The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 14/Number 86/House and Home Papers
HOUSE AND HOME PAPERS.
BY CHRISTOPHER CROWFIELD
My wife and I were sitting at the open bow-window of my study, watching the tuft of bright red leaves on our favorite maple, which warned us that summer was over. I was solacing myself, like all the world in our days, with reading the "Schönberg Cotta Family," when my wife made her voice heard through the enchanted distance, and dispersed the pretty vision of German cottage-life.
"Well, my dear."
"Do you know the day of the month?"
Now my wife knows this is a thing that I never do know, that I can't know, and, in fact, that there is no need I should trouble myself about, since she always knows, and what is more, always tells me. In fact, the question, when asked by her, meant more than met the ear. It was a delicate way of admonishing me that another paper for the "Atlantic" ought to be in train; and so I answered, not to the external form, but to the internal intention.
"Well, you see, my dear, I have n't made up my mind what my next paper shall be about."
"Suppose, then, you let me give you a subject."
"Sovereign lady, speak on! Your slave hears!"
"Well, then, take Cookery. It may seem a vulgar subject, but I think more of health and happiness depends on that than on any other one thing. You may make houses enchantingly beautiful, hang them with pictures, have them clean and airy and convenient; but if the stomach is fed with sour bread and burnt coffee, it will raise such rebellions that the eyes will see no beauty anywhere. Now in the little tour that you and I have been taking this summer, I have been thinking of the great abundance of splendid material we have in America, compared with the poor cooking. How often, in our stoppings, we have sat down to tables loaded with material, originally of the very best kind, which had been so spoiled in the treatment that there was really nothing to eat! Green biscuit with acrid spots of alkali,—sour yeast-bread,—meat slowly simmered in fat till it seemed like grease itself, and slowly congealing in cold grease,—and above all, that unpardonable enormity, strong butter! How often I have longed to show people what might have been done with the raw material out of which all these monstrosities were concocted!"
"My dear," said I, "you are driving me upon delicate ground. Would you have your husband appear in public with that most opprobrious badge of the domestic furies, a dish-cloth pinned to his coat-tail? It is coming to exactly the point I have always predicted, Mrs. Crowfield: you must write, yourself. I always told you that you could write far better than I, if you would only try. Only sit down and write as you sometimes talk to me, and I might hang up my pen by the side of 'Uncle Ned's' fiddle and bow."
"Oh, nonsense!" said my wife. "I never could write. I know what ought to be said, and I could say it to any one; but my ideas freeze in the pen, cramp in my fingers, and make my brain seem like heavy bread. I was born for extemporary speaking. Besides, I think the best things on all subjects in this world of ours are said not by the practical workers, but by the careful observers."
"Mrs. Crowfield, that remark is as good as if I had made it myself," said I.
"It is true that I have been all my life a speculator and observer in all domestic matters, having them so confidentially under my eye in our own household; and so, if I write on a pure woman's matter, it must be understood that I am only your pen and mouth-piece,—only giving tangible form to wisdom which I have derived from you."
So down I sat and scribbled, while my sovereign lady quietly stitched by my side. And here I tell my reader that I write on such a subject under protest,—declaring again my conviction, that, if my wife only believed in herself as firmly as I do, she would write so that nobody would ever want to listen to me again.
We in America have the raw material of provision in greater abundance than any other nation. There is no country where an ample, well-furnished table is more easily spread, and for that reason, perhaps, none where the bounties of Providence are more generally neglected. I do not mean to say that the traveller through the length and breadth of our land could not, on the whole, find an average of comfortable subsistence; yet, considering that our resources are greater than those of any other civilized people, our results are comparatively poorer.
It is said, that, a list of the summer vegetables which are exhibited on New-York hotel-tables being shown to a French artiste, he declared that to serve such a dinner properly would take till midnight. I recollect how I was once struck with our national plenteousness, on returning from a Continental tour, and going directly from the ship to a New-York hotel, in the bounteous season of autumn. For months I had been habituated to my neat little bits of chop or poultry garnished with the inevitable cauliflower or potato, which seemed to be the sole possibility after the reign of green-peas was over; now I sat down all at once to a carnival of vegetables: ripe, juicy tomatoes, raw or cooked; cucumbers in brittle slices; rich, yellow sweet-potatoes; broad Lima-beans, and beans of other and various names; tempting ears of Indian-corn steaming in enormous piles, and great smoking tureens of the savory succotash, an Indian gift to the table for which civilization need not blush; sliced egg-plant in delicate fritters; and marrow-squashes, of creamy pulp and sweetness: a rich variety, embarrassing to the appetite, and perplexing to the choice. Verily, the thought has often impressed itself on my mind that the vegetarian doctrine preached in America left a man quite as much as he had capacity to eat or enjoy, and that in the midst of such tantalizing abundance he really lost the apology which elsewhere bears him out in preying upon his less gifted and accomplished animal neighbors.
But with all this, the American table, taken as a whole, is inferior to that of England or France. It presents a fine abundance of material, carelessly and poorly treated. The management of food is nowhere in the world, perhaps, more slovenly and wasteful. Everything betokens that want of care that waits on abundance; there are great capabilities and poor execution. A tourist through England can seldom fail, at the quietest country-inn, of finding himself served with the essentials of English table-comfort,—his mutton-chop done to a turn, his steaming little private apparatus for concocting his own tea, his choice pot of marmalade or slice of cold ham, and his delicate rolls and creamy butter, all served with care and neatness. In France, one never asks in vain for delicious café-au-lait, good bread and butter, a nice omelet, or some savory little portion of meat with a French name. But to a tourist taking like chance in American country-fare what is the prospect? What is the coffee? what the tea? and the meat? and above all, the butter?
