Meg Dod, Illustration from Walter Scott’s St. Ronan’s Well, Book spine - Jings and Things
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1834)
In 1824 Sir Walter Scott published St. Ronan’s Well –– his only modern novel.
The story takes place at the fictional Cleikum Inn run by the culinary artist Mrs. Dods, whose talents Scott reveals through his character, the estimable world traveler Mr. Touchwood, “…Cleikum Inn... where Mrs. Dods is at this moment busy in making ready such a dinner as your learning has seldom seen....” Touchwood held her talent in such high regard that when he “ bustled in and out of the kitchen, till Mrs. Dods lost patience, and threatened to pin the dishclout to his tail…” he took no umbrage, it was “a menace which he pardoned, in consideration, that in all the countries which he had visited, which are sufficiently civilized to boast of cooks, these artists, toiling in the fiery element, have a privilege to be testy and impatient.”
The richness of the character and her popularity did not go unnoticed. Soon, Christian Isobel Johnstone, a female romance novelist and journalist (the first female editor of a publication in England) took the character to heart and tailored a cookbook, The Cook and Housewife’s Manual by Margaret Dods around her –– it was to remain popular for 100 years (this link is to a free online copy of the book).
Even Walter Scott approved of Johnstone’s treatment of his quirky, beloved character. University of St.Andrews Library discovered that Scott, in his 1832 edition of St Ronan’s Well declares that Meg Dods ‘… has produced herself of late from obscurity as authoress of a work on Cookery… in bearing this testimony, we protest that we are in no way biased by the receipt of two bottles of excellent sauce for cold meat, which were sent to us by the said Mrs. Dods, as a mark of her respect and regard.”
The cookbook is unusual as it opens with a short story that imagines the meeting of a gourmet club at the Cleikum Inn, bringing back many characters from Scott’s novel. It’s full of witty banter and a lively discussion of the art of the table –– more importantly, her book was also the first to seriously codify Scotland’s iconic cuisine. As for the fiction, some are of the opinion that Scott himself wrote the effervescent introduction.
The book is chockfull of hundreds of Scottish recipes with colorful names like Cock-A-Leekie, Cabbie Claw, Inky Pinky and Howtowdie. There are chapters on housekeeping, medicine making as well as very detailed chapters on frying, roasting and baking. It is well and thoroughly done.
Mr. Touchwood returns as a character in Meg’s book and he’s joined by the “celebrated churchman and gourmand, Dr Redgill”. Redgill makes an appearance both in the story and as a contributor to the recipe section with sauces and preparations named in his honor. From his first sniff, he held Meg’s cooking skills in high regard, “ the savory steams now issuing from Meg’s kitchen, “that might have created a stomach under the ribs of death,” rendered irresistibly seductive. With a decent show of hesitation, he yielded; and, snuffing up the incense-breathing vapours which ascended the stair, followed the Nabob to a private parlour, where an old rich china basin, filed with the balmy and ambrosial fluid, was twice replenished for his solace; first however, improved by a pin’s-point of crystals of Cayenne from a silver pocket-case of essence vials, which had luckily escaped the taint of the stove.” A man who carries his own special spices with him is a man after my own heart!
Although the gourmands bemoan the sorry state of current cuisine they feel it is alive at the Cleikum.“Scotland has absolutely retrograded in gastronomy; yet she saw a better day, the memory of which is savory in our nostrils yet, Doctor. In old Jacobite families, and in the neighborhood of decayed monasteries, in such houses as this, for instance, where long succeeding generations have followed the trade of victuallers, a few relics may still be found. It is for this reason I fix my scene of experiment at the Cleikum, and choose my notable hostess as high priestess of the mysteries.”
The author goes so far as to explain the advance of civilization is pegged on the quality of its food. These are serious eaters.
" Gentlemen, — Man is a cooking animal; and in whatever situation he is found, it may be assumed as an axiom, that his progress in civilization has kept exact pace with the degree of refinement he has attained in the science of gastronomy. From the hairy man of the woods, gentlemen, digging his roots with his claws, to the refined banquet of the Greek, or the sumptuous entertainment of the Roman; from the ferocious hunter, gnawing the half-broiled bloody col- lop, torn from the still reeking carcass, to the modern gourmet, apportioning his ingredients, and blending his essences, the chain is complete!"
It is obvious that the authoress had a great good time writing the book because there is a sense of fun thoughout but there is also thoughtful domestic science and a celebration of the national cuisine. Johnstone proudly states, “The best private sources of culinary knowledge have been applied to, and the most esteemed modern works on Cookery diligently compared and consulted; and every hint has been adopted which promised either to increase the mass of information or the practical utility of the volume, — whether economical or culinary.”
