In Food in Literature part 12, Helen gives us extracts from Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim, The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope, As They Were by MFK Fisher, and a further extract from Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. All four extracts concern butlers or waiters.
The Expiation: Elizabeth von Arnim
Persephone Books has republished this novel, which is a subtle, absorbing study of a wealthy, self made family, living in a London suburb in the 1930’s. There are several middle aged sons and daughters, all married and leading ultra conservative lives, devoted to preserving the family image of respectability and pre eminence.
One of the sons dies and the family have to cope with the shocking fact that he has disinherited his wife Millie, to punish her for the fact that for many years she has had a lover. The family image demands that they do everything they can to suppress the scandal and this means sharing the responsibility to house and care for Millie. Elizabeth von Arnim reveals to us the hidden tensions and unhappiness within this family and the individual marriages, as Millie’s presence among them brings suppressed emotions and longings to the surface.
Mabel is one of the daughters in law. Her overbearing husband demands that their standard of living reflects the family position. He has hired a butler to serve at every meal. This butler is of a type that features in other novels that describe the predicament of the nouveau riche, that of being looked down upon and secretly despised by their own servants.
Mabel’s husband is never home for lunch, or “luncheon”, as he insists on calling it but she still has to sit in the dining room in lonely and chilly splendour, suffering the attentions of the butler, who terrifies and repels her.
“Mabel, wispy and insignificant, and at all times of a faint heart, was crushed by the butler. Her lunches. Alone, with him waiting on her, were nightmares. It seemed so awful she thought, to be watched by a man from behind. One’s back was so helpless. It had no eyes in it. And he disapproved of her, she was sure, and offered her the food as though it were reproaches. Awful to lunch, most of her days, alone with the butler. In the silence of the room, while he, behind her chair, waited to remove her plate, the instant she laid down her knife and fork. She could hear him breathing, for he was one of those butlers who breathe. He did it down her neck, too, when he bent over her with dishes, and made the straggles of her hair, which never would keep pinned back out of the way, wave about unpleasantly. She suffered. Also, having been for years in the service of a bishop, he had somehow forced family prayers on her, to which Fred and the boys wouldn’t come; and how her voice shook and trembled when she read out bits of Bible and whole collects before the semi circle of stony servants, headed by the butler looking down his big nose.”
The Last Chronicle of Barset: Anthony Trollope
The experienced waiter is a frequently a source of valuable information to the fictional detective.
Mr Toogood is in fact a solicitor. He is extremely experienced in the conduct of litigation and is a wise and astute student of human nature. He is exactly the sort of lawyer we would all wish to have on our side. In The Last Chronicle he takes it upon himself to defend a case involving his distant relative by marriage Mr Crawley, a clergyman, who has been charged with theft of a cheque for £20. The evidence against him appears to be overwhelming and furthermore Mr Crawley is a most difficult client. He insists that he does not want legal representation and his mind is in such turmoil that he can not give any explanation for his possession of the cheque. However Mr Toogood believes that his unwilling client could well be innocent and he sets out to investigate the case himself. To do this he has to travel from London to Barsetshire and makes the principal inn in the village his base.
“Mr Toogood reached The Dragon about eleven o’clock, and allowed the boots to give him a pair of slippers and a candlestick. But he would not go to bed just at that moment. He would go into the coffee room first and have a glass of hot brandy and water. So the hot brandy and water was brought to him, and a cigar, and as he smoked and drank he conversed with the waiter. The man was a waiter of the ancient class, a grey haired waiter with seedy clothes, and a dirty towel under his arm; not a dapper waiter, with black shiny hair, and dressed like a guest for a dinner party. There are two distinct classes of waiters, and as far as I have been able to perceive, the special status of the waiter in question cannot not be decided by observation of the class of waiter to which he belongs. In such a town as Barchester you may find the old waiter with the dirty towel in the head inn, or in the second class inn, and so you may the dapper waiter. Or you may find both in each, and not know which is senior waiter and which junior waiter. But for service I always prefer the old waiter with the dirty towel, and I find it more easy to satisfy him in the matter of sixpences when any relations to the inn come to an end.”
I Was Really Very Hungry: MFK Fisher
MFK Fisher’s autobiographical writings contain countless descriptions of meals eaten in restaurants, on board ships and on trains across Europe and the United States. As a woman who was very often eating by herself, she was a great observer and judge of the ambiance of a restaurant, of how welcome and comfortable she was made to feel.
This is one of my favourites of her pieces, which also demonstrates how close her factual writing could be to a gripping short story.
It is also an excellent example of how the best food in the world can be spoiled if the atmosphere is not right and in particular if the attitude of the waitress (in this case) is unsympathetic. In this story, she shows how over attentiveness can be just as unsettling and can spoil a superb meal just as much as insolent neglect.
“Once I met a young servant in northern Burgundy who was almost frighteningly fanatical about food, like a medieval woman possessed by a devil. Her obsession engulfed even my appreciation of the dishes she served, until I grew uncomfortable.”
It was out of season season at a much celebrated restaurant. MFK is the only customer.
