Of French Cooks and Hobs – A Pride and Prejudice Menu

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I’m pleased to introduce a guest post from Erna Buffie on food in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Erna’s first novel, Let Us Be True—“A story as starkly beautiful as a prairie landscape” (The Globe and Mail)—was published last fall by Coteau Books and it was shortlisted for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Novel at the 2016 Manitoba Book Awards. My book club read the novel and I found it fascinating to learn about the central character, Pearl, from the perspective of several different members of her family. Her daughter Darlene, for example, thinks of her as “an irritant that had rolled itself into something hard and round and opaque but not smooth. More like a freshwater pearl: irregular and covered in ridges.” One of my favourite scenes in the book shows Pearl’s daughter Carol finding the diary she kept as a teenager and reading the note her mother has left in it for her. Of course I can’t reveal here what the note says! So that will have to remain a secret for the moment. 

Erna Buffie

But then, Let Us Be True is all about secrets. Erna said in an interview that “we are all shaped by secrets we know nothing about.” Asked what inspired the book, she said, “I wanted to write a book about my mother’s generation of women. I think a lot of them experienced great loss and great hardship during the period in which they lived, whether it was the result of the Depression or the Second World War, and a lot of them kept it a secret from their kids. Just as men at the front kept their experiences there to themselves, a lot of these women didn’t share what happened to them.”

As a prairie girl myself—even though I’ve lived in the Maritimes for many years and I love it here, I expect I’ll always feel like an Albertan, a “Come-From-Away,” in Nova Scotia—I appreciated Erna’s descriptions of the “wild and wide-open beauty” and the “sudden cruelty” of the prairies. And as someone with an abiding interest in Victorian literature, I appreciated the way the poem that inspired the title echoes throughout the story of Pearl and her family: 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! For the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain….

From “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold, 1867 (The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory, ed. Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne J. Rundle [Broadview, 1999])

Erna’s short stories have appeared in Room of One’s Own, Pottersfield Portfolio, and The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction. In 2006, she won the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia Short Fiction Award for her short story “Pearl.” She tells me she’s returned to Jane Austen’s novels many times over the years, “not just for the pleasure of re-reading them but also for inspiration in my own writing.” The combination of her fascination with Austen and her longtime interest in the history of food inspired her to write this blog post. I know she’d be glad to discuss the topic further, so please do add your comments and questions below.

Erna has spent more than twenty-five years in the film industry, writing, directing, and producing award-winning films for the CBC and other national and international broadcasters. In 2012 she won a Canadian Screen Award for Best Direction in a Documentary for her work on Smarty Plants. She wrote and directed The Changing Sea, which aired around the world and won several awards, including The Save the Seas Foundation Award. Her many screen-writing credits include the award-winning NFB documentary By Woman’s Hand and the Genie award-winning documentary A Song for Tibet.

Let Us Be True

Among the many things I love, food, food history, and Jane Austen rank high on the list. So imagine my surprise when I discovered, on re-reading Pride and Prejudice, that the woman who penned some of my favorite novels seldom dwells on the culinary details of the Georgian table, and spends even less time talking about cooking and kitchen work. But while Pride and Prejudice may have little in the way of menus, there’s no doubt that the lives of Lizzie, Jane, and the rest of the Bennet clan are measured out in the rhythm of their daily meals. Breakfast took place as late as 10 a.m. because of the preparations required, and dinner, the next substantial meal of the day, was slowly moving from its midday slot closer to 5 or 6 p.m. in well-to-do homes. Dinner might be followed a few hours later by tea, or if one were very fortunate, a late night supper party after a vigorous round of bridge, or dancing.

And just as dancing and card parties were a welcome reprieve from endless hours spent at embroidery, reading, hat making, or strolling in the garden, regular meals also provided their own particular delights: good food, combined with news, gossip and the conversational distractions of the occasional guest. Small surprise, then, that some of Austen’s funniest and most wickedly satirical scenes occur around the dining table. Think of Mr. Collins’ hilarious first dinner with the Bennet family or Lizzie supping with the poisonous Lady Catherine de Bourgh at Rosings.

But if the table offered sustenance, diversion, and the occasional encounter with the prejudices associated with privilege, the Georgian dining room was also a battleground for proud hostesses. And few characters epitomize the preoccupation with one-upmanship associated with the dining table better than Mrs. Bennet herself.

Her duties as a hostess were to offer an excellent meal and put guests at their ease, but Mrs. Bennet is not above the occasional barbed comment, especially if it is aimed at Mr. Darcy. Neither does she hesitate to boast about the quality of the meal, and the compliments bestowed on her table, by the very guest she has just attempted to skewer: “The venison was roasted to a turn—and everybody said they never saw so fat a haunch. The soup was fifty times better than what we had at the Lucas’s last week; and even Mr. Darcy acknowledged that the partridges were remarkably well done; and I suppose he has two or three French cooks at least” (Chapter 54 [Penguin, 1983]). Mrs. Bennet’s triumphant summary of this particular dinner party is also one of the few times in Pride and Prejudice that Austen makes direct reference to what was actually on the table. Which brings us to the matter of food itself.