In lecturing on cookery, as on house-building, I divide the subject into not four, but five grand elements: first, Bread; second, Butter; third, Meat; fourth, Vegetables; and fifth, Tea,—by which I mean, generically, all sorts of warm, comfortable drinks served out in teacups, whether they be called tea, coffee, chocolate, broma, or what not.
I affirm, that, if these five departments are all perfect, the great ends of domestic cookery are answered, so far as the comfort and well-being of life are concerned. I am aware that there exists another department, which is often regarded by culinary amateurs and young aspirants as the higher branch and very collegiate course of practical cookery, to wit, Confectionery,—by which I mean to designate all pleasing and complicated compounds of sweets and spices, devised not for health or nourishment, and strongly suspected of interfering with both,—mere tolerated gratifications of the palate, which we eat, not with the expectation of being benefited, but only with the hope of not being injured by them. In this large department rank all sorts of cakes, pies, preserves, ices, etc. I shall have a word or two to say under this head before I have done. I only remark now, that in my tours about the country I have often had a virulent ill-will excited towards these works of culinary supererogation, because I thought their excellence was attained by treading under foot and disregarding the five grand essentials. I have sat at many a table garnished with three or four kinds of well-made cake, compounded with citron and spices and all imaginable good things, where the meat was tough and greasy, the bread some hot preparation of flour, lard, saleratus, and acid, and the butter unutterably detestable. At such tables I have thought, that, if the mistress of the feast had given the care, time, and labor to preparing the simple items of bread, butter, and meat that she evidently had given to the preparation of these extras, the lot of a traveller might be much more comfortable. Evidently, she never had thought of these common articles as constituting a good table. So long as she had puff pastry, rich black cake, clear jelly, and preserves, she seemed to consider that such unimportant matters as bread, butter, and meat could take care of themselves. It is the same inattention to common things as that which leads people to build houses with stone fronts and window-caps and expensive front-door trimmings, without bathing-rooms or fireplaces or ventilators.
Those who go into the country looking for summer board in farm-houses know perfectly well that a table where the butter is always fresh, the tea and coffee of the best kinds and well made, and the meats properly kept, dressed, and served, is the one table of a hundred, the fabulous enchanted island. It seems impossible to get the idea into the minds of people that what is called common food, carefully prepared, becomes, in virtue of that very care and attention, a delicacy, superseding the necessity of artificially compounded dainties.
To begin, then, with the very foundation of a good table,—Bread: What ought it to be? It should be light, sweet, and tender.
This matter of lightness is the distinctive line between savage and civilized bread. The savage mixes simple flour and water into balls of paste, which he throws into boiling water, and which come out solid, glutinous masses, of which his common saying is, "Man eat dis, he no die,"—which a facetious traveller who was obliged to subsist on it interpreted to mean, "Dis no kill you, nothing will." In short, it requires the stomach of a wild animal or of a savage to digest this primitive form of bread, and of course more or less attention in all civilized modes of bread-making is given to producing lightness. By lightness is meant simply that the particles are to be separated from each other by little holes or air-cells, and all the different methods of making light bread are neither more nor less than the formation in bread of these air-cells.
So far as we know, there are four practicable methods of aërating bread, namely—by fermentation,—by effervescence of an acid and an alkali,—by aërated egg, or egg which has been filled with air by the process of beating,—and lastly, by pressure of some gaseous substance into the paste, by a process much resembling the impregnation of water in a soda-fountain. All these have one and the same object,—to give us the cooked particles of our flour separated by such permanent air-cells as will enable the stomach more readily to digest them.
A very common mode of aërating bread, in America, is by the effervescence of an acid and an alkali in the flour. The carbonic acid gas thus formed produces minute air-cells in the bread, or, as the cook says, makes it light. When this process is performed with exact attention to chemical laws, so that the acid and alkali completely neutralize each other, leaving no overplus of either, the result is often very palatable. The difficulty is, that this is a happy conjunction of circumstances which seldom occurs. The acid most commonly employed is that of sour milk, and, as milk has many degrees of sourness, the rule of a certain quantity of alkali to the pint must necessarily produce very different results at different times. As an actual fact, where this mode of making bread prevails, as we lament to say it does to a great extent in this country, one finds five cases of failure to one of success. It is a woful thing that the daughters of New England have abandoned the old respectable mode of yeast-brewing and bread-raising for this specious substitute, so easily made, and so seldom well made. The green, clammy, acrid substance, called biscuit, which many of our worthy republicans are obliged to eat in these days, is wholly unworthy of the men and women of the Republic. Good patriots ought not to be put off in that way,—they deserve better fare.
As an occasional variety, as a household convenience for obtaining bread or biscuit at a moment's notice, the process we earnestly entreat American housekeepers, in Scriptural language, to stand in the way and ask for the old paths, and return to the good yeast-bread of their sainted grandmothers.
If acid and alkali must be used, by all means let them be mixed in due proportions. No cook should be left to guess and judge for herself about this matter. There is an article, called "Preston's Infallible Yeast-Powder," which is made by chemical rule, and produces very perfect results. The use of this obviates the worst dangers in making bread by effervescence.
