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Art of Dining

There is such a thing as nationality in dining, just as Mr. Browning has proved, in a brilliant poem, that there is nationality in drinks. Surveying mankind with extensive view, the essayist recognizes that the science is not absolutely ignored in Turkey, where we cannot but think that an archaic school retains too much wool with the mutton, and that dining (like Egyptian Art) is rather a matter of sacred and immemorial rules than in any worthy sense of the word a science. The Chinese and Japanese have long been famous for their birds'-nest soup, and for making the best, after his lamented decease, of the friend of man--the dog. About the Australians and New Zealanders, perhaps the less said the better. Many students will feel that our own colonists have neglected to set a proper example to these poor heathen races, who, save kangaroos, have no larger game than rats. The Englishman in Australia revels in boundless mutton, in damper, in tea, and in the vintages of his adopted soil, which he playfully, and patriotically, compares to those of the Rhine. It is impossible, on the other hand, not to recognize the merits of the Russian cuisine, where the imported civilization of France has found various good traditional ideas still retained by the Sclavonic people; and where the caviare, "with that pale green hue which denotes the absence of salt," is not to be overlooked. In melancholy contrast to the native genius of the Sclavs is the absolute dearth of taste and sense in gastronomic Germany. If a map of the world could be made--and why not?--in which lands of utter darkness in culinary matters should be coloured black (like heathen countries in the missionary atlas, and coalfields in the map of physical geography), the German Empire would be one vast blot on Central Europe. Science might track Teutonic blood by the absence of respectable cookery; and in England too obvious tokens would be found of that incapacity of the art of dining which we brought from the marshes of Holstein. In America, nature herself has put the colonists on many schemes for the improvement of dinner, and terrapin soup is gratefully associated with memoirs of Virginia--in the minds of those who like terrapin soup. The canvas-backed duck has been praised as highly as the "swopping, swopping mallard" of a comfortable college in Oxford. As to the wild turkey, the poet has not yet risen in America who can do justice to the charms of that admirable bird. Mr. Whitman, who has much to say about "bob-a-links" and "whip-poor-wills," and some other fowl which sing "when lilacs bloom in the garden yard," has neglected, we fear, the wild turkey, simply because the Muse has not given this bird melody, and made it, like the robin-redbreast, which goes so well with bread-crumbs, "an amiable songster." American genius neglects the turkey, and positively takes more interest in the migrations of the transatlantic sparrow. If the nobler fowl can cross the water as safely as the beef and mutton of everyday life, he will receive the honour he deserves in this country. Some students with the deathless thirst of scientific men for acclimatization, speak well of the Bohemian pheasant, which, unlike some other denizens of Bohemia, is fat. But there are probably less familiar birds in America that rival the duck and the wild turkey, and excel the Bohemian pheasant. The existence of maize, however, on the Western Continent has been a snare to American cooks, who have yielded to an absorbing passion for hot corn-cakes.

France is, of course, the land in which the Muse of cooking is native. "If we turn north towards Belgium," says a modern author, "we shall find much that is good in cooking and eating known, if not universally practised." He has also made the discovery that the Belgian air and climate are admirably suited to develop the best qualities of Burgundy. It is from these favoured and ingenious people that England ought to learn a lesson, or rather a good many lessons. To begin at the beginning, with soup, does not every one know that all domestic soups in England, which bear French names, are really the same soup, just as almost all puddings are, or may be, called cabinet pudding? The one word "Julienne" covers all the watery, chill and tasteless, or terribly salt, decoctions, in which a few shreds of vegetables appear drifting through the illimitable inane. Other names are given at will by the help of a cookery-book and a French dictionary; but all these soups, at bottom, are attempts to be Julienne soup. The idea of looking on soup "as a vehicle for applying to the palate certain herbal flavours," is remote indeed from the Plain Cook's mind. There is a deeply rooted conviction in her inmost soul that all vegetables, which are not potatoes or cabbages, partake of the nature of evil. As to eating vegetables apart from meat, it was once as hard to get English domestics to let you do that, as to get a Cretan cook to serve woodcock with the trail. "Kopros is not a thing to be eaten," says the Cretan, according to a traveller; and the natural heart of the English race regards vegetables, when eaten as a plat apart, with equal disfavour. Probably the market gardener's ignorance and conservatism are partly in fault. Cabbage he knows, and potatoes he knows, but what are pennyroyal and chervil? He has cauliflower for you, but never says, "Here is rue for you, and rosemary for you." Cooks do not give him botany lessons, and a Scottish cook, deprived of bay-leaf, has been known to make an experiment in the use of what she called "Roderick Randoms," members of the vegetable kingdom which proved to be rhododendron. As for pennyroyal, most people have only heard of it through Mr. Bonn's crib to Aristophanes.

When it comes to fish, it is allowed that we are not an insular people for nothing. There are other forms of good living that Paris knows not of, so to speak, at first hand, native to England. Turtle soup, turbot and lobster sauce, a haunch of venison, and a grouse, are, we may say without chauvinism, a "truly royal repast." But we incur the contempt of foreigners once more in the matter of wines. To like sherry, the coarse and fiery, is a matter of habit, which would teach us to love betel-root, and rejoice in the very peculiar drink of the South Sea islanders. Some purists include champagne in the same condemnation--the champagne, that is, of this degenerate day. When the Russians drank up the contents of the widow Clicquot's cellars, they found a sweet natural wine, to which they have constantly adhered. But Western Europe, all the Europe which, as M. Comte puts it, "synergizes" after light and positivism, has tended towards champagnes more or less dry. The English serve this "grog mousseux" as a necessity for social liveliness, and have not come back to the sweet wine which was only meant to be drunk with sweets. A Quarterly reviewer is very severe in his condemnation of a practice which will only yield to the stress of some European convulsion in politics and society. These matters are like certain large reforms, they either come to pass without observation in the slow changes of things, or great movements in the world are accompanied by small ones in everyday life. Dry champagne came in after the Revolution; it may go out after a European war, which will make wine either expensive, or, if cheap, a palpably spurious article. "Monotony and base servile imitation" may be the bane of eating and drinking in England; but the existence of monotony shows that the English really do not care very much about dining considered as a fine art. When they do care, they cover their interest in the matter decently, with the veil of humorous affectation. They cannot spontaneously and sincerely make a business of it, as the French do in all good faith. Even if they had a genius for dining, we doubt if a critic is right in thinking they should dine at six o'clock or seven at latest. Whether in the country or in town, the business or amusement of the day claims more time. Sportsmen, for example, in early autumn could not possibly return home by six very frequently, and in summer six o'clock may be so sultry an hour that the thought of food is intolerable. Still, it must be admitted that the unawakened state of the market-gardener and the condition of English soups are matters deserving serious consideration.


Andrew Lang