“That's how it is for us servants. No one pays you much heed; mostly you're invisible as furniture. Yet you overhear a conversation here, and add a little gossip there. A writing desk lies open and you cannot help but read a paper. Then you find something, something you should not have found...”
“The whole roaring crowd was gathered in the long room to give my boar's head fulsome applause when it was carried aloft on a platter. And my goodness, those old folk's eyes were as round as marbles when they saw the tables piled as high as Balthazar's Feast. Plum pottage, minced pies, roast beef, turkey with sage and red wine sauce- and that were just the first course. I was mostly pleased with the second course, for alongside the tongues, brawn, collared eels, ducks and mutton I'd put some pretty snowballs made of apples iced in white sugar, all taken from a dish in Lady Maria's hand in 'The Cook's Jewel.”
“Around me shone the kitchen I'd worked in each day: the copper pans hung neatly, the scratched wooden table and neat blue plates set in rows on the dresser. I got up to rake out the cinders and suddenly clutched at the black stone of the hearth. How long was it since as a new girl I'd first spiked a fowl and set it to roast on that fire? What great sides of beef had we roasted on the smoke-jack, while bacon dangled on hooks, and meat juices basted puddings as light as eggy clouds? Never, in all my ten years at Mawton, had I let that fire die out. Every dawn, in winter or summer, I'd riddled the dying embers and set new kindling on the top. I touched the rough stone and let my cheek press on its everlasting warmth, wishing I could take that loyal fire with me. Foolish, I know, but a fire is a cook's truest friend. It was a good fire at Mawton: blackened with hundreds of years of smoking hot dinners.
I think no heathen ever worshipped fire like a cook. So I kissed the smutty hearth wall and packed instead my little tinderbox, to light new fires I knew not where.”
“So what are you after, eh? Side of beef? Some chops?'
'Aye, sir. Whatever you fancy.'
He licked his lips and listed his favorite dishes: plain pudding, lemon pickle, roast beef. Then he asked for his own particulars: tobacco and coltsfoot for his pipe, and some more comfrey for Her Ladyship's tea.
'And no green oils. Get a block of dripping and cook it plain.'
It was true that the food in France had been a great hog potch of good and bad. One night on the road we were served a right mess of giblets, fishy smelling frogs' legs and moldy old cheese. But at Chantilly the fricassee of veal was so tender I'm not sure how they softened it. I could have eaten the whole pot it was that good, but instead had to watch Jesmire scraping off the sauce, whining all the time for a little boiled ham.”
“I wanted to try dainty Italian fare, and bought spicy Bologna sausage, pink papery hams, hard white bread, and chalky cheeses. I also bought the makings of a Mackeroni Pie I had seen made at an inn, and a new sort of green stuff named brockerly that proved a great deal tastier than cabbage.”
“Honeysuckle iced petals,' scoffed one John Bull, spying my menu. 'I should as soon eat a bouquet of flowers. You must serve me solid belly timber, madame, nothing else.' Yet in one week I had tempted the old duffer with a restoring quintessence of veal. Then at dessert I caught him licking his spoon like a schoolboy as he scooped up a flower of my own exquisite honeysuckle ice.”
“I was thrown together with Florence, or 'Florawns' as she was called, a pert girl of nineteen who worked in our kitchen and was sent out to help me. First, I followed her to a butcher where fat sausages hung from the ceiling like aldermen's chains, and I could choose the best of plump ducks, sides of beef, and chops standing guard like sentries on parade. Once the deal was done Florence paid him, gave me a wink and cast a trickle of coins into her apron pocket. So it seemed that serving girls will pay themselves the whole world over.
The size of the Paris market made Covent Garden look like a tinker's tray. And I never before saw such neatness; the cakes arranged in pinks and yellows and greens like an embroidery, and the cheeses even prettier, some as tiny as thimbles and others great solid cartwheels. As for the King Cakes the French made for Twelfth Night, the scents of almond and caramelled sugar were to me far sweeter than any perfumed waters.”
“Every cook knows it's a rare day when you have all the parts of the perfect dish. But that day back at Mawton I had everything I needed: white fleshed pippins, pink quince, and a cinnamon stick that smelled like a breeze from the Indies. My flour was clean, my butter as yellow as a buttercup.”
“It was almost Christmas, and Renzo was preparing all the delicacies Florentines must eat at the festival: roast eels, goose, fancy cakes with marzipan frills, and a kind of minced pie they call Torta di Lasagna, stuffed with meats and raisins and nuts.”
“While Mr Loveday aired my lady's sheets, I set to scratching up a supper. With not even time to change from my own damp clothes I had in one-half hour some welcoming tea steaming and hot brandy to mix a punch. Our bill of fare was the remnants of Mrs Garland's Yorkshire Pie, still sound and savory, fried bacon, and a hillock of roasted rabbits that disappeared as quickly as I made them. The last of the seed cake was eaten too, with a douse of brandy sprinkled over it to warm us.
