing irony or synchronicity for some reason. I wonder if his birthday was marked with an income-producing epiphany?

‘They’ say that no-one is all bad, even amongst the baddest. Al Capone did start up an impressive Soup Kitchen in Chicago during the Depression, and if, as his critics said, it was merely to improve his image amongst the working folk, then at least some poor hungry souls got a feed. Others say that there is honor amongst thieves. An example of this honorable behaviour took place at a banquet held by Scarface himself in May, 1929, which we have previously featured here. To summarise the story: Big Al had gotten wind of a plan by three of his men – Scalise, Anselmi, and Giunta to betray him. He invited them to a banquet. He feasted them with sumptuous food and wine and good-old gangster bonhomie. Then he eliminated them in a most spectacular fashion right there at the table. The reports vary, but most involve clubbing them severely around the head then shooting them for good measure. Doubtless, the unequivocal message was understood by any other wannabe-heads of The Outfit that may have been present at the dinner.

Dreadful things can happen at banquets - not just if your host is a gangster with a grudge, and not of just of the prosaic food poisoning kind. Dining history is full of spectacular dinner incidents that have nothing directly to do with the food. A couple of examples will have to suffice.

The traditional belief about the astronomer Tycho Brahe – that he died in 1601 of a ruptured bladder caused by his unwillingness to appear impolite by leaving a banquet table to answer a call of nature - has been overturned by recent evidence that mercury poisoning was the cause of his death. The story still hangs together however, as he almost certainly self-administered medication for the bladder obstruction triggered at the banquet – and the medication of the time contained mercury.

Poor, popular ‘mad’ King George III attacked his son and heir, the future George IV at a state dinner in November 1788, bashing his head against the wall to the accompaniment of an unintelligible tirade. We now believe that King George was suffering from a disease called porphria which can sometimes cause bouts of mental instability, but we also now know that the Number One Son was an unpleasant, disrespectful and greedy man who would have tried the heart of any parent. The dinner table can be the place where it all comes out!

Napoleon broke the news of his intention to divorce his beloved Josephine at the beginning of dinner, citing his country (which needed an heir) as her competitor. His timing hardly seems fair, for with servants scurrying about she was forced to restrain her reaction until the meal was over, whereupon she fell apart, her reason fled, and passed out.

There are many more stories of murder and betrayal most foul occurring at dinner – and completely opposite stories too of wonderful opportunities and gifts, but these must wait for another day, for these blog stories are supposed to be short.

Suffice it to say, as parents often do, if there is any justice in the world, you reap what you sow. Al Capone ended up in Alcatraz for one set of his sins, finally dying a few years later from syphilis for another set of his sins. I don’t know when he succumbed to a life of crime, but perhaps on his twenty-first birthday he was a fresh-faced young man enjoying a family party. With Prohibition just starting, the women’s pages of the newspapers on this very day in 1920 were already tackling the problem of how to cook without using any forbidden products. From the Appleton Daily Post in Wisconsin on January 17, 1920, here are a couple of retrospective birthday dishes for our anti-hero.

‘As the last rites are being said over John Barleycorn, the question arises as to what substitutes for brandy and wine can be used in making good fruit cakes, cookies, mince pies and chafing dish creations. … The following recipes illustrate the use of fruit juice as substitutes for brandy and wine:

While Fruit Cake.
Cream 3/4 cup butter, add one and one half cups sugar, three egg-yolks beaten thick. Mix two and one half cups flour with two teaspoons of baking powder. Sift twice. Mix one and one half pounds seeded raisins, one pornd currants, one half cup citron, one cup candied orange peel, dredge with flour mixture then add. ¼
cup of cream, ½ teaspoon nutmeg. Add ( ¾ cup of brandy) grape juice used as substitute, to butter sugar and egg mixture then add flour and fruit and mix. Fold in the whites of three eggs and bake in buttered pans from 40 to 60 minutes.

