Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hail, Sir Kenelm Digby (and Anne MacDonell)


A hundred years ago, an English writer named Anne MacDonell edited and published a seventeenth-century English gentleman's cookbook called The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby, Knight, Opened. This was a book which had first seen the light of day in 1669, a few years after Sir Kenelm's death. It seems his steward, one Hartman, had put it together from the master's copious notes on food and drink and his recipes, or "receipts." For her Edwardian re-issue, Miss MacDonell wrote a jewel of a preface -- although, why shouldn't she? She translated children's fairy tales from the Italian, among other excellent projects, and earns respect even today among the people at Culture Tracks, as something of an authority on Abruzzi -- in the very beginning of which she exclaims:

With the waning of Sir Kenelm Digby's philosophic reputation his name has not become obscure. It stands, vaguely perhaps, but permanently, for something versatile and brilliant and romantic. He remains a perpetual type of the hero of romance, the double hero, in the field of action and the realm of the spirit. Had he lived in an earlier age he would now be a mythological personage ....

So when, in a seventeenth-century bookseller's advertisement, I lighted on a reference to the curious compilation of receipts entitled The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened, having the usual idea of him as a great gentleman, romantic Royalist, and somewhat out-of-date philosopher, I was enough astonished at seeing his name attached to what seemed to me, in my ignorance, outside even his wide fields of interest, to hunt for the book without delay, examine its contents, and inquire as to its authenticity. Of course I found it was not unknown.


Of course. People who are thrown into the company of antique cookbook aficionados can't help but stub a toe against some of the pioneers in the field (the Menagier de Paris, anyone?) and so with Anne MacDonell as our guide, we unthinkingly stub a toe against the door of Sir Kenelm's Closet. The book is to be found at that wonderful website Project Gutenberg, which is where the three of us happened to meet. It is the source for all the page numbers that follow.

Before delving into those receipts which struck Miss MacDonell as so extraneous to the man's real career, it might help to know just a little bit about him, and why she could assert that waning philosophic reputation or no, his name "had not become obscure." Digby was born into the English aristocracy in 1603, a few months after the death of the last Tudor, great Queen Elizabeth. He lived a life that only a gentleman of the hothouse, cloak-and-rapier Tudor-Stuart age could do. This was a time when a boy of good family (even one whose father was executed as a major Gunpowder Plotter), with an income of £3000 a year, could leave Oxford without taking a degree at seventeen, and yet grow into a man who knew six languages, traveled eagerly, had the freedom of royal courts and papal chambers; a man who actually outfitted and commanded a pirate expedition against French and Venetian shipping at Scanderoon (in modern Turkey), on his own authority, while still in his early twenties. (He won.) He corresponded with the great scholars of the time, married a beautiful lady and fathered a large family, dabbled eagerly in science, wrote memoirs, changed religions in a period of religious ferment and was jailed and then exiled a couple of times for it -- a "hero of the realm of the spirit," Miss MacDonell had said -- killed a man in a duel in Paris, and in general lived life at full gallop.

I suppose his name had not become obscure simply because, a hundred years ago, people were still taught something about colorful figures in school. When MacDonell attested to Sir Kenelm's philosophic reputation, only, being in decline, she meant his reputation as a "natural philosopher," that is, a scientist. In the seventeenth century, modern science was of course in its toddlerhood, still allied with alchemy and the occult, and still open to interesting contributions from well-educated gentry amateurs. For that, Sir Kenelm was perfectly made. He seems to have been best known for his "Powder of Sympathy," a magical substance, given him by an Italian friar, reputed to cure wounds at a distance when applied to the garment of an injured man. Hence his reputation's pesky Edwardian decline. Still, when MacDonell describes him affectionately as an amateur and even a dilettante, she rightly points out that this was saying a great deal. "In his own day," she says, he "was looked on almost as [Francis] Bacon's equal, was the friend of Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Harvey, Ben Jonson, Cromwell, and all the great spirits of his time," as well as "the intimate of kings, and the special friend of queens" ( p. 3). His legend was such that when he visited Descartes incognito -- English gentlemen abroad did this sort of thing -- Descartes needed only a little of his exuberant fireside conversation to announce, " 'you can be none other than Digby' " (p. 11).

