Quotation Menus, Part III: Four and Twenty Blackbirds

A person's eating habits can be a revealing reflection of character and lifestyle. Consider the rigidity of a man who orders the same meal at the same restaurant, on the same day of the week, every week for 10 years. For 10 years he does not engage in conversation while in the restaurant, except to place his order, and sits alone for the duration of the meal.  We understand him to be a man who does not like to deviate from what is planned and comfortable. Now imagine that this man suddenly comes to the restaurant on a different day of the week and orders a completely different meal from the menu, consisting of tomato soup, beefsteak and kidney pudding, and blackberry tart.  Given the man's idiosyncrasy, this would be very odd behavior. But he then resumes his regular habit of dining on a particular day and food.

If you were mystery writer Agatha Christie's great Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, observing your fellow diner's departure from routine, you would find it more than curious. Indeed, you would be rather alarmed.   Add to this the discovery that a couple of weeks later, after visiting the restaurant on the expected day but again dining on an uncharacteristic meal featuring more blackberries, the man is found dead in his home.  Although the official verdict is accidental death, Poirot knows something wicked must be afoot.  Poirot's dining companion and fellow observer suggests that perhaps the man, now identified as Henry Gascoigne, was preoccupied with troubling news and thus ordered an unusual meal without thinking.  But as Poirot stresses, "a man who has got something on his mind will order automatically the dish he has ordered most often before." 

And so begins "Four and Twenty Blackbirds," which Christie calls "the sorbet" in a collation of short mysteries published under the title The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960).  In the introduction she writes, "This book of Christmas Fare may be described as 'The Chef's Selection.' I am the Chef!"  Like the royal chefs of Medieval England, who transformed banquet foods into unrecognizable, theatrics at table, Christie presents us with a scenario in which the mundaneness of food can be a murderer's dramatic undoing.  As in the nursery rhyme, "four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" was a dish--composed of live blackbirds--that graced elite tables.  Served as a between-courses sotelty, animals such as rabbits, frogs and birds were tucked between cooked pastry crust just before the pie was brought to the table.  Unsuspecting guests were then treated to a surprising kerfuffle when the crust was cut and the poor animals escaped and ran around the dining hall (Bober, P. 1999. Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Perhaps it was with such artful deception in mind that Christie titled this blackberry-infused story.

While a proper quotation menu from this delicious story would feature thick tomato soup, steak and kidney pudding and blackberry tart, or Gascoigne's second strange meal of mulligatawny soup, beefsteak pudding, blackberry and apple pie, and cheese, I offer you a delicate and easy to prepare blackberry clafouti.      


Blackberry Clafouti

Serves 6

3 eggs
1 cup whole milk
6 Tbs butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup all-purpose or pastry flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt

1 Tbs butter
1 1/2 cups blackberries, cut in halves if large
1/2 cup sugar + 1 Tbs sugar

Confectioners' sugar, for serving

1. Preheat oven to 400°F and butter an 8" square tart dish or 6 individual ramekins.  Whisk together ingredients for the batter.  Lumps are fine and in this case enhance the clafouti, so let them remain.  

2. To prepare the filling, melt butter in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Add blackberries, sugar, and cook until juices begin to extrude and blackberries appear glazed, about 5 minutes.

3. Pour half the batter in the tart dish or ramekins.  Arrange the blackberries over the batter, reserving the juices.  Cover with the remaining batter.  Sprinkle the remaining 1 Tbs sugar over the batter and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until golden and set in the middle.  To serve, drizzle with reserved juice and dust with confectioners' sugar. 

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing—
Wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

The king was in the counting-house
Counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlor
Eating bread and honey,

The maid was in the garden
Hanging out the clothes.
Along came a blackbird
And snipped off her nose.

I recently learned of this lovely book, in which photographer Dinah Fried recreates and photographs meals from literature, resulting in tantalizing quotation menus. http://www.fictitiousdishes.com

Read Quotation Menus, Parts I & II, then peruse the evocative tableaux in Fried's book and begin dreaming up some of your favorite fictional feasts.

Quotation Menus, Part II: A Suspicion of Mushrooms

Des champignons comestibles, suspects et vénéneux [Edible, Suspicious, and Poisonous Mushrooms], Wellcome Library, London.  Various fungi - 20 species, including the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), death cap (Amanita phalloides) and Boletus and Agaricus species. Coloured lithograph by A. Cornillon, c. 1827, after Prieur. 