Lobster a La Newberg.
Two and one half cups of lobster, three teaspoons of butter one half tea spoonful of salt, dash of cayenne, one cup citron, one half cup of sherry and brandv mixed, (fruit juice used as a. substitute) Saute the lobster in the butter, add cream and egg-yolks, also seasoning. When boiling add fruit juice.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Just for Fun.

Quotation for the Day …

Champagne will not a dinner make,
Nor caviar a meal
Men gluttonous and rich may take
Those till they make them ill
If I've potatoes to my chop,
And after chop have cheese,
Angels in Pond and Spiers's shop
Know no such luxuries.

Mark Lemmon.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Funeral Bread.

January 16

Once upon a time there were far more traditional foods consumed on particular days. Only Christmas Cake and Easter Eggs remain with fragile certainty. Who has Black Bun at Hogmanay, or Simnel Cake on Mothering Sunday anymore? And our local supermarket – the Twelve Days of Christmas barely over and some folk still tardy with removing the tinsel from the house – has Hot Cross Buns already! What is the traditional food world coming to? Food Things Fall Apart, and I am not happy about it.

As for the personal celebrations and milestones, even the white iced wedding cake can no longer be assumed, it has been usurped by chocolate mud cake and pyramids of vegan cupcakes and the like. And does anyone offer Groaning Cake and Groaning Cheese anymore, when the lady of the house has just been safely confined? And at the other end of life, where is the funeral bread?

The son of George Browne of England made a fine funeral feast for his father on this day in 1702. The expenses were not insignificant; amongst other costs there was five shillings to the preacher (only one for the doctor), two shillings to the two women “for winding him” (and a whopping nine shillings and fivepence for the 5 ½ yard winding sheet), but only 6 pence for the coffin. Browne Jnr. did not leave a bill of fare for the dinner, but noted the cost of the cheese, beef, bacon, veal, and mutton purchased. The most important and pricey item was the Arval bread at a cost of 16 shillings for ‘16 dozen at 14 to the dozen whole loaves.’

Arval bread was a type of bread provided at funerals, particularly in the North of England. No doubt it was different from region to region, as it is variously described as a ‘particular kind of loaf’, ‘a thin, light and sweet cake’, a ‘funeral loaf spiced with spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, and raisins, and ‘a coarse cake, composed of flour, water, yeast, currants, and some kind of spice; in form round, about eight inches in diameter, and the upper surface scored, perhaps exhibiting originally the sign of the cross.’ Remember, this was a century and a half before baking powder was developed, and a ‘cake’ was a sweet, fruity bread dough – which is why it was sometimes called Arval Cake. It was provided not just as sustenance at the wake, but mourners were given it to take home, and it was also distributed to the poor.

The word ‘arval’ is connected with ideas of kinship and inheritance - including inherited obligations and responsibilities. The arval dinner and arval bread were intended (according to Hazlitt) ‘to exculpate the heir and those entitled to the possessions of the deceased from fines and mulcts to the Lord of the Manor, and from all accusations of having used violence; so that the persons then convened might avouch that the person died fairly and without any personal injury.’ A heavy responsibility for a loaf of bread. The world should not have gotten rid of such a useful food.

There is then, no single, inviolable recipe for arval bread, but I offer you one from George Browne’s era that I am sure would do quite nicely. It is from The pastry-cook’s vade-mecum: or, a pocket-companion for cooks, house-keepers, country gentlewomen, &c. ... as also the art of distilling and surgery (1705).

To make Cake Bread.
Take to half a peck of Flower three pounds of Currants, rub’d dry in a Cloth, one pound and a half of Butter, half a pound of Sugar, a pretty deal of Cinnamon, half an ounce of Nutmeg, as much Mace, a good quantity of Ale-yest, and mix some Sack in it, temper all these with old Cream, and your Butter must be put in cold, temper it somewhat stiff, and let it lie half an hour to rise, then take a brown Paper and Butter it very well, and strow it well with Flower, and lay it under the Cake, then take Butter and a little Rosewater beaten well together, and wash your Cake over, and strow it well with Sugar before you set it in the Oven. Let your Oven be well heated.