None other than Digby -- who also busied himself, during one of his stays in a sort of starched-ruff prison as a "recusant Catholic" and friend and Chancellor to the Catholic queen Henrietta Maria, with serious experiments in glass making (p. 9).

As to the tendency of this serious man to collect recipes, which started early, Miss MacDonell can explain. In the seventeenth century, scientists, alchemists, and everybody else were passionately concerned to prolong life, and the prime way to do that seemed to be through eating and drinking as wholesomely as possible. What were medicines then anyway, except toxic, disgusting anti-foods? Rumor blamed Sir Kenelm himself for inadvertently killing his beloved wife Venetia by making her drink "viper wine" for her complexion. (The huge sunflower in the Van Dyck portrait may represent the widower's loyalty.) Miss MacDonell elaborates on the link between the natural philosopher and, frankly, the foodie:



"The distance between the healer and the cook has grown to be immense in recent times. The College of Physicians and Mary Jane in the kitchen are not on nodding terms.... But in the seventeenth century the gap can hardly be said to have existed at all. At the back of the doctor is plainly seen the figure of the herbalist and simpler, who appear again prominently in the still-room and the kitchen, by the side of great ladies and great gentlemen, bent on making the best and the most of the pleasures of the table no doubt, but quite as much on the maintenance of health as of hospitality" (p. 16).


Thus we come to the Closet, Opened.

I hope to be forgiven for stepping inside and poking determinedly around in here. As historical documents, old cookbooks strike me as psychologically priceless. They help us really imagine the alien-ness of daily life in long gone times. So often we calmly observe art, buildings, and documents, and reassure ourselves how recognizable humanity always is, in love and suffering and hope and so on. True enough, but humanity also spends a lot of each day concerned with eating and drinking whatever is to hand. Which means there were times when individual human beings ate and drank things that we can scarcely identify, much less would we touch with a ten foot pole. Seeing proof of this in old "receipts" brings our ancestors curiously alive in a way that all the platitudes about a common human condition do not.

So we venture in. Sir Kenelm begins with over a hundred recipes just for mead, each of them carefully different and a fair number carefully credited to their makers, be they "my lord Herbert" or "my lady Stuart" or "the Ambassador of Muscovy's steward." Mead, or metheglin or white metheglin, was (and is) an ancient beverage, a mixture of honey, water, and herbs, boiled, cooled, strained, and poured off into a scrupulously clean receptacle to "work" (ferment). If you wanted a really backbreaking day of it, you could try Meath with Raisins (p. 62): to a cauldron boiling with forty gallons of water and ten gallons of honey, put in a bagful of forty pounds' weight of "blew Raisins of the sun." After this finished simmering flavorfully, you would drag it out, let it drain into the mead, and then further press out all its liquid before throwing away the bag and husks and carrying on with the brewing. This batch would be ready to drink in nine months.

Sir Kenelm's professionalism with regard to mead carries through in his treatment of all that follows. Fruit wines and ciders "excellent in sharp gonorrhoeas" come next, and then sweet puddings, "potages" (soups), gruels, more drinks including a "plague water" of masses of herbs steeped in white wine and then distilled, "hotchpots" (beef stews), roast meats (whose instructions include lots of beating raw slices of meat with the butt of a knife to tenderize them), savory puddings, fish (also beaten tender and then boiled), game, and practically everything else to be found in a modern cookbook except recipes for fresh vegetables. And what the modern cookbook omits, Sir Kenelm includes. There are instructions on fattening chickens on ale, on cheese- and "gelly"-making, and on making candies, "pleasant cordial tablets," that are as much medicines as sweets.

