Story type: Essay
In my noonday quest for food, if the day is fine, it is my habit to shun the nearer places of refreshment. I take the air and stretch myself. Like Eve’s serpent I go upright for a bit. Yet if time presses, there may be had next door a not unsavory stowage. A drinking bar is nearest to the street where its polished brasses catch the eye. It holds a gilded mirror to such red-faced nature as consorts within. Yet you pass the bar and come upon a range of tables at the rear.
Now, if you yield to the habits of the place you order a rump of meat. Gravy lies about it like a moat around a castle, and if there is in you the zest for encounter, you attack it above these murky waters. “This castle hath a pleasant seat,” you cry, and charge upon it with pike advanced. But if your appetite is one to peck and mince, the whiffs that breathe upon the place come unwelcome to your nostrils. In no wise are they like the sweet South upon your senses. There is even a suspicion in you–such is your distemper–that it is too much a witch’s cauldron in the kitchen, “eye of newt, and toe of frog,” and you spy and poke upon your food. Bus boys bear off the crockery as though they were apprenticed to a juggler and were only at the beginning of their art. Waiters bawl strange messages to the cook. It’s a tongue unguessed by learning, yet sharp and potent. Also, there comes a riot from the kitchen, and steam issues from the door as though the devil himself were a partner and conducted here an upper branch. Like the man in the old comedy, your belly may still ring dinner, but the tinkle is faint. Such being your state, you choose a daintier place to eat.
Having now set upon a longer journey–the day being fine and the sidewalks thronged–you pass by a restaurant that is but a few doors up the street. A fellow in a white coat flops pancakes in the window. But even though the pancake does a double somersault and there are twenty curious noses pressed against the glass, still you keep your course uptown.
Nor are you led off because a near-by stairway beckons you to a Chinese restaurant up above. A golden dragon swings over the door. Its race has fallen since its fire-breathing grandsire guarded the fruits of the Hesperides. Are not “soys” and “chou meins” and other such treasures of the East laid out above? And yet the dragon dozes at its post like a sleepy dog. No flame leaps up its gullet. The swish of its tail is stilled. If it wag at all, it’s but in friendship or because a gust of wind has stirred it from its dreams.
I have wondered why Chinese restaurants are generally on the second story. A casual inquiry attests it. I know of one, it is true, on the ground level, yet here I suspect a special economy. The place had formerly been a German restaurant, with Teuton scrolls, “Ich Dien,” and heraldries on its walls. A frugal brush changed the decoration. From the heart of a Prussian blazonry, there flares on you in Chinese yellow a recommendation to try “Our Chicken Chop Soy.” The quartering of the House of Hohenzollern wears a baldric in praise of “Subgum Noodle Warmein,” which it seems they cook to an unusual delicacy. Even a wall painting of Rip Van Winkle bowling at tenpins in the mountains is now set off with a pigtail. But the chairs were Dutch and remain as such. Generally, however, Chinese restaurants are on the second story. Probably there is a ritual from the ancient days of Ming Ti that Chinamen when they eat shall sit as near as possible to the sacred moon.
But hold a bit! In your haste up town to find a place to eat, you are missing some of the finer sights upon the way. In these windows that you pass, the merchants have set their choicest wares. If there is any commodity of softer gloss than common, or one shinier to the eye–so that your poverty frets you–it is displayed here. In the window of the haberdasher, shirts–mere torsos with not a leg below or head above–yet disport themselves in gay neckwear. Despite their dismemberment they are tricked to the latest turn of fashion. Can vanity survive such general amputation? Then there is hope for immortality.
But by what sad chance have these blithe fellows been disjointed? If a gloomy mood prevails in you–as might come from a bad turn of the market–you fancy that the evil daughter of Herodias still lives around the corner, and that she has set out her victims to the general view. If there comes a hurdy-gurdy on the street and you cock your ear to the tune of it, you may still hear the dancing measure of her wicked feet. Or it is possible that these are the kindred of Holofernes and that they have supped guiltily in their tents with a sisterhood of Judiths.
