Frederick the Great observed that his army marched on its stomach. If we aim to civilize, not conquer, what should we feed Burke’s little platoons? At her first dinner party, Agnes Jekyll entertained John Ruskin, Edward Burne-Jones, and Robert Browning. This is a bit like assigning a newly conscripted field cook to the Royal Marines.
Preserving Jekyll’s evergreen advice, Persephone Books in London has rescued yet another treasure, compiling and reprinting twenty-two of her Kitchen Essays, which originally appeared unsigned in The Times. In Jekyll’s home, food is the handmaiden of culture, not a self-contained subculture. Food and drink are to sustain delightful conversation, not smother us with decadent consumption. Like Walker Percy on bourbon and Roger Scruton on wine, Jekyll calls us to table to consider higher things. She is the opposite of a “foodie”—that hideous term for Facebook food fetishists.
In the preface, Jekyll sounds a single note of nostalgia, worrying that “a good tradition or a valued formula, painstakingly acquired, has vanished beyond recovery.” But then with the practical energy of a homemaker, she gets to work. This is not a Hillbilly Elegy or a Benedict Option. She is too busy preparing breakfast, catering shooting-party luncheons, packing for Venice, charming Christmas visitors, and bartering with butchers to pen lamentations for the loss of community. If modern life makes you anxious, “[h]ere is a pleasant ‘refresher,’ specially for the young after lawn tennis or sports on a hot day but acceptable also to their elders when exhausted by church, depressed by gardening, or exasperated by shopping.”
Take 1 lb. raspberries to every pint of best white vinegar. Let it stand for a fortnight in a covered jar in a cool larder. Then strain without pressure and to every pint put ¾ lb. white sugar. Boil 10 minutes, let cool, and bottle in nice-shaped medium-sized bottles saved perhaps from some present of foreign liqueurs or scent. A teaspoonful stirred into a tumbler or water with a lump of ice, or introduced to a very cold syphon, will taste like the elixir of life on a hot day, and is as pretty as it is pleasant.
Evelyn Waugh delighted in P. G. Wodehouse’s fictional “world that cannot become dated because it has never existed.” Jekyll’s world is all the more wonderful for having existed in the not-too-distant past where after dinner “a good smoke, without which there will be no social fire,” is essential and the differences between men and women are as obvious as their beverage preferences. “The male oyster-eater would welcome a glass of porter with that course, whilst feminine taste would go in the direction of Chablis.” She seasons her essays with stories that appear fresh from the gardens at Blandings Castle: “A great prelate of our own day is said to be contemplating drastic changes in a home life rendered difficult by the limitations of his cook, whose only alternative to a burnt offering, as he complained, was a bleeding sacrifice.” Bertie Wooster could have solved a dozen of his dilemmas with Jekyll’s Selle d’Agneau a la Miramar, which “might conceivably induce a rich legacy from a bachelor uncle.”
If nothing ever changes in the world of Wodehouse, the slope of decline in Jekyll’s life was gradual. She learned to become a frugal shopper at the greengrocer and fishmonger but endured only an asymptotic austerity. Her household staff approached but never reached zero. She was attentive to the household budget but more concerned with avoiding accusations of extravagance from spinster aunts. She discouraged excessive second helpings, which are “as inartistic as encores at the opera.” Yet she was not inflexible; hearth and home are for the living. She comforted the spontaneous shopper: “the rash purchase of some alluring piece of pottery abroad, devastating, perhaps, as a traveling companion, but for ever after precious—these are amongst the extravagances we never regret.”
Jekyll’s advice is still relevant and practical. She advises how to: keep food warm for guests arriving at different times; pack food while traveling by motorcar for the weekend or a sojourn abroad; entertain as a bachelor; properly organize a wedding breakfast; and energize an invited guest speaker. (On the college lecture circuit William F. Buckley, Jr. feared the Dry Host and learned from Harold MacMillan to inquire directly about the availability of wine.) She has nutrition tips for the too fat—Lemon Tea, “[t]his, sipped from a delicate china cup, is fragrant and thinning”—and too thin—Marrow Bone on Toast (my wife disagrees that “it is probably more popular with men than women”). Jekyll was kind and attentive to the special needs of her guests, devoting an entire essay to the preparation of “tray food” for “those who, for one cause or another must perforce dwell apart, eating the bread of exile.” If she was sensitive to those in genuine need, she admired one guest who replied to a hostess seeking his dietary requirements: “Thank you, I eat everything except corpses.”
“Some people will never learn to choose, but, like the child at the birthday party asked what it would like to have, say, ‘A little of everything, please.’ That way madness lies.” Agnes Jekyll wanted to form our appetites, not teach techniques. By practicing the art of hospitality, we make our homes more lovely and ourselves more loving. In the warmest kitchens, we cook not to consume but to be consumed by love, “and have we not the highest authority for knowing that without love we are nothing.”
Stephen Schmalhofer writes from Connecticut.