'She will not eat those beggarly scraps,' said Jesmire, the spiteful old cat, when I took a tray of food to my lady's door. Yet I did see a slice of brandied cake disappear. I knew my mistress well enough by then, and she was a slave to her sugar tooth.”
“So on Christmas morning I was up at five o'clock, making the fire as bright as a furnace, baking minc'd pies and boiling plum puddings the size of Medici cannonballs, and setting three sides of roast beef to turn on the spits. Soon I breathed again that steam that tells the soul it is Christmas, and all the year' work done, and time for feasting; the smell of oranges, sugarplums and cloves, all mingled with roasting meats.”
“The Cocoa-Nut Tree at Covent Garden? Why it's the finest confectioner in the capital and sells bonbons, macaroons, candied fruits, and ices,' I said in my proper reading voice. I had long studied their advertisement in Mr Pars' London Gazette after he'd left it by the kitchen fire. It was a beautiful advertisement, with little drawings of sugar cones, ice pots, and tiny men attending wondrous stoves.”
“Mon frère, Claude,' urged Florence, leading me to a youth just like herself in broad shape and countenance. He talked rapidly with Florence, all the while tending a tiny copper saucepan. Then breaking off his talk, he reached for a teaspoon, and with all the worshipfulness of a priest at an altar, Claude tasted the shining stock, his face blank to all but his sense of taste.
'Quintessence,' whispered Florence, sniffing in awe at the rising steam. 'For many days the meat is reduced to create the soul of the sauce.' Then with measured care he reached for a lemon and squeezed in four steady drops.
The name of the dish was souffle, as the French write it. I wrote the particulars down, as it was a most magical dish. Who would have guessed that egg whites fraught for a long while could make a dish rise like a cloud? Once it had risen in a hot oven, Claude dressed the souffle with a ring of honeyed quintessence. It quivered on a pretty porcelain plate like a gently steaming puffball.”
“There was a new smell in the air at Lyons, of sun-baked southern stuffs, of strong red vinegar, and spikes of rosemary. It was a good thing too, for some of the streets were stinking warrens, and the beggars near withered me to death. The beggary was not for want of charity, for the place was a mass of popish churches and convents, ringing out their bells every quarter-hour. Yet thank my stars, our new lodgings were mighty grand, with glass windows, and our linen scented with orange blossom.”
“Once inside the confectioners, she was spellbound by sugared fruits hung in garlands and glass bottles sparkling with morsels of sugar. While Loveday spoke to the shop girl, Biddy trailed the shelves slowly, looking inside the glass jars, mouthing the words on the Bill of Fare.
'Look Mr Loveday, "Macaroons- As Made In Paris"', she sighed, staring at a heap of biscuits made in every color from blue to shiny gold.
Carefully he ordered his goods from the jars of herbs behind the counter. First, there was Mr Pars' packet of coltsfoot that he smoked to ease his chest. Then a bag of comfrey tea for his mistress's stomach. Finally, boxes of the usual violet pastilles.
Biddy came up behind him while the girl tied the parcel with ribbon.
'Begging your pardon, miss. Is it right you're selling that Royal Ice Cream?'
The girl shrugged. 'That's what it says on the board if you can read it.'
'Aye, I've been studying it all right. I've only ever read of ices before. So I'll have a try of it.'
When the girl reappeared Biddy sniffed at the glass bowl, and then cautiously licked the ice cream from the tiny spoon.
'Why, it is orange flowers.' She looked happy enough to burst. 'And something else, some fragrant nut- do you put pistachio in it too?”
“Signor Renzo's lodge stood on a grassy knoll near the crest of the hill. It was a modest place, just a low stone hut, before which stretched a woven ceiling of vines. My dinner was cooked on an open fire by the table. This was no banquet, but what the cook called a pique-nique, a meal for hunters to take outdoors. After Renzo had chosen two fat ducklings from his larder, he spitted them over the fire. Then he made a dish of buttery rice crowned with speckled discs of truffle that tasted powerfully of God's own earth.
'Come sit with me,' I begged, for I did not like him to wait on me. So together we sat beneath the vines as I savored each morsel and guessed at the subtle flavorings. 'Wild garlic?' I asked, and he lifted his brows in surprise as he ate. 'And a herb,' I added, 'sage?'
'For a woman, you have excellent taste.'
For a woman, indeed! I made a play of stabbing him with my knife. It was most pleasant to eat our pique-nique and drink the red wine, which they make so strong in that region that they call it black or nero. I asked him to speak of himself, and between a trial of little dishes of wild leaves, chestnut fritters, and raisin cake, Signor Renzo told me he was born in the city and had worked at a pastry's cook shop as a boy, where he soon discovered that good foods mixed with ingenious hands made people happy and free with their purses.”
