Today is the anniversary of the birth, in 1875, of Edmund Clerihew Bentley. He is the inventor of the ‘clerihew’ – ‘a short comic or nonsensical verse, professedly biographical, of two couplets differing in length.’ Why this little poetical exercise got his middle name is a mystery (I suppose ‘Bentley’ was already taken?) – would it have been so successful if it had been ‘John’? Anyway. I digress.
Edmund is on my radar for one reason only. The first ‘clerihew’ he wrote, as a sixteen-year old schoolboy happens to be on one of my favourite topics. And my favourite dinner tables.
“Sir Humphry Davy/ Abominated gravy./ He lived in the odium/ Of having discovered Sodium.”
The topic is gravy, not Davy.
Whether or not Sir Humphrey Davy did in fact abominate gravy is immaterial: the clever little rhyme pops up regularly in every food quotation site in the cybersphere. If Sir Humphrey did indeed dislike gravy, he was a very rare Englishman. There is a hoary old joke that
What is amazing of course is that the simple word ‘gravy’ refers to a sauce of such infinite variation, that only one primary sauce is needed (compared with the French, who need four). The word appears to derive from the Old French word grané for ‘grain’ – suggesting that the original ‘gravy’ was a porridg-y dish, or at least one thickened with something. At some point in time the ‘n’ in ‘grané’ was mis-transcribed perhaps, as a ‘v’. The Oxford English Dictionary thinks so anyway.
It appears that the original ‘gravy’ was for white meats, and was made from broth thickened with almonds, nicely spiced, with the addition of wine or ale. The word can now mean anything from pure, unadulterated meat jus, a simple broth, a broth thickened with a roux, to all manner of complicated sauces and simple packet mixes made of brown powder and salt.
I intend to collect these gravy-variations. There will be another tomorrow, and thereafter they will be random, as the whim takes me. Or you, if you wish to be a random gravy-poster.
Here is one to start us off:
An excellent keeping gravy.
Burn an ounce of butter in a frying-pan ; always taking care to do it at such a proper distance from the fire, that while the flour is strewing into the butter, it may become brown, but not black. Put to it two pounds of coarse lean beef, a quart of water, half a pint of either red or white wine, three anchovies, two shalots, a little white pepper, a few cloves, and a bit of mace, with three or four mushrooms or pickled walnuts. After letting the whole stew gently about an hour, it may be strained for use ; it will keep several days, and is proper for any savoury dish.
[A Modern System of Domestic Cookery. Mrs. Radcliffe. 1823]
Tomorrow’s Story …
Gravy, Part 2.
Quotation for the Day …
I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage. Erma Bombeck.