Certainly this is a cookbook for the well-to-do, but like any modern collection, it also surely inventories special or complex dishes that nobody ate regularly. And while certainly the rural poor could find themselves reduced to eating breads made of peas, beans, or acorns in Tudor and Stuart bad times, this doesn't necessarily mean that no person below the rank of earl ever got near Digby-style foods. All classes were surprisingly close to husbandry and to one another, and were equally hemmed in by religious restrictions at the table. All classes ate fish for the seven weeks of Lent, all appreciated sweet creamy foods as a foil to the prevalence of salted meats and fish; country people who could find work at a great estate also lived and ate there, while, as MacDonell remarks, my lady Soandso still looked after her own milk cows. She also prepared her own "simples," herbal remedies from her garden. So when we enter Sir Kenelm's Closet, we are not entering some tiny windowless place where the rich gobbled in cruel disdain for the poor. We are entering a place that Sir Kenelm strove to fill with as many healthful pleasurable things to eat and drink as possible, and that his steward opened to anyone who could read.

There are a few surprises. Turkey makes an appearance (p. 119), at a time when England's new world colonies were barely settled. Other American gifts like chocolate, potatoes, and tomatoes are not to be found. "Puff past" is also here, a hundred and fifty years before Careme is said to have invented it (p. 93) -- this receipt is different, but still includes a mass of butter to be "rowled" up in not too much "flowr." There are actual recognizable instructions for making pears poached in red wine. And it seems you can eat, although I have no intention of doing so and wouldn't recommend it, the little inner stalks of tulips after the flower petals have fallen away in spring. Of these imitation "pease," Sir Kenelm advises, "In the Spring (about the beginning of May) the flowry-leaves of Tulips do fall away, and there remains within them the end of the stalk, which in time will turn to seed. Take that seedy end (then very tender) and pick from it the little excrescencies about it, and cut it into short pieces, and boil them and dress them as you would do Pease; and they will taste like Pease, and be very savoury" (p. 85).

We must recall that people were often unwell in these rude times, possibly the doctor-ridden, gouty rich moreso than the plain-living and untended poor, and that many adults' teeth were in a very parlous state. This may explain the presence of recipes for little fireside potations, little comforting pappy things for the beshawled invalid to savor alone, over his private chafing dish. A "posset" was a quickly made pudding of boiled milk or cream, ale, eggs, sack (sherry), spices, sugar, ambergris , and sometimes bits of bread. Leftover gravy thickened with eggs, stirred in a chafing dish with some meat or bread added, plus lemon or orange juice, salt, pepper, and an onion, comprised a "nourishing hachy" (p. 92). And Sir Kenelm gratefully recorded the experience of a Jesuit who brought back from China the secret of tea with egg: you pour good strong tea, steaming hot, into a bowl where you have beaten two eggs with some sugar. "So drink it hot. This is when you come home from attending business abroad, and are very hungry, and yet have not conveniency to eat presently a competent meal. This presently discusseth and satisfieth all rawness and indigence of the stomack, flyeth suddainly over the whole body and into the veins, and strengtheneth exceedingly, and preserves one a good while from necessity of eating" (p. 79).

But in general, apart from a few comfort foods and a few familiar things like turkey or tulips, the Closet remains a Narnia-like fantasy world of extravagant and forgotten and again, surely not everyday eatables. Make Cock-ale by adding a paste of cooked chicken meat, dates, raisins, sherry, nutmeg, and mace to a vat of eight gallons of ale. "Stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it, and a month after you may drink it" (p. 86). Add oysters and pistachios to your beef stew. (This is the sort of grossness that our friend Careme of the puff paste, circa 1810, put a stop to.) Neat's tongues are good for fine mince pyes. And eggs, milk, cream, and butter, once known as the white meats, apparently were not often a procurement problem in seventeenth-century England ... and lampreys must be fresh caught, held in clean water until they ooze their mud, then scraped off, gutted, baked, and preserved a year under a thick coat of butter poured over them as soon as they come out of the oven (p. 105). I seem to recall that more than one medieval prince died after a dish of lampreys. And what to make, literally, of those scores of fresh gathered herbs, also a part of the cooking day? The unidentifiable ones sound pretty ("Pellitory of the Wall"), while the identifiable ones, like tansy, carry warnings about toxicity in modern gardening books. "Consult a trained herbalist." Or, for heaven's sake, don't eat tansy.

