A Guide to Intelligent Eating

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/November, 1910

Ordering eggs a la Nordenskjold, what may one expect to find in the plate when the velvet-footed waiter totes it in? What is the exact composition of sauce financiere, of cocky-leeky soup, of chicken portugaise, of brook trout argenteuil, of a bomb westphalienne? No doubt every true lover of fine victuals is constantly pestered by such problems. The bill of fare is a perpetual mystery. It is useless to seek to master it by sitting up nights with a French dictionary, for the nouns and adjectives upon it have esoteric and unearthly meanings, entirely unconnected with the meanings attached to them in ordinary French prose. One learns, perhaps, from Cassell, that chiffon means a rag, a scrap, a trinket, a frippery; but that knowledge gives one no clue to the fact that eggs chiffonade are eggs heaved into the frying pan, or pot, or broiler, or oven, or whatever it is they use to cook eggs, in company with a handful of chopped herbs, including sorrel. Sorrel seems to be the essential ingredient, but sorrel, in French, is oseille. And so the inquirer is baffled.

It is to relieve the world of this burden that M. Joseph Gancel, the eminent chef of the Hotel Belleclaire, has composed and published his “Ready Reference of Menu Terms” (Gancel, $1.00), an exhaustive and excellent encyclopedia of the whole subject, and the fruit, as M. Gancel says with all due modesty, of thirty-five years of hard service in the most artistic kitchens of Europe and America and of intimate association with the most learned chefs of the age. M. Gancel dedicates his work to twenty-nine of these artists, mentioning them by name in alphabetical order—from M. Anjard of the Waldorf-Astoria to M. Vautrin of the Pavilion d’Armenonville in Paris, and including that serene highness among cooks, M. Letors, chief of the culinary studios of M. le Baron de Rothschild of Vienna. It is a book of overwhelming merits, a book fairly bulging with information. It gives the formulae of 150 separate and distinct sauces, of 400 omelettes, of no less than 600 soups! What is to be said of such a one-volume library, of such a bottomless pit of learning? The reviewer stands flabbergasted, paralyzed, silent.

But let us peep within. At once we penetrate the secret of cocky-leeky soup. It is a strong aqueous solution of the juices of chicken and veal, brought to a boil and garnished with cubes of chicken meat, leeks and celery—a savory and tasty mess, you may bet your bottom dollar. I should like to tackle a hogshead of cocky-leeky soup on a brisk and windy day—a day of the tingling, appetizing sort. It would also delight me to encounter, on any old day, a platter covered by an omelette havanaise, with its dice of chicken livers boiled in milk, its fragments of sweet pepper and its rich, red tomato sauce. Yet again, who could resist a ration of lamb imperatrice, with its stuffing of pulverized chicken and forcemeat, its sprinkling of truffles, its foliage of celery and its sauce supreme—or a plate of veal Metternich, with its decorations of red cabbage and chestnuts, and its soubise sauce, with paprika and rice? M. Gancel is not only accurate, but also eloquent. His terse, epigrammatic style touches the heart.

Did I say “accurate”? Alas, even the most accurate man sometimes goes astray! Here is M. Gancel, a veritable Voltaire of cookery, telling us that crab & la oriole is merely a dish of crab meat drenched in Creole sauce! Far from it, indeed! The essential thing in concocting crab a la creole is to mix the crab meat and the a la creole thoroughly and to cook them together, pouring out the mixture, when it has begun to steam, upon thin slices of dry toast. That is the way crab a la creole is made down in Baltimore, where the art of cooking crabs reaches its highest perfection. A dish of crab meat, with creole sauce poured over it, is called there, not crab but “crab meat with Creole sauce.” In true crab a la creole the mixture is infinitely intimate. Every last flake of crab meat is surrounded by its own fragments of onion, green pepper, mushroom and tomato, and the juices of these exquisite herbs go straight through it. A dish of that sublime invention drives dull care away. It is, perhaps, the most magnificent victual yet devised by mortal man—and it costs but forty cents. One may have a gallon of it, with half a dozen twelve-and-a-half cent cigars and a case of beer, for $2.85. M. Gancel is wrong again when he says that soft crabs, before being fried, should be dipped in a mixture of milk and flour, or breaded in the English fashion. The English know nothing whatever about frying soft crabs, and neither do the cooks of New York. If a waiter should set before a Baltimore epicure a plate of soft crabs fried in flour or bread crumbs, there would be at once the bloodcurdling sound of a waiter’s skull cracking beneath the impact of a chair leg. Such pollutions of the heavenly soft crab are regarded along the Chesapeake with an aversion approaching acute dementia. Every Ethiopian cook of both shores is well aware that there is but one way to cook the soft crab, which way consists of pinning the live reptile, by means of a large sauerkraut fork, to a slice of breakfast bacon, and of holding the two, with the bacon up, over a quick fire. The bacon melts and its aromatic juices flood the Mediterranean of the crab and run down its legs, and it promptly dies of joy. Then the epicure engulfs it—before it has a chance to grow cold. Painful to the crab? Perhaps! But it’s art!

