Jekyll and fried

Food - Bee Wilson on the kitchen essays of a cosseted Victorian lady

If you are, like me, of an unimpulsive disposition, you may not think it wholly out of order were I to mention the words "Christmas" and "present" in the same sentence in the first week of November. Perhaps, depressing as it might seem to those who live on spontaneity, you have already ordered your cards and made your cake. Perhaps you are - to the distress of those who dread winter's advance - now contemplating wrapping paper and its contents. Perhaps you even have a friend for whom a food book might answer. If you are such a person, let me be your guide. (If not, feel free to stop reading.) Should you have £60 to spare, you might want to spend it on the shiny new boxed edition of the Larousse Gastronomique, except that, in all honesty, it isn't as good as the 1961 edition and, for £50 less, you could buy a present that would look just as pretty on your friend's bookshelf and provide plentiful helpings of amusement and diversion.

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll is a volume of the first cookery columns ever to be printed in the Times. It was first published in 1922, but has just been reissued in a distinctive silver-grey cover by Persephone Books. Lady Jekyll (1860-1937) was one of the most celebrated hostesses and do-gooders of her day. Her house was praised by Mary Lutyens as "the apogee of opulent comfort and order without grandeur". She moved in political and artistic circles alike, for her father was William Graham, the Liberal MP for Glasgow and patron of the pre-Raphaelites, and her husband, Herbert Jekyll, was a public servant, soldier and woodcarver. None of these biographical details, however, prepares you in any way for the sheer wit and comfort of Kitchen Essays.

"Ill-health may be said to resemble greatness," she writes, "in that some are born to it, some achieve it and some have it thrust upon them." The essay on "tray food" that ensues reads now as a kind of social history of the upper classes between the wars. "Remember that the whole tone of the day can be set into a happy major key instead of a mournful minor one by the mere aspect of the breakfast tray." Jekyll's is a world of rising taxation, shooting party luncheons, suppers of lamb cutlets before the theatre, and novels by "Mrs Wharton", a world in which women starve themselves "on grounds of principle" while bachelors devour foie gras and caramel oranges, and in which enervation may be combatted by "cheerful" glace cherries and servants, if only you can get them. For that invalid breakfast tray, Jekyll recommends covering "a gay pottery saucer" with slices of bananas with brown sugar and cream, or preparing a "health-giving apple" with an "ingenious little plated corer"; for invalid lunch, she suggests "slices of goose reposing on a mattress of thick apple sauce", not something you'd find at many sickbeds now.

But the essays are of far more than antiquarian interest. Kitchen Essays is full of good observation, such as the fact that hot coffee tastes as good out of a Thermos "as tea tastes nasty", and descriptions of Venetian barges "unloading their piles of gourds and grapes, of pomegranates, figs and tomatoes" to rival Elizabeth David. She describes orange jumbles in such a way that you instantly want to eat them: "They will be the size of teacup rims, and should curl their crisp edges, faintly pink as the underneath of a young mushroom."

The great theme of the book is one seldom considered by modern food writers: that cooking should always be fitted to the occasion and temperament. Jekyll denies that there is such a thing as a universal "good taste". As she puts it, "A large crayfish or lobster rearing itself menacingly on its tail seems quite at home on the sideboard of a Brighton hotel-de-luxe, but will intimidate a shy guest at a small dinner-party." A "hardy sportsman" should not be fed in the same way as " a jaded cabinet minister or a depressed financier". Jekyll argues that you should serve different food according to whether your guests are likely to be punctual or unpunctual. For the punctual, she suggests grilled chicken "with a perfectly made bread sauce, gravy and a garnish of watercress"; for the unpunctual, a kind of chicken paprikash, which is more "long-suffering". This example might sound trivial, but it carries with it the principle that no one dish is excellent for all people and all times. Among its many other virtues, Kitchen Essays demonstrates that there are still things we might learn from a cosseted lady of the 1920s - even, improbable as it appears, a lesson about diversity.

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll is published by Persephone Books (£10). To order, call 020 7242 9292 or by post from: Persephone Books, 59 Lamb's Conduit Street, London WC1N 3NB

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and rise of President Blair