“That baking day was the third day Mrs G had shut herself away in the stillroom, dosing herself with medicinal waters. As I rolled the pastry I lived out a fancy I had nourished, since the first apple blossom pinked in May- the making of the perfect dish.
Next day was All Hallows Eve, or Souling Night as we called it, and all our neighbors would gather for Old Ned's cider and Mrs Garland's Soul Cakes. After the stablemen acted out the Souling play, the unmarried maids would have a lark, guessing their husband's name from apple pairings thrown over their shoulders. So what better night, I thought, for Jem to announce our wedding? At the ripe age of twenty-two years, the uncertainties of maidenhood were soon to pass me by. Crimping my tarts, I passed into that forgetfulness that is a most delightful way of being. My fingers scattered flour and my elbows spun the rolling pin along the slab. Unrolling before my eyes were scenes of triumph: of me and Jem leading a cheery procession to the chapel, posies of flowers in my hand and pinned to Jem's blue jacket. In my head I turned over the makings of my Bride Cake that sat in secret in the larder- ah, wouldn't that be the richest, most hotly spiced delight?
And all the bitter maidens who put it underneath their pillows would be sorrowing to think that Jem was finally taken, bound and married off to me.”
“Then I pushed my way through and saw a young woman climb down, no more than my age, only she was as pale as a flour bag, with rosebud lips pressed tight together, and two spots of rouge high on her cheeks. She stared at the rabble, her eyes narrowing. She weren't afeard of us, no not one whit. She lifted her chin and said in a throaty London drawl, 'Mr Pars. Fetch him at once.' Like magic the scene changed: three or four fellows legged it indoors and those staying behind hung back a bit, fidgeting before this girl that might have dropped from the moon for all we'd ever seen such a being in our yard. What drew my eye was her apricot-colored gown that shone like a diamond. I drank in all her marks of fashion: the peachy ribbon holding the little dog she clutched to her bosom, her powdered curls, but most of all it was her shoes I fixed on. They were made of shiny silver stuff, and in spite of the prettiest heels you ever saw, were already squelched in Mawton mud. It were a crime to ruin those shoes, but there were no denying it, she'd landed in a right old pigsty.”
“Look, I fetched some Fat Hen for you.' Jem offered me a bunch of wilting greens.
I reached for the plants, rubbed the leaves with a snap of my finger and thumb and sniffed. They were as fresh as spinach but not so peppery and warm. And wasn't that a faint whiff of cat's piss? Mrs G always said I could sniff a drop of honey in a pail of milk. I used my nose then and saved us all from a night of gripes.
'That's not Fat Hen, you noddle. That's Dog's Mercury. Once I knew a band of tinkers that made a soup of it and near died. If I serve that up to the new mistress I could be hanged for murder.'
'God help us. Give it back here. It's ill-omened.' He hurled the plants towards the hog's trough.”
“Only when he produced two glass bowls did I understand that the metal casket was a sorbetiere. Inside was a chocolate ice as rich in color as mahogany. I tasted it, rolling it around in my mouth. The coldness numbed my tongue and then the flavor burst out, rich and satisfying, as if the thickest pot of well-milled chocolate were made of snow.”
“Just outside Dover we stopped at an inn and I snatched a taste of dainty fried fish named smelts, and some herrings served with their tails in their mouths. Afterwards, me and Mr Loveday went out to take a view of the ocean. The wind was blowing so strong it whistled through my teeth and the sea was horrible; a vast plain of water ceaselessly moiling like a simmering pot. At last my head cold had cleared enough to taste the sea on my tongue; it had a strange salted vegetable tang.”
“You know, we’re a victim of our own success,” the former senator said quietly. “We’ve managed to handle every nation-state that ever crossed us, but these invisible bastards who work for their vision of God are harder to identify and track.”
“What in heaven's name was the real essence of this beauty? Was it the precision of nature with its physical laws, or was it nature's mercilessness, ceaselessly resisting man's understanding?”
“They called me Okore. It meant “eagle” in Twi, though I felt my wings were more like an albatross’. But there is no word for albatross in “Twi,” so Okore was fine.”
“If you think you can’t do something, you won’t. If you believe you can, it’s only a matter of time before you will.”
“You were on the fucking beach in my bikini with him. I just assumed something was going on.” Her eyes widened. “Your bikini?” Perhaps it was a Freudian slip, but I owned up to it. “Yes. My fucking bikini.” In that moment, it was like my inhibitions just snapped. Running my thumb along the slightly burned skin below her neck, I said exactly what I was thinking. “It’s my bikini because every inch of the body inside of it belongs to me, whether you want that to be the case or not. I know how that struggle feels because it’s no different for me. As much as I would give anything to want someone else right now, my body only wants you. And quite frankly, Bridget, it’s not going to rest until it has you.”
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