Maybe, however, I am unjust to the excellent M. Gancel. After all, he tries to tell us in his book, not how crabs should be cooked, but how they are cooked. He is not responsible for the crimes of culinary anarchists, the blunders of ignoramuses. His aim is to give the public a sort of new Rosetta Stone for the interpretation of menu card Egyptian, and that aim he achieves in a comprehensive and masterly manner.

“Rest Harrow,” by Maurice Hewlett (Scribners, $1.50), is the third volume in a trilogy, of which “Halfway House” and “Open Country” have gone before. Once more the central characters are the unearthly Jack Senhouse and the earthly Sanchia Percival. We behold now their gradual coming together, in spite of Jack’s revolt against the forms and customs of civilization, in spite of Sanchia’s startling struggle for freedom. It is settled beneath the open sky, “in the hollow of the valley.” “She looked up at him laughing. She was the color of a flushed rose. ‘My bride,’ he said, and kissed her lips. She turned in his arm and clung to him. The storm swept surging over her; passion long pent made her shiver like a blown fire. They took their wild joy . . . ”

Jack leads her by the hand “to the shade of the valley, where the deep turf is hardly ever dry.” She is bare of foot, as he is, and bare of head. In her bosom is a spray of dog roses.

“You are blue-gowned, like Despoina,” says the conquered philosopher sentimentally, “and, indeed, that is your name. I am to have a fairy wife.”

And then they fall to discussing ways and means, like any commonplace ’Arry and ’Arriet. “Oh, promise me!” and—curtain.

There are critics who object to Mr. Hewlett’s style, calling it labored and artificial, but as for me I find it far from fatiguing. Now and then, of course, his search for the arresting epithet, the fantastic metaphor, leads him a bit too far afield, but in general there are charms in his very vagaries. An unusual style is too often denounced out of hand as a bad style. Let us subscribe to no such narrow rules and regulations. The English of Shakespeare was unusual English, and so was the English of George Meredith.

“The Power and the Glory,” by Grace MacGowan Cooke (Doubleday Page, $1.50), starts out bravely with an intimate and interesting picture of life among the barbarous peasants of the North Carolina hills—a prelude which gives promise of an excellent story. But before that story is one-third done it transforms itself into a preposterous romance of the Laura Jean Libbey school, with a heroine whose bright eyes and honest worth lift her, almost as quickly as one can say “Jack Robinson,” from bare feet to satin slippers, and an opulent hero who falls in love with her at first sight and proceeds to woo her with great condescension and magnificence. A Libbean villain plays his dastardly role in the melodrama; there is a Libbean abduction; a Libbean mine yields its untold wealth to the lowly, educating and washing them, it would seem, while it makes them rich; Libbean love making fills the air with its ravishing music. Altogether the story is intensely disappointing, not because it is Libbean—for most of the novels that come to me, in their rainbow covers and with canned reviews attached, are of that sort—but because it is by Mrs. Cooke. From an author of her evident ability we have a right to expect less ridiculous things. She has, if I do not mistake, a firsthand knowledge of the life of the Southern mountaineer, and in her first chapter—and even later on in occasional episodes—she proves that she knows how to write. It is her duty, then, to give us credible and intelligible studies of the people she knows and understands—studies directed toward setting them before us as veritable human beings, and toward helping us in some measure to see into their hearts and minds. Plenty of honest and willing numskulls stand ready to keep us supplied with best sellers.

“The Native Born,” by I. A. R. Wylie (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50), is a tale of British India. In the first chapter we see two Englishmen and their wives imprisoned in a little room, with a horde of murderous natives raging outside. The noise grows louder; the besiegers are breaking in. One of the English men cocks his revolver and faces his wife. “Are you afraid?” he demands. She clings to him. “Give me both your hands,” he says, “in my one hand—so. Now kiss me.” Something icy cold touches her temple. She sinks to her knees and prays: “Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit!” There is a loud report—and a sudden, startling stillness. Then the door yields and the room fills with savages.
A scene, it appears, from the Indian Mutiny. Chapter II advances the clock a quarter of a century, but we are still in India and in the same part of it, to wit, the semi-independent state of Marut. Nehal Singh, the young rajah, mingles with the invading English and dreams of lifting his people out of their native wallow. There are many chapters of gossip, love making and station intriguing. Nehal, simple fellow, falls in love with one of the English girls and she leads him a merry dance, sneering at him in the end for his folly.

