I really love learning about history, and one of my favorite periods (as regular readers will know) that I enjoy reading about is the interwar years--just after the end of WWI and the before start of WWII. Historical fiction is one way to learn a little about history in an easy and painless manner (or at least being a jumping off place to learn something new), but you can't beat books that deal with social history to give you an idea of how people really lived and what they thought--my favorites being anecdotal or narrative types of writing.
What about learning about history via cookery books? An entirely different sort of history but none the less fascinating and in some ways more so. Certainly you can't question the authenticity of someone living in England in 1922 and writing from the immediacy of the moment. Here's the world of (in some cases anyway) women and the domestic sphere, yet books like Agnes Jekyll's A Little Dinner Before the Play look out on to the broader world as well.
The book is made up of essays originally published in The Times in the early 1920s and she writes in an intimate and cozy manner about a world long since vanished. Lady Agnes Jekyll, a celebrated hostess, was the sister-in-law of Gertrude Jekyll the famous English garden designer. Anyone who can claim as guests to her first dinner party the likes of Robert Browning, John Ruskin, and Edward Burne-Jones, surely knows well of what she writes. I think I would have taken her advice, though she was definitely writing from a certain social strata in which I doubt I would have been living. Of course it's this strata that I find endlessly (though not exclusively) interesting to read about--the sort of people who might still have servants, have active social lives--plays, dinner parties, weekend shooting parties, holidays in Tuscany and the like, and entrée into homes and places not open perhaps to the rest of the world. Should note here--don't think I'm snobbish in liking to read about the 'upstairs' sort of folk--only it's a world quite unlike my own and so am curious about it, though I find the 'downstairs' world immensely interesting, too.
Although the War would have been several years past the effects of it can still be felt as Jekyll alludes to it albeit somewhat indirectly. I imagine her world to be elegant and full of opportunities. She might have entertained artists and politicians and blue-blood Society matrons. In her world a meal was something that might be lavish and would certainly have been well thought out and presented with an eye towards sophistication and taste. But as a good hostess she would also know her "audience". And there are, too, the glimmers of a changing world in her writing.
Once again my copy is dog eared since there were so many interesting bits I wanted to go back to and share. Just as the times were changing socially, so, too was the food that was being eaten.
"A Salad Course as habitually given now at American luncheon parties might furnish a pleasing variety from established usage, and for the central dish a large green bowl containing a mixture of green or sugar corn of the largest shelled variety (as sold in tins by American grocery importers), freshened and flavoured with a little whipped cream, pepper, and red celery salt, and surrounded by pieces of white endive lubricated with oil and vinegar."
In the same essay, "A Little Dinner Before the Play", she plans her meal down to the last desire of her guests.
"There should still be time for a perfect cup of coffee and a possible liqueur, and, most desired of all by many, for a good smoke, without which there will be no social fire. Warmed thus and fed, the play-goers will be attuned to enjoyment and ready to appreciate each other, their dinner, their play, and their hostess, 'and to bed with great contentment'."
Oh, my, how times have changed. A little dinner before the play these days would like take place in a good restaurant, which is likely now smoke free!
Next time I'm ill I want someone to lavish the same sort of attention on me as Jekyll advises her readers to do. My tray meal has never consisted of "lustre ware of both silver and gold" to give a bit of brightness to the tea or breakfast sets. As a matter of fact I don't think I've ever had the benefit of a tray meal (sick or otherwise).
"Remember that the whole tone of the day can be set into a happy major key instead of into a mournful minor one by the mere aspect of the breakfast tray. A cheerful cherry - glacé or fresh - will render irresistible the skilfully-prepared and iced grape fruit on a hot day, a seedless orange halved and treated in the same way, beautified by green leaves of its own, or the nearest resembling foliage (and even villa gardens can boast a laurustinus bush); a gay-pottery saucer of thin slices of banana with brown sugar and cream, a slice of melon, a tiny bunch of grapes, summer fruits in their seasons, and the health-giving apple accompanied by its ingenious little plated corer and wooden platter--all these may render nourishment welcome. A bunch of violets or primroses, a single rose, a sprig of heather, a spray of lemon verbena would bring a reminder of fresh life and loveliness from the outdoor world."
Spoiled with a tray like that I am sure I'd feel immeasurably better in no time.
One of my favorite essays was "Food for Travellers". In this case the travellers are going by train, which I have always found to be a hugely romantic way of travelling (and living in the US, something we simply don't do here--hence the attractiveness I'm sure). Now travellers in Jekyll's day were off to the sunny Riviera or somewhere cold for skiing, or perhaps a little gambling in Monte Carlo. Adequate provision in the form of a picnic basket was a necessity. Not having very sophisticated tastes I have to say I would have preferred the children's basket over that of the adults. I'm afraid home-made foie gras just doesn't hold the appeal for me, though the sandwiches of thinnest gruyère between biscuits sound pretty good. For the children:
"Sandwiches of fruit for the children are popular. Round slices of banana sprinkled with orange juice and white centrifugal sugar, or of thinly-cut apple with grated walnuts, sandwiches of cream cheese with a thin spread of currant jelly, of egg with sardine or anchovy, of celery shredded and creamed and sprinkled with plentiful yolk of hard-boiled egg, sandwiches of sponge-cake spread with chocolate or coffee icing, sandwiches of pastry with jam or glazed with thin caramel."
Okay, maybe I would also pass on the sardines! I wonder what kind of bread she would have used? One thing that I found interesting reading these essays and the accompanying recipes was the way they are presented. Her recipes wouldn't have been for the novice. A certain amount of cooking knowledge would have been necessary I think, as she assumes the reader will already know how to prepare certain dishes, and the directions aren't always all that explicit. I'll leave you with one recipe, and I wonder if you can guess what it will be? Not braised sheep's tongue I assure you.
". . . a nice Oatmeal Sunday Pudding for family consumption . . ."
"Take 3 oz. coarse oatmeal, 3 oz. flour, 2 oz. butter (or margarine), 1 1/2 oz. sugar, rind of 1 lemon, 1/2 teacupful treacle, 1/2 teaspoonful carbonate of soda, 1/2 teacupful milk, 2 oz. dried stoned and chopped raisins, ditto candied peel; rub butter into floor, add oatmeal, sugar, soda, fruit, rind, and bind together with warmed milk and treacle. Turn into a greased mould or basin; steam carefully for 2 or 3 hours. Turn out and serve with a sweet sauce or a custard made hot."
Now that I have the whole set of these Penguin Great Food books, I think I need to make them into a reading project (the first of several I've got in mind--expect some changes in my tabbed area at the top of my page here). I plan on reading all 20 volumes, though I am in no rush to get through them. They are quite short-less than 150 pages or so and it would be easy to read one or two a month and try and finish sometime before the end of next year. Now I just need to decide whether to read at random or put the books in order by period they were written. It would be interesting to see how cooking and tastes have changed over time, but then reading at whim is nice as well. It would be fun, too to try and make at least one dish from each book, though I'm not so sure I will be so faring--will have to think on that aspect of the project. In any case I'll be deciding soon as I am ready now to pick up another book and hope it will be equally as charming and delightful to read as the Jekyll was.