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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Max O’Rell (Paul Blouet) (1848–1903)

John Bull’s Cookery and Tea

From “John Bull and His Island”

THE COOKERY of John Bull leaves much to be desired. In this country—it was Voltaire who said it—there are fifty different religions, but only one sauce. Do not fancy, however, that John does not like nice things. When he is in Paris, can’t he ferret out the good corners, that’s all! But then that is quite another matter. In Paris he has no need to make a parade of goodness, while in London he is obliged to. In England, he goes to church; in Paris, he goes to Mabille. Of course it is perfectly understood that it is only to look on, and to be able to describe to his wife when he returns home how wicked those dreadful Frenchmen are.

In the aristocratic households, and in the principal clubs, French cooks are kept, and the table is excellent.

In an ordinary middle-class family, the Sunday dinner consists of a large joint of about ten pounds weight, and excellent in quality, I must say, for English meat is superior to any. It is accompanied by boiled potatoes and other vegetables. A few families of free-thinking tendencies with regard to matters of routine commence the repast with peppered soup; but they are not yet very numerous. This Sunday joint is partaken of cold on Mondays, and in the form of a pudding on Tuesdays, with the same vegetables. Vegetables, as a separate course, have yet to be known. Asparagus, young green peas even, are plainly boiled and eaten with the meat, and badly boiled, as a rule; they have to be crunched rather than eaten. Asparagus with white sauce or in salad, spinach, or sugared peas, even fried potatoes, that democratic dish, all such things would be considered epicurean. Here Puritanism is carried even as far as to the kitchen. It would seem that man had been placed in this world to deny himself the good things that the Creator put in it.

In Scotland, things are still worse. Walter Scott relates that, when a child, he one day took the liberty of exclaiming before his father, “Oh, how nice the soup is!” The Puritan parent forthwith ordered a pint of cold water to be added to it.

The head of the family says grace before and after the repast. In low-church or dissenting families the father repeats grace for one or two minutes. He does this to remind you that you are not at table to enjoy yourself, and you soon find out that he is right. Every one is motionless and silent. If you venture a remark, you receive monosyllabic replies. You are asked if you will take a little more beef, and you reply, “No, thank you,” or “If you please, but only a very small piece.” Of these two alternatives you had better choose the first; it is the more proper. If you are asked, as you certainly will be, “Have you been long in England?” and “How do you like it?” be sure and say exactly how long you have been over, and that you like England very much. Do not venture into details; that would be conversation, and nobody would be grateful to you for breaking the solemn silence. After you have been thus seated at table about an hour, you will be seized with a longing to shriek, or to pinch your neighbor, to ascertain whether he is alive or only pretending. You had better mind, or you would not get invited again, which you would regret very much.

If John dines frugally at home, it is in public that you should see him at table. His appetite and his epicurism are then revealed to an astonishing extent. The public dinner is an eminently English institution.

The king of banquets is the one given by the lord mayor, on the 9th of November, the day of his installation at the Guildhall.

All the city companies, all the clubs, and all the societies hold their annual banquets. One of the finest London dinners, the most interesting perhaps, is that given by the Royal Academy of Painting. Politics are excluded. It is the meeting-ground of all the aristocracy of nature in England. Cabinet ministers, eminent members of the House of Lords and of the House of Commons, conservatives or liberals, bishops, generals, judges, scientific and literary men, artists, lawyers—every great man of the day is to be seen at that table. The Prince of Wales and his brothers never fail to honor this banquet with their presence.

These dinners cost fabulous sums of money—from five to eight pounds a head. The turtle soup, which invariably heads the bill of fare, costs a guinea a quart. The rest to match.

At dessert, the loving-cup is passed round, and toasts and speeches begin. The English, who have been used, in the debating societies of the public schools and universities, to speaking in public, excel in after-dinner speeches, which are sometimes perfect little masterpieces of aptness and humor.

First come the patriotic toasts: the Queen, the Prince of Wales, and the other members of the royal family; the army and navy, the Houses of Parliament. Then comes the toast of the evening—that is to say, that the success of the club or the society is drunk, or the health of the principal guest, if the dinner is given in honor of some hero of the day.

Ladies are seldom invited to these banquets. When they are included, however, the assembly breaks up after the toast to the ladies.

These dinners last from four to five hours.

When you go to a party, the servant, before showing you to the drawing-room, conducts you to the dining-room, and there asks you whether you take tea or coffee. You promptly reply that you take tea. The coffee is generally atrocious, simply because no one knows how to make it, or will take the trouble to make it properly.

Tea, which in France is still a luxury, costing twelve or fifteen francs a pound, is excellent in England for two francs and a half. So the poorest families can indulge in a cup of tea night and morning. It is the favorite drink of women, and the cure for all ills. “Ah! sir,” said an old Norman peasant woman to me one day, “my coffee—after the sweet Jesus—is my salvation!” Tea plays the same part over here.

The teakettle is, like the broth-pot in France, the emblem of domestic virtue.

It is when John drinks his tea very hot in tiny sips, nibbling a bit of bread and butter or of toast, that he is really beautiful and edifying. Nearly all the middle class take tea at five o’clock, and make a meal of it too. Better still: John sometimes gives what he calls a tea-party, a compound noun which I would not attempt to translate into French. Then, besides bread and butter and toast, the table is laid out with preserves, and black dry cakes, very much like gingerbread in color and taste. The old maids are in the seventh heaven. You should see them, forcing angelic smiles over tusks an inch long, with their eyes chastely cast down, and their hands folded on the edge of the table, waiting for the lady of the house to ask them if they take milk and sugar, or if their tea is sweet enough.

“Is your tea as you like it?”

“Oh! very nice, thank you.”

The body remains motionless, bolt upright, the head alone turns slightly.

“Will you not take a little cake?”

“No, thank you, only a tiny piece of bread and butter.”

At dinner, if conversation flags at every moment, beef and pale ale are there to keep you alive at any rate, but with these slops and slices, you have not even strength enough to attempt to enliven it. You give up the idea at the outset, and it dies in agony.

We must, however, do justice to English hospitality. You will never be invited to a party, be it ever so modest, without being asked to sit down to a good supper. When somebody proposed to us, as young men in Paris, to take us to a ball, we never failed to inquire beforehand whether there was supper to be expected. Needless to ask such a question in England; it is an understood thing.

In France, to this very day, and in very good houses indeed, the mistress of the house will ask you, about one o’clock in the morning, whether you would like to take a cup of chocolate!

No, we shall never be serious like the English.