Saturday, February 6, 2016

Review: A Little Dinner Before the Play

“Take two partridges and prepare in usual way. Old birds can be utilized in this recipe if necessary.”

I'd given up on Lady Jekyll’s recipes long before I got to her favorite partridge dish (Perdrix aux Choux) in her "For Men Only" chapter, but I did pause to wonder what the "usual way" of preparing partridges might be. And what sort of household has the choice between old or new partridges?

The answer is Downton Abbey. A Little Dinner Before the Play is a collection of columns about food, cooking, and entertaining that Lady Agnes Jekyll wrote for the London Times from 1921 to 1922, exactly when Mrs. Patmore and Daisy would be looking for inspiration. It provides guidance, menus, and recipes for all occasions, starting with breakfast, to winter car picnics, fancy buffets for dance parties, “tray food” for those sick in bed, and meals for public speakers. If you ever wonder what the Crawley family would actually eat, this is the perfect book for you.

The recipes are sparse and presuppose general, shared cooking knowledge. Instructions to “prepare in the usual way” are common. As are a lack of measured amounts. Instead, she says things like, “add milk to form dough.” It doesn’t matter, since the food is generally ghastly. There is a lot of boiled meat; meat, fish, and eggs run through sieves to make pastes, sometimes together; dry sounding cakes or boiled puddings; and lots and lots of complicated jellied concoctions.

For example, Lady Jekyll recommends Iced Jelly as a refreshing sweet treat at a wedding feast. For such a special occasion, you don’t cheat by using gelatin sheets (her favorite in many other recipes), you go for the real thing:

Boil two calves feet for several hours, strain off and leave to get cold. Remove all grease, and put them into a stewpan with the peel and juice of 4 lemons to each quart of liquor, ½ lb. loaf sugar, a piece of cinnamon stick and a few raisins, the whites of four eggs. Whisk all well together whilst boiling; strain through a jelly bag several times until clear. Flavour liberally with a sherry glass of maraschino, pour into an ice mould with secure lid, pack in ice and freezing salt in an ice pail, and freeze for 2 hours.

That could make a vegan out of anyone. She has many other recipes for sweet or savory jellied things. She even suggests covering a Camembert cheese in aspic!

Lady Jekyll’s advice to hostesses captures her era as much as the recipes. In the title chapter, her idea for a simple meal before leading guests to the theater is to offer individual roasted quail to each guest – served on silver trays, doused with brandy as they come from the kitchen, set alight, and served flambé.

You can have the cook pick up quail next time she’s out buying new partridges.


If you would like your review of this book or any other book from the Penguin Books Great Food series listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.


A Little Dinner Before the Play counts as one of my books for the 2016 European Reading (UK), Mt. TBR, and the Foodies Read Challenges.


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