Or we may conceive–our thoughts running now to food–that these gamesome creatures of the haberdasher had dressed themselves for a more recent banquet. Their black-tailed coats and glossy shirts attest a rare occasion. It was in holiday mood, when they were fresh-combed and perked in their best, that they were cut off from life. It would appear that Jack Ketch the headsman got them when they were rubbed and shining for the feast. We’ll not squint upon his writ. It is enough that they were apprehended for some rascality. When he came thumping on his dreadful summons, here they were already set, fopped from shoes to head in the newest whim. Spoon in hand and bib across their knees–lest they fleck their careful fronts–they waited for the anchovy to come. And on a sudden they were cut off from life, unfit, unseasoned for the passage. Like the elder Hamlet’s brother, they were engaged upon an act that had no relish of salvation in it. You may remember the lamentable child somewhere in Dickens, who because of an abrupt and distressing accident, had a sandwich in its hand but no mouth to put it in. Or perhaps you recall the cook of the Nancy Bell and his grievous end. The poor fellow was stewed in his own stew-pot. It was the Elderly Naval Man, you recall–the two of them being the ship’s sole survivors on the deserted island, and both of them lean with hunger–it was the Elderly Naval Man (the villain of the piece) who “ups with his heels, and smothers his squeals in the scum of the boiling broth.”
And yet by looking on these torsos of the haberdasher, one is not brought to thoughts of sad mortality. Their joy is so exultant. And all the things that they hold dear–canes, gloves, silk hats, and the newer garments on which fashion makes its twaddle–are within reach of their armless sleeves. Had they fingers they would be smoothing themselves before the glass. Their unbodied heads, wherever they may be, are still smiling on the world, despite their divorcement. Their tongues are still ready with a jest, their lips still parted for the anchovy to come.
A few days since, as I was thinking–for so I am pleased to call my muddy stirrings–what manner of essay I might write and how best to sort and lay out the rummage, it happened pat to my needs that I received from a friend a book entitled “The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened.” Now, before it came I had got so far as to select a title. Indeed, I had written the title on seven different sheets of paper, each time in the hope that by the run of the words I might leap upon some further thought. Seven times I failed and in the end the sheets went into the waste basket, possibly to the confusion of Annie our cook, who may have mistaken them for a reiterated admonishment towards the governance of her kitchen–at the least, a hint of my desires and appetite for cheese and pippins.
“The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened” is a cook book. It is due you to know this at once, otherwise your thoughts–if your nature be vagrant–would drift towards family skeletons. Or maybe the domestic traits prevail and you would think of dress-clothes hanging in camphorated bags and a row of winter boots upon a shelf.
I am disqualified to pass upon the merits of a cook book, for the reason that I have little discrimination in food. It is not that I am totally indifferent to what lies on the platter. Indeed, I have more than a tribal aversion to pork in general, while, on the other hand, I quicken joyfully when noodles are interspersed with bacon. I have a tooth for sweets, too, although I hold it unmanly and deny it as I can. I am told also–although I resent it–that my eye lights up on the appearance of a tray of French pastry. I admit gladly, however, my love of onions, whether they come hissing from the skillet, or lie in their first tender whiteness. They are at their best when they are placed on bread and are eaten largely at midnight after society has done its worst.
A fine dinner is lost within me. A quail is but an inferior chicken–a poor relation outside the exclusive hennery. Terrapin sits low in my regard, even though it has wallowed in the most aristocratic marsh. Through such dinners I hack and saw my way without even gaining a memory of my progress. If asked the courses, I balk after the recital of the soup. Indeed, I am so forgetful of food, even when I dine at home, that I can well believe that Adam when he was questioned about the apple was in real confusion. He had or he had not. It was mixed with the pomegranate or the quince that Eve had sliced and cooked on the day before.
A dinner at its best is brought to a single focus. There is one dish to dominate the cloth, a single bulk to which all other dishes are subordinate. If there be turkey, it should mount from a central platter. Its protruding legs out-top the candles. All other foods are, as it were, privates in Caesar’s army. They do no more than flank the pageant. Nor may the pantry hold too many secrets. Within reason, everything should be set out at once, or at least a gossip of its coming should run before. Otherwise, if the stew is savory, how shall one reserve a corner for the custard? One must partition himself justly–else, by an over-stowage at the end, he list and sink.
