‘Kitchen Essays’ by Agnes Jekyll ***

I had wanted to read Lady Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays: With Recipes and Their Occasions for years, before spotting a beautiful illustrated Persephone Classic edition of the book in my local library. I picked it up immediately, of course. I am always so keen to read non-fiction based around food, as I’m sure anyone familiar with my reviews will know; it is one of those slightly niche genres which I love.

Between 1921 and 1922, Lady Agnes Jekyll wrote a series of letters for The Times, all of which were left unsigned. Persephone collected all of these together, and published them for the first time in 2001. A wealth of recipes – many of which are quite inventive, and perhaps a little surprising to the 21st-century eater – are interspersed amongst the longer form pieces.

As the subtitle of the book suggests, Lady Jekyll’s book contains many specificities for ‘occasions’ which the host of the early-1920s clearly encountered far more often than we do one hundred years later. The delightfully long names of each chapter illustrate this; they range from the perhaps more workable ‘Home Thoughts of Florence and Some Tuscan Recipes’ and ‘Some Breakfast-Time Suggestions’, to the more obscure ‘A Little Supper After the Play’, and ‘Luncheon for a Motor Excursion in Winter’. This continues throughout, as she recommends specific dishes for the likes of ‘a tropical week-end in July or August, when you might expect a jaded Cabinet Minister or a depressed financier, a critic from the Foreign Office or an epicure from the Guards Club…’. Lady Jekyll clearly moved in very different circles.

Lady Jekyll writes in her short preface that she collected these recipes ‘during years of housekeeping under varied conditions’, which included, of course, the First World War. Lady Jekyll was always the gracious host, and does not seem to have done any of the cooking herself. Kitchen Essays is, therefore, designed as a manual for the woman who instructs the woman that cooks. In the chapter entitled ‘In the Cook’s Absence’, Lady Jekyll suggests: ‘Leaving these instructions before your kitchen-maid’s eyes, the sound of your stimulating words of hope and faith in her ears, you will be able, as hitherto, to transfer most of the burden on to her shoulders, and go up to dress for dinner, feeling that you have done your duty…’.

In the first piece, ‘Old Friends with New Faces’, she writes: ‘… let us as housekeepers give more of our best brains to the work. We must put these thoroughbreds, Imagination, Generosity, Invention, into harness with our jaded hacks, Custom, Thrift, and the Commonplace, as they drag along Time’s hurrying chariot to the often depressing sound of the family gong.’ She speaks of ‘Thrift’, but actually, the reach of Kitchen Essays is not for the Everywoman cook of the 1920s. Rather, a lot of the more exotic ingredients which she speaks about – such as pineapples – were difficult to get hold of at the time, and were therefore prohibitively expensive for the majority.

I loved the amusing and witty comments which Jekyll throws in; for instance, following her idea of a dish which would be a good choice with which to replace the ‘dreary’ weekly Roast Leg of Mutton, she writes: ‘Your spinster aunt will certainly accuse you of undue extravagance after she has partaken freely of this dish.’ The language which she uses throughout is, and she definitely comes up with some interesting and unusual turns of phrase. She encourages her readers to do such things as ‘capture a stately pineapple’, and to ‘mollify the fastidious purist or placate the peppermint hater’. She also implores the public not to allow a hot dish to ‘cool its heels’ on the way from the kitchen to the formal dining room.

Lady Jekyll’s writing is very detailed, and appears almost over the top in places. Of ‘Morello Cherries shrouded in brandy’, she writes, for instance: ‘Pussyfoots love them served in glasses with becoming caps of fluffy cream, and will mellow visibly under their influences, sweet as those of the Pleiades.’ As one might expect from this, she also offers incredibly particular suggestions for the presentation of food; one lobster dish is ‘best,’ she says, ‘when daintily served in white china ramekin cases of fair size’.

Lady Jekyll also implores her audience that it is vital to keep a huge amount of equipment in the cook’s arsenal, and does not seem to trust any ‘modern’ methods of cooking anything whatsoever. When making toast, for instance, she recommends ‘a glowing grate, a handy toasting-fork, and a patient watcher’. She goes on to comment: ‘An electric griller can be used successfully by those who can successfully use such contraptions, but the elemental toasting-fork, the patient watcher before the fire, and a go-between, with the honour of the house at heart, are really the truest solution.’

I liked the way in which Lady Jekyll included recipes from different cuisines, although the historical accuracy of these does sometimes seem a little stretched. She details the processes to make ‘a summer luncheon sweet, popular in Sweden’, an ice ‘acquired from a Muscovite friend’, a layered ‘Dutch omelet’, and a beefsteak ‘a la Russe’. She believes that ‘lighter nourishment’ is a whole quail encased in puff pastry…

Kitchen Essays is certainly an historical document with a lot of value. It was fascinating to read, and whilst I don’t think I’ll be recreating many of Lady Jekyll’s recipes, I did enjoy learning about different techniques which I’ve not used before, and ingredients which are perhaps a little niche in the modern Western world. Whilst I might consider making some of the apple desserts which she includes, I am definitely going to steer clear of ‘mutton kidneys’ and ‘Calf’s brain’. Kitchen Essays evokes a different world entirely, and provides a wonderful glimpse into a bygone age.

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