Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, May 7 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s mature novels are not, by and large, very foodie. Although important scenes occur over meals – think Mary Crawford’s unfortunate “Rears and Vices” joke – Austen seldom mentions what dishes the characters are eating at the time. Indeed, a preoccupation with food is usually the marker of a fussy, hypochondriacal, or excessively sensuous nature: the gruel-eating Mr. Woodhouse of Emma, the picky Parkers of Sanditon, the gluttonous Dr. Grant of Mansfield Park.

So it’s slightly odd that Penguin Random House has chosen Pride and Prejudice as one of the two inaugural titles in its “Book to Table Reading Experience,” out this fall, which pairs a classic text with a set of recipes chosen by celebrity chefs.

The new edition of P&P – a book that, if memory serves, includes only one or two fleeting mentions of the food served at the Bennet table and the Bingley ball – will include a set of Martha Stewart recipes for “tea-time treats” like scones, tartlets and macarons. The dishes sound mouth-watering, but you won’t find any of them mentioned in P&P – not least because the fancy high-tea menu that Americans think of as quintessentially British is largely a creation of the post-Austen Victorian age.

Still, Penguin is hardly unique in trying to capitalize simultaneously on the Austen craze and the foodie trend. Over the years, food historians and Austen scholars with varying credentials have brought us The Jane Austen Cookbook, Dinner with Jane Austen, Dinner with Mr. Darcy, and not one but two versions of Tea with Jane Austen (here and here). (My unfortunate attempts at Austen-era cooking are chronicled here.)

The gimmick this time is the format, in which, as Penguin’s website informed us last week, the recipes will appear alongside food-related photos, illustrations, and the “full, unabridged text of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.”

Wait – what?

Yes, in its initial form the website listing for Penguin’s new foodie P&P included an unfortunate error (since corrected -- alas for the gods of comedy), no doubt attributable to a less-than-judicious use of cut-and-paste. See, the other recipe-laden book in this new series is, indeed, A Christmas Carol, decked out with holiday recipes created by not only Stewart but also Giada de Laurentiis, Ina Garten, and Trisha Yearwood.

Really, A Christmas Carol is a far more intuitive choice for this series, since the Christmas Present section of the story, especially, is stuffed with evocative descriptions of holiday food, from goose to plum pudding. In fact, we could amuse ourselves coming up with a whole list of books better suited to this project than P&P. (Tom Jones? To the Lighthouse?) Meanwhile, however, I’ll be baking Martha Stewart’s maple-glazed scones.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 29 2016 02:00PM

England is a wonderful country. Its history is rich, its democracy is a model for the world, its literature is second to none.

Its food – not so much.

And so it was with some trepidation that I undertook the last assignment in my self-imposed Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I’ve spent 2016 filling some of the holes in my Janeite education. This month’s assignment: cook a meal from The Jane Austen Cookbook, by Maggie Lane and Deirdre Le Faye. The book adapts and modernizes recipes from several Regency cookbooks, including that of Martha Lloyd, the Austen friend who lived at Chawton cottage with Jane, Cassandra and their mother.

Initially, I considered attempting a Regency supper of the kind described in Le Faye’s introductory pages: three courses with as many as five or ten dishes per course. Then I contemplated the acres of leftovers and thought better of that plan.

Instead, I decided to cook more or less the same amount of food I usually make for a family dinner, choosing recipes based directly on Martha Lloyd’s cookbook, since those are the most likely to have been eaten by Jane Austen herself.

Avoiding exotic ingredients unlikely to show up in a suburban supermarket – no Pigeon Pie or Pheasant à la Braise for me – I planned a menu that seemed both within my modest culinary capabilities and likely to pass muster with my family: for the main course, Jugged Steaks with Potatoes (p. 54); for a vegetable side dish, Fricassee of Turnips Pie (p. 45); and for dessert, Jaune Mange (p. 84) accompanied by Ratafia Cakes (p. 125).

The early signs were not good. Apprised of the menu, my teenage daughter decided to accompany a friend to dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. I hadn’t served a single dish, and already I had lost a quarter of my customers.

Things did not improve from there. The remaining family members were unimpressed by the jugged steaks with potatoes, which cooked in beef broth for a long time at a low temperature, yielding – at least in my hands -- steak that was tough and potatoes that were mushy. The real problem, however, was the lack of any spice more exciting than salt or pepper.

Jugged Steaks with Potatoes

“It’s a classic bland, hearty English dish,” said my husband. (And since he grew up in Lancashire, he should know.) “Thank God for the Raj,” he added. The jugged steaks, we agreed, would have benefited from the magic of Indian spicing. Some cumin, turmeric and garlic could have worked wonders.

The fricassee of turnips pie – cooked turnips dressed with a cream sauce -- fared a bit better, though its pie-ness seemed more notional than real. Perfectly fine, if unexciting, we agreed.

Fricassee of Turnips Pie

I’d hoped for better things for dessert, which is usually my culinary ace in the hole, but my initial foray was a flop: the ratafia cakes, cookies made of ground almonds and egg whites, spread and flattened in the oven and were nearly impossible to peel unbroken off the baking sheet. “They look like macaroons someone stepped on,” my husband remarked uncharitably. “And they taste like macaroons someone stepped on,” my twenty-year-old son added. Ouch!

The one saving grace: the unfortunately named jaune mange, which my husband insisted on pronouncing, not in the correct French style, but as if its second word rhymed with “range.” I’m not usually a fan of gelatinous custardy desserts, but once unmolded and adorned with canned apricots, the dish, composed largely of wine, sugar and orange juice, looked rather lovely. Even better, its flavor proved to be a delicate and refreshing blend of alcohol and citrus.

Jaune Mange (left) and Ratafia Cakes

Jaune Mange again

“It’s just the right combination of tartness and sweetness, like Elizabeth Bennet,” my husband said, helpfully providing just the right quote for an Austen blogger.

On the whole, however, this foray into Regency cooking wasn’t a great success, with no dish earning a grade above B+ from my customers. I might make the jaune mange again, but the rest of the menu seems appropriately consigned to the dustheap of history.

“I think I like Jane Austen’s books better than her cooking,” my son concluded. “Frankly, I prefer Mansfield Park to this dinner. And that’s saying something.”

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