This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937) and she is having quite a year.
|The Mount, built in 1902|
There’s a a new book out, Edith Wharton at Home: Life at the Mount, celebrating her home and her taste in decoration and architecture and a huge spread in the September Vogue inspired by her style with well-known actors dressing up as Edith and her friends.
She has quietly worked her way into the hearts and minds of readers everywhere with the same kind of passionate fan base that Jane Austen inspires and for many of the same reasons. Wharton works small and gets big results.
The scion of old, Knickerbocker New York, she was an American fusion of English and Dutch culture. I think the Dutch side of the family contributed a powerful talent for observing and celebrating the intricate threads of life –– it’s the same DNA that glorified the small details of life in centuries past as seen in great Dutch still life paintings. In Wharton’s case her gimlet eye was often trained on the table, dress and the rules of society. Scrupulously detailed, these elements create a picture of life that we can identify with today because it’s so real and complete.
Dining Room at Wharton’s Park Avenue House, 1890’s
Some New York social etiquette does seem severe 100-odd years later –– Wharton and her circle had very particular signifiers. In the matter of manners, the rules for ‘who sat where’ were as strict and rigid as those of a State Department dealing with foreign potentates. Diplomatic gaffes in society were to be avoided at all costs for “ resentment may rankle for years in the bosom of a guest whose claims have been disregarded.”
Even carriage traffic had a pecking order. The way was always to be given to the elder matriarchs and patriarchs on the road. A young person passing a slow-moving carriage was a scandal.
|Worth and Boberg gown, 1861|
Worth Evening Dress, 1870
|Worth Day Dress, 1875|
In Wharton’s time even one’s wardrobe had rules and traditions. Imported designer gowns were never worn immediately. Designer Frederick Worth’s dresses were brought from France and stored for a year before being worn –– anything less made you terribly parvenue. A speech by Miss Jackson from The Age of Innocence is revealing, “In my youth… it was considered vulgar to dress in the newest fashions…. Old Mrs. Baxter Pennilow, who did everything handsomely, used to import twelve a year, two velvet, two satin, two silk and the other six of poplin and the finest cashmere. It was a standing order, and as she was ill for two years before she died, they found forty-eight Worth dresses that had never been taken out of tissue paper…. I think it’s a safe rule for a lady to lay aside her French dresses for one season.” Can you imagine having gorgeous new Paris fashions and not wearing them for a year?
Hierarchy at the table or at an event does strike modern chords. Getting past Wharton’s invisible velvet rope was tougher than getting court-side seats or entry into VIP-only events these days ––you can’t change your pedigree. Clothes and personal style can still make or break a girl in society.
Today, if you hear someone is mad for Austen or Shades of Gray, wearing Chanel or Kmart blue-light specials, watching a blockbuster or an indie, vacationing in the Hamptons or Jersey Shore –– you have some insight into who they are after learning something of their lifestyle. Her characters move with or are moved by or against their structured society. All of Wharton’s keen observations are in her writing, fleshing out her characters. If you pay attention, you’ll see a finely-wrought framework of accoutrements and appurtenances that is nonpareil.
|Edith Wharton, 1907|
In her memoir, A Backward Glance, Wharton remembers Henry James telling a story:
“Then he began, forgetting us, forgetting the place, forgetting everything but the vision of his lost youth that the question had evoked, the long train of ghosts flung with his enchanter's wand across the wide stage of the summer night…. and then, suddenly, by some miracle of shifted lights and accumulated strokes, there they stood before us as they lived, drawn with a million filament-like lines, yet sharp as an Ingres, dense as a
Rembrandt; or, to call upon his own art for an analogy, minute and massive as the people of Balzac.