Will you dare attempt to cook from it? Remember too, in that case, that the Closet is a chronicle of incredible work, and of massive quantities, fit for the servant-stuffed kitchens of a great house. Hartman, the steward, compiled this book, though the servant's voice only occasionally comes through ("send them up in the same dish you bake them in" (p. 94). Are you ready to make cherry wine? In that case you will hand-pit and hand-crush a hundred pounds of cherries (p. 69). Cakes will require six pounds of butter, ten pounds of currants, a peck of flour (32 cups), and an unspecified amount of ale-yeast (p. 122). Some few dishes really are effete concoctions whose preparations must have sapped the strength of many men, but were probably untasted much by those sitting below the salt. The queen liked a "pressis mourissant" [sic?], a broth made by pressing out in a heavy press all the juices of a partly roasted leg of mutton, a leg of veal, and a capon. These juices were mixed with the juice of an orange and a little salt, to create a very healthful soup which cured consumption after long use (p. 83). I have no doubt that the pressed joints of all that good meat were put to some good use below stairs.

He ends, most gracefully and as no modern cookbook will, with conserve of red roses, a gelly made of rose petals, sugar, and water. "Finis." Sir Kenelm, still in the midst of his vigorous career, was on his way to Paris for his health when his old complaint, "the stone," struck him hard. He turned back from his journey and died in 1665, a month before he would have turned sixty-two.

After we emerge from the Closet and close its door in a stupor of imaginative exhaustion, we'll remember noticing that quite a while back, we had found Digby, during one of his stays in prison, putting aside occultish works to experiment with glass making. Miss MacDonell did say that his one actual scientific invention was "a particular kind of glass bottle" (p. 14).

It seems to have been more than merely particular. Hugh Johnson, in Vintage: the Story of Wine, says that probably sometime in the 1630s, our Sir gentleman Digby had actually become a glass factory owner, of the hands-on kind. His factory's improved coal-fired furnaces and better glass recipe (so to speak) were soon producing bottles heavier, stronger, and darker, stained by the coal fumes, than anyone else's had ever been. They even had the modern punt, the bottom indentation where the blow pipe was taken away. The innovation helped better distribute their weight and made them sturdy standing up. Over the next thirty years other men claimed the new bottle's invention, until in 1662 Parliament stepped in and officially gave Digby, ex-con that he was, full credit. "He was the father of the modern wine bottle" (Johnson, p. 194).

Is that all. After all his receipts and his pirate expeditions, his faking his own death to escape the attentions of the amorous French queen Marie de Medici (did we forget that? She seems to have been something of a cougar), his memoirs and diplomatic missions, his languages and his sympathetic Powders, it turns out that Miss MacDonell was right. He has not become obscure. Not really. We may never make his Cock-Ale nor his Stepponi (raisin and lemon wine), nor any of his hundred and six meads, though his receipts perhaps gladdened many a stomach and soul in his own day. But every time we venture into the wine aisle of the grocery store and look down those vast shelves lined with stably standing, safely shippable product, we are seeing the efforts of our own Sir Kenelm, knight, Chancellor, pirate, gourmand; we are breathing just a whiff of busy, Van Dyckish, cloak-and-rapier, amateur scientist and friend-of-Descartes, seventeenth century air. When we bring our bottle home and set it on the table, why, there he is in a corner of the kitchen, no doubt nodding approval, the ghost in the plumed hat. Perhaps he is stirring up a little nourishing hachy for us, too, to pair with our wine.

We can only nod to Miss Anne MacDonell, who found him and stood amazed at his relevance despite the "usual ideas," -- and then doff our own plumed hats in thrilled respect. And then all sit down, thankfully, to eat and drink. Hail, Sir Kenelm.




Sir Kenelm Digby, by Anthony van Dyck; image from BBC 4

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