“Food, glorious food!
Hot sausage and mustard!
While we’re in the mood — Cold jelly and custard!”
– The orphan boys of “Oliver”
Well, I have had this summer’s “AHA!” moment. While other authors are busy having their “aha’s” over love and relationships, deep-seated family concerns, and even stuff like money and estates, I have been visited by the Angels of Apotheosis on one measly subject: Food. Well, okay, it’s a good subject. But it has very little in the way of glamour. Elizabeth is not waiting around to marry a French cook for love of his featherlight umm, rissoles. Darcy is not concerned at the moment with providing every morsel of meat and veg to Pemberley’s table with his own two hands. Nobody is on a diet, nobody that we know has a particular weight problem, nobody has anorexia.
Nevertheless, Jane Austen wants us to know that food, the breaking of bread, the sharing of meals, and the entertainment of friends and strangers, make up an important part of the society she depicts for us.
Her pages are full of late, leisurely breakfasts; sumptuous teas, dinners with twenty-four families, perfectly done haunches of venison, buttery scones, and just about anything else you can imagine. Important conversations are held at the table. The unfortunate Mr. Collins blunders by asking which of the daughters of the house is responsible for the meal set before them. Mrs. Bennet soon sets him right, for her girls do not labor in the kitchen!! Far from it.
Out of all her faults and stupidities, Mrs. Bennet has one shining, sterling virtue. She sets the best table known to Hertfordshire society, and she knows it. How this poor, stupid woman managed to put together enough executive function to run a kitchen, feed a family, and provide for the needs of people on her husband’s estate, when needed. It takes brains to do that, and she had them.
This of course got me thinking of my own grandmother, Julia Bird Lee. I’d like to underline that her character was not that of Mrs. Bennet. She had an inner goodness and sweetness of disposition that more resembled Jane. She was charitable, kind-hearted, and happy in her family. She was also as sharp as a tack. And she was known far and wide for her delicious food. An invitation to dinner at Miss Julia’s house was a coveted thing.
Then there was me. I was packed off to my grandparents from whatever post we happened to be stationed with, almost as soon as school was out, to spend at least two weeks with my grandparents. I was royally entertained I had vouchers for country club swimming, invitations to lunches, brunches, and dinners, and many parties to attend. In this, it was not unlike Society around Meryton: Something was always going on, and while I was there, I was likely to be the focus. It was also usually June, which meant canning month, and my grandmother was in the kitchen “putting up” a massive variety of pickles, relishes, jams and jellies. Up at six, she often didn’t make it into bed until it was midnight—and it wasn’t air conditioned.
I will forever be grateful for the company of our neighbor, Mary Catherine, a girl of about my age. We generally grew into adolescence together, comparing notes on boys, our décor preferences (French Provincial, of course), dances, and parties. She was a welcome respite from the company of all those older folks and a convenient way for me to get out of my grandmother’s kitchen, where I didn’t feel very welcome during canning season.
One rainy afternoon when I couldn’t get out of the house at all, I began to think. I went and got the Fanny Farmer cookbook and began to take notes. I made lists, then a master list. Then I copied all of it out in my good handwriting.
My plan was simple. I had seen good, ripe tomatoes at the stand where we picked up all the fruit. I was going to make a simple tuna salad with some additions—a little minced onion, nothing too fancy. The salad would be served atop quartered ripe tomatoes in little lettuce cups. With that we would have rolls (bakery), butter, and deviled eggs. There wasn’t a single thing on my menu that I couldn’t make myself, thereby saving Grandma time in the kitchen.
I waited until after the dishes were done from supper, then quietly advanced my plan. “Mary Catherine and her mother are always so nice to me, I feel I should do something for them. These are all things I’ve made before, and I can do them myself.”
Grandma studied the neatly copied list, frowning a little, then smiling, then smiling broadly at me.
“I’m very proud of you. It is lovely to want to do something for someone who’s been so nice to you.” Her expression became serious. “But you simply cannot serve tuna salad to guests. It just isn’t—well, it just isn’t nice enough.” My heart sank.
“How about this?” she went on. We will make chicken salad, and we’ll use your aunt’s secret recipe. You can’t go wrong with that. Then, the bakery rolls are fine; we’ll get the good ones. I think having deviled eggs is too much mayonnaise. How about a little variety of nibblers—plain hard-boiled egg halves, a few of those lovely French gherkins, and some olives. And radishes. I’ll teach you how to make the little roses.
And just like that, the planning was done. Dessert would be plain vanilla ice cream with a little chocolate sauce, and there would be cookies—also bakery since it was so hot. The invitation was issued for a week hence, or shortly before I would leave. Little adjustments were made to the menu, but by the morning of the day before, everything was in the kitchen. My grandmother used only white meat for chicken salad, and she roasted this. It smelled appetizing even in the heat.
The most amazing part was watching the mayonnaise start out in a jar as some oil , vinegar, and egg. My grandmother started to beat it, adding droplets more oil until it developed into a cohesive, snow-white mass. You had to know when to stop and when to start, but the taste and texture were unlike anything I’d ever seen or tasted.
With all the prep work out of the way, we settled on the front porch to wait for my grandfather, who was taking us out to supper. Next morning dawned clear, and after we had all the plates chilling in the fridge, Grandmother and I retired to bathe, dress, and take down our hair. We were all ready when the doorbell rang, and after a few awkward moments, lunch got underway.
It was a tour-de-force. Grandma had hit it out of the park, just as she always did. Mary Catherine felt suitably honored and thanked (I had a handwritten note from her when I got home), her mother felt it had all been worthwhile, and I learned more than one trick that day about how to make your guests feel cherished. I will impart these as I close:
Chicken Salad: Always use chicken white meat, always roast it for best and deepest flavor, and for the love of Heaven, the ratio of meat to celery must never deviate from three parts chicken to one part finely minced celery. Then put in whatever you like—or don’t.
Mayonnaise: We had no EVOO in those benighted times. But you can’t go wrong with the freshest eggs, the nicest oil, and the simplest seasonings. And it isn’t hard. I have been making it since that fateful luncheon, and I have yet to lose a batch.“Food Glorious Food” from the Broadway musical “Oliver.”
Food, Glorious Food . . .
3 responses to “Food, Glorious Food . . .”
Well hey, I’M impressed, anyway.Loading…
I’m with Alice. Impressive! I was thinking about inviting a couple of cousins over for a meal but couldn’t decide what to serve. You’ve given me some ideas. 😉Loading…
Very sweet post! How nice that you did something for your friends. The food sounds delicious!Loading…