Monday, 24 June 2013

The Last Post: An Eternal Edwardian Picnic

The blogging instinct, as any blogger who has been at it for any length of time will know, waxes and wanes over time. This little offering has been on the go for almost three years now, begun in a moment of wonderment and fervour for history, food, and the blogging medium. Though I can never claim to have been an exceptionally regular poster, I have thoroughly enjoyed doing so when the spirit moved (along with writing for my primary blog The Idle Historian). The interaction with readers has been particularly fulfilling. All, this, however, does not alter the fact that one's last post was on Christmas Eve 2012 and it is now past the summer solstice as we anticipate warm days and the promise of fine (we hope) months of holiday and leisure.

The time has therefore come to officially wind down Eating Like an Edwardian, though it will remain published as people from all over the world search it out daily. I hope many of them still find interest in the arcane bits and pieces of information and commentary contained therein. I wish to leave the blog and my readers in that most pleasant and Edwardian of spots: a country picnic. In this landscape of the mind the weather is always just perfect, the company friendly, and the food varied, filling, and divine. Following the First World War many individuals were found to remember the earlier days of Edwardian England as "always sunny." Naturally they could not have been in fact, but this does not negate the pleasure of memory. A happy eternal summer to you all.

[A proper Edwardian picnic -- truly civilized]

[In technicolour]

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Monday, 24 December 2012

Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding - Merry Christmas to All!

The Idle Historian constantly laments the increasingly early nature of Christmas accoutrements: the marketing, store displays, decorations, and above all, music being played before its time. But society has determined that we will all get into the spirit early, and there is one arena in which hearing about Christmas long before December 25th is tolerable - food. I started coming across articles about Christmas food back in November - one of them being this piece which states that, in parallel to a longing for all things nostalgic, real Christmas fruitcake and Christmas "pudding," British style, are making a comeback. As one person who devotes a great deal of time to the making of a proper pudding puts it:

It does require some time, but it’s worth it.... All of those three things — the pudding, the cakes and the mincemeat — share those rich flavours of raisins and oranges and lemons and nutmeg. For me, they’re the fragrances, the aromas of Christmas. 

[Traditional Christmas Pudding. Picture via story in The Province]

All well and good. But, alas, our contemporary existence is full of stress, obligations, and other constraints. We don't all have the time to make an exquisite pudding from scratch, despite our best intentions. But even if our treats come from a packet made by others, the important thing this season is to be with family and friends (or have contact with them if they are far away), and to spread joy and merriment. In the end, it is the only lasting thing. So: a very Merry Christmas to all you dear readers, and best wishes for a happy 2013.

Here are two lovely Edwardian greeting cards to bring you cheer:

[A Cherub, circa 1907]

[Carollers, circa 1910]

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

How to Cook Like a Man: Masculinity, Beyond the Grill

Much has been made of the supposed modern “crisis of masculinity.” This runs the gamut from relatively mundane anxieties over using moisturizer to full-fledged angst over the “end of men.” Men, so we are told, are floundering adrift in the new age of the feminized public sphere, uncertain of themselves and their masculine identity. While I don’t believe this is true, and indeed the “end of men” is greatly exaggerated, nevertheless this low-level anxiety has diffused into various cultural niches. Given the current fixation on hundred-mile diets, foodie-ism (at least one example of foodie-debunking here), celebrity chefs, and all things gastronomic, it is little wonder that the question of how to cook/eat “like a man” has gained traction.

The tension between food gathering/preparation and eating has always been a balance between “masculine” and “feminine” influences. Hunter-gathering societies, we are given to understand, operated on the basis of men hunting, women cooking said game, with the men completing the bargain by promising to guard the valuable food from other males who may have been less proficient stalkers. But cooking in some contexts, such as in the aristocratic houses of medieval and Tudor/early-modern England, had been undertaken by men – who far outnumbered women as household servants. By the eighteenth and certainly nineteenth centuries the trend was reversed, with women being predominant in service and being responsible for the extremely low-status drudgery of the kitchen. In more ordinary homes, women of course have undertaken the majority of food preparation, while at the same time it is male chefs who have usually staffed the great restaurants and hotels and who (with some exceptions) drove the culinary trends of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This blog takes as its inspiration the grand culinary excesses of the Edwardian Era, which was “masculine” in many aspects – from the habits of Edward VII himself to the fantastic portions of game and meat that were a crucial aspect of Edwardian cooking. The most famous chef of the day (and perhaps the first real celebrity chef), Auguste Escoffier, introduced fabulous French dishes and flourishes to the English palate. But many of his dishes and similar styles that had been popular since the Victorian era were (perhaps to our eyes) elaborate, fussy, and even “feminine.” These included grand moulded jellies, small details such as flowers, décor, or garnish which were time-consuming and thus partially designed in order to display the wealth of those doing the entertaining. It is also important to note that only a small fraction of the population ate in this over-the-top Edwardian way, so there is really no means of assessing how people regarded the masculinity (or not) of their food. Nor do I see the middle part of the twentieth century as addressing the gendered aspect of food in any substantial way. Trends of that era were primarily centred on: health, exotic and ethnic cuisine, French and Italian manias, convenience, wild presentation (the 70s), and “authenticity” (Alice Waters/ Chez Panisse local ingredients, and the like). It is only more recently that the whole conundrum of “manly cuisine” has become a substantial concern.