Of all processes of aëration in bread-making, the oldest and most time-honored is by fermentation. That this was known in the days of our Saviour is evident from the forcible simile in which he compares the silent permeating force of truth in human society to the very familiar household process of raising bread by a little yeast.
There is, however, one species of yeast, much used in some parts of the country, against which I have to enter my protest. It is called salt-risings, or milk-risings, and is made by mixing flour, milk, and a little salt together, and leaving them to ferment. The bread thus produced is often very attractive, when new and made with great care. It is white and delicate, with fine, even air-cells. It has, however, when kept, some characteristics which remind us of the terms in which our old English Bible describes the effect of keeping the manna of the ancient Israelites, which we are informed, in words more explicit than agreeable, "stank, and bred worms." If salt-rising bread does not fulfil the whole of this unpleasant description, it certainly does emphatically a part of it. The smell which it has in baking, and when more than a day old, suggests the inquiry, whether it is the saccharine or the putrid fermentation with which it is raised. Whoever breaks a piece of it after a day or two will often see minute filaments or clammy strings drawing out from the fragments, which, with the unmistakable smell, will cause him to pause before consummating a nearer acquaintance.
The fermentation of flour by means of brewer's or distiller's yeast produces, if rightly managed, results far more palatable and wholesome. The only requisites for success in it are, first, good materials, and, second, great care in a few small things. There are certain low-priced or damaged kinds of flour which can never by any kind of domestic chemistry be made into good bread; and to those persons whose stomachs forbid them to eat gummy, glutinous paste, under the name of bread, there is no economy in buying these poor brands, even at half the price of good flour.
But good flour and good yeast being supposed, with a temperature favorable to the development of fermentation, the whole success of the process depends on the thorough diffusion of the proper proportion of yeast through the whole mass, and on stopping the subsequent fermentation at the precise and fortunate point. The true housewife makes her bread the sovereign of her kitchen,—its behests must be attended to in all critical points and moments, no matter what else be postponed. She who attends to her bread when she has done this, and arranged that, and performed the other, very often finds that the forces of Nature will not wait for her. The snowy mass, perfectly mixed, kneaded with care and strength, rises in its beautiful perfection till the moment comes for fixing the air-cells by baking. A few minutes now, and the acetous fermentation will begin, and the whole result be spoiled. Many bread-makers pass in utter carelessness over this sacred and mysterious boundary. Their oven has cake in it, or they are skimming jelly, or attending to some other of the so-called higher branches of cookery, while the bread is quickly passing into the acetous stage. At last, when they are ready to attend to it, they find that it has been going its own way,—it is so sour that the pungent smell is plainly perceptible. Now the saleratus-bottle is handed down, and a quantity of the dissolved alkali mixed with the paste,—an expedient sometimes making itself too manifest by greenish streaks or small acrid spots in the bread. As the result, we have a beautiful article spoiled,—bread without sweetness, if not absolutely sour.
In the view of many, lightness is the only property required in this article. The delicate, refined sweetness which exists in carefully kneaded bread, baked just before it passes to the extreme point of fermentation, is something of which they have no conception, and thus they will even regard this process of spoiling the paste by the acetous fermentation, and then rectifying that acid by effervescence with an alkali, as something positively meritorious. How else can they value and relish bakers' loaves, such as some are, drugged with ammonia and other disagreeable things, light indeed, so light that they seem to have neither weight nor substance, but with no move sweetness or taste than so much white cotton?
Some persons prepare bread for the oven by simply mixing it in the mass, without kneading, pouring it into pans, and suffering it to rise there. The air-cells in bread thus prepared are coarse and uneven; the bread is as inferior in delicacy and nicety to that which is well kneaded as a raw Irish servant to a perfectly educated and refined lady. The process of kneading seems to impart an evenness to the minute air-cells, a fineness of texture, and a tenderness and pliability to the whole substance, that can be gained in no other way.
The divine principle of beauty has its reign over bread as well as over all other things; it has its laws of aesthetics; and that bread which is so prepared that it can be formed into separate and well-proportioned loaves, each one carefully worked and moulded, will develop the most beautiful results. After being moulded, the loaves should stand a little while, just long enough to allow the fermentation going on in them to expand each little air-cell to the point at which it stood before it was worked down, and then they should be immediately put into the oven.
Many a good thing, however, is spoiled in the oven. We cannot but regret, for the sake of bread, that our old steady brick ovens have been almost universally superseded by those of ranges and cooking-stoves, which are infinite in their caprices, and forbid all general rules. One thing, however, may be borne in mind as a principle,—that the excellence of bread in all its varieties, plain or sweetened, depends on the perfection of its air-cells, whether produced by yeast, egg, or effervescence, that one of the objects of baking is to fix these air-cells, and that the quicker this can be done through the whole mass the better will the result be. When cake or bread is made heavy by baking too quickly, it is because the immediate formation of the top crust hinders the exhaling of the moisture in the centre, and prevents the air-cells from cooking. The weight also of the crust pressing down on the doughy air-cells below destroys them, producing that horror of good cooks, a heavy streak. The problem in baking, then, is the quick application of heat rather below than above the loaf, and its steady continuance till all the air-cells are thoroughly dried into permanent consistency. Every housewife must watch her own oven to know how this can be best accomplished.