I am partial to picnics–the spreading of the cloth in the woods or beside a stream–although I am not avid for sandwiches unless hunger press me. Rather, let there be a skillet in the company and let a fire be started! Nor need a picnic consume the day. In summer it requires but the late afternoon, with such borrowing of the night as is necessary for the journey home. You leave the street car, clanking with your bundles like an itinerant tinman. You follow a stream, which on these lower stretches, it is sad to say, is already infected with the vices of the city. Like many a countryman who has come to town, it has fallen to dissipation. It shows the marks of the bottle. Further up, its course is cleaner. You cross it in the mud. Was it not Christian who fell into the bog because of the burden on his back? Then you climb a villainously long hill and pop out upon an open platform above the city.
The height commands a prospect to the west. Below is the smoke of a thousand suppers. Up from the city there comes the hum of life, now somewhat fallen with the traffic of the day–as though Nature already practiced the tune for sending her creatures off to sleep. You light a fire. The baskets disgorge their secrets. Ants and other leviathans think evidently that a circus has come or that bears are in the town. The chops and bacon achieve their appointed destiny. You throw the last bone across your shoulder. It slips and rattles to the river. The sun sets. Night like an ancient dame puts on her jewels:
And now that I have climbed and won this height,
I must tread downward through the sloping shade
And travel the bewildered tracks till night.
Yet for this hour I still may here be stayed
And see the gold air and the silver fade
And the last bird fly into the last light.
By these confessions you will see how unfit I am to comment on the old cook book of Sir Kenelm Digby. Yet it lies before me. It may have escaped your memory in the din of other things, that in the time when Oliver Cromwell still walked the earth, there lived in England a man by the name of Kenelm Digby, who was renowned in astrology and alchemy, piracy, wit, philosophy and fashion. It appears that wherever learning wagged its bulbous head, Sir Kenelm was of the company. It appears, also, that wherever the mahogany did most groan, wherever the possets were spiced most delicately to the nose, there too did Sir Kenelm bib and tuck himself. With profundity, as though he sucked wisdom from its lowest depth, he spouted forth on the transmutation of the baser metals or tossed you a phrase from Paracelsus. Or with long instructive finger he dissertated on the celestial universe. One would have thought that he had stood by on the making of it and that his judgment had prevailed in the larger problems. Yet he did not neglect his trencher.
And now as time went on, the richness of the food did somewhat dominate his person. The girth of his wisdom grew no less, but his body fattened. In a word, the good gentleman’s palate came to vie with his intellect. Less often was he engaged upon some dark saying of Isidore of Seville. Rather, even if his favorite topic astrology were uppermost about the table, his eye travelled to the pantry on every change of dishes. His fingers, too, came to curl most delicately on his fork. He used it like an epicure, poking his viands apart for sharpest scrutiny. His nod upon a compote was much esteemed.
Now mark his further decline! On an occasion–surely the old rascal’s head is turned!–he would be found in private talk with his hostess, the Lady of Middlesex, or with the Countess of Monmouth, not as you might expect, on the properties of fire or on the mortal diseases of man, but–on subjects quite removed. Society, we may be sure, began to whisper of these snug parleys in the arbor after dinner, these shadowed mumblings on the balcony when the moon was up–and Lady Digby stiffened into watchfulness. It was when they took leave that she saw the Countess slip a note into her lord’s fingers. Her jealousy broke out. “Viper!” She spat the words and seized her husband’s wrist. Of course the note was read. It proved, however, that Sir Kenelm was innocent of all mischief. To the disappointment of the gossips, who were tuned to a spicier anticipation, the note was no more than a recipe of the manner that the Countess was used to mix her syllabub, with instruction that it was the “rosemary a little bruised and the limon-peal that did quicken the taste.” Advice, also, followed in the postscript on the making of tea, with counsel that “the boiling water should remain upon it just so long as one might say a miserere.” A mutual innocence being now established, the Lady Digby did by way of apology peck the Countess on the cheek.
Sir Kenelm died in 1665, full of years. In that day his fame rested chiefly on his books in physic and chirurgery. His most enduring work was still to be published–“The Closet Opened.”