"I often saw the trick repeated; saw figures obscure or famous summoned to the white square of his magic-lantern, flickering and wavering there, and slowly solidifying under the turn of his lens; but never perhaps anything so ample, so sustained, as that summoning to life of dead-and-gone Emmets and Temples [James’ ancestors], old lovelinesses, old follies, old failures, all long laid away and forgotten under old crumbling grave-stones.” (194)
I see Wharton reflected in her admiration for James. Old New York comes alive through her eyes and recollections.
|Morse-Libby House, mid-19th c Dining room|
Wharton’s old New York society ate at home and entertained at home and rarely at restaurants (until Wharton had her debut in the 1870’s) and what was served was matched to the occasion. Canvasback duck and Roman Punch (that I wrote about HERE) meant that it was a grand event.
“Their most frequent distraction was dining out or dinner giving. Sometimes the dinners were stately and ceremonious (with engraved invitations issued three weeks in advance, soups, "thick" and "clear," and a Roman punch half way through the menu), but more often they were intimate and sociable, though always the occasion of much excellent food and old wine being admirably served, and discussed with suitable gravity.”
When the occasion demanded, the display was something to see. Wharton was very specific about the tableware at a dinner and all the freight of tradition it implied. In The Age of Innocence she detailed the table setting for a grand dinner at the van der Luydens ––the most respected members of old New York society:
“The van der Luydens had done their best to emphasize the importance of the occasion. The du Lac Sévres and the Trevenna George II plate were out; so was the van der Luyden “Lowestoft” (East India Company) and the Dagonet Crown Derby.”
Sevres Porcelain, 1768
The Leister Service, George II, 1745-1756 (this is over 1 Million dollars worth of silver)
|Lowestoft, Late18th C, Service for DeWitt Clinton|
|Royal Crown Derby, 1800|
The dishes may be different but the structure is familiar. Just like those of us who love food know a person’s life style by dishes they use, the restaurants they frequent and the cookbooks they favor –– flea market finds, Pottery Barn or grand family heirlooms, Per Se, French Bistro or Olive Garden, Rachel Ray, Barefoot Contessa or Grant Achatz, –– our tumblers start clicking into place and forming our picture of the person through their tastes. It’s another one of those signifiers that round out a character in life and in fiction ––Wharton has a fierce memory of the delights and disappointments of the table.
“My mother, if left to herself, would probably not have been much interested in the pleasures of the table. My father's Dutch blood accounted for his gastronomic enthusiasm; his mother, who was a Schermerhorn, was reputed to have the best cook in New York.”
Wharton was particularly generous about the artistry of her mother’s cooks in A Backward Glance (if not about her mother herself) and took pride in the quality of her family’s table:
“But to know about good cooking was a part of every young wife's equipment, and my mother's favourite cookery books (Francatelli's and Miss Leslie's) are thickly interleaved with sheets of yellowing note paper, on which, in a script of ethereal elegance, she records the making of "Mrs. Joshua Jones's scalloped oysters with cream," "Aunt Fanny Gallatin's fried chicken," "William Edgar's punch," and the special recipes of our two famous negro cooks, Mary Johnson and Susan Minneman.”
“Ah, what artists they were! How simple yet sure were their methods--the
mere perfection of broiling, roasting and basting--and what an
unexampled wealth of material, vegetable and animal, their genius had to
draw upon! Who will ever again taste anything in the whole range of
gastronomy to equal their corned beef, their boiled turkeys with stewed
celery and oyster sauce, their fried chickens, broiled red-heads [ducks], corn
fritters, stewed tomatoes, rice griddle cakes, strawberry short-cake and
vanilla ices? I am now enumerating only our daily fare, that from which
even my tender years did not exclude me; but when my parents "gave a
dinner," and terrapin and canvas-back ducks, or (in their season)
broiled Spanish mackerel, soft-shelled crabs with a mayonnaise of
celery, and peach-fed Virginia hams cooked in champagne (I am no doubt
confusing all the seasons in this allegoric evocation of their riches),
lima-beans in cream, corn souffles and salads of oyster-crabs, poured in
varied succulence from Mary Johnson's lifted cornucopia--ah, then, the
gourmet of that long-lost day, when cream was cream and butter butter
and coffee coffee, and meat fresh every day, and game hung just for the
proper number of hours, might lean back in his chair and murmur "Fate
cannot harm me" over his cup of Moka and his glass of authentic
I had a hard time choosing what to make from her list. Both the fancy and the homely fare sound remarkably good. What could not be on my menu are those oyster crabs ––they are tiny little crabs that live inside the oyster shell and rare as hen’s teeth. The peach-fed ham caught my eye as well and I found one guy in the North West that sells them… but too far to go for an East Coast girl!
