KITCHEN ESSAYS – AGNES JEKYLL
Kitchen Essays is a gem of a book, a period piece, because they aren’t written like this anymore. Each essay – with titles such as ‘In the Cook’s Absence’, ‘A Winter Shooting-Party Luncheon’, ‘For the Too Fat’, Their First Dinner-Party’ – was initially written as a weekly column for The Times of London. The mere titles of the articles indicate that the author (who remained anonymous to start with) is of a certain status in society – a cook is virtually pre-requisite in this book despite it being written in 1922 just after the Great War when there were far fewer domestic staff than prior to 1914. Agnes Jekyll (Lady Jekyll) who was the sister-in-law of Gertude Jekyll, the influential gardener, writes with both wit and knowledge though the recipes that are included in the book would take some following by a cook of today not only because they presume some knowledge of cooking and preparation but because details as to how much of an ingredient to use or how hot an oven to be are fairly vague.
The recipes themselves involve enormous amounts of cream and butter in nearly every one of them. Some of the recipes are interesting because you have heard of them in novels of the period – Junket, for example – others are downright off-putting – Calves Brains and Black Butter – and there is a fair amount of aspic. Advice is also given – to the families who now live in reduced circumstances due to the War are given hints as how to decorate their table without incurring too much cost by putting fresh wild flowers in a jar and by serving Scotch Collops (ground beef) and Bread and Butter Pudding. There are suggestions for the wealthier on how to prepare and cater for a dance party, a shooting party, a wedding breakfast.
Altogether, this is a charming book – a delightful read – and is re-printed by Persephone Books, whose mandate is to bring ‘forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs by (mostly) women writers. They appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary nor too commercial, and are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget’.
PROVENCE 1970 – M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr
A well-written book by the grand-nephew of M. F. K. Fisher describing the pivotal time when the superiority of French cooking lost its grip on American cookery. By lucky coincidence three of the most influential American cooks – Fisher, Child and Beard – find themselves in Provence at the same time in the winter of 1970. They get to know each other, they entertain each other, they cook together, they eat together and discuss food – the subject that is dearest to their hearts. Each of them has, separately, come to the realization that, although they love French food and the importance it occupies in France and its inhabitants, they want to loosen the rules and make it more accessible and less fussy; to replace the grandeur of haute cuisine with simpler yet fairly traditional recipes emphasizing the excellent quality of local produce.
When they each returned to America they reflected this new way of cooking in their writings, and in the case of Julia Child, her TV show. At the same time Americans were hungry for fresh, organic produce, good bread and the like. Times were moving on from the 1950’s-60’s when home cooks were caught up in the delights of convenience foods which meant less time in the kitchen – canned soups and vegetables, TV dinners, desserts made from a packet.
There is a fourth person who crops up in the book but is not mentioned in the title – Richard Olney. Olney was American too but lived in France for many years and was a serious and dedicated cook taking authentic, simple local dishes to new heights because of his insistence on the quality of the ingredients and his great attention to getting the detail of flavor right. He wasn’t as much concerned with publicity or self-promotion as the others and is therefore, perhaps, less known among the general public. His influence was, nonetheless, important.
Provence 1970 is engaging and transports the reader to gentler, less-crowded times in a beautiful corner of France. The books reveals the personalities and thoughts of the people who changed the way French cooking was perceived in America.