It was two years after his death that his son came upon a bundle of his father’s papers that had hitherto been overlooked. I fancy that he went spying in the attic on a rainy day. In the darkest corner, behind the rocking horse–if such devices were known in those distant days–he came upon a trunk of his father’s papers. “Od’s fish,” said Sir Kenelm’s son, “here’s a box of manuscripts. It is like that they pertain to alchemy or chirurgery.” He pulled out a bundle and held it to the light–such light as came through the cobwebs of the ancient windows. “Here be strange matters,” he exclaimed. Then he read aloud: “My Lord of Bristol’s Scotch collops are thus made: Take a leg of fine sweet mutton, that to make it tender, is kept as long as possible may be without stinking. In winter seven or eight days”–“Ho! Ho!” cried Sir Kenelm’s son. “This is not alchemy!” He drew out another parchment and read again: “My Lord of Carlile’s sack posset, how it’s made: Take a pottle of cream and boil in it a little whole cinnamon and three or four flakes of mace. Boil it until it simpreth and bubbleth.”
By this time, as you may well imagine, Sir Kenelm’s son was wrought to an excitement. It is likely that he inherited his father’s palate and that the juices of his appetite were stirred. Seizing an armful of the papers, he leaped down the attic steps, three at a time. His lady mother thrust a curled and papered head from her door and asked whether the chimney were afire, but he did not heed her. The cook was waddling in her pattens. He cried to her to throw wood upon the fire.
That night the Digby household was served a delicacy, red herrings broiled in the fashion of my Lord d’Aubigny, “short and crisp and laid upon a sallet.” Also, there was a wheaten flommery as it was made in the West Country–for the cook chose quite at random–and a slip-coat cheese as Master Phillips proportioned it. Also, against the colic, which was ravishing the country, the cook prepared a metheglin as Lady Stuart mixed it–“nettles, fennel and grumel seeds, of each two ounces being small-cut and mixed with honey and boiled together.” It is on record that the Lady Digby smiled for the first time since her lord had died, and when the grinning cook bore in the platter, she beat upon the table with her spoon.
The following morning, Sir Kenelm’s son posted to London bearing the recipes, with a pistol in the pocket of his great coat against the crossing of Hounslow Heath. He went to a printer at the Star in Little Britain whose name was H. Brome.
Shortly the book appeared. It was the son who wrote the preface: “There needs no Rhetoricating Floscules to set it off. The Authour, as is well known, having been a Person of Eminency for his Learning, and of Exquisite Curiosity in his Researches. Even that Incomparable Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight, Fellow of the Royal Society and Chancellour to the Queen Mother, (Et omen in Nomine) His name does sufficiently Auspicate the Work.” The sale of the book is not recorded. It is supposed that the Lady Middlesex, so many of whose recipes had been used, directed that her chair be carried to the shop where the book was for sale and that she bought largely of it. The Countess of Dorset bought a copy and spelled it out word for word to her cook. As for the Lady Monmouth, she bought not a single copy, which neglect on coming to the Digbys aroused a coolness.
To this day it is likely that a last auspicated volume still sits on its shelf with the spice jars in some English country kitchen and that a worn and toothless cook still thumbs its leaves. If the guests about the table be of an antique mind, still will they pledge one another with its honeyed drinks, still will they pipe and whistle of its virtues, still will they–
“EAT”–A flaring sign hangs above the sidewalk. By this time, in our noonday search for food, we have come into the thick of the restaurants. In the jungle of the city, here is the feeding place. Here come the growling bipeds for such bones and messes as are thrown them.
The waiter thrusts a card beneath my nose. “Nice leg of lamb, sir?” I waved him off. “Hold a bit!” I cried. “You’ll fetch me a capon in white broth as my Lady Monmouth broileth hers. Put plentiful sack in it and boil it until it simpreth!” The waiter scratched his head. “The chicken pie is good,” he said. “It’s our Wednesday dish.” “Varlet!” I cried–then softened. “Let it be the chicken pie! But if the cook knoweth the manner that Lord Carlile does mix and pepper it, let that manner be followed to the smallest fraction of a pinch!”