Tomorrow’s Story …

An unfortunate invitation.

Quotation for the Day …

… I shall not hear your trentals*,
Nor eat your arval bread;
For the kin of you will surely do
Their duty by the dead.

… I shall not hear your trentals,
Nor eat your arval bread;
Nor with smug breath tell lies of death
To the unanswering dead.

Two verses from: Lines Written in the Belief that the Ancient Roman Festival of the Dead was called Ambarvalia, by Rupert Brooke.

*trental = A set of thirty requiem masses, said on the same day or on different days (OED).

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Living on Parmesan.

January 15

Today in 1622 was the birthday of the French playwright and actor Jean-Baptiste Molière. His health was poor in his last few years between 1667 and his death in 1673 and it is popularly believed that he subsisted almost entirely on Parmesan cheese during this time.

He could have done worse. Parmesan (or Parmigiano Reggiano) is a historic hard, dry cheese from a restricted and legally defined area of Northern Italy. The basic method of production has remained unchanged since the Middle Ages, because there is no need to mess with perfection. Sixteen litres of raw cow’s milk from grass-clover-lucerne-fed cows goes into the making of one kilo of the cheese. The real thing from the real country is termed grana, indicating that it is grainy or granular in texture, and has the words Parmigiano-Reggiano stamped all over the entire rind, so that even if you buy a small piece, you can tell it is the genuine article. It has been prized all over the known world for eight centuries.

Samuel Pepys appreciated it, and with the great fire of London approaching his home on September 4, 1666 saw fit to try to save his supply along with important documents and other valuables.

“…. And in the evening Sir W. Penn and I did dig another (pit) and put our wine in it, and I my parmazan cheese as well as my wine and some other things … Mrs. Turner …. and her husband supped with my wife and I at night in the office, upon a shoulder of mutton from the cook’s, without any napkin or anything, in a sad manner but were merry …”

Beware of imitations of this cheese – especially the pre-grated pre-packed version of ‘parmesan’-style, which may be fine and dandy for some purposes but don’t kid yourself it is close to the freshly grated real thing. And the real thing is far too good to be used merely as a pasta-topper. We far too rarely simply slice it thinly and dissolve it on the tongue, but if we do cook with it, there are other things to do with it than sprinkle it on the bolognese. We have had recipes in previous stories for Parmesan Cheese Ice-Cream (1830) and Macaroni with Parmesan (1769), so today I give you a parmesan-version of that other marriage made in heaven – cauliflower with cheese sauce - from Louis Eustache Ude’s The French Cook (1829).

Cauliflowers with Parmesan Cheese.
Prepare and dish the cauliflower as above*. Next mask the pieces with a little thick bechamelle, powder some rasped Parmesan cheese over them, and melt a little freshbutter, which pour gently in different places. Then strew them over with crumbs of bread and rasped cheese again, to which you give a fine colour with the salamander. Wipe the border of the dish, mix a little Parmesan cheese with some veloute and a little fresh butter, work the sauce, season it well, and pour it gently all round the cauliflower. If you should happen to have neither bechamelle nor any other sauce ready, a little melted butter with some glaze in it, will answer the same purpose; but it is more liable to turn to oil.

*to remove the snails or other insects, which are liable to creep towards the heart. For this purpose leave the cauliflower in cold water for an hour. Next throw it into boiling water, with a little salt and butter. This vegetable being very tender is soon done.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Funeral Bread.

Quotation for the Day …

“I live on good food, not fine words”. Jean-Baptiste Molière, Les Femmes Savants.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Pope comes to dinner.

January 14 ...

