Saturday, March 3, 2012

Elizabeth Pennell by Adam Gopnik

The most original, and until our own day probably the best of all the attempts to blend narrative and instruction in a Cookbook, was the work of the now forgotten English writer Elizabeth Pennell whose revival we owe to the historian Talia Schaffer. Pennell was the first to see the cookbook as a literary form – a thing worthy saving and collecting, analyzing and writing for its own sweet and savory sake. Pennell was one of those rare astonishments, a person genuinely “out of time”. She would have been right at home in the 1980s, far more than she was in the 1890s: the Nigella Lawson of the Age of Whistler, or the Padma Lakshmi of Oscar Wilde’s set. She was many things – an English aesthete, who wrote for The Atlantic Monthly , and one of the first feminists who was not a bluestocking. “Gluttony is ranked among the deadly sins; it should be honored among the cardinal virtues” is the arresting first line of her 1896 Diary of a Greedy Woman.

Her portrait shows her as handsome, as the time would have had it, rather than really pretty – a slight off print of the Getty Girl type. She affirms women as gluttons, creatures of the flesh; and the erotic – indeed, oral erotic – content of her book is so evident as almost top embarrass the modern reader. “Accept the gospel of good living and the sexual problem will be solved,” she says, in one of the bluntest and most magical sentences of the late nineteenth century. Her self-declaration as a “greedy Woman” – not a dainty epicurean damsel, not a loving wife and mother providing for her wee mouths, but a woman with an appetite on her and a hunger in her – is one of the most charming, and yet truly “radical,” self-fashionings of the era.

Yet her diary is a cookbook – of a kind that wouldn’t reappear until our own time, a first person account of how to eat by cooking things. She recommends wine for breakfast –she is a partisan of Graves particularly, finding Pinot Noir to heavy, a judgment leading one to think that the clarets of our great-great-grandfathers days were much less fruit-forward than the ones we know – to be followed by Cognac but no sweet. She calls the British sandwich “grim and gruesome” (which until around 1980, it invariably was. Her ideal dinner is eerily contemporary, very much like one at Chez Panisse: a filet of beef with mushrooms but only market-fresh ones, pommes soufflees (a sophisticated sort of French fried potato), no desert, but a Port Salut cheese, and a single tangerine, the whole thing washed down with a good bottle of Burgundy.

Yet all of this is couched not as couched “Epicurean” revelry but as spurs to shopping and cooking. Her greed is productive. Her recipes are makeable but also offered as prose poems –for example, on turbot au gratin:

In Turbot gratin, the ecstatic possibilities are by no means limited. In a chaste silver dish, make a pretty wall of potatoes, which have been beaten to flour, enlivened with pepper and salt, enriched with butter and cream –cream thick and fresh and adorable- seasoned with Parmesan cheese and left on the stove for ten minutes, no more nor less; then let the wall enclose pieces of turbot, already cooked and in pieces, of melted butter and cream, with a fair covering of breadcrumbs; and rely on a quick [i.e. broiler hot] oven to complete the masterpiece.

Elizabeth Pennell had extremely, almost scarily, good taste. She loved Burgundy, Cognac, strong coffee; she wanted simple food that wasn’t too simple – roasted spring chicken, a ragout of mushrooms – and subscribed to the enduring truth that “the secret of good cooking lies in the discrete and sympathetic treatment of the onion.” ”And After,” she adds, “if you still hanker for the roast beef of old England, then go a gorge yourself at the nearest restaurant.” She wants you to accompany this with a good Beaune, and then with coffee, “a mix of Mocha and Mysore,” forgo feminine liqueurs, but rely on cognac,” the “immortal liquid,” and then “lean back and smoke in silence, unless speech, exchanged with the one kind spirit, may be golden and perfect as the dinner.”

She recommended salad as a meal, while deploring the “salad cream” that was still an alarming feature of British meals just a generation ago. She loved Italian food and put it on the same level as the French. Pasta she especially adored, introducing her readers to the delights of spaghetti, the “smaller and daintier variety” of macaroni. She has the sense to insist that the best way to it is is cooked al dente and served with grated Parmesan and butter.

I feel about Pennell as A.J. Liebling felt about Pierce Egan, his favorite chronicler of early 19th century prizefighting: that here at last is a friend at court, a source of wisdom, an ally. One of the hard-to-tell truths about even the best food writing before our time is that we often have to read past the food, which we don’t quite “get”, on our way to the hunger, which we do. Almost all descriptions of dinners past reveal something weird and Martian in the choices – you bounce along happily enough with Brillat-Savarin or even La Reyniere eating truffled turkey, and then suddenly you have long inscrutable stretches of boiled lamb and larks on brochettes and sweet Sauternes served withy boiled salmon in anchovy cream. Where, reading old recipe books, you usually say, “Huh?” as often as “Ummm,” with Pennell it’s all just right; there is nothing on her menus which is not delicious…

However new her sentiments, she still wrote in the form of a cookbook, reproducing in her own English aesthetic, Chelsea-and Whistler way, the mock-epic microscopic sound of the first generation of food writers, of Brillat-Savarin and Grimod.I have called their tone the tone of accepted defeat, the deep wisdom of loss, and Pennell, though writing from the triumphant seat of Victorian Britain, duly partakes of this tone, though she adapts it for the same reason that moves all English and American food writers unto our own day: the assumption is that good food is all over there, across the Channel, and that we over here can get it only on holiday and in memory. Her cookbooks are an anthology of evocations: breakfasts by the Loire, supper in Naples, a bouillabaisse from Marseille, or a dish of simple pasta from outside Rome. “In the dish of macaroni lies all of Italy for the woman with eyes to see or a heart to feel…olive clad slopes and lonely stone palms; the gleam of sunlit rivers winding with reeds and slim tall poplars, the friendly wayside trattoria and the pleasant refrain of the beaming cameriere, ‘Subito, Signora, ecco!” – a refrain of ceaseless as the buzzing of the bees among the clover.” Thinking of “the creamy subtle little Suisse cheese” recalls visions of Paris, radiant in Maytime, the long avenues and boulevards all white and pink with blossoming horse chestnuts, the air heavy laden with the fragrance of flowers; a vision of the accustomed corner in the old restaurant looking out towards the Seine and of the paternal waiter holding the fresh Suisse on a dainty green leaf. Life holds few such thrilling interludes.”