While methods for food production improved over the course of the 18th century, significant innovations in kitchen hardware, like cast iron ranges, were still a few decades away. In 1813, when Pride and Prejudice was published, most people were still cooking on open hearths, using raised grates, pots, cast iron pans, spits for roasting, cauldrons to heat water and metal stands for bread toasting. People with some means might also have had an indoor brick oven for baking bread and pastries. Those who couldn’t afford one would have relied on deliveries from the local baker or rented the use of his ovens to bake their own bread. (For more on bread making see Episode 1 of the BBC 2 series “Victorian Bakers.)

Innovation remained the purview of the wealthy, whose kitchens featured not only wood stoked ovens and roasting spits for meats but also metal hobs. A Georgian hob was simply a flat iron pan used for heating pots, installed at the back or side of a fire over a grate. If you were wealthy, you might even have one installed on top of your brick oven. Whether the Bennet hearth had a hob is anybody’s guess, but we definitely know they had a cook, as Mrs. Bennet is quick to inform the obsequious Mr. Collins. After admiring all of the furniture he will one day inherit, he then turns his attention to the meal: “The dinner … was highly admired, and he begged to know which of his fair cousins, the excellence of the cooking was owing. But here he was set right by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen” (Chapter 13).

So what, exactly, might that cook and kitchen have produced? No doubt as excellent a plate of food as was humanly possible, if Mrs. Hill, the Bennet housekeeper, wanted to keep her job. According to Samuel and Sarah Adams’ book The Complete Servant, published in 1825, the ultimate responsibility for everything in the household from cleaning and cosmetics production to what the kitchen produced was the housekeeper’s. Although Hill wouldn’t have cooked the meals, she would have stocked the larder and stillroom and she may also have prepared essential and expensive ingredients like spices and sugar. Spices were commonly bought whole and had to be grated, pounded or ground, depending on the next day’s meals. The same was true for sugar, which was bought in cakes that had to be broken, pounded then rolled into fine grains. Pickling and preserving were also within a housekeeper’s purview, as were laying the table (in the absence of a butler), carving cold meats and bread, and ensuring the quality of each and every dish that emerged from the kitchen. And what is truly remarkable, given the rudimentary state of the kitchen, was the sheer volume and intricacy of the dishes the early 19th century cook was able to produce. (Read more about Samuel and Sarah Adams’ The Complete Servant at Austenonly.com.)

Erna's photo of spices

© Erna Buffie

The cooks’ larders at both Longbourn and Pemberley would probably be equal in their array of British staples, if not their volume, but Mr. Darcy’s dinner table would likely feature more “novel” recipes brought back from continental tours. As Mrs. Bennet’s comment on the possible ethnicity of his cooks suggests, French cuisine was all the rage during the late Georgian period. Thus the reaction of the inevitably intoxicated, Mr. Hurst, who decides he has “nothing further to say” to Lizzie, when she states her preference for plain cooking, over a French “ragout” (Chapter 8). 

But the “plain cooking” featured at the Bennet table would probably be a good deal tastier and more complex than Lizzie suggests. After all, Mrs. Bennet has appearances to keep up. So her family and guests are likely beneficiaries of the ginger, cinnamon, curries and other spices being shipped into England by the East India Company. Hannah Glasse, for example, included a recipe for a mild curry in her cookbook, published in 1751. And like all good dinner tables, Mrs. Bennet’s would have featured the four courses mentioned in her menu.

The first course was a soup: in summer, perhaps a delicate potage of sorrel leaves cooked in butter and minced onions, then finely chopped, simmered in chicken broth, and served with buttery croutons. Dorothy Hartley’s wonderful book Food in England (1954) features this traditional soup recipe and many others like it, scattered throughout her chapter on vegetables. The second course was placed on the table with the first, and unfortunately, often wound up tepid rather than hot. It usually featured roasted meat like beef, mutton or Mrs. Bennet’s prized venison, plus numerous side dishes from gravies and creams to jellies and vegetables. The second course was followed by a lighter—and I use that term loosely—third serving of poultry, or fish. Mrs. Bennet has her perfectly cooked partridges, but on another occasion, she might have presented this red mullet recipe, from Hartley’s book, which suggests that each fish be cooked whole, “in oiled paper, with a nub of butter, steamed in its own juices and finished with a little white wine.” This too would have been accompanied by at least half a dozen side dishes. (See Dorothy Hartley, Food In England: A Complete Guide To The Food That Makes Us Who We Are [Piatkus, 2012].)

Feeling full yet? I hope not, because there’s still another course to go—dessert.