To wit, I recently picked up two books with similar titles and themes:

Duane’s book is a heartfelt tale of one (yuppie, progressive, well-educated, San Francisco-dwelling) man’s discovery of cooking alongside marriage and the birth of his two daughters. Having grown up with stereotypical “regular food” parents who considered ordering a starter in a restaurant and eating for decadent pleasure as a sin, he seeks to reencounter cuisine in an almost primeval manner. He obtains food for his family like his hunter-gather ancestors – diving for abalone, butchering his own meat, and learning the manly pace and patience of salmon fishing. His experiences with other culinary-obsessed men are also fascinating, their conversations serving as a new form of male bonding as they navigate the terrain of what it means to cook as a man. As the dust jacket summarizes: “…in the end, Duane learns not just how to cook like a man, but how to truly be one.” It is cooking as both a spiritual and a masculine journey.

Interestingly, Duane’s book is entitled How to *Cook* Like a Man, while the Esquire editors have chosen *Eat* Like a Man as the title of their actual cookbook, possibly with the theory in mind that while not all men relish the idea of cooking, they all enjoy eating. Perhaps the promise of one will help de-mystify the particulars of the other. In structure, look, and feel the cookbook is a mixture of old-Dad-Mad-Men nostalgia, hipster sensibility, gastropub-style new classics, and simple diner Americana. 

[How men choose to view their culinary endeavours]

The foreword by Tom Colicchio sets out immediately to debunk the “hoary cliché” that male cooking abilities are necessarily restricted to “manning the backyard grill.” Of course grilling and the art of the bbq is the ne plus ultra of manly food, involving as it does gas, flame, and the omnipresent element of danger. [See photo above] Such elements remove it from the tame, domesticated environment of the indoor kitchen. Colicchio applies a few “truisms about men” to summarize the manly approach to cooking:

  1. "Men don’t stop to ask for directions"
    Hence, the cookbook is seen as a “guiding tool,” a starting-point rather than an insistence on measuring out each exact teaspoon of spice: “A recipe can be incredibly useful as a training tool… but I only started really having fun in the kitchen when I threw out the rule book and started riffing on my own.” Cooking is a virtuoso performance. (Duane explicitly counters this approach in his book, seeing nothing unmanly about following each Alice Waters recipe to the letter. Chapter three: “recipes are for idiots like me” – his manly cook is a self-deprecating one, not a know-it-all.)
  1. "Men like to know how stuff works"
    In short, the same “curiosity” that men bring to tinkering with their cars will help them to understand the chemistry of cooking, such as how a steak sears best.
  1. "Men don’t always think with their heads"
    “We all know that men can be easily led away from the path of reason given the proper motivation, and in the kitchen this can be a good thing… To this day, my most exhilarating cooking comes when I stop thinking too hard, and just cook from the gut.”

Never mind that there might well be a slight contradiction between the second and third points, manly cooking is – in this presentation – akin to being a Jedi Knight. The Force is with him.

Much of this is, in the end, entertaining mumbo-jumbo, but nevertheless an insightful look into gender relations in our conflicted age of multiple and uncertain identities. We can only hope that the end result will be far less concern over whether women want to butcher pigs (Exhibit A: A Girl and Her Pig by April Bloomfield) or men wish to decorate cupcakes. There is, however, one aspect that seems too delicate for all these performative analyses and cooking manuals to even touch on. And that is the fact that cooking and eating, being the most fundamental way in which societies address the distribution of resources, will always be bound up with status, money, and control. Cooking in a manly way is not just an aesthetic act, it is yet another transition in the long negotiation of who brings home the bacon and who puts it on the grill. 