Unlike the cuisines of Continental countries such as France and Italy, English cookery shied away from mushrooms before the 20th century. In many cultures these potent products of the forest, which seem to arise spontaneously from moist earth and rotting wood, are believed to have wild, mystical properties capable of miraculous healing as well as effecting hallucinations and death.   A scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest, in which Prospero recounts his use of magic before finally renouncing it, casts mushrooms in an otherworldy light:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; (The Tempest, Act V, Scene I)

Despite the variety in form and color found in the fungal kingdom, a deadly species can look exactly like and grow in close proximity to a harmless, tasty one.  As Madge Lorwin notes in Dining with Shakespeare, Elizabethan cookbooks and dietary guides rarely mention mushrooms, unless the author was familiar with Continental cuisine.  In Castel of Helthe (1539) Thomas Elyot cautions, "Beware of musherons,..and al other thinges, whiche wyll sone putrifie."  In The Description of England (1577), clergyman William Harrison refers to them as "dangerous and hurtful."  Five hundred years later, a nice little chapter on fungi in Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd's European cookbook, Plats du Jour, attributes the rarity of mushrooms in the English diet to fear of poisoning as well as to the abundance of winter vegetables in England, making foraging unnecessary.  In countries where winter produce is scarce, they suggest, "everything provided by nature is put to some gastronomic use."  While this may not be an accurate conclusion (there are parts of England that see far fewer winter vegetables than parts of Italy where mushrooms are foraged), Gray and Boyd also note that fresh mushrooms were much more common in 19th century English markets than in the 1950s.  Mushroom gathering was not unheard of, however.  Elizabeth David writes about gathering mushrooms in England in the early morning with her sisters; their nanny would then cook the mushrooms over the nursery room fire (French Country Cooking, 1951).

Mushrooms and Murder in The Documents in the Case

Wellcome Library, London, The fly agaric fungus (Amanita muscaria): two fruiting bodies. Watercolour, 1892. 

With their potential for undetectable poison and their suspicious reputation in England, it is not surprising that the mushroom as weapon would make its way into a masterpiece of British mystery fiction. The Documents in the Case was written in 1930 by Dorothy Sayers, already well known for her mysteries featuring the aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. In this novel, a man named Harrison is found dead in his rural vacation cabin, evidently poisoned by a mushroom stew made from mushrooms that he foraged and cooked himself.  It appears to be an open and shut case of personal negligence, with Harrison mistaking the deadly amanita muscaria for the benign amanita rubescens. The coroner wraps up the evidence with a warning of "the danger of experimenting in unusual articles of diet. It was notorious, he said, that other nations, such as the French, were accustomed to eat many natural products, such as frogs, snails, dandelions and various kinds of fungi, which in this country were considered unfit for human food." 

Left: Wellcome Library, London. The blusher fungus (Amanita rubescens): two fruiting bodies. Watercolour, 1897. Right: Amanita muscaria by Anita Walsmit Sachs, 2004, The Society of Botanical Artists.

Harrison's son argues that his father was an expert in mycology, albeit an amateur, who had studied and wrote about mushrooms for years. Harrison produced detailed watercolors of his subjects and believed that England could be healthily fed by fungi and other wild edibles.  As the case documents reveal, it wasn't the un-English practice of mushroom hunting that was to blame; the human heart can indeed be much more sinister.

Mushrooms on Toast and The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook

One might recreate the mushroom stew in question from The Documents or try a quotation menu featuring mushrooms that has already been designed for another Sayers novel.  The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook (1981) by Elizabeth Bond Ryan and William Eakins, features menus and recipes gleaned from references to the diet and dining practices of Lord Peter in the Wimsey books.  For as the cookbook's authors argue, Sayers was an epicure who revealed her taste in fine food and wine through the Lord Peter character.  Wimsey devotees will recall Miss Climpson's 21-hour tea break in pursuit of a key witness in Strong Poison, depicted in Chapter 4, "An Orgy of Teas;" Lord Peter's unsatisfactory meal at The Soviet Club in Clouds of Witness (1926), appealingly renimagined here with Soviet Club Fish Soup, Red Army Borscht, and People's Black Bread; and my favorite, the meal of Poached Turbot and a Sweet Omelet cooked at table that plays a critical role in Strong Poison (1930).  Published in the same year as The Documents, Strong Poison takes equal delight in poring over a deadly supper.

Sayers makes a brief reference to mushroom foraging in Busman's Honeymoon (1937), in which Lord Peter and his wife Harriet solve a murder while on honeymoon in the countryside. When Lord Peter's efficient and faithful butler, Bunter, has to rustle up a dinner during the trip with few ingredients to choose from, he settles on mushrooms on toast for the final course.  When Lord Peter asks where he obtained the mushrooms Bunter replies,
"From the field behind the cottage, my lord."
"From the--? Good God. I hope they are mushrooms-- we don't want a poison-mystery as well."
"No poison, my lord, no. I consumed a quantity myself to make sure."
"Did you? Devoted Valet Risks Life for Master. Very well, Bunter."
With Sayers' signature wit, The Documents' death-by-mushrooms misadventure becomes an insignificant side note in Busman's Honeymoon.  If Harrison had had a Bunter, she seems to quip, he may never have died.


Mushrooms on Toast

Serves six

1 pound fresh mushrooms, washed, well dried
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons oil
Salt and pepper
6 slices hot buttered toast

Trim the bases of the mushroom stems.  Leave the mushrooms whole if small and slice or quarter them if large.  Heat one-half the butter and oil in a 10-inch skillet until the butter foam begins to subside.  Then add one-half of the mushrooms.  Toss and shake the pan uncovered over high heat for 4 to 5 minutes.  The mushrooms are done when they have browned lightly.  Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Turn the mushrooms into a warm dish and repeat the process with the remaining mushrooms, butter, and oil.  Serve the mushrooms on trimmed squares of buttered toast.  The mushrooms may be cooked ahead of time and reheated briefly before serving.