Bread-making can be cultivated to any extent as a fine art,—and the various kinds of biscuit, tea-rusks, twists, rolls, into which bread may be made, are much better worth a housekeeper's ambition than the getting-up of rich and expensive cake or confections. There are also varieties of material which are rich in good effects. Unbolted flour, altogether more wholesome than the fine wheat, and when properly prepared more palatable,—rye-flour and corn-meal, each affording a thousand attractive possibilities,—each and all of these come under the general laws of bread-stuffs, and are worth a careful attention.
A peculiarity of our American table, particularly in the Southern and Western States, is the constant exhibition of various preparations of hot bread. In many families of the South and West, bread in loaves to be eaten cold is an article quite unknown. The effect of this kind of diet upon the health has formed a frequent subject of remark among travellers; but only those know the full mischiefs of it who have been compelled to sojourn for a length of time in families where it is maintained. The unknown horrors of dyspepsia from bad bread are a topic over which we willingly draw a veil.
Next to Bread comes Butter,—on which we have to say, that, when we remember what butter is in civilized Europe, and compare it with what it is in America, we wonder at the forbearance and lenity of travellers in their strictures on our national commissariat.
Butter, in England, France, and Italy, is simply solidified cream, with all the sweetness of the cream in its taste, freshly churned each day, and unadulterated by salt. At the present moment, when salt is five cents a pound and butter fifty, we Americans are paying, I should judge from the taste, for about one pound of salt to every ten of butter, and those of us who have eaten the butter of France and England do this with rueful recollections.
There is, it is true, an article of butter made in the American style with salt, which, in its own kind and way, has a merit not inferior to that of England and France. Many prefer it, and it certainly takes a rank equally respectable with the other. It is yellow, hard, and worked so perfectly free from every particle of buttermilk that it might make the voyage of the world without spoiling. It is salted, but salted with care and delicacy, so that it may be a question whether even a fastidious Englishman might not prefer its golden solidity to the white, creamy freshness of his own. Now I am not for universal imitation of foreign customs, and where I find this butter made perfectly, I call it our American style, and am not ashamed of it. I only regret that this article is the exception, and not the rule, on our tables. When I reflect on the possibilities which beset the delicate stomach in this line, I do not wonder that my venerated friend Dr. Mussey used to close his counsels to invalids with the direction, "And don't eat grease on your bread."
America must, I think, have the credit of manufacturing and putting into market more bad butter than all that is made in all the rest of the world together. The varieties of bad tastes and smells which prevail in it are quite a study. This has a cheesy taste, that a mouldy,—this is flavored with cabbage, and that again with turnip, and another has the strong, sharp savor of rancid animal fat. These varieties, I presume, come from the practice of churning only at long intervals, and keeping the cream meanwhile in unventilated cellars or dairies, the air of which is loaded with the effluvia of vegetable substances. No domestic articles are so sympathetic as those of the milk tribe: they readily take on the smell and taste of any neighboring substance, and hence the infinite variety of flavors on which one mournfully muses who has late in autumn to taste twenty firkins of butter in hopes of finding one which will simply not be intolerable on his winter table.
A matter for despair as regards bad butter is that at the tables where it is used it stands sentinel at the door to bar your way to every other kind of food. You turn from your dreadful half-slice of bread, which fills your mouth with bitterness, to your beefsteak, which proves virulent with the same poison; you think to take refuge in vegetable diet, and find the butter in the string-beans, and polluting the innocence of early peas,—it is in the corn, in the succotash, in the squash,—the beets swim in it, the onions have it poured over them. Hungry and miserable, you think to solace yourself at the dessert,—but the pastry is cursed, the cake is acrid with the same plague. You are ready to howl with despair, and your misery is great upon you,—especially if this is a table where you have taken board for three months with your delicate wife and four small children. Your case is dreadful,—and it is hopeless, because long usage and habit have rendered your host perfectly incapable of discovering what is the matter. "Don't like the butter, Sir? I assure you I paid an extra price for it, and it's the very best in the market. I looked over as many as a hundred tubs, and picked out this one." You are dumb, but not less despairing.
Yet the process of making good butter is a very simple one. To keep the cream in a perfectly pure, cool atmosphere, to churn while it is yet sweet, to work out the buttermilk thoroughly, and to add salt with such discretion as not to ruin the fine, delicate flavor of the fresh cream,—all this is quite simple, so simple that one wonders at thousands and millions of pounds of butter yearly manufactured which are merely a hobgoblin-bewitchment of cream into foul and loathsome poisons.
The third head of my discourse is that of Meat, of which America furnishes, in the gross material, enough to spread our tables royally, were it well cared for and served.
The faults in the meat generally furnished to us are, first, that it is too new. A beefsteak, which three or four days of keeping might render practicable, is served up to us palpitating with freshness, with all the toughness of animal muscle yet warm. In the Western country, the traveller, on approaching a hotel, is often saluted by the last shrieks of the chickens which half an hour afterward are presented to him à la spread-eagle for his dinner. The example of the Father of the Faithful, most wholesome to be followed in so many respects, is imitated only in the celerity with which the young calf, tender and good, was transformed into an edible dish for hospitable purposes. But what might be good housekeeping in a nomadic Emir, in days when refrigerators were yet in the future, ought not to be so closely imitated as it often is in our own land.
