Apr/May 2009

Kitchen Essays

Polly Shulman


Country friends have flocked to London for a little shopping, and you’d like to offer them luncheon. Or perhaps your cook’s mother has developed one of those sudden and disastrous illnesses endemic among cooks’ mothers during the holidays. Or maybe you’d like to prepare “a restrained and anglicized Bouillabaisse” for guests who refrain from meat. What do you do?

In the early 1920s, you could open The Times and find advice, complete with recipes, in a series of graceful, anonymous “Kitchen Essays,” the work of one Agnes Jekyll. This Jekyll was neither the famous garden designer (that was her sister-in-law, Gertrude) nor a character in the Robert Louis Stevenson novella (Stevenson, a friend of Gertrude’s brother, borrowed the Jekyll family name for his hero), but a celebrated hostess of Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets—the guests at her first dinner party included John Ruskin, Robert Browning, and Edward Burne-Jones.

For rural visitors, says Jekyll, “it will be the more appreciated if we take the trouble to order such fare as is not readily procurable in the country, for the charm of novelty is a potent one. ‘What is that delicious little cake?’ her late Majesty Queen Victoria is said to have inquired with interest, on being confronted for the first time with a penny bun.” Jekyll’s diet advice: The too thin might try a Swiss soup made with veal stock, tapioca, and cream; the too fat might benefit from “Calves Brains, carefully washed and poached . . . with a little beurre noir sauce mainly composed of diluted vinegar and lemon, a very little butter, and plenty of chopped parsley.”

As a cook, Jekyll may be a little too fond—for contemporary tastes, at least—of traditional English ingredients like suet and American novelties like puffed wheat and canned corn. But as a writer, she achieves a perfect balance of flavors, folding philosophy and practical advice into a soufflé of nourishing lightness, seasoned with a dash of anecdote and garnished with the perfect quotation. In “Luncheon for a Motor Excursion in Winter,” she zooms from poetic to sensible: “Perhaps before you turn homewards you will collect a few delicate trails of ivy, better taken than left, from some wayside trees, to float in your flat bowl. . . . The nursery might be made happy by a sod of growing daisies from the hedgerow, such as have given great poets thoughts too deep for tears, and which could fill the empty luncheon receptacles, only forbearing to damage wild beauty which is everybody’s possession.”

Jekyll’s quest for “Le Mot Juste” (the title of one of the essays) extends even to the recipes, which call for “a refined little clove of garlic” or cherries “beautifully embalmed in Marsala and sugar.” She exhorts her readers to stir “gently but inexorably till smooth” and asserts that a good stuffing should be “tactfully inserted.” Her tests of doneness read like the best nature writing: When ready, Cat’s Tongue Biscuits “should be of a deep cream color, merging along their edges into the delicate brown of fading magnolias”; Orange Jumbles “will be the size of teacup rims, and should curl their crisp edges, faintly pink as the underneath of a young mushroom.”

What about leftovers? “If your cook has the puff-pastry touch, a Vol-au-Vent case confers distinction on all manner of noble relics, united in the bonds of a good sauce.” These essays are noble relics indeed, and Jekyll has the puff-pastry touch.

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