Over a thousand people, including Queen Christina of Sweden attended a banquet give for Pope Innocent XI in Rome on this day in 1687. Mine host was His Excellency the Earl of Castelmaine, English Ambassador to Rome, and he put on a fine spread indeed – so fine that the feast remained set out “for two whole days, (according to the Roman way) that everyone's curiosity might have some share in the Entertainment”.

The event was recorded by the Ambassador’s steward, John Michael Wright, and he left some details about the food.

“This large table, having (as is said) these adornments in the middle, had between them, and the napkins, (which were also most artificially folded) two rows of Assiets, or Intermesses, on either side, fill'd with all sorts of relishing bits, whether salt, sweet or soure; as Pickles, Butter, slices of delicate Bacon, Bologna-Sausiges, Taratufoli, Composts, &c., all which, stood in the abovesaid order, for two whole days, (according to the Roman way) that everyone's curiosity might have some share in the Entertainment."

The art of napkin-folding had impressed Samuel Pepys a few decades earlier, so it seems that it was a relatively new fashion in England. The ‘adornments’ were the incredibly elaborate food ‘sculptures’ – like the medieval subtelties or illusion foods that were not necessarily eaten but served as messages of propaganda or symbols of religious devotion, or simply – as in this case – to impress the guests with the wealth and status of the host. These ‘adornments’ were given to eminent ladies to take home – so no doubt they did second duty in eminent homes as symbols of rank and influence.

Mr. Wright’s inclusion of ‘composts’ in his list seems a little old-fashioned for the time. It was already an old word to describe a ‘composition’ or combination of ingredients – as in the modern use of the word to describe a mix of garden refuse in the process of melting down into rich soil. We do still use it in a culinary sense too – although we use the Frenchified version: the little accent mark over the second ‘o’ in compôte indicates the loss of a letter ‘s’. So there you are – next time you have a fruit compote you are really having a modern version of compost.

Composts were not exclusively made of fruit in medieval and early modern times. Here are a couple of versions from Englands first printed cookbook, A Noble boke off cookry ffor a prynce houssolde or eny other estately houssolde (1500)

Peres in composte.
To mak peres [pears] in composte tak a good quantite of canelle [cinnamon] and sugur and set it on the fyer to boile and draw yt throughe a stren then lesk [slice or chop]dates thyn and put them ther to in a pot and boille wardens [pears] and pair them and put them in the ceripe [syrup] put ther to sanders [red sandalwood, used to color the dish] and boile them and alay them up with chardwins and salt it and mak yt doucet [sweet] and chargaunt and put it out of the vesselle in to a treene vesselle and let it boille then pare smalle raisins and tried guinger and temper it ij dais or ij nyghtes with wyne then lay it in clarified hony cold a day and nyght then tak the raisins out of the hony and cast ther to peres in composte and serue it furthe with a cold ceripe.

To mak compost.
To mak composte tak chekins [chickens] and halve them then tak saige parsly lekes and other good erbes and chop them small then tak a pint of hony and som of the erbes and lay in the botom of the pot and som of the chekyn then tak lard of pork smale mynced and lay it on and cast ther to pouder of guingere and canelle and boille it and serue it.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Living on Parmesan.

Quotation for the Day …

Monsieur Guizot assures us that while he was ambassador in London, his cook was more useful to him politically than his secretaries.
Lucien Tendret (1825-1896) great-nephew of Brillat-Savarin.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Honorary Potatoes.

January 11 ...

It is sad that chefs no longer seem to create and name dishes in honour of celebrities. Do they not realise that they are depriving future food historians of great fun? Why are they shirking their responsibilities and not developing future classics such as Raspberries à la Bush and Gruel à la Paris Hilton ?

There are disputed claimants for the inspiration of many eponymously named dishes, and the search for authenticity can be difficult, even impossible. Who really was the Benedict in Eggs Benedict, or the Newburg in the lobster dish? There is consensus on some however, and intriguing mystery with others, and as it is our week of potatoes in celebration of the International Year of the Potato, we will look at a few of them. Other ideas are welcome, please use the comments section!

