Ladies of the Pen and the Cookpot: Elizabeth Robins Pennell

Elizabeth Robins Pennell
Elizabeth Robins Pennell

A Victorian M. F. K. Fisher? Maybe.

Certainly M. F. K. Fisher knew of Elizabeth Pennell, for she says in An Alphabet for Gourmets, under “A is for Dining Alone,”

There is always the cheering prospect of a quiet or giddy or warmly somber or lightly notable meal with “One,” as Elizabeth Robins Pennell refers to him or her in The Feasts of Autolycus. “One sits at your side feasting in silent sympathy,” this lady wrote at the end of the last century in her mannered and delightful book. She was, at this point, thinking of eating an orange in southern France, but any kind of food will do, in any clime, as long as One is there.

my-cookery-books-pennellElizabeth Robins Pennell, an American, lived most of her life in London in the shadow of her artist husband, Joseph Pennell. However, she wrote a number of books and magazine pieces, including a valuable book on cookbooks called My Cookery Books, used by many libraries and rare book dealers to describe and identify works that cross their thresholds.

Pennell also wrote a series of food-related articles for London’s Pall Mall Gazette in the early 1890s, and published them as The Feasts of Autolycus: The Diary of a Greedy Woman in 1896.  Reissued as The Delights of Delicate Eating in 1901 and in 2000 by The University of Illinois Press, food writer Jacqueline Williams wrote an excellent and thorough Introduction to the book. Williams’s biographical essay is probably the only lengthy treatment of Pennell’s life in print.

Pennell begins with a somewhat disparaging view of women as people and as chefs, for she says:

I have always wondered that woman could be so glib in claiming equality with men. In such trifling matters as politics and science and industry, I doubt if there could be much to choose between the two sexes. But in the cultivation and practice of an art which concerns life more seriously, woman has hitherto proved an inferior creature.

[I wanted to stop reading there!]

For centuries the kitchen has been her appointed sphere of action. And yet, here, as in the studio and the study, she has allowed man to carry off the laurels. Vatel, Carême, Ude, Dumas, Gouffé, Etienne, these are some of the immortal cooks of history : the kitchen still waits its Sappho.

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde

In reviewing a book by Elim Henry D’Avigdor, Dinners & Dishes (1885), Oscar Wilde indicated that he felt pretty much the same way about women cooks, particularly British cooks:

The British cook is a foolish woman who should be turned for her iniquities into a pillar of salt which she never knows how to use.

D’Avigdor’s work no doubt influenced Pennell, since his pieces also appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette.

But Pennell’s comments on the chief purpose of The Feasts of Autolycus make up for the rather unpalatable and raw beginning:

It is rather a guide to the Beauty, the Poetry, that exists in the perfect dish, even as in the masterpiece of a Titian or a Swinburne. Surely hope need not be abandoned when there is found one woman who can eat, with understanding, the Feasts of Autolycus.

The publisher, The University of Illinois Press, promotes the book by saying:

The first great book written to celebrate the art and delights of cooking and the aesthetic and sociable experience of enjoying fine food with family and friends, Pennell will leave you hungry for more.

“Gluttony is ranked with the deadly sins; it should be honored among the cardinal virtues,” Elizabeth Robins Pennell declaims in this sparkling paean to the art of eating well. An ebullient guide to “the Beauty, the Poetry that exists in the perfect dish, even as in the masterpiece of a Titian or a Swinburne,” The Delights of Delicate Eating is a choice collection, originally published in 1896, of the culinary essays Pennell wrote for London’s Pall Mall Gazette. A native of Philadelphia and long-term resident of London, Pennell developed a discerning appreciation of fine food in the company of James Whistler, Henry James, Bernard Shaw, and other cultural elite of London society. She began her career as a food writer, she confesses, “in spite of the fact that I couldn’t boil an egg and my only qualifications were a healthy appetite and an honest love of a good dinner usually considered unbecoming to the sex.” Her aim was to show that a woman could practice cooking as an art, preparing a complete aesthetic experience that combined exquisite flavors with a beautiful table, a soothing room, and lively conversation. The Delights of Delicate Eating elevates “our daily bread” to a feast for the senses. Assuring the reader that “a woman who has mastered sauces sits on the apex of civilisation,” Pennell dispenses instructions for preparing classic dishes such as oeufs aux saussiçons, Bouillabaisse, and sole meuniere, as well as advice on transforming an ordinary meal into “a joyful anticipation and a cherished memory.” She leads the reader through the culinary delights of the day, from the fresh rolls of a solitary petit dejeuner through elaborate autumnal and midsummer dinners complete with spotless linen, flawless silver, cut flowers in vases of Venetian glass, and, of course, coffee. “The guest who does not know good coffee when it is set before him deserves to be cast into outer darkness,” Pennell says. “Better far throw pearls before swine, than pour good coffee into the cups of the indifferent.” Pennell sets good eating as the basis for good living, a healthy imagination, a happy marriage, stimulating conversation, and satisfying social intercourse. For all who would embrace such benefits, The Delights of Delicate Eating offers a lovely diversion.

kromeskiesLet Elizabeth Pennell herself end this tribute to her contribution to American food writing, with a comment on cooking chicken:

Braise your chicken, fricassee it, make it into mince, croquettes, krameskies [kromeskies]; eat it cold; convert into galantine; bury it in aspic; do what you will with it, so long as you do it well, it can bring you but peace and happiness.

For more on Elizabeth Robins Pennell, see:

My Cookery Books, by Elizabeth Robins Pennell

(Read a review of My Cookery Books from the January 29, 1904 issue of The New York Times.)

Article titled “My Cookery Books,” by Elizabeth Robins Pennell in The Atlantic Monthly, volume 87, issue 524, June 1901.

Cynthia D. Bertelsen, article on Elizabeth Pennell — “A Greedy Woman: The Long, Delicious Shelf Life of Elizabeth Robins Pennell,” published in Fine Books & Collections, August 2009.

The Library of Congress collection of her cookbooks and other material

Timeline of the life of Elizabeth Robins Pennell

See also American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes, ed. Molly O’Neill (Library of America, 2007), where her article “Spring Chicken” appears.  ( “Spring Chicken” is one of the original pieces in The Feasts of Autolycus.)

© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen



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