Friday, October 09, 2015

Curiosities of Fashion in The Matter of One’s Food.

It is time for a change of topic – I fear that too much more on food words may make some eyes glaze over. I have a nineteenth century piece on fashion in food for you, and I think much of it will resonate with you today, thereby proving that some topics have almost eternal lives and are regularly resurrected or reincarnated at the whim of one or more bored food writers, cooks, or diners.

The article is extremely long, so I have selected the paragraphs that particularly appeal to me. I do feel that the author of the piece in London Society. An Illustrated Magazine of Light and Amusing Literature for the Hours of Relaxation, (Volume 11; 1867) is rather harsh about cooks – but very funny all the same. 

Curiosities of Fashion in The Matter of One’s Food.

FASHION is society's Chancellor of the Exchequer, and fails not to tax the lieges with ingenuity and unrelenting sternness of purpose. … Fashion tempts you to live on a thousand a year when your income is only eight hundred. … Fashion makes you wear a hat that pinches your ample brow, and puts on Amanda’s head a bonnet that does not become her. Fashion tempts you to live on a thousand a year when your income is only eight hundred. …

But perhaps the most personal and humiliating of Fashion's provocations is its interference with our food. Not even the kitchen and the salle à manger are safe from its vexatious intrusion. As sternly as an Abernethy to a dyspeptic patient, it says to society, “This thou shalt eat, and this thou shalt not eat. This dish is vulgar; yonder plat is obsolete; none but the canaille partake of melted butter; only the ignorant immerse their souls in beer.” And changeable as that sex which is supposed to worship it most humbly, Fashion proscribes in 1863 what it sanctioned in 1763; and approves now, what in the days when George III was king - consule planes - it most sternly condemned. The meals which now do (too often) coldly furnish forth the table were regarded with contempt by our great- great-grand fathers. Fancy Sir Roger de Coverley examining a salmi des perdrix or a pâté de foie gras
In like manner the Honourable Fitzplantagenet Smith would regard as 'deuced low' the boar's head that delighted his cavalier ancestor, or the peacock pie that smoked upon Elizabethan boards.

… The great ministers of Fashion, its agents in enforcing its decrees upon unhappy society, have been the cooks - always a potent, a conceited, and, sooth to say, an ignorant fraternity. From the days of Aristoxenes and Archestratus to those of Ude - Ude, who refused four hundred a year and a carriage when offered by the Duke of Richmond, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, because there was no Opera at Dublin - from the days of Archestratus to those of Ude, they have studied rather the display of their inventive powers than the laws of physiology and the stomachs f their patrons. Ben Jonson furnishes us with an admirable description of one of these gentry, who are more solicitous about the invention of wonderful novelties than the provision of a wholesome and sufficient dinner :- ' A master cook!' exclaims the poet;

Why, he’s the man of men
For a professor; he designs, he draws,
He paints, he carves, he builds, he fortifies;
Makes citadels of curious fowl and fish.
Some he dry-dishes, some moats around with broths,
Mounts marrow-bones, cuts fifty-angled custards
Tears bulwark pies, and for his outerworks
He raiseth ramparts of immortal crust;
And teacheth all the tactics at one dinner:
What ranks, what files to put his dishes in;
The whole art military. Then he knows
The influence of the stars upon his meats,
And all their seasons, tempers, qualities;
And so to fit his relishes and sauces,
He has Nature in a pot, ‘bove all the chemists
Or airy brethren of the Rosy-Cross.
He is an architect, an engineer,
A soldier, a physician, a philosopher,
A general mathematician!

It is the cooks who are responsible for the untasteful monstrosities and semi-poisonous plâts that still figure in our bills of fare. Just as the cooks of ancient Rome served up to their patrons the membranous parts of the matrices of a sow, the echinus or sea-hedgehog, the flesh of young hawks, and especially rejoiced in a whole pig, boiled on one side and roasted on the other—the belly stuffed with thrushes, and yolks of eggs, and hens, and spiced meats; so the cooks of modern London love to disguise our food with an infinite variety of flavours, until the natural is entirely lost, and the most curious examiner is at a loss to detect the component arts of any particular dish. The ancient cooks, with a vegetable, could counterfeit the shape and the taste of fish and flesh. We are told that a king of Bithynia having, in one of his expeditions, strayed to a great distance from the seaside, conceived a violent longing for a small fish called aphy, either a pilchard, an anchovy, or a herring. His cook was a genius, however, and could conquer obstacles. He had no aphy, but he had a turnip. This he cut into a perfect imitation of the fish; then fried in oil, salted, and powdered thoroughly with the grains of a dozen black poppies. His majesty ate, and was delighted! Never had he eaten a more delicious aphy! But our modern cooks are not inferior to the ancient. Give them a partridge or a pheasant, a veal cutlet or a mutton chop, and they will so dish you up each savoury article that nothing of its original flavour shall be discernible. O Fashion! O cooks! O confectioners ! We are your slaves, your victims; and our stomachs the laboratories in which you coolly carry out your experiments. Look, for instance, at vegetables: no food more wholesome, or more simple, and yet how the cooks do torture and manipulate them, until the salutary properties of these cibi innocentes utterly disappear!

… The vagaries of fashion have not as yet introduced frogs into our English bills of fare, and, as far as our own taste is concerned, we trust no such innovation will be attempted. But if ever frogs should figure on our tables, it is some consolation to reflect that our cooks will prevent them from tasting like frogs,—they will so spice, and flavor, and combine, and dilute the dish. As Sam Slick says, — ' Veal to be good, must look like anything else but veal. You mustn't know it when you see it, or it's vulgar; mutton must be incog., too; beef must have a mask on; any thin' that looks solid, take a spoon to; any thin' that looks light, cut with a knife; if a thing looks like fish, you take your oath it is flesh; and if it seems real flesh, it's only disguised, for it's sure to be fish; nothin' must be nateral—natur is out of fashion here. This is a manufacturin' country; everything is done by machinery, and that that aint, must be made to look like it; and I must say, the dinner machinery is perfect.'

I give you as the recipe of the day, a strictly no-nonsense, no-frills, completely undisguised way of dealing with leftover veal from The Englishwoman’s Cookery Book, published in 1872 several years after the death of Isabella Beeton, to whom it is attributed.

BAKED VEAL (Cold Meat Cookery).
Ingredients.— ½ lb. cold roast veal, a few slices bacon, 1 pint bread crumbs, ½ pint good veal gravy, ½ teaspoonful minced lemon-peel, 1 blade pounded mace, cayenne and salt to taste, 4 eggs.
Mode.—Mince finely the veal and bacon; add the bread crumbs, gravy, and seasoning, and stir these ingredients well together. Beat up the eggs; add these, mix the whole well together, put into a dish, and bake from ¾ to 1 hour. A little good gravy may be served in a tureen as an accompaniment.
Time, from ¾ to 1 hour. Average cost, exclusive of the cold meat, 9d. Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons. Seasonable from March to October.

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