The Weekly Machen

Arthur Machen, who once penned an introduction to an edition of The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin, never kept it a secret that he enjoyed a good meal. Yet, it should be noted that beyond the simple joy of taste, Machen’s concern for good food and drink transcended the act of eating. As with everything, he discerned in both excellent or poor fare a hieroglyph, a symbol for man. In this article, we find our guide navigating the changing culinary landscape with his focus always on the interior meaning of things.

Below the article, we appended an example of a regular feature found in the pages of the Evening News during the Great War. The following item no doubt intended to encourage the average British subject to cheerfully embrace the new reality of a full-scale war economy. The reason to include this particular example stems from its placement directly below Machen’s A Question of Dinner, and therefore, offers a wonderful juxtaposition to that story. Awkwardly titled, The Penlee Recipe Book on Food Reform Lines represents a classic vegetarian cookbook that went through many editions. To a skeptical soul, “Paris Soup” seems a propagandistic attempt to slip a rather unremarkable vegetable soup into fancy dress. Perhaps Machen found its placement delightfully ironic in light of his own culinary theories and tastes.

Special thanks to Adam Trionfo for transcribing this article.


A Question of Dinner
by
Arthur Machen
January 27, 1916

“Now,” said my friend, as we turned from the Temple into Fleet-street, “where shall we go?”

It was a question of dinner, one of the great questions of the world, according to the great and good Dr. Johnson. I said that, in my opinion, the Café Royale was still without compare, both in the matter of meat and of drink. I was beginning to be eloquent on roast lamb, white, tender and delicious, which (as I declared) made me feel a boy again, before the beginning of any troubles. I spoke, too, of a certain Corton Clos du Roi that caused one to grow up—in the fashion of Mr. Jobling—from that happy boyhood to a happier and wiser maturity, and would have grown lyrical on the juice of the sunny hills of Burgundy: but I was sternly cut short.

“That simple little meal, as you call it,” said my friend, “without bread, without potatoes, without the black coffee and the fine which would inevitably succeed it, would cost us each seven good shillings. With the agreeable additions I have mentioned our joint bill would, no doubt, come to a pound sterling. Do you call that thrift? Is a ‘plain dinner’ at ten shillings a head war economy? I want to dine cheaply.”

Then I threw out the bait of Soho, Soho at fixed price or by the card. One could dine there, I said, very pleasantly for half-a-crown each and pay another half-crown for a flask of Chianti; and nobody could say that seven-and-six was extravagant. Or there were places, amusingly enough, where soup, entrée, cheese, and sweet might be had for eighteen pence, or perhaps, considering the war, for one-and-nine. And Graves, very pleasant, light drinking, would only add two shillings to the bill.

“Come,” I said, “you surely won’t haggle over a joint bill of five-and-six; let me show you the way. We can go up by Leicester-square and Wardour-street.”

But he said he was somehow out of conceit with Soho. He was wary of its delicate but finally divided portions; he wanted to dine cheaply, but in the solid, old-fashioned English manner. He declared that he wanted that kind of a meal which inclines one, not to black coffee and fine champagne, but to “something hot” after it. It was a sort of John Bull, 1850, mood that was upon him, and if he had talked much longer he would have grown side whiskers and top boots. I cut it all short by saying:

“In that case we will go to Stone’s,” and made it clear that the discussion was ended.

I suppose I have known of Stone’s for about forty years. I can remember hearing when I was a boy in the country a man who had been up on the desperate adventure of London—he called it “the little village,” but we knew that like all Englishmen he was hiding deep emotion under a vain profession of light words—speaking with awe of a certain tavern called Stone’s. What had impressed him most of all, it appeared, was the manner in which the waiter mixed the hot whiskey and water that succeeded the feast.

“First of all,” he said, “the waiter pours the boiling water into the glass, and then he holds it a little to one side, and slides the whiskey gently into the water, and the heat drives off the fusel oil.”

I have never tested the excellence of this ritual of hot whiskey and water; but I have tested other things, and so with confidence I led my friend to Stone’s in Panton-Street.

We sat down in a snug room with something very friendly and cheery in its aspect, in a comfortable box, and so at once to dinner. We had beefsteak and kidney pie and mashed potatoes, and with it each consumed a pint of “the old,” that is of the strong ale which has helped to make England great. Then came the toasted cheese, and our bill had mounted to five and fourpence for the two of us. As to whether there were not sundry proceedings after dinner in which a bowl figured, and an aromatic brown liquid and jugs of hot water, and golden lemons, and white sugar, and certain spices: that is a thing apart, and afterpiece, as it were, to the main drama. But if anyone should take the hint, and follow our example to the end, let me conjure him to rub or grate the lumps of sugar on the lemon before slicing it. Thus the subtle and fragrant and delicious oils of the fruit are mingled with… that which steams in the bowl. But, all this apart, we agreed that we had dined well and comfortably. There was no question of our saying to the other: “Now have another dinner with me.”

