“What a shocking fraud the turkey is. In life, preposterous, insulting — that foolish noise they make. In death, unpalatable — practically no taste except a dry fibrous flavour reminiscent of a mixture of warmed up plaster-of-paris and horsehair. The texture is like wet sawdust and the whole vast feathered swindle has the piquancy of a boiled mattress.” (William Connor, The Daily Mirror, 1953)
I ate turkey last night. I have to say, Mr Connor, it tasted nothing like mattress (though I confess I’ve not eaten one, boiled or otherwise). It was, in fact, delicious — due in large part to the expertise of the cook. An Arizona native and seasoned celebrator of the American Thanksgiving, my friend did her turkey proud. The gravy, the stuffing, the cranberry dressing … it was all delightful.
Apparently the wild turkey is native to North America, though its Mexican cousin has proved more adaptable to domestication. The imported turkey began appearing on European tables as far back as the 16th century. In France, Queen Marguerite of Navarre is known to have raised turkeys at Alencon while 66 turkeys were served at a feast for Catherine de’ Medici in 1549. Following trend, the majestic turkey soon became the choice for English Christmas fare. Astute local farmers began breeding them for profit. From August each year, great numbers were driven to London on foot from as far afield as Suffolk and Norfolk.
That said, the poor turkey never adapted well to the cold and damp of this new home. It is said the two English breeds that developed, the Norfolk Black and the Cambridge Bronze, have never quite matched their ancestors. Perhaps, in truth, Mr Connor’s displeasure with the bird has been long reciprocated.
Sir William Connor (1909 – 1967) was a columnist with The Daily Mirror (UK) who wrote under the pseudonym of ‘Cassandra’.
“The dinner in its turn was highly admired; And Mr. Collins begged to know which of his fair cousins the excellence of its cookery was owing. But here he was set right by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen. He begged pardon for having displeased her. In a softened tone she declared herself not at all offended; but he continued to apologise for about a quarter of an hour.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
“Cooking is one of those arts which most require to be done by persons of a religious nature.”
Alfred North Whitehead, from Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, ed. Lucien Price (Boston: Little, Brown, 1954), 250.
“Cooking is the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss.”
Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen, London, Atlantic Books, 2003, 94.
We have shared our table with friends these last few days. A reminder of its gift.
by Michael O’Siadhail
Let the meal be simple.
A big plate of mussels,
warm bread with garlic,
and enough mulled wine to celebrate
I open a hinged mussel,
pincering a balloon of plump meat
from the blue angel wings of a shell.
A table’s rising decibels of fun.
Such gossip. A story caps a story.
Banter. Then another pun on a pun.
Iced yoghurt snipes at my temples.
My tongue matches a strawberry’s heart
with its rough skin of goose-pimples.
Conversations fragment. Tête-à-tête,
a confidence passes between two guests.
A munch of oatcake thickness my palate.
Juicy fumes of a mango on my breath.
(A poem with no end but delight.)
I knife to the oblong host of its pith.
Wine sinks its ease to the nerve-ends.
Here are my roots. I feast on faces.
Boundless laughter. A radiance of friends.
Collected Poems, Bloodaxe, 2013.
Image: Dinner Table by Isaac Rudansky
A couple of weeks back I noted the connection between food and sin in religious art of the late Middle Ages — clearly the business of eating was riddled with spiritual pitfalls. It’s hardly surprising, then, to see the devil commonly cast as a cook.
This 13th century mosaic set in the grand dome of the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence depicts the devil in his hellish kitchen roasting, boiling and devouring the damned. In a recent visit to Florence, I imagined the devout looking up to see the implements of their own domestic lives — roasting pots, skewers and spits — turned against them in this chilling representation of life alienated from God.
The connection between cooks and the devil lingered in Western culture. The 17th century English Bishop John Earle wrote, “The kitchen is his hell, and he the devil in it, where his meat and he fry together.” In the same era, the novelist Thomas Deloney declared, “God sends meat and the Devil sends cooks.”
I wonder what it is about the process of turning raw ingredients into a delicious repast that elicits such grim associations. Granted, I’ve met a few cooks who could, where character is concerned, give the devil a run for his money. And others who revel in the association. Marco Pierre White’s autobiography The Devil in the Kitchen and the late Anthony Bordain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly play on it. But to associate the depravity of hell with a spit roast or a stew pot simmering in the kitchen seems like a slap in the face to those who feed us, let alone those who, like the angelic Babette, open up vistas to things eternal through the act of cooking.