Enraged beyond measure, he decides to drive the English, male and female, out of his dominions, and so another siege begins, with the promise of an outcome as bloody as that of the first one. But stay! An Englishman, more daring than the rest, stalks into Nehal’s camp, and proceeds to reveal to him (Nehal) the secret of his (Nehal’s) birth. He (Nehal) is not Nehal at all, but Steven Caruthers, an Englishman!

Well, well, well! You may be sure that Steven is astonished. Any man would be at the story he hears—a long and intricate tale of infidelity and lost babies, in which not only he himself but nearly all the other personages of the story figure. It is now impossible, of course, for him to persist in his determination to exterminate the English in his satrapy, for that would involve his own suicide. So he calls off the massacre, marries the girl who once played him so false—and fades from the scene. A bulky and extremely complex fiction. Mr.—or is it Miss?—Wylie, in a prefa tory note, says that it is his—or her?—first. I have read far worse firsts—but I have read far better ones.

“Dr. Thorne’s Idea,” by John Ames Mitchell (Life Pub. Co., $1.00), is a new version of a tale published in 1899 under the title of “Gloria Victis.” Despite its age, it is still decidedly in the movement, for its heroine, after being slain by her lover, is brought back from the dead by the mysterious stranger of “The Servant in the House,” “The Passing of the Third Floor Back” and other such theological dramas of the day. “He was young, but little over thirty, and tall, with a slight stoop about the shoulders. From his simple somewhat ordinary clothes, Stephen judged him to be a master mechanic—a mason perhaps, or a carpenter. But the face was less usual. The features were regular, the eyes a dark blue and singularly gentle and expressive. A brown beard grew in two points from the chin.”

“The Cave Woman,” by Viola Burhans (Holt, $1.50), a tale of mystery with a decidedly unhackneyed plot. The hero, taking refuge from a thunderstorm in a cave, runs full tilt into a young woman whose voice charms him, though he is unable in the darkness to see her face, and thereafter, for three hundred pages, he tries to find her again and to offer her his heart and hand. How he follows false trails, how a second woman plays a part in the chase, and how in the end he finds her in the same cave and “they claim together their second immortal moment”—all this makes a tale that will keep you awake and leave you palpitating at the close.

Another story of mystery is “The Window at the White Cat,” by Mary Roberts Rinehart, author of “The Man in Lower Ten” and “The Circular Staircase” (Bobbs- Merrill, $1.50). There are certain evidences of haste to make hay in the book—it shows less humor, for one thing, than its predecessors—but still it is well above the average of such fictions, and no doubt Mrs. Rinehart’s admirers will get a lot of pleasure out of reading it. No, I am not going to tell you the plot, for such plots are spoiled by telling. Suffice it to say that it deals largely with lost jewels, and that a dashing young barrister is the hero.

There are few lines worth remembering, or even reading, in William Watson’s new book of poems, a thin volume of less than fifty pages, entitled “Sable and Purple” (Zone, $1.50). Here we have four bits of debris from the poet’s workshop, stuff that should have gone into the waste basket and the fire. The first is a brief and exceedingly common place threnody upon the death of Edward VII, the sort of thing that any fairly talented young rhapsodist might have written; the second is an uninteresting dramatic scene in blank verse, with King Alfred as protagonist; the third is a banal ode to the sea, relieved by a few picturesque epithets; and the fourth—and perhaps best—is a twenty-four-line defiance of England’s foes, in unhappy imitation of the Kipling manner. Even at his worst, of course, Watson shows a certain suavity and craftsmanship. It would be a sheer impossibility for him to write so atrociously as Alfred Austin. But in the present book, alas, his poetical plumb bob comes very near the bottom. It is a book that his admirers—and who of us is not of them?—will not care to talk about.

The Cochrane Publishing Company objects to the fact that a book called “Neither Do I” was credited to it in the October number. The objection is sound, for the volume really bears the imprint of another firm, and so I offer my regrets for the error, with assurances that it was entirely due to a slip of the typewriter.