“There were aspidistras on the mantel, several small white tables were laid with those imitation “peasant ware” plates that one sees in Paris china stores, and very good crystal glasses; a cat folded under some ferns by the window ledge hardly looked at me; and the air was softly hurried with the sound of high waters from the stream outside.”
At first Fisher is amused by the seriousness and dedication of the pale young waitress, who eagerly recommends…
“a truite au bleu as only Monsieur Paul can prepare it… with the trout, one or two young potatoes – oh, very delicately boiled”, she added, before I could protest, “very light”.
I felt better, I agreed. “Perhaps a leaf or two of salad after the fish”, I suggested. She almost snapped at me, “Of course, of course! And naturally our hors d' oeuvres to commence.” She started away.
“No!” I called, feeling that I must assert myself now or be forever lost: “No!”
She turned back and spoke to me very gently, “But Madame has never tasted our hors d’oeuvres. I am sure that Madame will be pleased. They are our speciality, made by Monsieur Paul himself. I am sure”, and she looked reproachfully at me, her mouth tender and sad, “I am sure that Madame would be very much pleased.”
Then Fisher orders wine. She orders a bottle of Chablis 1929. The waitress realises that this is a customer who can appreciate Monsieur Paul’s genius.
“For a second her whole face blazed with joy, and then subsided into a trained mask.”
She returns with the hors d' oeuvres. There are at least 8 dishes of them. There is a look of “ecstatic worry” on her face. She urges Fisher to try the pickled herring.
"They were truly unlike any others, truly the best I had ever eaten, mild, pungent, meaty as fresh nuts. I realised the maid had stopped breathing, and looked up at her. She was watching me, or rather a gastronomic x-ray of the herring inside me, with a hypnotised glaze in her eyes.
“Madame is pleased?” she whispered.
I said I was. She sighed, and pushed a sizzling plate of broiled endive towards me, and disappeared."
Fisher samples some green lentils “scattered with minced fresh herbs, and probably marinated in tarragon vinegar and walnut oil”. The maid reappears with the Chablis and presses her to take some baked onions.
“They were delicious, simmered first in strong meat broth, I think, and then drained and broiled with olive oil and new ground pepper.”
Then the trout is brought in but the maid insists that first Fisher must try a slice of pâté. Fisher fears that she has already eaten far more then she can take but…
“I broke off a crust of bread and patted it smooth with the paste. Then I forgot everything but the exciting, faint, decadent flavour in my mouth.”
The maid embarks on an explanation…
“Monsieur Paul, after he has taken equal parts of goose breast and the finest pork, and broken a certain number of egg yolks into them, and ground them very, very fine, cooks all with the seasoning for some three hours. But” she pushed her face nearer, and looked with ferocious gloating at the pâté inside me, her eyes like x-rays, “he never stops stirring it! Figure to yourself the work of it – stir, stir, never stopping! The he grinds in a suspicion of nutmeg, and then adds very thoroughly, a glass of marc for each 100 g of pâté. And is Madame not pleased?”
Again I agreed, rather timidly, that Madame was much pleased…."
The trout is served. MFK knows quite well that the dish is prepared by placing a live fish directly into court-boullion but she can’t remember, so she asks, whether the fish is de-gutted before or after this.
“Oh, the trout!” She sounded scornful. “Any trout is glad to be prepared by Monsieur Paul. His little gills are pinched, with one flash of the knife he is empty, and then he curls in agony in the bouillon and all is over. And it is the curl you must judge Madame. A false truite au bleu cannot curl” She panted triumph at me, and hurried out with the bucket."
MFK eats the trout, with some tiny boiled potatoes and the waitress inevitably describes the method to her.
"She wore the exalted look of a believer describing a miracle at Lourdes as she told me, in a rush, how Monsieur Paul threw chopped chives into hot sweet butter and then poured the butter off, how he added another nut of butter and a tablespoonful of thick cream for each person, stirred the mixture for a few minutes over a slow fire and then rushed it to the table……. I tasted the last sweet nugget of trout, the one nearest the blued tail, and poked somnolently at the minute white billiard balls that had been eyes. Fate could not harm me, I remembered winily, for I had indeed dined today and dined well. Now for a leaf of crisp salad and I’d be on my way. "
But it was, of course, not to be. As MFK swallows one small leaf the waitress announces…
“Now Madame is going to taste Monsieur Paul’s special terrine, one that is not even on the summer menu, when a hundred covers are laid here daily and we have a head waiter and a wine waiter and cabinet ministers telegraph for tables! Madame will be pleased.”
MFK has no choice but to eat a thick slice. She is beginning to feel almost frightened but proceeds to eat a wedge of cheese that is cut for her, feeling “like a slave.” Then a slice of superb apple tart, which is accompanied by the girl’s “passionate plea for fresh pastry dough”.
“You cannot, you cannot Madame, serve old pastry”. She seemed ready to beat her breast as she leaned across the table. “Look at that delicate crust. You may feel that you have eaten too much (I nodded idiotic agreement) But this pastry is like feathers; it is like snow. It is in fact good for you, a digestive. And why?” She glared sternly at me. “Because Monsieur Paul did not even open the flour until he saw you coming!”