In the next place, there is a woful lack of nicety in the butcher's work of cutting and preparing meat. Who that remembers the neatly trimmed mutton-chop of an English inn, or the artistic little circle of lamb-chop fried in bread-crumbs coiled around a tempting centre of spinach which can always be found in France, can recognize any family-resemblance to these dapper civilized preparations in those coarse, roughly hacked strips of bone, gristle, and meat which are commonly called mutton-chop in America? There seems to be a large dish of something resembling meat, in which each fragment has about two or three edible morsels, the rest being composed of dry and burnt skin, fat, and ragged bone.
Is it not time that civilization should learn to demand somewhat more care and nicety in the modes of preparing what is to be cooked and eaten? Might not some of the refinement and trimness which characterize the preparations of the European market be with advantage introduced into our own? The housekeeper who wishes to garnish her table with some of those nice things is stopped in the outset by the butcher. Except in our large cities, where some foreign travel may have created the demand, it seems impossible to get much in this line that is properly prepared.
I am aware, that, if this is urged on the score of æsthetics, the ready reply will be,—"Oh, we can't give time here in America to go into niceties and French whim-whams!" But the French mode of doing almost all practical things is based on that true philosophy and utilitarian good sense which characterize that seemingly thoughtless people. Nowhere is economy a more careful study, and their market is artistically arranged to this end. The rule is so to cut their meats that no portion designed to be cooked in a certain manner shall have wasteful appendages which that mode of cooking will spoil. The French soup-kettle stands ever ready to receive the bones, the thin fibrous flaps, the sinewy and gristly portions, which are so often included in our roasts or broilings, which fill our plates with unsightly débris, and finally make an amount of blank waste for which we pay our butcher the same price that we pay for what we have eaten.
The dead waste of our clumsy, coarse way of cutting meats is immense. For example, at the beginning of the present season, the part of a lamb denominated leg and loin, or hind-quarter, sold for thirty cents a pound. Now this includes, besides the thick, fleshy portions, a quantity of bone, sinew, and thin fibrous substance, constituting full one-third of the whole weight. If we put it into the oven entire, in the usual manner, we have the thin parts overdone, and the skinny and fibrous parts utterly dried up, by the application of the amount of heat necessary to cook the thick portion. Supposing the joint to weigh six pounds, at thirty cents, and that one-third of the weight is so treated as to become perfectly useless, we throw away sixty cents. Of a piece of beef at twenty-five cents a pound, fifty cents' worth is often lost in bone, fat, and burnt skin.
The fact is, this way of selling and cooking meat in large, gross portions is of English origin, and belongs to a country where all the customs of society spring from a class who have no particular occasion for economy. The practice of minute and delicate division comes from a nation which acknowledges the need of economy, and has made it a study. A quarter of lamb in this mode of division would be sold in three nicely prepared portions. The thick part would be sold by itself, for a neat, compact little roast; the rib-bones would be artistically separated, and all the edible matters scraped away would form those delicate dishes of lamb-chop, which, fried in bread-crumbs to a golden brown, are so ornamental and so palatable a side-dish; the trimmings which remain after this division would be destined to the soup-kettle or stew-pan. In a French market is a little portion for every purse, and the far-famed and delicately flavored soups and stews which have arisen out of French economy are a study worth a housekeeper's attention. Not one atom of food is wasted in the French modes of preparation; even tough animal cartilages and sinews, instead of appearing burned and blackened in company with the roast meat to which they happen to be related, are treated according to their own laws, and come out either in savory soups, or those fine, clear meat-jellies which form a garnish no less agreeable to the eye than palatable to the taste.
Whether this careful, economical, practical style of meat-cooking can ever to any great extent be introduced into our kitchens now is a question. Our butchers are against it; our servants are wedded to the old wholesale wasteful ways, which seem to them easier because they are accustomed to them. A cook who will keep and properly tend a soup-kettle which shall receive and utilize all that the coarse preparations of the butcher would require her to trim away, who understands the art of making the most of all these remains, is a treasure scarcely to be hoped for. If such things are to be done, it must be primarily through the educated brain of cultivated women who do not scorn to turn their culture and refinement upon domestic problems.
When meats have been properly divided, so that each portion can receive its own appropriate style of treatment, next comes the consideration of the modes of cooking. These may be divided into two great general classes: those where it is desired to keep the juices within the meat, as in baking, broiling, and frying,—and those whose object is to extract the juice and dissolve the fibre, as in the making of soups and stews. In the first class of operations, the process must be as rapid as may consist with the thorough cooking of all the particles. In this branch of cookery, doing quickly is doing well. The fire must be brisk, the attention, alert. The introduction of cooking-stoves offers to careless domestics facilities for gradually drying-up meats, and despoiling them of all flavor and nutriment,—facilities which appear to be very generally laid hold of. They have almost banished the genuine, old-fashioned roast-meat from our tables, and left in its stead dried meats with their most precious and nutritive juices evaporated. How few cooks, unassisted, are competent to the simple process of broiling a beefsteak or mutton-chop! how very generally one has to choose between these meats gradually dried away, or burned on the outside and raw within! Yet in England these articles never come on table done amiss; their perfect cooking is as absolute a certainty as the rising of the sun.
No one of these rapid processes of cooking, however, is so generally abused as frying. The frying-pan has awful sins to answer for. What untold horrors of dyspepsia have arisen from its smoky depths, like the ghosts from witches' caldrons! The fizzle of frying meat is as a warning knell on many an ear, saying, "Touch not, taste not, if you would not burn and writhe!"
