With this post we introduce a new Verso series from Shelley Kresan, one of the rare book catalogers in the Library. She is in the process of cataloging the Anne M. Cranston cookbook collection, which consists of approximately 4,400 British and American cookbooks from the 19th and 20th centuries. Every few weeks, Shelley will share fascinating recipes, quotes, kitchen solutions, and anecdotes she has uncovered in the collection.
“God made the first Christmas, and man has ever since been busy spoiling it.”
These are the opening words in Lady Agnes Jekyll’s essay “Country Friends to a Christmas Luncheon.” Lady Jekyll wrote a series of unsigned essays for the London Times and reprinted them in Kitchen Essays, a volume in the Huntington Library’s Anne M. Cranston cookbook collection. She goes on to describe how merchants are very busy during the season convincing potential customers that the only way to keep Christmas is to buy, buy, BUY. The gifts, she says, get more elaborate every year; the hustle and bustle becomes “bewildering.”
If only the good lady could see into the future from 1922. I myself am taken aback by the scenes of the post-Thanksgiving 2012 shopping frenzy. Still, many of us brave the crowds because we wish to please our loved ones and celebrate the season. The year might be extremely frugal, but most of us wish to do it up right whether it is Christmas, Hanukkah, or a more secular celebration of family and friends.
For me, the most important aspect of the celebration has always been the food. It starts early in December when I pick the ripe pomegranates off our tree and seed them for the jelly I make every year. Then there is the baking, the candy making, and finally the dinner on Christmas Day with the whole family and more than a few friends.Lady Jekyll knew how to soothe her friends in the midst of their early 20th-century buying frenzy: It was food lovingly prepared and enjoyed in good company. She suggests that the luncheon be prepared with foodstuffs that might be scarce or unavailable in the countryside so as to make the occasion even more special. These days, prawns and cocoanuts are hardly scarce, but this unusual and exotic luncheon recipe for Malay Curry of Prawns from Lady Jekyll would be a welcome repast:
Malay Curry of Prawns
One cucumber, 1 cocoanut, and allow 4 prawns a head.
- Remove shells from prawn, putting them into a bainmarie,* and covering with milk to simmer for the sauce, placing prawns aside till required.
- Peel and cut the cucumber into pieces like a large olive, boil in salted water, strain off and drain when cooked, but not overdone.
- Drain the milk from the cocoanut, retaining for use at the last, grate a cupful of the white part, pour over some boiling water, and let infuse.
- Put in a stew pan a piece of butter, adding when melted a small onion cut in fine rings to fry a golden brown.
- Add a clove of garlic chopped very fine, a tablespoon full of crème de riz,** a teaspoonful of turmeric powder, one of powdered cloves and cinnamon, a little salt, a teaspoon full of sugar; fry together, then add the strained liquor from the prawn shells, the water from the grated cocoanut, cook for a few minutes, then add the prawns and cucumber, and let it remain as it is for a half hour.
- Slowly reheat, adding the milk from the cocoanut.
- Serve in small brown flat fireproof egg dishes with handles, encircled by plain boiled rice, which could alternatively be handed separately.
*A pan containing hot water in which a smaller pan is set for uniform heat when cooking delicate foods like custards.
**Most probably rice flour.
Recipe from Agnes Jekyll (1861–1937), Kitchen Essays: With Recipes and Their Occasions [London, Edinburgh, New York, Toronto, and; Paris]: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., .
Shelley Kresan is a rare book cataloger in The Huntington’s technical services department.