She laments the philistine North she calls her home, even as her heart inclines toward the Elysian fields. Her advocacy of strong drink and stronger coffee, in a nation of tea-drinkers, is amazing, and she writes, all to accurately, that “over the barbarous depths into which the soul of the inspiring berry has been dragged in unhappy Albion, it is kinder to draw a veil.”

Alas, as every Canadian knows, there are no springs so sweet as those that come a week too soon, and then fade back into winter. The delight in sharing recipes that Pennell’s writing stirs was ended by the frost of educational necessities; the budding possibilities of the personal cookbook were nipped by the need to teach. The form would break in two: food writing, the cookbook improper, an offshoot essentially of travel literature , preserved some of Elizabeth’s tone: meanwhile, the cookbook proper evolved into something big and impressive, with the colorings of authority, from a dictionary to an encyclopedia, from an anthology to a grammar.


The bad habit of the strategist is to go one bridge too far, and the worse vice of the over-educated is to read one book too many. It is a form of hubris: wiser to find something good, enjoy it, and not contaminate it by searching too much further. Do not discover Carlyle’s politics, or Scott Fitzgerald’s parenting, or Philip Larkin’s taste n porn. It will screw you up to no purpose, and diminish the writer without adding to your understanding.

You see, Elizabeth, I found the book you wrote upon your return to Philadelphia in 1904. It was full of life. Like me, you have and keep a warm appreciation of the beauty of old Philadelphia- its grid, so neatly laid out in inward-looking streets and squares with none of the restlessness of New York’s less perfectly ordered plan. The Schuylkill city’s spaciousness, its slight air of 18th century clarity and red-brick value. You love all that, too, and I read all that with pleasure.

And then I found within your book a line of stark, vigorous bigotry directed not just at the undeserving but at – well, directly at me, or, rather, at my not-so-distant great-grandparents, who were among the Russian Jews who have since your youth taken over the center city of Philadelphia. And what possessed you was not mere social bigotry but real animus. What particularly offended you was the presence of Russian Jews, on the legendary inner, tree-named streets of the city, Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce, and Pine. I take this to heart. My great-grandparents moved around town, as it happened, but ended up on Locust Street – just a few blocks away from Chestnut and right by Walnut, and I spent my quite “assimilated” but still distinctly literary-Jewish-intellectual boyhood riding and racing on Spruce and Pine. So I felt, on reading your words, as blue a betrayed as if I had found my wife in flagrante with another man – and a young, blond S.S. officer at that. And I have since discovered, what is harder to accept, that this was not a passing bigotry in an otherwise open-minded life, but a recurrent theme of yours: your husband, Joseph Pennell, in particular, was an obsessed anti-Semite who wrote and illustrated a long book about the hideousness of Russian Jews, serialized, bizarrely in The Pall Mall Gazette!

We have, of course, been here before. My beloved Chesterton had a true program (a word that sits in sinister poise with ‘pogrom’) for Jewish expulsion from England. With an effort o will, one can see, if not sympathize with, the shock of Old Americans at the newcomers – a prejudice not entirely unknown to the Jews who, having been here for a century, now see their “own” neighborhoods and landmarks disappear under the pressure of Muslims and West Indians. But there it is. You hate my kind, the the place where my kind went, in exactly the street where not just my kind but my family lived! Can we eat in peace knowing you despised my grandparents?

In a way, a bitter way, I should be grateful for this discovery, for it raises the central point of these pages, the key issue, the big thing too easily avoided: how much can the table truly reconcile – how sweetly can, or should, the rituals of social life reconcile us to our opposites? It is sentimental, surely, to pretend that the ugliness of life escapes the table; we rightly condemn the French intellectuals and artists who made too easy a social peace with their occupiers. But is it unrealistic to wish that some reconciliation of opposites might yet take place there? It is a hope, at least. Very different people do dine together, or try to. We think about Dr. Johnson, greatest of religious conservatives, reconciled over a good dinner in 1776 with John Wilkes, greatest libertine libertarians, through the good offices of James Boswell,. We can’t wish away differences, but we can hope for an end to hostilities. Disdain for others is a part of life; learning to dissimulate through manners is as good a cure as we may be able to hope for. While wait for the reign of Universal Love, we can at least share then premise of the Common Table.

Obviously we don’t want to sit down to dinner with Nazis but maybe we do want to sit down to dinner with people before they become Nazis, if it might help them from becoming so. It is not wrong to hope that the revelation of a common human touch, a common taste, shared and relished, can become itself an argument for humanity. We disapprove, and rightly, of those that at down with their occupiers, but we smile, and often, at the countless travelers’ tales of violence averted by bread and salt and beer.

The answer, I think, is that there isn’t one. We try to reconcile as many kinds as we can, eat with whom we can, draw lines as we have to, accept as much as we are able. Liberal tolerance is an injunction urging efforts, not an instruction manual making rules. It says, Do your best with as many as you can until the very last moment when you can’t anymore. And how will you know when you can’t? By the feeling in your stomach.

The Table Comes First; Family, France and the Meaning of Food by Adam Gopnik; Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y., 2011

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