Friday, May 14, 2010

The Lost Art of Midnight Suppers.

Midnight suppers – who has them? Proper suppers I mean, not just snacks stolen silently by the light of the refrigerator. Once upon a time they were part of the social entertainment of the hoi-polloi, who had servants to get up at the crack of dawn to blacken the Master’s boots and whitewash the scullery steps and pluck the partridges for luncheon.

I included some details of a midnight supper provided by the City of London to Queen Victoria in 1851, in Menus from History. The menu was impressive enough, in the usual elaborate nineteenth century way, but the wine list was really something. It included an amontillado ‘of curious antiquity’ and a hundred and twenty-five year-old sherry which had been bottled for the Emperor Napoleon. Now THAT is a Midnight Feast, not a mere Supper!

Perhaps we should say To Hell with worrying about the morning chores, and restore the occasional habit of a genuine midnight supper? For catering ideas I suggest we consult May E. Southworth – the author of a couple of cookbooks we have used recently for our recipes for the day. May introduced us to the liberal use of sherry and other beverages in our invalid cookery, as well as some rather interesting ‘Mexican’ recipes in another post. As it happens, May also wrote a book on our topic of today - Midnight feasts; two hundred & two salads and chafing-dish recipes (1914). I liked her attitude in the previous books, so I just knew that she would be in favour of midnight feasts (note that she calls them feasts, not merely suppers - a positive start, I thought.)

May starts off by reassuring us that they are actually good for us:

“There was a time, in benighted ages, when it was considered the height of indiscretion to eat late at night, but in these advanced times, old-fashioned theories are gradually passing, and in eliminating one stupidity after another, we have come to consider suppers at night, after a sociable evening of any kind, both wholesome and beneficial. If we are hungry we are unhappy, and according to the most sensible philosophy, why should we go to bed unhappy, when alleviation lies right at hand, in our pantry?”

So there, if you need it, is a justification for midnight feasting. And don’t you love the idea of alleviation of potential unhappiness by judicious use of a well-stocked pantry? A cafĂ©-delicatessen in my neighbourhood has a notice that says “The difference between a calm cook and a panicked cook is a well-stocked pantry.”

A favourite after-dinner savoury and supper snack in England in the nineteenth century was Welsh Rabbit. As regular readers will be aware, I am always keen to add to my collection of recipes for this delicious cheesy thing, and I have a good excuse today because May includes an interesting variant, which I give you below. Note that she gets the name wrong by calling it ‘rarebit’, and then demeans the dish itself to the level of a mere sauce – but she is American, after all, and we will forgive her as her heart is in the right place.

Halibut Rarebit
Sprinkle two small slices of halibut with salt and pepper, brush over with melted butter, and place in the greased pan and cook twelve minutes. Remove to a hot platter and pour over it a Welsh rarebit.

Welsh Rarebit
Place a tablespoonful of butter in the chafing-dish; add two pounds of good Eastern cheese chopped fine, a generous pinch of salt, one-third of a teaspoonful of cayenne, four dashes of Worcestershire sauce and stir vigorously until melted. Then add a wine-glass of porter or ale and a teaspoonful of Colman's mustard and stir until it bubbles. Serve on hot toast. Make over hot-water pan.

P.S For those of you who need a refresher on the topic, Welsh Rarebit is explicated HERE and HERE.


Quotation for the Day.

There in long robes the royal Magi stand,
Grave Zoroaster waves the circling wand,
The sage Chaldaeans rob'd in white appear'd,
And Brahmans, deep in desert woods rever'd.
These stop'd the moon, and call'd th' unbody'd shades
To midnight banquets in the glimm'ring glades;
Made visionary fabrics round them rise,
And airy spectres skim before their eyes;
Of Talismans and Sigils knew the pow'r,
And careful watch'd the Planetary hour.
From: The Temple of Fame, Alexander Pope, 1715

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