Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays (1922)
Persephone No. 30
Persephone Books, 2001

Agnes Jekyll explains in her introduction to Kitchen Essays that these pieces have been published in book form as a result of readers of The Times having requested such a ready reference.

These traditional recipes and rituals straddle nostalgia and practicality, and make Kitchen Essays a charming — and, surprisingly, useful — volume. When I picked it up, I thought that I might leaf through, dawdle over a cup of tea and then settle into some proper reading with another Persephone, but I read more than half of the essays in a single sitting. And I was sure that I would skip over the recipes, but the preparation is very matter-of-fact and could clearly be employed as-is, providing the dish and its ingredients were to the reader’s taste.

Okay, fine: my lifestyle doesn’t require that I be acquainted with the chapter entitled “A Dinner Before the Play”. But, if it did, I think this would be perfectly useful advice:

“There should still be time for a perfect cup of coffee and a possible liqueur, and, most desired of all by many, for a good smoke, without which there will be no social fire. Warmed thus and fed, the play-goers will be attuned to enjoyment and ready to appreciate each other, their dinner, their play, and their hostess, ‘and so to bed with great contentment’.”

And, it’s true: I simply would never have cause to refer to “A Shooting-Party Luncheon”. But consider how evocative this passage is nonetheless:

“Shooters are thirsty folk, and will welcome a long draught of light beer, cider, or ginger ale; the old-fashioned may prefer claret or whisky with soda, and a modest flask of cherry brandy would be guiltily appreciated.Lock up the port till dinner-time, if good shooting be desired, but bring the cigars and cigarettes — the pipes will take care of themselves.”

Anyhow, I could adapt the advice in “A Christmas Luncheon”, even if I haven’t any previous knowledge of Theocritus’ spirit:

“After a fortifying cup of coffee, the shoppers will return with renewed zest to their afternoon campaign, and when a Christmas thank-offering subsequently arrives — as it may — receive it in the spirit of Theocritus, who wrote: ‘Surely great grace goes with a little gift, and all the offerings of a friend are precious.’

And there is one recipe and commentary which I can readily and enthusiastically employ:

“Toast, to be good, demands a glowing grate, a handy toasting-fork, and a patient watcher — counsels of perfection indeed, for the ideal rack is like friendship and the immortality of the soul, almost too good to be true.”

As a historic document, Kitchen Essays illuminates the tradition of English cookery in straightforward language and a cozy tone.

But the love of preparing and enjoying and sharing food crosses geo-political borders as readily as one passes a plate of hot-buttered toast.

In with the talk of mutton and puddings, Agnes Jekyll takes time to consider the culinary wonders of other countries.

“Certain specially Venetian products cannot be transplanted: Uove fragole, those strange little slimy grapes with their evasive flavour of mountain strawberry; scampi, those glorified prawns from the outer waters; beccafichi, poor tiny finches who feed on gaping figs, and whose innocent lives were ever pleaded for in vain; vine-fattened escargi like giant snails; strange, repellent fruta di mare, nespoli, pomidoro, marinelli, polenta, funghi, poppone. Their names are richly reminiscent, but their emigration overseas impossible — nay, undesirable.”

If you thought Persephone was all about novels and stories, consider what Alex Clare (in E.M. Delafield’s Consequences), the Blake family (in Dorothy Whipple’s They Knew Mr. Knight), and Miss. Pettigrew (in Winifred Watson’s novel, when she wasn’t going hungry) would have had on their dinner plates: keep Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays with your cookbooks, but don’t forget it’s a good read.

(By the way, It would make a perfect hostess gift: stock up for the shooting parties you plan to attend this season.)