Yet those who have travelled abroad remember that some of the lightest, most palatable, and most digestible preparations of meat have come from this dangerous source. But we fancy quite other rites and ceremonies inaugurated the process, and quite other hands performed its offices, than those known to our kitchens. Probably the delicate côtelletes of France are not flopped down into half-melted grease, there gradually to warm and soak and fizzle, while Biddy goes in and out on her other ministrations, till finally, when thoroughly saturated, and dinner-hour impends, she bethinks herself, and crowds the fire below to a roaring heat, and finishes the process by a smart burn, involving the kitchen and surrounding precincts in volumes of Stygian gloom.
From such preparations has arisen the very current medical opinion that fried meats are indigestible. They are indigestible, if they are greasy; but French cooks have taught us that a thing has no more need to be greasy because emerging from grease than Venus had to be salt because she rose from the sea.
There are two ways of frying employed by the French cook. One is, to immerse the article to be cooked in boiling fat, with an emphasis on the present participle,—and the philosophical principle is, so immediately to crisp every pore, at the first moment or two of immersion, as effectually to seal the interior against the intrusion of greasy particles; it can then remain as long as may be necessary thoroughly to cook it, without imbibing any more of the boiling fluid than if it were inclosed in an eggshell. The other method is to rub a perfectly smooth iron surface with just enough of some oily substance to prevent the meat from adhering, and cook it with a quick heat, as cakes are baked on a griddle. In both these cases there must be the most rapid application of heat that can be made without burning, and by the adroitness shown in working out this problem the skill of the cook is tested. Any one whose cook attains this important secret will find fried things quite as digestible and often more palatable than any other.
In the second department of meat-cookery, to wit, the slow and gradual application of heat for the softening and dissolution of its fibre and the extraction of its juices, common cooks are equally untrained. Where is the so-called cook who understands how to prepare soups and stews? These are precisely the articles in which a French kitchen excels. The soup-kettle, made with a double bottom, to prevent burning, is a permanent, ever-present institution, and the coarsest and most impracticable meats distilled through that alembic come out again in soups, jellies, or savory stews. The toughest cartilage, even the bones, being first cracked, are here made to give forth their hidden virtues, and to rise in delicate and appetizing forms. One great law governs all these preparations: the application of heat must be gradual, steady, long protracted, never reaching the point of active boiling. Hours of quiet simmering dissolve all dissoluble parts, soften the sternest fibre, and unlock every minute cell in which Nature has stored away her treasures of nourishment. This careful and protracted application of heat and the skilful use of flavors constitute the two main points in all those nice preparations of meat for which the French have so many names,—processes by which a delicacy can be imparted to the coarsest and cheapest food superior to that of the finest articles under less philosophic treatment.
French soups and stews are a study,—and they would not be an unprofitable one to any person who wishes to live with comfort and even elegance on small means.
John Bull looks down from the sublime of ten thousand a year on French kickshaws, as he calls them:—"Give me my meat cooked so I may know what it is!" An ox roasted whole is dear to John's soul, and his kitchen-arrangements are Titanic. What magnificent rounds and sirloins of beef, revolving on self-regulating spits, with a rich click of satisfaction, before grates piled with roaring fires! Let us do justice to the royal cheer. Nowhere are the charms of pure, unadulterated animal food set forth in more imposing style. For John is rich, and what does he care for odds and ends and parings? Has he not all the beasts of the forest, and the cattle on a thousand hills? What does he want of economy? But his brother Jean has not ten thousand pounds a year,—nothing like it; but he makes up for the slenderness of his purse by boundless fertility of invention and delicacy of practice. John began sneering at Jean's soups and ragouts, but all John's modern sons and daughters send to Jean for their cooks, and the sirloins of England rise up and do obeisance to this Joseph with a white apron who comes to rule in their kitchens.
There is no animal fibre that will not yield itself up to long-continued, steady heat. But the difficulty with almost any of the common servants who call themselves cooks is that they have not the smallest notion of the philosophy of the application of heat. Such a one will complacently tell you concerning certain meats, that the harder you boil them the harder they grow,—an obvious fact, which, under her mode of treatment, by an indiscriminate galloping boil, has frequently come under her personal observation. If you tell her that such meat must stand for six hours in a heat just below the boiling-point, she will probably answer, "Yes, Ma'am," and go on her own way. Or she will let it stand till it burns to the bottom of the kettle,—a most common termination of the experiment. The only way to make sure of the matter is either to import a French kettle, or to fit into an ordinary kettle a false bottom, such as any tinman may make, that shall leave a space of an inch or two between the meat and the fire. This kettle may be maintained as a constant habitué of the range, and into it the cook may be instructed to throw all the fibrous trimmings of meat, all the gristle, tendons, and bones, having previously broken up these last with a mallet.
Such a kettle will furnish the basis for clear, rich soups or other palatable dishes. Clear soup consists of the dissolved juices of the meat and gelatine of the bones, cleared from the fat and fibrous portions by straining when cold. The grease, which rises to the top of the fluid, may thus be easily removed. In a stew, on the contrary, you boil down this soup till it permeates the fibre which long exposure to heat has softened. All that remains, after the proper preparation of the fibre and juices, is the flavoring, and it is in this, particularly, that French soups excel those of America and England and all the world.