In her book Jane Austen and Food (1995), Maggie Lane says a traditional dessert of the period generally featured a display of finger foods: fresh or dried fruit depending on the season, small confections, cheese and perhaps a handful of walnuts. It’s difficult to say whether a larger, sugar-rich dessert, such as a spoon-eaten pudding or syllabub, would have been placed on the Bennet table, despite the fact that these desserts were becoming increasingly popular and cheaper to make by the beginning of the 19th century. In World History: A New Perspective (2001), historian Clive Ponting indicates that by 1770 Britons were already consuming five times the amount of sugar eaten in 1710, thanks to the horrors of a slave-fueled, sugar trade. So while the Bennet household may have cleaved to tradition, a larger, richer desert is certainly a possibility.

Hartley describes a number of these desserts. Few are more enticing, I think, than this one, called “Damask Cream,” a “junket” or set pudding that purportedly originated in Bath: “Cook cream gently with mace and cinnamon til delicately flavored. Add sugar and rosewater and set with a fine rennet (used to make both clotted cream and cheese). When cold, flood over it soft cream flavored with rosewater and lightly strewn with powdered sugar. Serve surrounded by deep damask rose petals.” Decisions about exactly how much sugar and cream and what measure of spice and rosewater were presumably left to the palate of the cook, as standardized kitchen measurements were still some way off.

Hartley’s Food in England is peppered with countless recipes like this one, many of which originated in Bath, a fashionable destination for so many of Austen’s characters. And that’s because Bath, in Hartley’s opinion, was the center for the “best of everything in England,” especially when it came to food. Situated on the Roman road that marked the route north to Ireland, Bath was also on the drover roads that brought “the finest meat from the Welsh grazing grounds” to city markets further south. But meats were not the only goods that made their way through the ancient spa town of Bath, as Hartley explains: “The apples of Glastonbury brought great flagons of cider, and from the warm yellow Cotswold walls came apricots, hot from the sun, and cherries and plums. Up from Devon and Somerset came the finest creams, bowls of fermentry (yeast) and junket rennets … (and) from Bristol way came scents and spices and fine imported wines—brought by cargo boat from overseas.” 

So whether drawn by the “urge to mate” that sent so many matrons and their daughters migrating to the city for the season, or by matters of ill health, taking the waters at Bath may also have provided an excellent antidote to what Hartley describes as “the drunkenness and overeating of the period.” But getting to Bath, or any other destination further than a few miles away, meant, for women at least, the discomfort of coach travel. This kind of travel included stopovers at inns, like the one in Lambton where Lizzie holidays with her aunt and uncle.

So what might have been on the menu at the Lambton inn? Once again Hartley provides insight through the diary of a certain Mr. Young, who is also “travelling in the north.”  Like all travellers, Young seems focused on finding the best food at the best prices and recording it all for future reference. At Rotherham he notes that the inn is “Very disagreeable and dirty,” with a less than stellar menu of “hashed venison, potted mackerel, cold ham, cheese and melon.” Castle Howard is described as “An excellent House but dear and with a saucy landlady,” which may explain why, in this case, he fails to mention the menu! A few towns later, Mr. Young seems to have struck gold at the inn in Carlisle which is pronounced “good,” with a dinner that included “broiled chicken and mushrooms, plover, a plate of sturgeon, tart, mince pies and jellies.” I like to think that the inn at Lambton would offer similar good food and service to Lizzie and her charming aunt and uncle, the Gardiners.

And yet hidden behind the idyllic rhythms of the Bennet’s substantial meals, the coming and goings of their domestic, financial and romantic concerns, lies something very different. Slowly, but surely, the broader rhythms of a rural life that had endured for 100s of years were changing. Enclosure, which gobbled up small landholdings and reorganized them into large farms, was well underway by 1813. And an industrial revolution that would transform both country and town, and displace countless rural craftsmen from weavers to bakers, was proceeding apace. So while the Bennets sipped at their soup, small hold farmers and farm laborers were leaving the country and moving into cities, to join the growing legions of urban poor. Instead of producing their own food, they were now forced to buy it. And what they bought was often substandard. According to The Royal Society of Chemists, the fight against food adulteration had not yet begun, so buyers were often subjected to bread made from flour rendered cheaper and whiter by the addition of chalk or alum. In her article “The Working Classes and The Poor,” Liza Picard also makes reference to the sometimes dubious offerings of costermongers, street vendors who sold everything from “oysters, hot-eels, pea soup and fried fish to pies, puddings, sheep’s trotters, pickled whelks, gingerbread, baked potatoes and crumpets.” Assuming, of course, that you could afford to buy them.

Austen’s witty mocking of the privileged classes gave way to a new kind of novel later in the 19th century. The “social novel” focused its attention on the lot of the poor, those exploited by the very classes at which Austen had aimed her pen and by a new class of urban industrialists. Among these novels are Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, and the novels of Charles Dickens. But whatever their focus, and whatever the century, the subject of food—whether its absence, benefits, or evil associations—would remain as integral a part of the fictional world as the real.

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