The Delights of Delicate Eating by Elizabeth Robins Pennell
It’s not likely that you’ve heard of Elizabeth Robins Pennell or that you associate her with Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David. But just as these three women – two Americans and one British – became three of the most widely read twentieth century women writers about French food and French culinary traditions, Elizabeth Pennell preceded them by two generations, initiating a tradition of culinary literature and interpretation that continues to this day.
Pennell’s book is a collection of essays that she wrote each week for the Pall Mall Gazette, a prestigious evening newspaper published in London beginning in 1865. For five years in the early 1890s Pennell opined and waxed eloquently about food and eating. Sometimes a little too eloquent, Pennell is none-the-less, a delight to read. She set a standard for the food essayist that has influenced generations of food writers.
In her chapter on “Soup”, Pennell set the stage for Elizabeth David writing six decades later. Soup, wrote Pennell, “. . . should be but a prelude to the meal – the prologue, as it were, to the play – its excellence a welcome forecast of delights to follow . . .” Elizabeth David could do no better as she echoed Pennell, writing that soup is “. . . often the first dish to be served . . . it is important that it should be very good, attractive, light, well seasoned, promising even more delicious things to come” (Summer Cooking, 1955).
David adopted Pennell’s distaste for British cuisine and especially soup. Soup in England, wrote Pennell, is “too often, a thick, greasy mess that could appeal but to the coarsest hunger. . .” David concurred sixty years later, writing “in England, soup appears to be exactly the same summer and winter, except for the occasional appearance of an iced consommé; often alas not sufficiently clarified, of a depressing colour, and the wrong consistency.”
As you might gather, political correctness had no place in the writing of Pennell. Her writing is peppered with one line zingers that will make you laugh. Opinionated, and it seems, uncompromising, Pennell adored French food and abhorred British food. Almost every page in the book expresses a Pennell opinion in one way or another:
– On soup and France: “For all the best things in the gourmand’s life – one journeys to France.”
– On alcohol: “Abstinence, of all follies created by man, is the most wicked, the most unpardonable.” And,
– On dinner guests and coffee: “the guest, who does not know good coffee when it is set before him deserves to be cast into outer darkness and fed for evermore on brimstone and treacle.” (Pennell’s audience in 1890’s Britain would have been familiar with Dickens’s literary use of this nasty medicinal.)
As a coffee drinker, I can’t help but chuckle at Pennell’s rapture over the drink. The final chapter in the book, like the final course at one of her meals, is about coffee. She briefly traces the history and geography of coffee from Abyssinia to Arabia to Turkey and on to Europe. Then she retraces the quality of coffee backwards from England to France and eastward into Austria and Hungary. “Drink, if only once,” she writes, “coffee on the banks of the Danube, while gipsies (sic) ‘play divinely into your ear,’ and life will never more seem quite so meaningless.”
Elizabeth Pennell’s “delights” are in the details: of how and when to serve coffee, how to fix the perfect sandwich, the perfect bowl of macaroni (yes, macaroni!), and how to mix and dress a salad. Her focus, though, is how to best combine all of the wondrous foodstuffs available to the Londoner of the 1890s into the perfect meal, snack, breakfast, luncheon, dinner or supper (and yes, she explains the difference between the two.)
Elizabeth Pennell and her husband, Joseph, were American journalists and art historians who lived in London from 1884 until 1917. During that time, which included the period when Elizabeth contributed these essays to the Pall Mall Gazette, the author put together one of the largest collections of “cookery books” ever assembled. Her collection of 433 cookbooks is now in the Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.
So, if your cook has every imaginable cookery book, chances are she/he doesn’t have Elizabeth Pennell’s “Delights.” This would make an excellent and much-appreciated gift for winter reading!
Postscript: In keeping with Pennell’s style, our recipe this month is a tutorial on how to put together a winter evening’s meal (Thursday, to be precise) on a family farm in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. Paola’s cousin on the farm in Italy near where we have our headquarters, has the tradition of making a large pot of broth every Thursday in winter. The meal that results consists of pasta in broth (“tagliolini in brod” to be precise), followed by the boiled meats that made up the broth (normally a barnyard chicken, some gristly beef, and anything else that she has handy). See this month’s recipe for more about this traditional dish.