Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘food’

25 FEBRUARY, 2014

Dinner with Mr. Darcy: Recipes from Jane Austen’s Novels and Letters


Mr. Bingley’s white soup, Lady Middleton’s apricot marmalade, Margaret Dods’s pigeon pie, and more literary treats from Georgian England.

As a hopeless lover of imaginative cookbooks, especially ones with a literary or art bend — from homages like The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook and Modern Art Desserts to conceptual masterpieces like The Futurist Cookbook to actual recipes by Alexandre Dumas, Andy Warhol, Liberace, George Orwell, and Alice B. Toklas, and especially The Artists & Writers’ Cookbook — I was delighted to come across Dinner with Mr. Darcy (public library) — a collection of recipes inspired by the novels and letters of Jane Austen, conceived and compiled by Penguin Great Food series editor Pen Vogler.

From Mr. Bingley’s white soup in Pride and Prejudice to Aunt Norris’s lavish and prolific jellies in Mansfield Park to the everyday edibles Austen discussed in her letters to her sister Cassandra, the recipes capture both the spirit of the era and Austen’s singular sense and sensibility in creating an atmosphere through food.

One recipe comes from Martha Lloyd, Austen’s longtime friend and eventual sister-in-law, who lived with the Austen sisters for the final decade and a half of the author’s life. Lloyd kept a small “household book,” included in which were a number of recipes. One entry reads:

Pease [sic] Soup

Take two quarts of pease. Boil them to a pulp. Strain them. Put ½ lb of butter into a saucepan. Celery, half an onion, and stew them til tender. Then put two anchovies, powdered pepper, salt, mint and parsley (each a small handful) and spinach, and heat of each a small quantity. Half a spoonful of sugar. The soup be boiled as thick as you like it and the whole be ground together, boiled up and dished.

Vogler adapts the recipe into a contemporary version, featuring proper spelling and the use of a blender:


Pea soup was an Austen family favorite: Jane wrote that she was not ashamed to invite an unexpected guest to “our elegant entertainment” of “pease-soup, a spare rib and a pudding” (letter to Cassandra, December 1, 1798.) This was a perfect way of using up the older peas from the garden to produce a fresh, vividly colored soup.

2 celery sticks, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
Scant ½ stick (50g) butter
Few springs of mint and parsley, chopped
3 anchovies or 6–8 anchovy fillets, chopped
Freshly ground white pepper
4 cups (500g) frozen or fresh peas
Generous 1 quart (1 liter) light vegetable or chicken stock
Pinch of sugar
4–5 good handfuls of spinach (you could use lettuce and/or chopped cucumber instead of the spinach)

  1. Gently cook the celery and the onion in butter until it is soft but not browned, then add the mint, parsley, and anchovy, grind in a little white pepper, and cook for a few minutes.
  2. Stir the peas into the mixture, add the stock and a good pinch of sugar, and simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Add the spinach (or lettuce and/or cucumber) at the end of the cooking time, and cook for a few minutes more. Let it cool, then whizz with a blender. This gives a nice grainy texture, but push it through a sieve if you would like a smooth soup in the Georgian manner. Reheat gently to serve.

Another recipe surmises where Austen’s jam fancies may have come from and turns to The Experienced English Housekeeper, a popular 1769 book by Elizabeth Raffled. Vogler adapts Raffled’s recipe thusly:


Lady Middleton successfully deploys “apricot marmalade” (which we would now call jam) to stop her daughter’s attention-seeking screams. The apricot cakes are made from thick purée, which is dried in the oven to make delicious, chewy sweets.

Makes 2 quarts (2 liters)

18 oz (500g) fresh apricots or dried apricots, reconstituted overnight in apple juice
1 ¼ cups (250g) preserving sugar for marmalade
1 ¾ cups (350g) preserving sugar for cakes

  1. Pit the fruit and boil it until tender — about 30 minutes. Then rub through a sieve or purée in a blender, stir in the sugar and bring back to a boil. Boil until the sugar has dissolved.
  2. To make apricot cakes, spoon the mixture into oiled muffin cups and smooth down. Leave in a very low oven, 175°F (80°C) to dry out for 5–6 hours, turning them over halfway.

Another recipe cooks up one of England’s most popular specialties from that era:


It was the custom to put “nicely cleaned” pigeon feet in the crust to label the contents (although sensible Margaret Dods says “we confess we see little use and no beauty in the practice”). Georgian recipes for pigeon pie called for whole birds, but I’ve suggested stewing the birds first, so your guests don’t have to pick out the bones.