Mrs. Johnstone (1781-1857) was an interesting character. She had been married and divorced before meeting Mr Johnstone. At that time it made her something of a pariah. Through work and talent she became a fine writer and an esteemed editor. No less than Thomas De Quincey called her “the Mrs. Jameson of Scotland… cultivating the profession of authorship with no… loss of femininity.’ After her death, her accomplishments became much admired and she was seen as a trailblazer for successive generations of female writers and editors.
Scallops with cucumber ketchup, roasted cucumber and borage from I hate spuds
Meg/Mrs Johnstone is still working her magic on today's kitchens. Our old friend Heston Blumenthal has embraced Meg’s cuisine at his London restaurant Dinner. He uses her brilliant Cucumber ketchup on scallops:
“Cucumber Catsup. — Take large old cucumbers and pare them, cut them in slices, and break them to a mash, which must be sprinkled with salt and covered with a cloth. Keep in all the seeds. Next day, set the vessel aslant to drain off the juice, and do this till no more can be obtained. Strain it, and boil it up with a seasoning of white pepper, sliced ginger, black pepper, sliced shalot, and a little horse radish. When cold pick out the shalot and horse radish, and bottle the catsup, which is an excellent preparation for flavouring sauces for boiled fowls, dishes of veal, rabbits, or the more in sipid meats.” [I made this with 2 English cucumbers, chopped in processor with 2 t salt. I let it sit overnight then pureed it, strained it pressing hard on the solids and cooked it with 3 T grated horseradish, 2 T grated ginger, 1 chopped shallot, lots of pepper for about 5 minutes and let it cool then strained it -- it tastes refreshing and is delicious -- like a Japanese slurpy]
I decided to go for Dr. Redgills Sauce because it just sounded so good and for pork chops because I had some beautiful Bershire Milanese chops from D'Artagnan AND because I loved Mrs. Johnstone’s rather perverse notes on them:
“Pork Chops is a dish rarely seen In Scotland; it formed the appropriate supper of Thurtell and his associates, on the night of the murder of Weare, at the Gill's Hill Lane Cottage.
HenryFuseli and his Nightmare
“It is related that Fuseli, the celebrated artist, when he wished to summon Night-mare, and bid her sit for her picture, or any other grotesque or horrible imaginings, wont to prime himself for the feat by supping on about three pounds of half-dressed pork chops.
“Though that accommodating Prince, Richard Coeur de Lion, could, as has been seen, eat any thing, all being fish that came in the net when he was hungry, he had, like other epicures, his favourite dish, and this was Porkified Saracen, Curried. On recovering in Syria from an ague, his first violent longing was for pork, which is said to approach nearer to human flesh than any other sort of meat. Pork is indeed a " passionate" food. It tolerates no medium. It must be idolized or detested, whether as flitch or gammon, souse or sausage, brawn or griskin.”
The D'Artagnan pork chops are so flavorful and juicy -- nothing like well-raised Berkshire pork with a richly flavored port wine sauce.
Redgill's Sauce for Stubble Goose, Roasted Pork, or Pork Chops, commonly called Dr Hunter's Sauce. — Make a quarter pint, or rather more, of savoury brown gravy, or melted butter very hot. Thicken it with a little browned flour, and put to it a large glass of claret or port wine, a large teaspoonful of made mustard, a little salt, pepper, and Cayenne. Simmer it a few minutes, and serve it very hot. Observations. — The wine may be supplied by mushroom, or walnut pickle occasionally, and a little chopped green sage may be added. Hard yolks of eggs rubbed smooth make a good variety of the above.
To Broil Pork Chops. Pork chops are cut from the neck or loin, and re quire a great deal of the fire. They must be served broiling hot, and a little gravy with a tea-spoonful of made mustard, and a little dry sage pulverized may be added. Redgill sauce possesses still more gusto for pork eaters.
Pork Chops with Redgill's Sauce
2 Bershire Milanese chops from D'Artagnan
1 T butter
1 T Butter
1 T flour
1/2 c D'Artagnan Demi-glace
1/2 c port
1 t mustard
1/4 t cayenne
1 T mushroom ketchup or salt to taste
1 sage leaf finely chopped or 1/2 t dry sage crumbled
steamed Cabbage and Brussel sprouts, salted and tossed with a bit of butter
Allow the chops to come to room temperature. Salt and pepper them and butter the pan. Fry the chops on medium heat for about 10 minutes or until done (145º is recommended, I like them a bit pink).
While this is cooking, prepare the sauce.
Melt the butter and add the flour, stirring. Add the demi-glace slowly, stirring all the while. Add the port slowly. Cook for a few minutes to thicken. Add the spices and mushroom ketchup or salt and sage.
Serve the chops with the vegetables and sauce.