English and American soups are often heavy and hot with spices. There are appreciable tastes in them. They burn your mouth with cayenne or clove or allspice. You can tell at once what is in them, oftentimes to your sorrow. But a French soup has a flavor which one recognizes at once as delicious, yet not to be characterized as due to any single condiment; it is the just blending of many things. The same remark applies to all their stews, ragouts, and other delicate preparations. No cook will ever study these flavors; but perhaps many cooks' mistresses may, and thus be able to impart delicacy and comfort to economy.
As to those things called hashes, commonly manufactured by unwatched, untaught cooks, out of the remains of yesterday's repast, let us not dwell too closely on their memory,—compounds of meat, gristle, skin, fat, and burnt fibre, with a handful of pepper and salt flung at them, dredged with lumpy flour, watered from the spout of the tea-kettle, and left to simmer at the cook's convenience while she is otherwise occupied. Such are the best performances a housekeeper can hope for from an untrained cook.
But the cunningly devised minces, the artful preparations choicely flavored, which may be made of yesterday's repast,—by these is the true domestic artist known. No cook untaught by an educated brain ever makes these, and yet economy is a great gainer by them.
As regards the department of Vegetables, their number and variety in America are so great that a table might almost be furnished by these alone. Generally speaking, their cooking is a more simple art, and therefore more likely to be found satisfactorily performed, than that of meats. If only they are not drenched with rancid butter, their own native excellence makes itself known in most of the ordinary modes of preparation.
There is, however, one exception.
Our stanch old friend, the potato, is to other vegetables what bread is on the table. Like bread, it is held as a sort of sine-qua-non; like that, it may be made invariably palatable by a little care in a few plain particulars, through neglect of which it often becomes intolerable. The soggy, waxy, indigestible viand that often appears in the potato-dish is a downright sacrifice of the better nature of this vegetable.
The potato, nutritive and harmless as it appears, belongs to a family suspected of very dangerous traits. It is a family-connection of the deadly-nightshade and other ill-reputed gentry, and sometimes shows strange proclivities to evil,—now breaking out uproariously, as in the noted potato-rot, and now more covertly in various evil affections. For this reason scientific directors bid us beware of the water in which potatoes are boiled,—into which, it appears, the evil principle is drawn off; and they caution us not to shred them into stews without previously suffering the slices to lie for an hour or so in salt and water. These cautions are worth attention.
The most usual modes of preparing the potato for the table are by roasting or boiling. These processes are so simple that it is commonly supposed every cook understands them without special directions; and yet there is scarcely an uninstructed cook who can boil or roast a potato.
A good roasted potato is a delicacy worth a dozen compositions of the cook-book; yet when we ask for it, what burnt, shrivelled abortions are presented to us! Biddy rushes to her potato-basket and pours out two dozen of different sizes, some having in them three times the amount of matter of others. These being washed, she tumbles them into her oven at a leisure interval, and there lets them lie till it is time to serve breakfast, whenever that may be. As a result, if the largest are cooked, the smallest are presented in cinders, and the intermediate sizes are withered and watery. Nothing is so utterly ruined by a few moments of overdoing. That which at the right moment was plump with mealy richness, a quarter of an hour later shrivels and becomes watery,—and it is in this state that roast potatoes are most frequently served.
In the same manner we have seen boiled potatoes from an untaught cook coming upon the table like lumps of yellow wax,—and the same article, the day after, under the directions of a skilful mistress, appearing in snowy balls of powdery lightness. In the one case, they were thrown in their skins into water, and suffered to soak or boil, as the case might be, at the cook's leisure, and after they were boiled to stand in the water till she was ready to peel them. In the other case, the potatoes being first peeled were boiled as quickly as possible in salted water, which the moment they were done was drained off, and then they were gently shaken for a minute or two over the fire to dry them still more thoroughly. We have never yet seen the potato so depraved and given over to evil that could not be reclaimed by this mode of treatment.
As to fried potatoes, who that remembers the crisp, golden slices of the French restaurant, thin as wafers and light as snow-flakes, does not speak respectfully of them? What cousinship with these have those coarse, greasy masses of sliced potato, wholly soggy and partly burnt, to which we are treated under the name of fried potatoes à la America? In our cities the restaurants are introducing the French article to great acceptance, and to the vindication of the fair fame of this queen of vegetables.
Finally, I arrive at the last great head of my subject, to wit, Tea,—meaning thereby, as before observed, what our Hibernian friend did in the inquiry, "Will y'r Honor take 'tay tay' or coffee tay?"
I am not about to enter into the merits of the great tea-and-coffee controversy, or say whether these substances are or are not wholesome. I treat of them as actual existences, and speak only of the modes of making the most of them.
The French coffee is reputed the best in the world; and a thousand voices have asked, What is it about the French coffee?
In the first place, then, the French coffee is coffee, and not chiccory, or rye, or beans, or peas. In the second place, it is freshly roasted, whenever made,—roasted with great care and evenness in a little revolving cylinder which makes part of the furniture of every kitchen, and which keeps in the aroma of the berry. It is never overdone, so as to destroy the coffee-flavor, which is in nine cases out of ten the fault of the coffee we meet with. Then it is ground, and placed in a coffee-pot with a filter, through which it percolates in clear drops, the coffee-pot standing on a heated stove to maintain the temperature. The nose of the coffee-pot is stopped up to prevent the escape of the aroma during this process. The extract thus obtained is a perfectly clear, dark fluid, known as café noir, or black coffee. It is black only because of its strength, being in fact almost the very essential oil of coffee. A table-spoonful of this in boiled milk would make what is ordinarily called a strong cup of coffee. The boiled milk is prepared with no less care. It must be fresh and new, not merely warmed or even brought to the boiling-point, but slowly simmered till it attains a thick, creamy richness. The coffee mixed with this, and sweetened with that sparkling beet-root sugar which ornaments a French table, is the celebrated café-au-lait, the name of which has gone round the world.