Potatoes Anna.
Myth and history collide on this one, and the ‘Anna’ is said to be a Anna Deslions, a nineteenth century Parisian celeb and member of the world’s oldest profession – although I am sure she did not see herself that way as it is said that she never charged her clients, she merely accepted trinkets such as diamonds and beautiful apartments from them. Her favourite meeting place was the famous Café des Anglais, and it appears that she brought much royal and imperial and aristocratic business to the restaurant by way of her guests. No wonder the chef of the time saw fit to create a dish in her honour. He was Adolphe Duglère, famous in his own right, and no doubt if he were alive today he would have his own TV show and his own adoring fans. Unfortunately, Adolphe did not leave one single cookbook, so the ‘authentic’ recipe is not certain. It very rapidly became a classic however, and other cookbook authors made sure they included it. Here is a version from another French chef, Charles Ranhofer, who moved to America and became famous as the chef of Delmonico’s in New York, and did write a cookbook called The Epicurean (1894).

Potatoes Anna (Pommes de Terre Anna)
Select long-shaped potatoes; they must be peeled and cut into the form of a large cork; mince them finely, and soak in water for a few moments; drain and wipe on a cloth. Butter and bread the inside of a thick copper pan, having a well-fitted cover; range on the bottom and sides a thin layer of the potatoes, one overlapping the other, then fill entirely with the remaining ones in separate layers, covering each with butter free from moisture, softened by working in a napkin; mask the upper layer with the same, and close with the lid. Cook the potatoes for three-quarters of an hour in the oven; a quarter of an hour before serving take from the fire, drain off the butter and cut a cross through the potatoes yet in the sautoir, and turn each quarter over with the aid of a palette; put back the drained-off butter and return to the oven until ready, and invert on a dish to serve. These potatoes may be made in a smaller pan; in this case they should not be cut but turned over whole before putting in the oven the second time.

A dish can be named in honour of a place or event too, and Delmonico’s restaurant became the home of several eponymously named dishes, including Delmonico Potatoes. This dish was not invented by Ranhofer however, and does not appear in his book. It was the creation of an earlier chef, Alessandro Filippini, who did include it in his own book published many years later in 1906.

Delmonico Potatoes.
Place four good-sized boiled and finely hashed potatoes in a frying pan with one and a half gills cold milk, half gill cream, two saltspoons salt, one saltspoon white pepper and a saltspoon grated nutmeg; mix well and cook on the range for ten minutes, lightly mixing occasionally. Then add one tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese, lightly mix again. Transfer the potatoes into a gratin dish, sprinkle another light tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese over and set in the oven to bake for six minutes, or until they have obtained a good golden colour; remove and serve.

There are so many more dishes, but so little time (today) to include them. I hope to gradually add them to the Fun With Potatoes recipe archive. I do leave you with one puzzle. Who was the ‘O’Brien’ in O’Brien Potatoes? The honour goes by default almost to the only person found with that name to have a significant association with potatoes – William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864) an Irish nationalist and leader of a post-famine revolt who was eventually transported to Australia for his sins. I do hope this story is true. I would love to know more about the man and the dish. Please help if you can.

Monday’s Story …

The Pope comes to dinner.

Quotation for the Day ...

I appreciate the potato only as a protection against famine; except for that I know of nothing more eminently tasteless. Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Poorhouse or Prison?

January 10

When improvements to the prison food ration were mooted in England in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a “strongly expressed opinion” on the part of some members of the judiciary, that “the increased scale of dietary recommended by the government would operate as a direct premium to crime.” In spite of these fears, the improvements were ratified, and “the most depraved characters in the country” did get better prison food.

