Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll

Screen Shot 2019-10-14 at 8.52.05 AM6066704Nonfiction – print. Persephone Books, 2009. Originally published 1922. 264 pgs. Purchased.

First published in The Times during the 1920s, this collection of essays presents the proper setting and occasion for different recipes. There are essays for particular events – the wedding breakfast, the Sunday luncheon, and the country hunt – as well as for certain people – the too thin, the too fat, and the bachelor.

I follow a handful of food blogs as I’m always on the hunt for new recipes to try, especially as I try to weave more vegetarian meals into my repertoire. Whenever one of these blogs posts a new recipe, however, I skim past the effusive intro straight to the recipe instructions at the bottom of the post.

It sounds harsh, but I don’t care if fall is your favorite season or if your husband and kids love this recipe. I just want to know if the ingredients are palatable to my taste buds and if the instructions are easy enough for this rather lazy cook. (I have a strong preference for one pot cooking.)

I had the opposite reaction to Jekyll’s recipes. Except to note the now uncommon ingredients that are the centerpiece of her recipes (aspic, anyone?), I skimmed over the cooking instructions and instead focused on the background to the recipes. The collection is a bit of a time capsule, capturing a time when wealthy, upper-class women were economizing the employment of their hard-to-find help following World War I.

Jekyll’s readers are also starting to entertain again but, in her mind, have forgotten the proper foods to serve. She offers suggestions from the past while also making allowances for new fare introduced to the British household by America, although she does blame Americans for encouraging British women to be too thin.

I haven’t felt much interest in Persephone Books’ collection of old cookbooks, wondering why the publisher would chose to reprint them when cooking habits have changed so much. But Jekyll’s efforts to guide her readers of the past through newfound peace after a time of great loss captures an element of social life missing from novels and afforded this reader from the future with a new viewpoint into the time period.

Jekyll’s collection of essays was reissued as part of the Persephone Classics collection, which presents twelve of Persephone Books’ bestsellers in more ‘bookshop-friendly’ editions (i.e. with pictures on the front). The endpaper in these editions are printed in greyscale, so the 1922 design by the painter George Sheringham, called ‘Clusters of stylised fruits, flowers and shell motifs’, is presented without the fabric’s vibrant blues, yellows, and purples.

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