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COOKBOOKS

Dining With Jane

January 21, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOBSCOUSE AND SPOTTED DOG

Which It's a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels

By Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Patricia Grossman Thomas

(Norton, 1997, 287 pp.; $29.95)

*

THE JANE AUSTEN COOKBOOK

By Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye

(Chicago Review Press, 1995, 126 pp.; $20)

*

Americans are having a love affair with Regency England. Two of the hottest-selling writers these days are Patrick O'Brian, author of 17 novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars, and Jane Austen, whose five novels are about the English country gentry of the same time (which was her own time, of course--she died in 1817). It's been said that O'Brian writes about what the men in Austen's novels were doing when they weren't visiting the ladies' parlors.

So maybe Americans will get interested in Regency-era food. Do you think?

Maybe it could happen. When O'Brian spoke in San Francisco three years ago, a woman rose from the audience and demanded, "When's the cookbook?"

He seemed mildly surprised, though readers are intrigued by all the historical detail that drenches his novels, and there were already a couple of explanatory companion volumes in the works. And for tales of war and intrigue, his books are surprisingly food-oriented. Whether Capt. Jack Aubrey and the ship's surgeon-spy Stephen Maturin are facing battle, entertaining fellow officers, languishing in French prisons, negotiating with Asian rulers, surviving shipwrecks or relaxing with their families, they eat.

Inevitably, an O'Brian cookbook has appeared. "Lobscouse and Spotted Dog" includes about 140 recipes referred to in the novels. That doesn't include every "food" in them, such as most of the distressing things people are driven to eat when marooned. On the other hand, "Lobscouse and Spotted Dog" gives a tested recipe for that shipboard delicacy sauteed rat, which the authors were taken aback to find they liked.

As for lobscouse and spotted dog themselves, they also turn out to be surprisingly tasty. The former was a filling seaman's hash of potatoes, ship's biscuit, ham and corned beef, and the latter was a steamed pudding "spotted" with currants.

An Austen cookbook, published about two years ago, likewise gives recipes mentioned in the author's writings (in this case, including her correspondence), but the attraction is a bit different.

Austen's fans are interested enough in the Regency period, but they also care about the author herself. Many refer to her as "Jane," as if they knew her personally.

Here's the thing: Though it's filled out with recipes from published 18th century books, "The Jane Austen Cookbook" includes 27 personal recipes of a family friend (and eventual sister-in-law) of Jane Austen who lived with Jane and her mother for 10 years. Several more come from another family friend.

What a thrill for an Austenite. Jane Austen tasted these very recipes.

The two volumes naturally differ in focus. The Austen book gives both homey and banquet-level dishes of the country gentry. "Lobscouse" includes the filling but practically vegetable-free foods of the Navy and a number of exotic foreign dishes. But they're both basically about turn-of-the-19th century English cookery.

It was much better than English food's current reputation would lead you to expect. In fact, it was a sort of country cousin of French cuisine.

At its highest levels, it really was French cuisine. Any more or less formal meal looked like a French meal of 40 or 50 years earlier. (It might have been a little more up to date if England hadn't been at war with France since 1793.)

On its solid basis of roast and boiled meats, it liked to erect structures of color and symmetry, as in a sort of geometrically arranged chef's salad called salmagundy. In fact, a "course" did not mean just one dish with perhaps a side dish or two, as it does today, but a whole tableful of dishes deployed in geometrical order.

There were homey snacks (hard-boiled eggs with mustard and fried onions) and dishes that had ascended the scale from homey to grand. Syllabub, originally milk from the cow squirted into a bowl of wine, became a wisp of whipped cream with a dose of brandy in it. Ice cream was fashionable, and many foreign ingredients were common, such as Parmesan cheese.

The awkward charcoal ovens of the time made it impossible to bake the modern sort of cake, but there were cookie-like Naples biscuits and "rout cakes" and lots of pies--fruit, meat and vegetable. Often these were massive, free-standing "raised pies" in the medieval tradition. The favorite dessert was steamed pudding, now practically extinct in this country but still a great favorite in Britain.

Most of the flavorings are familiar to us, though we rarely use rose water and orange flower water these days, or flavor a custard with bay leaf. And preserved foods of all kinds played a much larger part than they do today.

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