All Manner of Meats

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

THE Head of my House declares that I am an inveterate collector of cook books. On a shelf built for them, they stand in orderly array on my kitchen table — books bound in blue and gold; books practically, and clammily, bound in oilcloth; cardboard-covered books that came with the baking-powder; and paper-covered ones from the Ladies’ Aid. There is one whose colors time has dimmed beyond all guessing, but whose century-old recipe for rose-leaf salve stands true.

Once upon a time I read in the Contributors’ Club an appreciation of cook books. Their literary charm was tenderly acknowledged by a convalescent. I myself had newly recovered from typhoid fever, and his enthusiasm found an echo in my heart. Since that time, I have begun to test the efficiency of cook books as first, aids to young housekeepers, and to-day I feel, like Will Wimble, that ‘much might be said on both sides.’

My first experiences were with a volume of many alluring pages, compiled by a Virginia housekeeper whose own table ‘would tempt a dying anchorite to eat.’ The directions seemed clear, but the proportions were not for families of two. The first Christmas in our own home suggested to our minds a modest glass of egg-nog. We looked for the Virginia recipe. I have never read it all. The first line says, ‘Take three gallons of whiskey and one of rum.’ That led us to the purchase of hand-books on catering for small families. Most of these I have found exact, exacting, and exasperating. They are of the ‘take-a-clean-dish’ type. I am told in which hand to take the measuring-cup, in which the spoon. They produce the state of mind the Toad produced in the Centipede, who was happy quite, —

Until the Toad in fun, Said, ‘ Pray, which leg comes after which? ’ Which wrought her mind to such a pitch, She lay distracted in a ditch, Considering how to run.

I turned to another of the Southern group. Here at least I was not surfeited with detail. The rule for boiling a leg of mutton reads: ‘Take a leg of mutton of the right size, the larger the better, put it over the fire in a sufficient quantity of water early in the morning and boil till dinner-time.’

Disheartened again by the phrase, ‘the larger the better,’ I made a brief sortie into the field of the economical use of left-overs, — this is the subject, not the title, of the book. These rules were easy to follow, being briefly, ‘Take what you have in the house, sprinkle sparingly with butter and liberally with bread crumbs, and bake in a slow oven.’ I abandoned this line when everything cooked according to direction seemed unwholesome. I was reminded of an aphorism of a family servant, ‘Po’ white folks’ cookin’ always colics quality folks.’

A natural reaction led me to handbooks of the scientific type. One of these emphasizes, appetizingly, the food value of butter, cream, and prime cuts of meat by insisting upon the importance of ‘buying the best.’ Accuracy is insisted upon. ‘The recipes, if strictly followed, cannot fail.’ I read the motto hopefully and with faith. For that matter, I always believe, till the blow falls, that my cooking ‘cannot fail.’ My scientific guide gives explicit directions as to ingredients and mixing, and airily remarks as the conclusion of the whole matter, ‘Success depends upon having the oven just right.’

‘Having the oven just right .’ Must it be quick, or slow, or moderate? And when is an oven this, that, or the other? The eldest of the Ruggleses was not more harrowed by her mother’s rule of social conduct, that she must ‘get up to go once in so often.’ I have gathered more reliable information from the instructions of an old Negro servant, whose method was undeniably impressionistic.

‘You want me to tell you how I makes my batter bread?’ Aunt Mattie repeated; ‘why, honey, you jus’ takes what you needs of your ’gregiences, all ’cep’n’ your cornmeal. You mus’n’t take but mighty little of that. But take the right amount of everything else an’ a few mo’ aigs.’

Any Southern housekeeper will testify to the value of this recipe. A light hand with the meal and a heavy one with the eggs is a safe guide.

Aunt Mattie’s light bread will always be in our family the standard of perfection. Her instructions to me on this point were these: ‘The principal thing is not to forget none of your ’gregiences. But ef you don’t forget none of your ’gregiences, all you got to do is to handle it twell it feels right.’

It was easy to glean from books the names of the ‘gregiences.’ ‘Handling it till it feels right ’ has made my bread a success.

The crowning pleasure of every meal at the home of a friend was a cup of Aunt Charity’s coffee. We begged her to tell us her secret and she did it willingly. ‘Why, chil’ren,’ she said, ‘all you got to do is to take your coffee ’cordin’ to your family and den jus’ pour in water twell it feels kinder heavy in your han’.'

While I cavil at cook books, I am humbled by a memory.

All, save the very newest, brides and grooms who have been to New Orleans on their wedding journey must recall Bégué’s, — the smoke, the sanded floor, the smell of garlic, the taste of fines herbes; and Madame Bégué limping about the table, offering her cook book for sale. When my turn came I bought one eagerly. Never had I tasted a breakfast as savory as Bégué’s. The old woman slipped the coin I gave her in a huge apron pocket and handed me the gayly printed book. ‘Take it, my daughter,’ she said. ‘It will do you no earthly good. Everything is in the hand of the cook.’