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils  

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Allure of the "Last Meal" on the Titanic

It is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, a fact which all who haven’t been hiding under a rock will know very well. Memories of the ill-fated passage have been ubiquitous in the media – memorial cruises, documentaries, films, and personal profiles of survivors, victims and the descendants of both. As I sit writing this post I am simultaneously watching the new television rendition of Titanic written by Julian Fellowes and produced by the “creators of Downton Abbey.” So far, pre-iceberg, it is everything you would expect with such a pedigree – all imaginable stereotypes present and correct, Sir. Whether it will add anything useful to the collective narrative remains doubtful.

If the sinking of the Titanic was one of the landmark events of the twentieth century, it truly defined the Edwardian age. Newspapers were consumed with coverage for months thereafter (in the United States largely spurred by William Randolph Hearst and his vendetta against White Star chairman Joseph Bruce Ismay). It was one of the few dark events to blight the seemingly innocent and carefree days before the outbreak of the First World War. One historian recently theorized that the contrast of courage and cowardice demonstrated aboard the ship reflected the prime value Edwardians placed on both physical and moral bravery. The Titanic (as both an actual ship and as an “idea”) also emphasized the near limitless glamour and opulence of the Edwardian age for the wealthy, and the desperation and narrow opportunities of the world which the poor inhabited.

The food on board the Titanic has continued to fascinate, including the famed "last meal." Naturally at Eating Like an Edwardian we well understand the reason for this interest. Edwardian food, with its massive portions and rich offerings (which seem almost obscene to the modern observer), epitomized the age. Several years ago I looked through the book Last Dinner On theTitanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner, though I must say that I have never attempted any of the recipes. It is full of facts, anecdotes and tasty offerings that fuelled 6,000 meals a day on board ship. (Some recipes listed here.)

The First-Class Menu As served in the first-class dining saloon of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 14, 1912
First Course
Hors D'Oeuvres
Second Course
Consommé Olga
Cream of Barley
Third Course
Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce, Cucumbers
Fourth Course
Filet Mignons Lili
Saute of Chicken, Lyonnaise
Vegetable Marrow Farci
Fifth Course
Lamb, Mint Sauce
Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce
Sirloin of Beef, Chateau Potatoes
Green Pea
Creamed Carrots
Boiled Rice
Parmentier & Boiled New Potatoes
Sixth Course
Punch Romaine
Seventh Course
Roast Squab & Cress
Eighth Course
Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette
Ninth Course
Pate de Foie Gras
Tenth Course
Waldorf Pudding
Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly
Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs
French Ice Cream

To coincide with the anniversary of the Titanic, a hotel in Hong Kong has reportedly recreated the last meal on the ship, for which participants forked out approximately $2000 to attend. The bill of fare was an exact replica of that served on the Titanic even if, as the executive chef Philippe Orrico suggested, the portions were reduced because people are no longer prepared to stomach gargantuan meals. Our general appetite for luxury might remain the same, even if the full scope of our appetite has been curbed.

Update: A story from Vanity Fair about New York "foodies" recreating the last meal on the Titanic.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils  

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Edwardians and Picnics - Or, Reasonable Eating Out of Doors

No climate in the world is less propitious than the climate of England, yet with a recklessness which is almost sublime, the English rush out of doors to eat a meal on every possible and impossible occasion.
-- Georgina Battiscombe, English Picnics (1951)

The Idle Historian has a confession to make. One which may cause something of a shock -- so please do have the proverbial smelling salts close at hand. I am not overly fond of eating outside. Or, at the very least, I dislike the unthinking compulsion in our society to eat out of doors -- despite the discomfort, the dodgy weather, and the logical difficulties involved. Worse still is the daft impulse to drag all and sundry contents of the kitchen (and barbecuing equipment) far afield (to a park or a beach) and proceed to laboriously prepare a meal. The effort involved is massive, the results often middling, and the mental state required to embark on such a project dubious. In short, I believe that we invented civilization so that we might eat within the comfort of four walls.

That said, of course, there must be exceptions that prove the rule. Our spring, summer, and glorious scenery exists for these small outings. But they should be few and far between, and furthermore well-chosen occasions. One should not run out to patios pell-mell, simply because the temperature has edged above 10C. The conditions in climes such as Canada and England are most often unfavourable, and the experience of the dining or social occasion thereby diminished. Not to mention that those with good circulation among us generally give no heed to those who might not be so blessed. The ubiquitous patio heater is often of little practical advantage on this score. Generally the individual is left freezing on one side and charred on the other -- quite aside from the carbon footprint of such activities.

