Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Jane Austen, Orangutans, Sheep Tongues, and Trifle

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that anybody in possession of a blog must be in want of an opening sentence--and that if the blog post is going to be about Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, the opening sentence is going to be some version of the first line of that book, pummeled into shape to suit the text that follows.

Yesterday, Monday, January 28, 2013, marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. This event's being celebrated worldwide by Austen fans with readings, marathon movie viewings, parties, and more. Counting ourselves among her fans, we didn't want to be left out of the fun.

(Jane's modern-day fans are also said to include a 40-year-old orangutan named Albert who lives in a Polish zoo and his partner Raya, putting a whole new spin on the notion of "Me Tarzan, you Jane." If they don't get a nightly reading of 50 pages of her work, they throw fruit snacks around and refuse to sleep. And you parents of toddlers thought you had it rough.)

We (or should I say "I," as I'm the bossy social-relations rep, chief Austen fan, and cook in the household) decided to celebrate by having a Regency-era dinner with old friends, one of whom was once in a Jane Austen book club with me and who also worked with me as a docent at Woodland Park Zoo (a nice commingling of Austen and Orangs).

The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye provided plenty of recipes for perusal. Some were unwieldy or called for ingredients that would be kind of expensive or difficult to obtain, such as Pigeon Pie and Harrico of Mutton. Others sounded stodgy or dull or just a lot of work for little reward. A few sounded worth making just because they had amusing names (Forcemeat Balls, anyone? No? Then how about some Solid Syllabubs?)

I finally decided on Chickens with Tongues.

Yes, chickens have tongues. But no, this recipe didn't call for chicken tongues. The tongues in question were sheep tongues. Which apparently weigh a quarter-pound each and take more than 2 hours to simmer to cooked perfection.

Not that I was going to try this at home. I still remember when I was about six or so, and my German grandmother was living with us, and I used to sneak friends into our kitchen so I could show them the packaged, sliced "bologna with tongue" that she kept in the meat tray of the fridge. I'd hold it up because there, embedded in the slices, were slivers of tongue, like specimens in a glass slide. Ewwww! I should've done this at Halloween and charged admission.

Even the author suggested that "boiling sausages will provide a suitable flavour contrast to the chicken in an acceptable shape."

That wasn't the only substitution I made: The boiled "poussins" (month-old chickens weighing a pound or less) were replaced by roasted chicken breasts (being from modern behemoth chickens, each of these probably outweighed a poussin). The boiled cauliflower, at the author's suggestion, was replaced with rice. I swapped the boiled spinach for broccoli, and left out the rashers.

But we did pile it all one on plate, with the rice in the middle and the chicken, sausages, and broccoli fanned out around it, because the author noted that "This dish illustrates beautifully the Regency delight in symmetry and display, shown in precise shapes and colours--even on the dinner-table. An interesting dish for a small, formal supper."

The result was like a birthday cake you make following the instructions in a book only to have your cake come out looking like a candidate for the website "Cake Wrecks." Oh well. Like the cake, it was still tasty. We served it with more broccoli, as well as bashed neeps (mashed rutabaga) and a green salad. Dessert was a trifle from a recipe in Irish Traditional Cooking by Darina Allen.

We did not read aloud from Pride and Prejudice, but fortunately this did not cause people to throw fruit snacks or trifle or any other foods.

I wondered what Jane herself would have made of the hubbub surrounding her book's anniversary. I bet she would've liked it--she seemed to have a great sense of humor, a taste for the absurd, and a great talent for making wry comments. 

"Such wonderful condescension!"
The book wasn't overlooked in its time, either, and it enjoyed some favorable reviews (presumably written by primates with less fur than Albert). One reviewer called the book a "very agreeable novel" that "rises very superior to any novel we have lately met with in the delineation of domestic scenes."

The writer of the review, which appeared in a journal called Critical Review in October 1813, refers to Jane as the "fair author." (Of the odious boot-licking Mr. Collins, he says, with great restraint, that he is "indeed a notable object.")

Jane herself wryly commented on her book in a letter to her sister Cassandra, mocking the popular notion at that time that novels written by women were sentimental drivel and novels written by men were deep and intellectual:

"Upon the whole...I am well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style."

I bet very few of those guys got to have an Archie McPhee action figure made of them, complete with writing desk and quill pen!