Serves 6–8 as part of a picnic spread

4 rashers of streaky bacon, chopped
Slice of lean ham, chopped
4 pigeons with their livers tucked inside (the livers are hard to come by, but worth hunting out)
Flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
9 oz (250g) steak, diced (original cooks would have used rump steak, but you could use something cheaper like topside, diced across the grain of the meat)
Olive oil
Finely chopped parsley
2 white onions, roughly chopped
A bouquet garni of any of the following, tied together: thyme, parsley, marjoram, winter savory, a bay leaf
Beurre manie made with about 2 tsp butter and 2 tsp flour
1 lb (500g) rough puff pastry, chilled
Optional additions: 1 onion, peeled and quartered; 2 carrots, roughly chopped; 1 celery stick, roughly chopped

  1. Brown the bacon and then the ham in a frying pan, then add the onions, if using, and cook until they are translucent. Transfer the mixture to a large saucepan
  2. Flour the pigeons well and brown them all over in butter and olive oil in a frying pan, transferring them to the same large saucepan. Flour and brown the steak in the same way
  3. Put the pigeons in a saucepan, and push the steak, bacon, and onions down all around them (choose a saucepan in which they will be quite tightly packed). Although the original recipe doesn’t include them, you may want to add the carrots and celery stick to improve the stock.

    Add approximately 1 ¼ cups (300ml) water, or enough to just cover the contents. Cover the pan, and simmer slowly until the meat comes off the pigeon bones — at least an hour.

    Do not allow the pan to come to a boil or the beef will toughen. Remove from the heat.

  4. When it is cool enough to handle, remove the steak and pigeons with a slotted spoon, and carefully pull the pigeon meat off the bones, keeping it as chunky as possible, and put it, with the livers from the cavity, with the steak. You should have a good thick sauce; if it is too thin, stir in the beurre manie a little at a time.

    Wait for it to cook the flour, and thicken before adding any more, until you have the right consistency.

  5. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Roll out two-thirds of the pastry and line a pie dish about 3 inches/8cm deep, keeping a good ¼ inch (5mm) of pastry above the lip of the dish to allow for shrinkage
  6. Prick the bottom of the pastry and bake blind for 12 minutes. Add the meat mixture and pour in enough gravy to come to within an inch of the top.

    Roll out the remaining pastry to cover the top, crimping the edges together. Make a vent in the center, and use the trimmings to decorate.

    You may like to use the point of the knife to make small slash marks in the shape of pigeon footprints — a nod to the “nicely cleaned feet” of the original recipe. Bake for 25–30 minutes until the pastry is lightly golden, and cooked through

  7. To serve, this is a juicier pie than we are used to for picnics, so you will need plates, and knives and forks, in the Georgian manner

Dinner with Mr. Darcy contains many more edible delights inspired by the beloved author’s life and literature. Complement it with some recipes inspired by Lewis Carroll.

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21 NOVEMBER, 2013

Duke Ellington’s Diet


What the celebrated composer’s relationship with food reveals about the inner conflicts we share.

This is a culture where our relationship with food, though sometimes a canvas for creativity, has mutated from a source of sustenance to a grand arena for our moral struggles with willpower, a tyranny of habits we seek to rewire, a currency of status in the world’s hierarchy of haves and have-nots. At its most tragic, it can rip the psyche apart under the conflicting, unrelenting impulses for indulgence and control. While for most of us, these daily dramas play out in private, for public figures they offer source material for that sad excuse for journalism we find at the newsstand and the supermarket checkout aisle. And yet something about it — about those shared demons of our ambivalent relationship with food as a metaphor and voodoo doll for our inner contradictions and oscillations between self-loathing and self-pleasuring, between quenching and control — holds immutable allure for even those furthest removed from tabloid culture.

Perhaps it is the confluence of these curious cultural phenomena that makes for one of the most interesting parts of Terry Teachout’s fantastic new biography, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library) — Ellington’s relationship with food. In many ways, it presents an amplified version of the inner struggles we face daily — amplified to the point of caricature, which is what makes it both so powerful and so unsettling, in the same way we tend to be uneasy around or profoundly dislike those who exhibit exaggerated versions of our own worst traits.