Nevertheless the end was in sight. MFK gulps a cup of special filter coffee and a “vast glass of marc” and at last she is free and able to stand up from the table. “I felt surprised to be alive still.”
She collects her jacket and pays the bill. Then the waitress takes her by the hand and draws her back into the dining room and without speaking, pours more spirits into a glass for her.
Then the girl laughs and says…
“Permit me” and I thought she was going to kiss me. But instead she pinned a tiny bunch of snowdrops and dark bruised cyclamens against my stiff jacket, very swiftly and deftly, and then ran from the room with her head down."
Martin Chuzzlewhit: Charles Dickens
I’ve included extracts elsewhere from my favourite Dickens novel. In particular, I’ve paid tribute to the heroic Mrs Todgers, the proprietress of a boarding house for commercial gentlemen but I’ve not mentioned Bailey, the precocious boy waiter/boots, who together with gravy, is the bane of her of her professional life.
Bailey takes a sardonic view of his employer’s efforts to go up market. When Mr Pecksniff and his daughters Charity and Mercy pay a visit, Mrs Todgers tries to organise a gala dinner in their honour, to which all her gentlemen are invited.
Bailey sets out to undermine all her efforts. He provides commentary to the two Miss Pecksniffs on the preparations along the lines of: “I say.. young ladies. There’s soup tomorrow. She’s a’making it now. An’t she a’putting in the water? Oh! Not at all neither! … I say! There’s fowls tomorrow. Not skinny ones. Oh No!” and finally he resorts to calling through the key hole,.“There’s a fish tomorrow. Just come. Don’t eat none of him!”
"By and by he returned to lay the cloth for supper, it having been arranged by Mrs Todgers and the young ladies that they should partake of an exclusive veal cutlet in the privacy of that apartment. He entertained them on this occasion by thrusting a lighted candle into his mouth, and exhibiting his face in a state of transparency; after the performance of which feat, he went on with his professional duties, brightening every knife as he laid it on the table, by breathing on the blade and afterwards brightening the same on the apron already mentioned. When he had completed his preparations, he grinned at the sisters and expressed his belief that the approaching collation would be of “rather a spicy sort”
“Will it be long before it’s ready Bailey?” asked Mercy.
“No” said Bailey, "it is cooked. When I came up she was dodging among the tender pieces with a fork and eating of “em.”
But he had scarcely achieved the utterance of these words when he received a manual compliment on the head, which sent him staggering against the wall, and Mrs Todgers, dish in hand, stood indignantly before him.
“Oh you little villain!” said that lady, “Oh, you bad, false boy!”
“No werse than yerself” retorted Bailey, guarding his head,..
“He’s the most dreadful child,.”Said Mrs Todgers, setting down the dish, “I ever had to deal with. The gentlemen spoil him to that extent and teach him such things, that I’m afraid that nothing but hanging will ever do him any good.”
“Won’t it!” cried Bailey. “Oh! Yes! Wot do you go a lowering of the table beer then for, and destroying my constitooshun?”
“Go down stairs you vicious boy” said Mrs Todgers.
When dinner hour arrived…
“Bailey junior, testifying great excitement, appeared in a complete suit of cast off clothes several sizes too large for him and, in particular, mounted a clean shirt of such extraordinary magnitude, that one of the gentlemen (remarkable for his ready wit) called him “collars” on the spot.”
After a considerable delay, because the banquet is taxing her culinary skills to their utmost, Bailey again deliberately lowers the tone by announcing “The wittles is up!” The table is…
“groaning beneath the weight, not only of the delicacies of which the Miss Pecksniffs had been previously forewarned, but of boiled beef, roast veal, bacon, pies and abundance of such heavy vegetables as are favourably known to housekeepers for their satisfying qualities. Besides which there were bottles of stout, bottles of wine, bottles of ale and divers other strong drinks, native and foreign.”
The young ladies are rendered giddy with the excitement of so much male attention.
“Their young friend Bailey sympathised in these feelings to the fullest extent and, abating nothing of his patronage, gave them every encouragement in his power, favouring them, when the general attention was diverted from his proceedings, with many nods and winks and other tokens of recognition, and occasionally touching his nose with a corkscrew, as if to express the Bacchanalian character of the proceedings. In truth, perhaps, even the spirits of the two Miss Pecksniffs, and the hungry watchfulness of Mrs Todgers, were less worthy of note than the proceedings of that remarkable boy, whom nothing disconcerted or put out of his way. If any piece of crockery, a dish, or otherwise, chanced to slip through his hands, (which happened once or twice) he let it go with perfect good breeding and never added to the painful emotions of the company by exhibiting the least regret. Nor did he, by hurrying too and fro, disturb the repose of the assembly, as many well trained servants do; on the contrary, feeling the hopelessness of waiting on so large a party, he left the gentlemen to help themselves to what they wanted, and seldom stirred from behind Mr Jinkins' chair where, with his hands in his pockets, and his legs planted pretty wide apart, he led the laughter and enjoyed the conversation.”