The justice of this decision was demonstrated in an article in The British Farmer’s Magazine in 1849 that contrasted the fare in the workhouse and in the prisons. At that time the attitude to the poor was based on the principle that most of them were ‘undeserving’ – that is, were idle or indolent, and not truly deserving of charity. The management of them was therefore punitive, and the conditions in the poorhouses (as sanctioned by the Poor Laws) were deliberately kept severe as a disincentive to the lazy individuals disinclined to work, who, it was feared, would flock there in droves. The conditions were so bad that there were many reports of inmates of these ‘houses of industry’ committing crimes so as to be sentenced to gaol for a few days R&R on the better food. It is easy to see the attraction when the two dietaries are compared, as in this article. Today being Thursday, this was the fare in one set of institutions:

Breakfast (same every day): 8 oz bread and half pint of broth, gruel, or milk.
Dinner: 8 oz. bread and 4 oz. cooked meat.
Supper (same every day) 7 oz. bread and an ounce and a half of cheese.

Breakfast: 1 pint of oatmeal gruel and 6 oz. of bread.
Dinner: 4 oz. Cooked meat without bone, 1 lb potatoes, and 6 oz of bread.
Supper: 1 pint of oatmeal gruel, and 6 oz. of bread.

The workhouse diet varied hardly at all from day to day – and the food was very poor quality and often diluted and adulterated. In the prison there was a little more variety - some days there was cocoa (1 pint, sweetened with ¾ oz of sugar or molasses) for breakfast, and soup at dinner, with the ingredients specified, and including vegetables.

There is something punitive-sounding in the word ‘gruel’, isn’t there? I have never quite understood why ‘gruel’ was also a food for invalids. It would not get you better as quickly as ‘broth’, now would it?

As this is the week of potatoes in honour of The International Year of the Potato, I give you a couple of recipes for invalids from yesterday’s book, The Potato: A compilation of Information from every available source. They are from the famous venue for the wealthy unwell, the Battle Creek Sanitarium of the Kellogg brothers.

Potato Meal Gruel.
1 ½ quarts water
1 cup potato meal.
Mix, heat, and serve.

Savory Potato Meal Gruel.
1 cup water, in which is steeped two stalks of celery
½ cup water
½ cup strained tomato
2 ½ tablespoons baked potato meal
¼ cup cream
¼ teaspoonful salt.
Mix ingredients and heat.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Honorary Potatoes.

Quotation for the Day …

This root, no matter how much you prepare it, is tasteless and floury. It cannot pass for an agreeable food, but it supplies a food sufficiently abundant and sufficiently healthy for men who ask only to sustain themselves. The potato is criticised with reason for being windy, but what matters windiness for the vigorous organisms of peasants and labourers? Denis Diderot in 1767

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Polite Potatoes.

January 9

I am devastated. Humiliated even. I wish to apologise retrospectively to all my dinner guests over the years. I have belatedly read the advice (96 year old advice!) that would have saved me from several decades of social ineptitude.

I have served impolite potatoes for decades.

The Potato: A compilation of Information from every available source (1912) advises that “In polite society, potatoes are only admitted “en robe de chambre”, - that is to say, in their jackets – to the midday meal and then not on formal occasions. At such time the following are used …. ”

The book goes on to give a number of extraordinarily polite potato recipes, starting with this one:

Potato Georgette.
Special recipe of M. Joseph, chef of the Cafe Paillard:
Take a potato and hollow it out, filling the hollow with a salpicon of shrimp tails drenched in a bisque sauce made from the heads and pounded bodies of the shrimps. Cover the potato with some of the mashed insides and bake very well done and serve hot.

Somewhat later in the polite section is a familiar recipe:

Potatoes Julienne (Shoestring Potatoes)
Cut raw into very fine shreds like straws, cook quickly in hot lard, dust with fine salt.

Followed by a very unfamiliar (to me) and most intriguingly named dish:

Between the Acts Potatoes.
Same as Julienne, only about twice as large.

The name? Does this mean French Fries during the interval at the theatre?

From another book about The Irish Potato (1914) by Jessie Pinning Rich, from the University of Texas in 1914 we have a rather more homely approach – a recipe which sounds like a great way to use up leftover potatoes - but whatever you do, don’t serve them to guests if you move in polite society, it sounds a little rustic and, well, leftover.