Ellington, who was exceedingly concerned with how he looked on stage, went to great lengths to reconcile and conceal his conflicted appetites for pleasure and for appearance. He wore show-stopping ensembles when he performed — but with a twist:

Beneath it all he wore a corset, a useful tool for a performer whose appetite for food was as gargantuan as his appetite for sex. One of Ellington’s nicknames was “Dumpy,” and Tricky Sam Nanton paid awestruck tribute to his capacity: “He’s a genius, all right, but Jesus, how he eats!” Some of his best-remembered quirks had to do with food, such as his practice of wrapping up a leftover chop in a handkerchief or napkin, then tucking it in one of his pockets after a meal. It was a habit he had acquired in his early days, when food, like money, was harder to come by. “After a while, you eat in self-defense,” he told Whitney Balliett. “You get so you hoard little pieces of food against the time when there isn’t going to be any.”

Fashion plate: Duke Ellington in his dressing room at New York’s Paramount Theatre, photographed in May 1946 by William Gottlieb. In the thirties, he traveled with five trunks of clothes plus a separate trunk for his shoes. Ellington’s hair, as always, has been meticulously straightened, a look that he never abandoned, even after it became unfashionable among younger blacks

But his struggles with food cut deeper than a mere quirk. Teachout cites one journalist’s account of how Ellington’s notorious compulsion for controlling his image backfired in the most tragicomic of ways in his diet:

Duke, who is always worrying about keeping his weight down, may announce that he intends to have nothing but Shredded Wheat and black tea. . . . Duke’s resolution about not overeating frequently collapses at this point. When it does, he orders a steak, and after finishing it he engages in another moral struggle for about five minutes. Then he really begins to eat. He has another steak, smothered in onions, a double portion of fried potatoes, a salad, a bowl of sliced tomatoes, a giant lobster and melted butter, coffee, and an Ellington dessert — perhaps a combination of pie, cake, ice cream, custard, pastry, jello, fruit, and cheese. His appetite really whetted, he may order ham and eggs, a half-dozen pancakes, waffles and syrup, and some hot biscuits. Then, determined to get back on his diet, he will finish, as he began, with Shredded Wheat and black tea.

For a closer look at Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, dive into the story of how Ellington engineered his own image.

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26 AUGUST, 2013

Culinary Advice from James Beard, Illustrated by the Provensens


“Take time to cherish the old and to investigate the new.”

As an aficionado of both unusual cookbooks and the whimsical vintage illustrations of Alice and Martin Provensen, I’m infinitely grateful to Mimi Sheraton, who authored the wonderful Seducer’s Cookbook, for tipping me off to the existence of The Fireside Cook Book: A Complete Guide to Fine Cooking for Beginner and Expert (public library) — a 1949 gem penned by none other than culinary legend James Beard. Intended “for people who are not content to regard food just as something one transfers periodically from plate to mouth,” it offers 1,217 recipes accompanied by more than 400 endlessly delightful illustrations by The Provensens.

But perhaps most timeless of all is a small section prefacing the delicious recipes and drawings, humbly titled “A Word of Advice,” in which Beard captures the spirit of good cooking and, more than half a century before Michael Pollan’s seminal Food Rules, presages much of today’s wisdom on simplicity and integrity of ingredients.

There is absolutely no substitute for good food. Good food cannot be made of inferior ingredients masked with high flavor. It is true thrift to use the best ingredients available and to waste nothing. If you use the best butter, eggs, cream, meat, and other ingredients, and use them carefully and wisely, you will have less waste than if you search for bargains and end up with a full garbage pail.

Plan ahead. Plan carefully and shop in advance for what you need. Planning saves money, as well as time and steps.

Stagger your preparations so that they fit in with your other duties. If you prepare vegetables and other ingredients in advance, the last-minute rush is greatly eased and you will have a few minutes to relax and enjoy the paper or a chat before dinner. Plan so that you do not have three or four things that need attention at the same time.

Avoid having too many courses. If the food is good, that is all the more reason to limit the number of dishes, so that each may be fully savored.

Divide your meal into separate entities. As we shall try to show in the vegetable chapter, many vegetables are important enough to have single billing on your menu and should be served as a separate course.

Give as much care to simple dishes and the humbler foods as you do to elaborate dishes and ambitious menus. At the same time, do not neglect to take advantage of new developments in the growing, shipping, preserving, and cooking of food. Take time to cherish the old and to investigate the new.

Here are some of the loveliest illustrations:

The Fireside Cook Book is absolutely fantastic in its entirety. Complement it with more of the Provensens’ vintage treats, including their adaptation of the Odyssey and the Iliad for young readers, their homage to William Blake, and their splendid take on twelve classic fairy tales. Their 1944 treasure The Animal Fair was also featured in my recent collaboration with The New York Public Library as one of 10 favorite books about animals.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.