Eating outdoors must be rationed carefully, like a fine brandy or a vintage claret. Special occasions must be chosen with a view to the probable weather, and reasonable provisions set aside in case of an inclement outcome. Of course even the best-planned excursions may encounter rain, and one must take this eventuality with the proper degree of stoicism. It is, I contend, much easier to countenance them with the knowledge that such miseries may occur but infrequently.

The Idle Historian's rules for outdoor eating are thus:
1. It should not require inordinate effort on the part of the participants. (Ideally, no effort at all. See the reference to hampers below.)

2. It should be a special treat, not an everyday mania.

3. It should be an experience that would fit aesthetically into a Evelyn Waugh novel or a Merchant Ivory film. Otherwise, take advantage of benefits our ancestors have bequeathed to us and eat indoors.

This leaves us with, essentially, an Edwardian picnic. This occasion was one of (at least in memory) perpetual sunshine, flowers, youth, copious amounts of food and drink: sandwiches, cold meats, cold pies, biscuits, fruit, Pimms. Picnic food -- not simply a replica of normal fare.

[A group of young Edwardians having a picnic. The photos of them are in
black and white. The experience was in vibrant colour.]

There were games of croquet, cards, bawdy songs, parasols for the ladies, sedate flirtations under the oaks. The Edwardians took advantage of a new appreciation for the pleasures of leisure and the English countryside (along with improved transport -- trains and automobiles) to visit it in large numbers.

The other vital element of the experience, one which the Edwardians understood, was that one should contribute as little effort as possible towards the food. It should come to one as if a gift from the heavens. This is why carting a vehicle filled with a barbecue and most of the accoutrements of the kitchen to a park or beach to cook the outdoor meal simply won't do. 

No, the ONLY thing for outdoor eating is the picnic hamper -- ideally packed by someone else. Such as Fortnum and Mason. The legendary qualities of Fortnum's hampers was the subject of an earlier post, "How to Travel in Culinary Style." A hamper answers quite nicely for the occasion, and since it is so difficult to get good domestic servants these days (and footmen are particularly in such short supply), it is easily portable by two people.

[The Classic Fortnum and Mason hamper. Eminently civilized.]

The hamper denotes civilization and, although it might seem luxurious or extravagant to some, it actually represents the height of restraint and -- I dare say -- even modesty. The hamper signals that the participants are not under the delusion that they must recreate ALL the elements of dining out of doors -- the cooking of meat for example. They understand that it is about the aesthetic merits of the outing and combining the best of all experiences in perfect moderation: the food and drink as minimalist accompaniment to the splendour of the outdoors.

[A do-it-yourself hamper. This sample has the right idea going --
one would NEVER purchase a hamper lacking claret glasses.]

The Idle Historian wishes all the readers of this blog a glorious spring and summer. For most of us the season is short, the days of sunshine teasing us with their swift appearance and disappearance. And by all means do invite me to a sedate hamper picnic, as this is certainly as much outdoor dining as the Edwardian soul can take. As life is, alas, filled with suffering I will not turn down a beach barbecue either, but I am not bringing meat to put on the grill.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils

Monday, 20 February 2012

Shrove Tuesday - Pancake Day

Today is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Tuesday - choose the nomenclature that one wishes. In historically appropriate fashion, Catholic participants will enjoy a day of fun and unbridled merriment before the beginning of Lent. Protestants have scaled this practice down drastically. They go in for the consumption of pancakes, an activity that very conveniently coincides with an early breakfast and, presumably, will not impinge on the all-consuming imperative: WORK. Perhaps Max Weber discussed this concept and the practice of the day in his landmark book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism? Might a knowledgeable reader enlighten me?

The food editors at The Guardian have rounded up some cookery experts to discuss the perfect pancake.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Happy Christmas and Edwardian Cheer

It doesn't matter what happens to a man but it does matter how he takes it. That's the true spirit of an Edwardian gentleman.

 -- Herbert Johnson (“adventurer, stockjobber, and sportsman”), and owner of the famed Marsh Court in Hampshire
Merry Christmas to all the dear readers of these intermittent posts on Eating Like an Edwardian. May the indefatigable spirit expressed by Herbert Johnson guide you throughout 2012.

Some Edwardian workers from 1910 are manufacturing Christmas crackers for you. Enjoy a lovely holiday celebration full of cheer!

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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