Monday, September 26, 2011

{review} kitchen essays

Agnes Jekyll Kitchen Essays (1922)

I'm a bit puzzled about this book. It offers a nostalgic glimpse into an age of gracious living that has most certainly passed. It is beautifully written, with some quite wonderful turns of phrase. The writer was a bit of a celeb. at the time she wrote these newspaper columns for The Times (anonymously). It is, as one expects from a Persephone production, quite beautiful in the hands.

OK, maybe I've already answered my puzzled feeling about why this book is significant enough to reissue. Or have I? I quite liked it and I can definitely now characterise desirable food of the early 1920s as being jellied, aspic-ed and/or passed through a "hair-sieve". Couldn't anyone eat solids?! What, dodgy post-war false teeth or something? [I'm joking]
What female intelligence can decipher rapidly those hieroglyphic sheets when presented in restaurants and unerringly select the "spécialité de la maison," or the most acceptable "plat du Jour"? She will vacillate between the super-strange and the ultra-commonplace, or losing her head, will select the cheapest of the mysteries proffered, or else plunge recklessly for something expensive and out of season.
Apart from this stunning piece of misogyny (I'm reading it tongue-in-cheek, as I can't believe Agnes Jekyll would vacillate about anything), a couple of things offered themselves to me for thought. First, we are on the cusp of an era where the servant problem becomes a big problem for the type of households who would read these newspaper columns. A fair whack of these dishes (and the scenarios for which they are intended - shooting parties; dances) require staff.
"Never hesitate to do a kind action," said a cynical friend once in the writer's privileged hearing. "The burden of it almost invariably falls on some one else, whilst you get all the credit." The truth of this dictum, once heard, will often recur to the mind when promising, shall we say soup, or jelly, to some sick friend; for it is the cook who will make the offering, the boy who will carry it to its destination.
Second, I have a mental image of the cook sitting in dread awaiting the mistress's latest crazy idea taken from The Times, which requires production of something exotic and 'new' ("Italians are fond of sweets, but unimaginative in their preparation") in the absence of what we would consider such an essential as refrigeration (I keep thinking of the Provincial Lady's problems with cooks here!). One cannot wonder about the inevitability of the following:
...similar experience may befall many of us, particularly at busy holiday times of the year, when cooks, whose mothers so often specialize in sudden and disastrous illnesses, may leave us to face problems we have never really envisaged before…
You can consider this my Third point: the number of shapes and moulds and ices makes my blood run cold at the thought of the difficulties presented by their production and storage. I enjoyed this book for its writing ("For the Unpunctual, try a savoury dish of Papprika [sic]") and for purely nostalgic purposes (never, ever, ever will I make calves' foot jelly), but never does an era seem to far removed from our own when the kitchen is the subject.
Salted almonds are expensive, and by many thought indigestible; they can be understudied by a packet of the American cereal Puffed Wheat. A few spoonfuls of this, crisped hot in the oven and lying invitingly on small mother-o'-pearl shells, or in some such decorative and labour-saving receptacles before each guest, will comfort the shy, stem the torrent of the fluent-obvious, and generally promote a flow of that pleasant conversation...
Rating: 6/10.

Things that intrigued me enough to google: "centrifugal sugar", "Cerebos" salt, "peptonized cocoa", and when "Pyrex" was invented.

If you liked this... I guess someone'll look back at Jamie Oliver in 90 years and laugh their heads off. If I feel like a spot of witty food-writing I turn to M. F. K. Fisher.



  1. Ooooh I remember "Cerebos" salt!

  2. Apparently it's still available tho' I don't recall ever seeing it. I wondered why it had to be listed by brand in the book - some sort of status marker? Or perhaps it was trendy in the 1920s?!

  3. Oh this brings back memories. I went to an event at the Ilkley Literature Festival last year and Pen, the woman behind the Penguin Great Food box set of books, gave us a wonderful talk about four authors included in the collection - complete with tastings of some of their creations. The Jekyll creation of 1922 was a cake that was laced with booze and which originally contained smelling salts! I wrote up the event at

  4. I went to an event last year at Ilkley Literature Festival hosted by Pen Vogler, the woman behind the Penguin Great Food box set of books, and she explained more about the collection with a focus on four authors included in it. We also got to taste some of their creations. The 1922 offering was from a Jekyll recipe for cake laced with booze, it had to be modified as the original recipe included smelling salts! I wrote up the event at

    1. I have a recipe for preserving passionfruit with aspirin - the things people put in food Back Then! The food event sounds wonderful.


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