As we look to France for the best coffee, so we must look to England for the perfection of tea. The tea-kettle is as much an English institution as aristocracy or the Prayer-Book; and when one wants to know exactly how tea should be made, one has only to ask how a fine old English housekeeper makes it.
The first article of her faith is that the water must not merely be hot, not merely have boiled a few moments since, but be actually boiling at the moment it touches the tea. Hence, though servants in England are vastly better trained than with us, this delicate mystery is seldom left to their hands. Tea-making belongs to the drawing-room, and high-born ladies preside at "the bubbling and loud-hissing urn," and see that all due rites and solemnities are properly performed,—that the cups are hot, and that the infused tea waits the exact time before the libations commence. Oh, ye dear old English tea-tables, resorts of the kindest-hearted hospitality in the world! we still cherish your memory, even though you do not say pleasant things of us there. One of these days you will think better of us. Of late, the introduction of English breakfast-tea has raised a new sect among the tea-drinkers, reversing some of the old canons. Breakfast-tea must be boiled! Unlike the delicate article of olden time, which required only a momentary infusion to develop its richness, this requires a longer and severer treatment to bring out its strength,—thus confusing all the established usages, and throwing the work into the hands of the cook in the kitchen.
The faults of tea, as too commonly found at our hotels and boarding-houses, are that it is made in every way the reverse of what it should be. The water is hot, perhaps, but not boiling; the tea has a general flat, stale, smoky taste, devoid of life or spirit; and it is served, usually, with thin milk, instead of cream. Cream is as essential to the richness of tea as of coffee. We could wish that the English fashion might generally prevail, of giving the traveller his own kettle of boiling water and his own tea-chest, and letting him make tea for himself. At all events, he would then be sure of one merit in his tea,—it would be hot, a very simple and obvious virtue, but one very seldom obtained.
Chocolate is a French and Spanish article, and one seldom served on American tables. We, in America, however, make an article every way equal to any which can be imported from Paris, and he who buys Baker's best vanilla-chocolate may rest assured that no foreign land can furnish anything better. A very rich and delicious beverage may be made by dissolving this in milk slowly boiled down after the French fashion.
I have now gone over all the ground I laid out, as comprising the great first principles of cookery; and I would here modestly offer the opinion that a table where all these principles are carefully observed would need few dainties. The struggle after so-called delicacies comes from the poorness of common things. Perfect bread and butter would soon drive cake out of the field: it has done so in many families. Nevertheless, I have a word to say under the head of Confectionery, meaning by this the whole range of ornamental cookery,—or pastry, ices, jellies, preserves, etc. The art of making all these very perfectly is far better understood in America than the art of common cooking.
There are more women who know how to make good cake than good bread,—more who can furnish you with a good ice-cream than a well-cooked mutton-chop; a fair charlotte-russe is easier to come by than a perfect cup of coffee, and you shall find a sparkling jelly to your dessert where you sighed in vain for so simple a luxury as a well-cooked potato.
Our fair countrywomen might rest upon their laurels in these higher fields, and turn their great energy and ingenuity to the study of essentials. To do common things perfectly is far better worth our endeavor than to do uncommon things respectably. We Americans in many things as yet have been a little inclined to begin making our shirt at the ruffle; but, nevertheless, when we set about it, we can make the shirt as nicely as anybody,—it needs only that we turn our attention to it, resolved, that, ruffle or no ruffle, the shirt we will have.
I have also a few words to say as to the prevalent ideas in respect to French cookery. Having heard much of it, with no very distinct idea what it is, our people have somehow fallen into the notion that its forte lies in high spicing,—and so, when our cooks put a great abundance of clove, mace, nutmeg, and cinnamon into their preparations, they fancy that they are growing up to be French cooks. But the fact is, that the Americans and English are far more given to spicing than the French. Spices in our made dishes are abundant, and their taste is strongly pronounced. In living a year in France I forgot the taste of nutmeg, clove, and allspice, which had met me in so many dishes in America.
The thing may be briefly defined. The English and Americans deal in spices, the French in flavors,—flavors many and subtile, imitating often in their delicacy those subtile blendings which Nature produces in high-flavored fruits. The recipes of our cookery-books are most of them of English origin, coming down from the times of our phlegmatic ancestors, when the solid, burly, beefy growth of the foggy island required the heat of fiery condiments, and could digest heavy sweets. Witness the national recipe for plum-pudding, which may be rendered,—Take a pound of every indigestible substance you can think of, boil into a cannonball, and serve in flaming brandy. So of the Christmas mince-pie and many other national dishes. But in America, owing to our brighter skies and more fervid climate, we have developed an acute, nervous delicacy of temperament far more akin to that of France than of England.
Half of the recipes in our cook-books are mere murder to such constitutions and stomachs as we grow here. We require to ponder these things, and think how we in our climate and under our circumstances ought to live, and in doing so, we may, without accusation of foreign foppery, take some leaves from many foreign books.
But Christopher has prosed long enough. I must now read this to my wife, and see what she says.