Thursday, August 18, 2011

Entertaining Frugality.

Today I am going to give you a cautionary tale from mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam. I have no idea of its authenticity – perhaps it is urban myth - but there is a certain timelessness and universality about it, as befits all good cautionary tales. And besides, it is fun.

The story was told (or re-told) a century and a continent away, in the Massachusetts Spy of August 18, 1785:
An Excellent Example of Frugality.

In the reign of King James the II, an eminent burgomaster of Amsterdam, having, with much grief, observed the degeneracy which began to shew itself among the Dutch, and the excesses which were the issue of wealth and idleness, took this method to shew his countrymen the folly and danger of their prodigalities. He invited the whole magistracy (consisting of thirty-six persons) and their ladies to a dinner which they made no doubt both for variety and delicacy, would be worthy both of him and them, but how great was their disappointment, when they saw the first course upon the board, consisting of apples boiled in buttermilk, stock fish with turnips and carrots, red herrings, and a lettuce salad; and for drink, small beer. The master invited his guests to fall to, the ladies pleaded want of appetite, the men looked like young prophets, when they cried out that death was in the pot, and until the table was cleared, scarce a word was spoke. But then there appeared under every plate a scroll of verses signifying that such was the fare of their forefathers, when their city first began to thrive, and the States to have a name among the nations. The second course was then served up, which consisted of butchers’ meat of every sort, roasted and boiled; but all undisguised with the arts of cookery and without any sauce than what a good stomach was to supply. English beer and Punch wine were likewise added to the side-board; and when the table was cleared a second time, certain other verses presented themselves, by which the guests were informed that, with regard to the wants of nature, these were luxuries; that it was the office of reason to regulate both the taste and the appetite; that by living thus, they would leave both their wealth and their temperance to their heirs, who being used to such excellent examples, would blush to be thought degenerate by their children. The table was then spread with all manner of fish and fowl, wild and tame, exquisitely dressed, and relished with the most agreeable sauces which were served up in plate, accompanied with wines of the finest growths of the Rhine Moselle, champaign and burgundy, and followed with a poetical memorial, importing, that all beyond enough was too much, that all beyond nourishment was luxury; and that beyond decency was extravagance; that intemperance had a smiling aspect, but a dreadful retinue, consisting of a composition of diseases that death had been their cook, and that he had infused a slow poison in every sauce. The last scroll seemed to strike a momentary damp on the spirits of the guests; which was soon forgot, on the appearance of a most magnificent desert [sic], to which not only all Europe, but both the Indies had contributed, followed by several rich wines, and every other delicacy that wealth without bounds could purchase. After which the hand writing again denounced, that Luxury is to property, what a plague is to health; that it is equally destructive; that it is the disease of which the noblest monarchies and most flourishing States have died; that when it became epidemical in a country depending on commerce, like theirs, a dissolution must inevitably follow; in consequence of which, the rich and renowned city of Amsterdam would again be reduced to a fishing village, and their posterity becomes poor as their ancestors were, without their continuance, industry or virtue. This wise, seasonable and excellent admonition of this noble burgomaster it is more than probable, had just as much effect at Amsterdam, as the repetition of them would have been in London or Dublin. The rigour of them was, perhaps ridiculed by a few, the truth acknowledged by the majority, and the application neglected by all. So powerful is reason in the field, so insignificant are the fruits of her victories.

As the Recipe for the Day, I give you an eighteenth century English concept of chicken cooked ‘in the Dutch way.’ Note the use of the parsley root. You don’t see parsley root in many recipes today, do you?

Chickens in the Dutch way, with parsley roots, and leaves of ditto.
Three large chickens will be enough; cut off the pinions, but not the feet, strip off the stockings (as they are called) by fire or boiling water, and tie them down upon the breasts; make a forcemeat with the livers, &c. as before named, put into them, blanch them nice and white over a clear stove, put them upon a lark spit, and tie them to another, with some lards of bacon, and plenty of butter'd paper; take care they are exactly coloured as you would roast a chicken in the English way, and provide your sauce as here set down; take some parsley roots that are not sticky, take off the rinds, cut them in thin slices, and lay them to soak in vinegar, salt and water, a green onion or two, and some parsley and shallot, with a blade of mace and whole pepper, for two or three hours; fry them very softly in a bit of butter, and wash afterwards in warm water; put them into some cullis, with a good dash of white wine of the sharp sort, boil it all together with a minced mushroom or two, or a green truffle, a little pepper, salt and nutmeg, have a good quantity of parsley leaves boiled nice and green, stir it into your roots just before it goes to table; clean your chickens from grease, and lay them in your dish, make your sauce boiling hot, add the juice of two or three lemons or oranges, and serve it up.
[A Complete System of Cookery, by William Verral 1759]

Quotation of the Day.

Food probably has a very great influence on the condition of men. Wine exercises a more visible influence, food does it more slowly but perhaps just as surely. Who knows if a well-prepared soup was not responsible for the pneumatic pump or a poor one for a war?
Georg C. Lichtenberg


Donald (Farm to Table Peterborough) said...

i've just stumbled upon your blog, and i have to say that it is a refreshingly light-hearted, literary work of craftmanship.

as a person who works hard promoting local, seasonal cooking, it is always inspiring to see a reminder of how important the staple and garden crops (and meats) of the day were integral to the diets and menus of our forebears.

i'd love to link to this from my two blogs both of which will be found at

thanks for a wonderful read.

Laura@Silkroadgourmet said...

Hi Janet:

I just found your blog and think its great!

Although a bit out of your usual time period, I wanted to tell you and your readers that I am holding a Mesopotamian Cookoff over on Silk Road Gourmet through September. We are using recipes from Bottero and other sources that I have re-analyzed and in most cases corrected for accuracy.

Chefs from three continents (so far) have submitted dishes based on these recipes from 4,000 years ago. Dishes include Lamb and Carob Stew, Pistachio stuffed dates, Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries and more. I’ll be posting new recipes this weekend and am urging other cooks and chefs to step up with their creative interpretations of their dishes!

Check it out if you are interested in ancient cookery.