I decided the corn soufflé and the turkey with oyster sauce was the way to go to share the flavors of Edith Wharton’s memories of old New York. The turkey recipe was in both of her mother’s favorite cookbooks and they were very similar. I thought I would mix it up a little and use some lovely turkey thigh I have on hand instead of whole bird. I stuffed the oysters in a pocket in the meat instead of in the cavity of the bird and baked it instead of boiling it as in the original recipe. Turkey breast could be used instead of the thigh. I used my only piece of old Crown Derby for the photo to give a nod to the van der Luydens… a sweetmeat dish repurposed for my turkey (I know Edith, naughty of me!).
The corn soufflé wasn’t quite so simple to locate. The earliest recipe I could find was one from 1910. It had none of the cheesiness I think of when I think of savory soufflés, but it had a touch of sweetness and an ethereal texture, was terribly elegant and fabulous with the turkey (it also reheated in a microwave quite well –even slightly deflated it had a good texture).
As you sit down to enjoy the meal, put yourself in a Wharton frame of mind:
“My parents' guests ate well, and drank good wine with discernment; but a
more fastidious taste had shortened the enormous repasts and deep
bumpers of colonial days, and in twenty minutes the whiskered gentlemen
had joined the flounced ladies on the purple settees for another half
hour of amiable chat, accompanied by the cup of tea which always rounded
off the evening. How mild and leisurely it all seems in the glare of our
Turkey stuffed with Oysters with an Oyster sauce, serves 2 (or 4 for breast)
1 turkey thigh (bone in) or breast*
3 oysters, chopped and their liquor
1 stick celery, minced
2 T butter
1 T flour
½ cup stock
2 T madeira
pinch of celery seed, nutmeg and mace
S & P
Preheat oven to 375º. Take the oysters and their liquor and heat for 5 minutes.
Put the liquid into the roasting dish. Add celery, spices to the oysters.
Slit the thigh to make a pocket and insert the oyster mixture. Massage 1 T butter into the flour and add to the pocket. Use kitchen thread and secure the meat to close up the stuffing. Place in the pan with the oyster liquor, the stock and madeira. Rub the skin with butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Roast for 40-50 minutes, basting every 10 -15 minutes for the thigh.
When the turkey is done, remove from the pan. Pour off the pan juices and remove some of the fat. Pour the defatted juices into the oyster sauce and serve.
* If you are using turkey breast, check for doneness as size can be different. Also, since the breast has much more meat, you might want to double the stuffing and oyster sauce recipes.
7 oysters and their liquor
1 T flour
pinch of cayenne
¼ t salt
3 T demi-glace
3 T c cream
Saute the oysters in their liquor. Remove the oysters. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour… cook for a few minutes. Add the demi-glace and stir till thickened. Add the cream and stir. Add the oyster liquor and set aside.
Eliza Leslie Recipe (1840-50’s)
Francatelli recipe (1860’s)
Corn Soufflé for 4
2 c corn
1 c milk
¾ t salt
1 t sugar
2 t butter
Preheat the oven to 375º
Put the corn kernels in the blender with enough milk to puree. Add the rest of the milk, egg yolks and salt and sugar and blend.
Butter 4 ramekins
Whip the egg white till stiff and blend with the corn mixture. Pour into the prepared ramekins. Bake for 20-25 minutes.
Remember, soufflés only last for a moment out of the oven then they sink. This one was pretty sturdy and the texture was great even after 10 minutes of shooting.
Please go visit Treasure Hunt, one of my favorite sites that's full of treasures from the collections branch of The National Trust (run by the inestimable Emile de Bruijn) and see the great piece on 'Silent Companions' (and a mention of Lost Past Remembered). Its great fun. Beware, this site is addictive!