Only one thing was missing. In the old days the “jacket potatoes” of Stone’s were famous, and justly famous. The waiter used to bring them, huge, warty looking fellows in their brown, and take them in the folds of his napkin, and squeeze discreetly, and lo! the skin opened, and there was a fall as of creamy flour upon the plate, ready to absorb the rich juices of pie or pudding. Jacket potatoes were not to be had the other night, and I was sorry for it.

Now I am the heartiest of foes of all the foolish economies, which are not economies at all, but mere silly talk of dining off potato skins and cabbage stalks and hedge clippings; matters good, possibly, for pigs and donkeys, but most unmeet for men. But I do think that the meal that I have described represents a reasonable and sensible economy for the man who in ordinary times would think he had stinted himself unduly on that roast of early lamb and that half bottle of Burgundy, for seven shillings or thereabouts, which was my first proposition. The dinner was comfortable, tasty, savoury and sufficient; it satisfied very well the test of the ancient device carved on an old hours of Tours: assez aurons et peu vivrons—we will have enough and live on a little.


Our Daily War-Time Menu
January 27, 1916

Meatless Fare for Friday.
Paris Soup.
Lentil and Potato Pie.
Hazelnut Rolls.
Stewed Rhubarb and Rice.
Fruit. Coffee.

The Recipes.

Paris Soup.—Ingredients: 1 1/2 pints of milk, 1/2 pint of water or white stock, 2oz. of butter, 1/2oz. of flour, 1 yolk of egg, 1 tea-cupful each of shredded carrot, turnip, and lettuce, 1 small onion, 1 stick of celery, a bunch of parsley and herbs, 1 lump of sugar, 1 teaspoonful of chopped parsley, seasoning.

Method.—Wash and prepare the vegetables, cut the carrot, turnip, and lettuce into shreds. Cut the celery into thin rings, and mince the onion. Melt the butter, add the vegetables, and sauté them in the butter for about six minutes. Add the stock and half the milk, herbs, sugar, and a level teaspoonful of salt. Boil the soup gently until the carrot and celery are soft; these will take the longest time to cook. Take out the herbs. Mix the flour smoothly with the rest of the milk and strain it into the boiling soup, and stir until it reboils. Mix the yolk of egg with two tablespoonfuls of cold water, draw the pan off the fire, and when it has stopped boiling strain in this mixture. Stir for a few minutes till it thickens, but do not boil again. Add parsley and seasoning, and serve very hot.

Lentil and Potato Pie.—Ingredients: 2 (?) oz. of butter, 2oz. of lentils, 2oz. of nutmeat, 1 hard-boiled egg, 6oz. of onion, 1 1/2lb. of potatoes (weighed after peeling), 1/4 (?) teaspoonful of thyme, salt, pepper, and boiling water, a little good pastry.

Method: Place the butter in a pie dish, and put in the oven to brown. Add the onions, minced; then fill up the pie dish with alternate layers of potatoes cut in thin slices, and the lentils and nutmeat and egg. Sprinkle in the thyme, and pepper and salt to taste. Fill up the dish with boiling water. Cover with a second dish to keep in the steam, and bake for one hour. Cover with the pastry and place immediately in the oven, and cook till the pastry is nicely browned.

These recipes are from “The Penlee Recipe Book on Food Reform Lines.” (Bell, 2e. Net.)


The Weekly

Next: The Bugle and the Birds


Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “A Question of Dinner

  1. Very interesting – thank you! This variously stirred my curiosity, and a quick search discovered that ‘Panton Street and Oxendon Street’, in Survey of London: Volume 20, St Martin-in-The-Fields, Pt III: Trafalgar Square and Neighbourhood, ed. G H Gater and F R Hiorns (London, 1940), pp. 101-103 notes “Nos. 32–33, Panton Street.—These houses, now known as Stone’s Chop House, appear to date back to circa 1770, but Stone is not given in the ratebooks as the occupant until 1778.” While I also found an undated photograph of Stone’s , and a reference to a 13- page ‘History of Stone’s Chop House’ ‘”written by Virginia Curle ; illustrated by William Feilding”, I did not find how long it survived after 1940 (!)

    I also discovered that Annie A. Barnett wrote the Preface to The Penlee Recipe Book on Food Reform Lines (and presumably the whole book), which went through various editions up 1941, the year in which both she and her husband, Percy Arthur Barnett died. Both published various things. She, with Lucy Dale, A Little Anthology of English Prose (1900) which I presume was then expended into the Anthology of English Prose (1332-1740) with Preface by Andrew Lang (1912) and the Anthology of Modern English Prose (1741-1892) (1911). He, The Story of Robinson Crusoe in Latin (1907) with dedication to Kipling. Her older brother, Henry Charles Beeching, was a writer, anthologist, and eventually, Dean of Norwich Cathedral. One wonders if Arthur Machen had contacts with them. (Their daughter, Charis, was in the Mutual Admiration Society at Somerville College with Dorothy Sayers.)