Read Quotation Menus, Parts I & III, then dream up some of your favorite fictional feasts.

Quotation Menus: Imagination of a Feast, Part I

When food appears in literature it can be as striking and full-bodied as the most memorable characters or as mundane as the ground beneath them. In either case, it can be interesting to explore the edible element further, as have many scholars in genres ranging from myth to mystery. Such readings of food typically analyze the relationship between the characters, the food they eat (or don't eat) and the way they eat it, looking for symbolic clues and metaphors that relate to the story's themes.

There is another approach altogether found in writing that is dedicated to recreating food in literature. From the fanciful musings in Mark Crick's Household Tips of the Great Writers to blogger Anna the Red's meticulously rendered Ghibli feast (reconstructed after the Miyazaki anime films) such works are part cookbook, part tribute and often feature significant historical research and analysis. For these writers the challenge is to fabricate the fictional meal, often with just a few words to go by.

Madge Lorwin's Dining with Shakespeare (1976) is a delightful, sumptuous exploration of what she terms quotation menus-- period dishes inspired by quotations from Shakespeare's plays.  Building on the success and enthusiasm of a collation she prepared after a performance of Twelfth Night, Lorwin began an annual feast, with each menu planned in accordance with a particular Shakespearean play.  As Lorwin argues, "Shakespeare makes frequent and effective use of cooks and cooking, eating and drinking.  In fact, there is not a play in which he has not woven some scene around food or drink, or based some simile or metaphor upon them.  He uses these to create an atmosphere, set a mood, bring out the lineaments of character.  The homely, everyday activities relating to food Shakespeare turns into scenes of poignance, tragedy, or comedy."

Lorwin provides insightful details about dining and entertainment (which often occurred simultaneously) in Elizabethan England, including the types of flatware and serving pieces used, and the role of servants.  Referencing period commentary, she also describes the general attitude towards food and diet in Shakespeare's England, both from the point of view of the English and Continental travelers.   But her contribution to this genre goes beyond discussing the role of food in Shakespeare's work. Often with the help of her husband, a beloved professor of European history at the University of Oregon, Lorwin sourced recipes from contemporary authors such as Sir Hugh Platt (1552-1608) for the dishes that would have appeared in Shakespeare's world.  She provides the originals as well as her modern adaptations.

Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection.  Woodcut illustration from A pleasant history of the life and death of Will Summers. 1637. http://www.folger.edu.

Lorwin obviously delighted in planning her quotation menus, which range from A Bill of Fare to Celebrate Shakespeare's Birthday ("At thy birth, dear boy,/ Nature and Fortune join'd to make thee great.") to A Repast for Viola ("I will bespeak our diet,/ Whiles you beguile the time and feed your knowledge.")  My favorite is A Midsummer Night's Banquet.  With marzipan and muscadines, or kissing comfits (a perfumed sugar plum), shell bread, suckets of lemon peels, candied violets, quince paste, fresh strawberries and cream, and white gingerbread, it lives up to the enchanting mood of the play and the season.  As Titania instructs her fairies in service of Bottom, "Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,/ With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries."

Perhaps by making and eating the food of our favorite books we feel we may enter their world, experiencing it physically rather than just mentally. Like Alice's initiation to Wonderland, a piece of a special cake may be all that is necessary to to transport ourselves to another time and place.  I prepared a dish from the birthday menu-- A Sallet of Boyled Leeks--from A New Booke of Cookerie by John Murrell (1615).  Soft, parboiled leeks are dressed with butter and vinegar,-- a favorite medieval salad dressing--garnished with hardboiled eggs, and served atop crusty bread.

A Sallet of Boyled Leeks, from A New Booke of Cookerie by John Murrell (1615), in Dining with Shakespeare by Madge Lorwin (1976).


A Sallet of Boyled Leeks

from the working version in Dining with Shakespeare

8 leeks, about 1 inch in diameter at the white end
1 quart water
4 Tbs butter
4 Tbs vinegar
1 Tbs currants, parboiled
1/2 tsp brown sugar
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp ginger
2 hard boiled eggs
2 slices buttered toast, quartered

Cut off the roots and green parts of the leeks and discard them.  Wash the white sections in several cool waters until they are free of sand.  Then drop them in boiling water for five minutes.  Drain and cool until the leeks are comfortable to handle, then mince or slice them very thin.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the vinegar, minced leeks, currants, brown sugar, cinnamon, and ginger.  Cook over very low heat until the leeks are tender, stirring them occasionally. Peel and quarter the eggs.
Arrange the toast quarters in a heated serving dish.  Spoon the leeks over them and garnish with the quartered eggs.

Read Quotation Menus, Parts II & III, then dream up some of your favorite fictional feasts.