Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

Beauty and the Feast

A sumptuous series of classic food writing reveals how people have dined—and lived—over the years.

Melanie Rehak


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Three of Coralie Bickford-Smith's cover designs for the Penguin Great Food series.

After spending some weeks luxuriating in the gorgeous presence of Penguin’s Great Food series—a collection of reprints that includes the genre’s classic titles from the past four hundred years—I have many questions. Would I ever actually make lambs’ ears with sorrel or fricassee of calves’ tongues, as suggested in Recipes from the White Hart Inn (1759)? Could I possibly live up to “the inward virtues of every housewife,” as detailed by Gervase Markham in The Well-Kept Kitchen (1615)? But perhaps most pressing is this inquiry, fortunately directed at someone living now: Designer Coralie Bickford-Smith, creator of covers I would happily eat if only paper were more easily digestible, will you please come redecorate my entire life?

Forget for a moment about Samuel Pepys, Alexandre Dumas, and nineteenth-century British household-etiquette maven Isabella Beeton, just a few of the grand personages whose wise words about cooking, eating, and domestic life fill the pages of these heavenly little volumes; not one of them could possibly hold a candle to Bickford-Smith in the aesthetic arena. Each of her covers is better than the last, awash in a lavish, color-saturated design based on a china or ceramic pattern from the book’s era. These lush backgrounds, which include flowers, golden leaves, and, in one case, peacocks, are each further adorned with the silhouette of a kitchen basic—a pitcher, a gravy boat, a soup tureen, a tankard—inscribed with the volume’s title, and the little Penguin penguin himself, kicking up a foot in jaunty glee and holding a fork and knife as big as he is. He looks, in fact, as eager as I was to dive into these books.

Because as much as I love current books about food—and by “current” I mean anything written in the last fifty years or so—there’s something gripping about reading books that chronicle the way people ate, and by association the way they lived, in years gone by. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote back in 1839, all history is biography; nowhere is that more true than in stories about eating and drinking. After all, what measure of civilization is more accurate than a survey of how people survived in lean times and celebrated in good ones, whether personal or national? Collectively, these records remind us that regardless of trappings and table settings, wartime privations and gourmet decadence, human nature doesn’t really change that much, even if food trends do.

And since we’re speaking of decadence, why not move right along to the prolific Pepys, represented here by a selection from his endlessly delightful diaries titled The Joys of Excess. Consisting entirely of excerpts to do with eating, drinking, and the outsized pleasures and problems of both (which Pepys specialized in when he wasn’t busy being a naval administrator and MP and writing absolutely everything down), it is a carnival of seventeenth-century over-indulgence. One is struck, among other things, by how often Pepys seems to go from meal to meal with only the odd meeting in between, and by how often even the meetings themselves take place over food. It’s not uncommon to find him describing a multicourse lunch that might include anything from roasted swan to a full barrel of oysters to “a good hog’s harslet, a piece of meat I love,” then follow it with nothing more than his customary sign-off: “and so to supper and bed.” Needless to say, these repasts are usually accompanied by liquid refreshments in equally copious amounts, leading to the only kind of soul-searching a profoundly satisfied man like Pepys could ever indulge: “I rose today without any pain,” he jotted down thoughtfully on August 11, 1660, “which makes me think that my pain yesterday was nothing but from my drinking too much the day before.” Indeed.

Part of the joy of reading old texts about food is being appalled and disgusted by some of the things people used to consume (the Great Food series does include a few contemporary writers, such as Calvin Trillin and Alice Waters, but so far none of these titles have been published in the US, where only nine of Penguin UK’s twenty volumes are available). As it turns out, this pastime was possible even in Dumas’s day. In the “Bear” section of From Absinthe to Zest, an alphabetical, if eclectic, catalog of ingredients and recipes laced with anecdotes and advice and originally published in a longer version as The Great Dictionary of Cuisine (1873), he writes: “There are few people of our generation who do not recall the sensation caused by the first installment of my Impressions de Voyage when people read the article entitled ‘Bear steak.’ There was a universal outcry against the audacious narrator who dared to say that there were places in civilized Europe where bear is eaten.”

If you want to know how to roast bear paws in the oven with a sauce that includes “two spoonfuls of currant jelly added as a finishing touch,” this is the book for you. But it also has something to say about life beyond the kitchen, especially if you’re a writer. In discussing l’affaire bear steak, Dumas puts forth a truth every creative soul can stand to be reminded of when things seem grim: “There was a big commotion about the book,” he writes, “and since at that time I was just embarking on a literary career I could ask for nothing better.” So much for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Dumas is far from alone in the Great Food series in offering recipes with a dash of philosophy. I regret very much that I wasn’t around in 1920s London to dine with celebrated hostess and Times essayist Agnes Jekyll, who, writing of wedding banquets in A Little Dinner Before the Play, observed that “marriage feasts resemble the institution they celebrate, of which Montaigne observed that those within its confines often struggled to get out, while those without endeavoured to get in.” She then proceeds to tell us how to make sure yours avoids that ugly fate. Jekyll is a wonderfully brisk writer, and I would give a great deal to indulge in the meal of the title with her, which might well have consisted of snipe on fire, “a bird to each guest, to appear on a silver or metal dish, perfectly roasted, and sitting each on a toast lightly fried and spread with the liver, etc., well pounded. Outside the serving door let a couple of tablespoonfuls of brandy, previously warmed . . . be set alight and poured flaming over and around the birds just as they come to the table.”

Jekyll knew what to make for any occasion, be it a “Luncheon for a Motor Excursion in Winter” or a married couple’s first dinner party. Also: food “For the Too Thin,” “For the Too Fat,” for “Bachelors Entertaining,” or for “Artists and Speakers,” of whom she gently reminds us, “Those who have sown unto us spiritual things have a claim on the harvest of our worldly things.” Moreover, the next time I feel a bit peaked, I hope that whoever takes care of me remembers not only that invalids should always, always, eat in bed, but also that, as Jekyll insists, “every house should possess attractive trays in various sizes and japanned in cheerful colours, leaf green, lemon yellow, sunset red, sea blue.” Ahhh.

She may, come to think of it, present just the tiniest bit of competition to Bickford-Smith’s covers with her description of those bright, lovely trays (and can we take a moment to fully savor the word “japanned,” please?). Then again, there’s really no such thing as too many sumptuous objects, so why pit them against each other? “Great dishes and platters of silver and gold,” Jekyll writes of the ideal wedding breakfast, “or gleaming brass, piled high with fruits—peaches and grapes, pine-apples and plums, oranges, apples, melting pears—flagons of red wine, goblets of sparkling drink, delicious fragrance of rosemary, lavender and cedar wood in all the air.” Jekyll’s trays and spreads make me appreciate all over again that the way things look and feel can change the atmosphere of a room in an instant, and that presentation is everything, whether you’re talking about chicken soup in bed, a celebration, or just some reading material. There’s a reason, after all, that the expression “a feast for the eyes” exists. And when my eyes see the giddy spectacle of the Great Food series spread out on my desk, I know for certain that beautiful books are simply a different kind of food.

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