Wretches & Paupers

“It is a wild March night. Winter and Summer, Spring-time and Autumn, the wind sings, or plains at my sitting-room window. Tonight its shout is less fierce than jocund to my ear, for it says, between the castanet passages of hail and sleet, that neither friend nor bore will interrupt our conference. Shutters and curtains are closed; the room is still, bright, and warm, and we are no longer strangers.

The poorest man of my acquaintance counts his money by the million, has a superb mansion he calls “home,” a wife and beautiful children who call him “husband” and “father.” He has friends by the score, and admirers by the hundred, for human nature has not abated one jot in prudential sycophancy since the Psalmist summed up a volume of satirical truth in the pretended ‘aside’ – ‘and men will praise thee when thou doest well unto thyself.’ For all that, ho of whom I write is a pauper, inasmuch as he makes his boast that he never experienced the emotion of gratitude. He has worked his own way in the world, he is wont to say: has never had helping hand from mortal man or woman. It is a part of his religion to pay for all he gets, and never to ask a favor. Nevertheless, he confesses, with a complacent smirk that would he amusing were it not so pitiable an exhibition of his real beggary—’that he would like to know what it feels like to be grateful,—just for the sake of the novel sensation!’

Poor wretch!”

Excerpt from: Breakfast, Luncheon and Tea by Marion Harland, published in 1875.

I, in some minds, may have acquired far too many cookbooks over the past several decades. When one looks closely, they tell a story, reflecting who I was, and who I have become.

From the no-home-should-be-without Joy of Cooking, to Moosewood Cookbook vegetarian, basic cooking skills transitioned from the simplest white sauce to velvety Bechamel, plain biscuits to Stilton blue cheese stuffed Pate a Chioux, canned broths to 24-hour slow-cooked, layered in flavors of roasted vegetables and rich marrow bones, works of wonder.

Of late, I have become seduced by the idea of presentation, style, pairing of textures and flavours which enhance the pleasure of eating, for I’m told in glossy Martha mags that “presentation is everything….”

Then I discovered antique cookbooks. Like the man in the Marion Harlands essay, modern cookbooks, in comparison to her prosaic deconstructing of human nature into bites and pieces served as the main course, are but a wretch.

While her’s overflow with delicious mind and spirit nourishment, I find the majority of my cookbooks repugnant in their ideology, easily reduced to:

‘and men will praise thee when thou doest well unto thyself.’

I find myself longing to share a cup of tea with Marion Harland of 1875. No doubt there would be still-warm baked bread served with generous portions of freshly churned butter, a gently crackling log fire punctuating our thoughtful conversation focused on those we love, our dreams, the challenges of this life, taking precedence over hedonistic pleasures of palate.

Reading antique historical cookbooks restores to me the importance of simple pleasures and tastes, shifting food to its proper place. Not as the main course, but rather, a side dish to that which truly sustains us – enjoying the company and conversation of those gathered around our table. For in that, one can never become an ungrateful pauper.


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