Friday, July 17, 2015

Ashley Sterne The New Cook

From the Bowen Independent (Queensland), 22 November 1919.

[Note: Ashley Sterne's comic sketch below refers to ortolans, a species of small birds of the bunting family.  An article in Wine Spectator (June 30, 1999) states:  "For centuries, a rite of passage for French gourmets has been the eating of the ortolan. These tiny birds — captured alive, force-fed, then drowned in Armagnac — were roasted whole and eaten that way, bones and all, while the diner draped his head with a linen napkin to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from God."

Also, this sketch is notable for having the first recorded instance of the verb "googled."]


(By Ashley Sterne.)

One learns in the army to turn one’s hand to many a job to which one has not been reared.

For instance, at a time of grave crisis (when, in fact, our mess-cook unselfishly speeded up the work of demobilisation by demobilising himself without any assistance — in other words, he just "bimbled off”), I unhesitatingly volunteered to turn cook; and to this day a souffle and a tea cake which I made are affectionately treasured in the officers' mess as a pen-wiper and a pin-cushion respectively.

When, therefore, my housekeeper recently asked me if she could absent herself for the day in order to assist at the obsequies of an aged aunt who had been moribund for years, but who had eventually made a determined effort and done the job thoroughly, the prospect of doing my own cooking did not strike that terror into my breast which it would certainly have done a few years previously.

A man who has made an imperishable and indestructible souffle and a tea-cake that possesses many of the characteristics of the Rock of Gibraltar, is not to be daunted at the thought of performing a few comparatively simple culinary tricks which require no virtuoso technique.

Mrs. D., my housekeeper, left immediately after breakfast, in high feather — a scarlet one stuck jauntily in her hat, and totally out of keeping with the solemn ceremony she was alleged to be attending — and I at once began my preparations for lunch.

One of the secrets of successful cooking is to allow oneself plenty of time. To leave everything until the last possible moment is, alas, all too frequent a failing, and many a man is to-day writhing through life in the throes of dyspepsia because his cook has steadfastly retrained from putting on the potatoes in reasonable time.

I chose poached eggs with macaroni — a dish of which I am particularly fond, but which I can never induce Mrs. D. to prepare for me. The macaroni is always either too long or too short, the eggs are invariably of a brand that won't sit down properly, while there is never any cheese that is sufficiently senile to grate satisfactorily. In fact; there are as many difficulties placed in the way of gratifying my craving as if I had demanded a gilded peacock or a dish of ortolans’ tongues.

With Mrs. D. out of the way all would, I felt sure, go smoothly. I found some eggs that were guaranteed not to have come over with the Conqueror, several lengths of macaroni that were not fractured badly enough to warrant the use of splints, and a piece of dry cheese hard enough to grate — it would, in fact, have made an excellent substitute for pumice-stone. My one fear was that it would smoothen the grater.

I first gave my attention to the macaroni. This I intended to cook in a saucepan, but unfortunately I could not find a receptacle large enough to hold the sticks unless I broke them. This I did not wish to do, as a great deal of the charm and excitement of eating macaroni lies in carrying out successfully the conveyance of this sinuous, and elusive item from the plate to the palate. I therefore decided to boil the sticks in a tall coffee-pot, but even so my trained eye saw at a glance that I should have to boil the two ends separately. When the lower half was cooked I would then "turn” them and cook the top half — quite a good idea that may be usefully employed in cooking eels, tarpon, or very long bananas.

It was not until I came to effect the necessary turning movement that I realised that the cooked half would not stand up straight. It was very stupid of me to overlook this, as my attention to the eggs was constantly being distracted by festoons of macaroni dropping out of the coffee-pot and squirming about on the floor, where they entangled themselves round my ankles, wriggled into my slippers, and even attempted to climb up my legs. Once they actually tripped me up, thereby ruining a young and innocent egg which I was about to transfer to the poacher. Instead it traversed a most beautiful and interesting trajectory and hit the wall, on which it at once spread-eagled itself in a fascinating pattern which would have driven a Cubist mad with jealousy.

I regret to have to record that I also experienced considerable trouble with the eggs themselves. It would appear to be a simple matter to break an egg into a poacher, but from my experience I should imagine it is far easier to perform the reputed impossible feat of driving a needle through the eye of a camel. I managed the shell-burst all right, but when it came to parting the two halves the yolk thing would swerve, break sharply from leg, and — did you ever watch a “googly” bowler? Well, my yolks googled, that’s all. They went every where except into the poacher. One ran up my sleeve; another tobogganed down my leg; while a third fell into the interior of the gas-cooker at which I was operating, and was slowly cremated amidst dense sacrificial fumes.

I eventually managed to coax a brace of eggs into the poacher by the process of breaking them in the first place into a large stewpan, and thence slipping them into smaller and smaller receptacles until I finally wound up by sliding them into the poacher with a shoe-horn. Even then they didn’t seem thoroughly comfortable, for as soon as the water boiled they made frantic efforts to get out. It was not until I had placed a weight from the kitchen scales on each egg that I was able to start grating the cheese.

This process was exceedingly painful, but my doctor tells me that the skin on my fingers will be grown again in about three weeks, and that the disfigurement will not be permanent.

I sat down to lunch at 6 o’clock that evening, but I never got any further, It is not until you have tasted poached eggs of the consistency of tennis balls on macaroni that is red hot at one end and frigid at the other, both plentifully garnished with grated cheese, that you realise how necessary it is for a cook to be able to distinguish between Canadian Cheddar and brown Windsor soap.

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