    The “Meatless Fare for Friday” got me wondering what Machen thought about fasting.

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    1. David,

      Thank you for providing this wonderful documentary material. It would be fascinating to discover if he had even the slightest links to the Barnetts.

      I have the impression that Machen was not too fond of fasting. Certainly, he was no stranger to fasting when one considers his difficult years in London as a young man.

      In regards to meatlessness, here is a quote from another article by Machen, entitled Let Us Keep the Tavern, which is included in the Dreamt in Fire collection:

      Look at the people called Vegetarians. I think I could eat with them—now and then—if they would only be honest. If the Vegetarian would only say: ‘I can give you a bowl of lentil soup, guaranteed velvety, smooth, guileless of all gritty offenses against the palate, and then some first-rate floury potatoes, grown in dry, warm soil, mashed up with salt, black pepper, and real butter, and a fine bit of Stilton to finish up with”: then, I say, I would keep his fast with him.
      But your vegetarian has the profoundest distrust in the attractive power of vegetables. He begins to lie with the soup. He calls it “Vegetable Hare Soup.” He equivocates as he passes his sickly “Mock Galatine of Chicken.”
      He is ridiculous with his “Nut Cutlets,” shameless with his “Fruitarian Roast Turkey.” His whole bill of fare is like a tale told by an idiot to an idiot: it is a vainer delusion than the Barmecide’s feast. Here, in short, we have the vicious make-shift, the corrupted rather than the substituted word; as we have it again in those horrible products, unfermented wine and non-alcoholic—or “Control”—beer.”

      More on Control Beer in an upcoming Weekly Machen post.

      Christopher

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      1. Thank you! A fine glimpse of appreciation and critique! I wonder if ‘Welsh rabbit’ is merrily implicit? He sent me back to the Penlee Recipe Book, where there is no Vegetable Hare Soup, Mock Galatine of Chicken, or Fruitarian Roast Turkey, but Nut Cutlets are in evidence – together with “Mock scallop pie”.

        “Barmicide’s feast” did not, alas, ring a clear bell with me, but the Wikisource transcription of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica “Barmecides” article helped out:

        “The expression ‘Barmecide Feast,’ to denote an imaginary banquet, is drawn from one of the tales (“The Barber’s Tale of his Sixth Brother”) in the Arabian Nights, in which a series of empty dishes is served up to a hungry man to test his sense of humour by one of the Barmecides (see edition by L. C. Smithers, Lond., 1894, vol. i. 317).”

        I look forward to (reading about!) “‘Control’ beer”.

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      2. Thanks, David:

        I wonder what Machen would say of that linguistic horror – Tofurky?

        You can read the “Let Us Keep the Tavern” article in full over at the Eighth Day Institute: https://www.eighthdayinstitute.org/let-us-keep-the-tavern.

        \While you’re there, you may also read “The Curiosities of Ale,” excerpted from A Reader of Curious Books: https://www.eighthdayinstitute.org/the-local-option-a-review-of-the-curiosities-of-ale.

        The article on “control beer” will be posted on 2/17.

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      3. Many thanks for both of these, which I have now ejoyed as well!

        I see there is a handsome-looking scan in the Internet Archive of a Smithsonian Libraries copy of John Bickerdyke’s The Curiosities of Ale, to enable us to follow up Machen’s encouraging review with ease. Checking for it turned up a couple anthologies of drinking songs – including A Tankard of Ale by Charles Williams’s suspicious critic become enthusiastic admirer, Theodore Maynard.

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  2. This reminded me of Machen’s delectable essay “The Gray’s Inn Coffee House” as published in We Shall Eat and Drink Again, a wartime (WWII) anthology about food and wine. His essay might have been reprinted from a magazine. It’s — so far! — my favorite thing by Machen about dining. It’s a bit in the vein of Orwell’s essay “The Moon Under Water,” by the way.

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    1. I find several other wine books by one of its editors, André Louis Simon, in the Internet Archive, and a Google Books We Shall Eat and Drink Again which is only searchable….

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    2. Dale,

      The Gray’s Inn Coffee House is excellent. Here’s a brief bibliographical rundown: The essay was originally published in the Spring 1938 issue of Wine and Food magazine. Later, it was collected in We Shall Eat and Drink Again (1944; G & S – 126a), which was reprinted in 1949 (G & S – 126b). Adrian Goldstone and Wesley Sweester designates a separate offset printing of the essay by Machen scholar Dr. Nathan Van Patten in 1949 as 126c. This was 8 pages and hand sewn into purple wrappers in an edition of 50 copies for the Arthur Machen Society.

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  3. What a lively long – and consistently interesting – writing life on these matters – from at least April 1887 to Spring 1938!

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