Waldorf Potatoes.
Cut cold boiled potatoes into cubes and mix one cup of potatoes and one-half cup of cream sauce, having previously added four tablespoons of grated cheese. Pour over potatoes and heat slowly without boiling.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Poorhouse or Prison?

Quotation for the Day …

Pray for peace and grace and spiritual food. For wisdom and guidance, for all these are good. But don’t forget the potatoes. John Tyler Petee.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Leprosy in the time of Potatoes.

January 8

Gilbert White (1720-1793) was an English cleric and naturalist whose home was Selborne in Hampshire. Much of his detailed observation of the natural world (and the human one) was recorded in letters he wrote to other naturalists and scientists, and these were compiled in a book called The Natural History of Selborne. In a letter he wrote on this day in 1778, he mused on the possible causes of leprosy (particularly the dietary) – and in the course of this gives us a strong clue as to the timing of the acceptance of the potato as a useful crop in England.

To The Honourable Daines Barrington

Selborne, Jan. 8, 1778.

Dear Sir,
In all ages the leprosy has made dreadful havoc among mankind…. Some centuries ago this horrible distemper prevailed all Europe
over; and our forefathers were by no means exempt, …. It must therefore, in these days, be, to an humane and thinking person, a matter of equal wonder and satisfaction, when he contemplates how nearly this pest is eradicated … This happy change perhaps may have originated and been continued from the much smaller quantity of salted meat and fish now eaten in these kingdoms; from the use of linen next the skin; from the plenty of better bread; and from the profusion of fruits, roots, legumes, and greens, so common in every family. … Three or four centuries ago, before there were any enclosures, sown-grasses, field-turnips, or field-carrots, or hay, all the cattle which had grown fat in summer, and were not killed for winter-use, were turned out soon after Michaelmas to shift as they could through the dead months; so that no fresh meat could be had in winter or spring…. But agriculture is now arrived at such a pitch of perfection, that our best and fattest meats are killed in the winter; and no man need eat salted flesh, unless he prefers it, that has money to buy fresh…. One cause of this distemper might be, no doubt, the quantity of wretched fresh and salt fish consumed by the commonalty at all seasons as well as in Lent; …. Potatoes have prevailed in this little district, by means of premiums, within these twenty years only; and are much esteemed here now by the poor, who would scarce have ventured to taste them in the last reign.

It was an interesting turnaround for the potato – to be given as an example of the profusion of healthy vegetables available for the poor, and thereby contributing to the disappearance of leprosy. One of the things that delayed the adoption of the potato in Europe was the belief that it might cause leprosy - although this may well have been propaganda on the part of clerics who feared that what it would really do would be to precipitate a distracting lust amongst their flock. Many fruits and vegetables introduced from the New World were initially accused of being aphrodisiacs (the tomato and chocolate also for example) - the motto seemed to be ‘If in doubt, don’t trust it.’

Cookbooks of the eighteenth century do contain recipes for ‘potatoes’, but often this means the sweet potato. It is not always possible to be certain which potato is being referred to in a recipe. Sometimes the ‘ordinary’ white potato was referred to as the Virginia potato, or Irish potato or white potato – but ‘Spanish potato’ could mean either variety.

Which type of potato do you think Mrs Elizabeth Raffald expects you to use in this recipe from The Experienced English Housewife (1769)?

To scollop Potatoes.
Boil your potatoes, then beat them fine in a bowl with good cream, a lump of butter and salt. Put them into scolloped shells, make them smooth on top, score them with a knife. Lay thin slices of butter on the top of them, put them in a Dutch oven to brown before the fire. Three shells is enough for a dish.
[P.S. There are more historic potato recipes HERE.]

Tomorrow’s Story …

Polite Potatoes.

Quotation for the Day …

What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow. A.A. Milne.