Ms. Mary's guide to the good life and fine edibles 

Among the Dutch math books, second-rate sailor novels and leather-bound copies of the works of Voltaire I picked up at a Goodwill sale last summer, was my main score: a musty, dilapidated cookbook, dated 1895.

Authored by Ms. Mary Ronald, I often find myself consulting the old Century Cookbook for those tasty, sinful, decadent recipes you won't find in the latest healthful Betty Crocker. Still, I have to wonder: did she really eat this stuff?

Besides covering almost every style of cooking, from hardy simple pioneer meals to frou-frou Boston high teas, the book also holds the key as to why the life expectancy of Victorians was noticeably shorter than food lovers of today. Get a load of this recipe for plain cup-, or 1-2-3-4 cakes:

One cup of butter
Two cups sugar
Three cups flour
Four eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

An entire cup of butter. Visualize it. And this wasn't the low-fat, low-sodium margarine of today, this was pure unadulterated milkfat. No wonder the corset came so widely into use.

While decadent, the Victorians were also economical. For example, I never had any idea how many ways, besides veal, a calf can be prepared. The head alone can be boiled or sliced and served la vinaigrette, la poulette, or as a substitute for terrapin (frog). Mmm, cow head. It's what's for dinner.

Once the head runs out, you always have the brains. A bit of white sauce poured over the boiled gray matter, and you have a satisfying meal for the whole family. More entrepreneurial chefs may choose to "marinate the brains with oil, vinegar, onion, pepper and salt. Dip pieces the size of half an egg into fritter batter and fry in hot fat. Arrange the cooked pieces on a napkin and serve with tomato sauce".

I offered to bring this delectable finger food to a friend's housewarming party, but my offer was politely refused. All for the best, I suppose, considering local supermarkets abject disregard in stocking their meat cases with fresh, quality brains.

Besides her artery-clogging recipes and multi-use calf preparations, Ms. Ronald also teaches us how important it is for the lady of the house to be knowledgeable about the goings-on of her kitchen: "It is a trite saying that a thing worth doing is worth doing well, but, from the inefficiency of the large number of domestics who hold the office of cook...it would seem that the truism is not regarded in reference to cooking. Since it is upon the kitchen that the health and comfort of a family so greatly depend, is it not a duty...for the mistress of every house to understand the science of cooking as well as the arts which give other attractions to the house?"

It's so hard to find good help, especially help that knows how to correctly prepare hot sliced calf tongue.

Among those "arts of other attractions" is creating a pleasant dinner party atmosphere: "The hostess should give her instructions so explicitly that on the arrival of her guests she should have no care other than their pleasure. If she is nervous, or has wandering eyes, or shows constraint, it affects sensibly the ease of her guests." The dining room must be temperate and well-ventilated; the servants impeccably groomed, and the table well-decorated with a prevailing color ("For instance, white dinner to a bride, pink to young people, red to a Harvard company, or yellow to those with Princeton affiliations").

The host always enters the room first, followed by the hostess and the gentleman on whom she has bestowed the right of sitting on her right. Unless, of course, she is dining with the President of the United States, but that's a whole 'nother chapter.


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