Norman Douglas 1868-1952
It’s Valentine’s week and people are Googling the same old hoary quotes like mad to dazzle their beloveds with the illusion of erudition and corresponding depth of feeling (note: a 5 minute Google search is not the same as a knightly quest for a treasure for one’s inamorata).
I thought I’d go a different direction. I’ve had a book on my shelf that I’ve been dying to share with you –– it’s called Venus in the Kitchen: Or Love's Cookery Book and it’s perfect for Valentines’ Day – well, perfect for those of us who celebrate the holiday with a bit of a wink.
When legendary food writers tell you who THEY admire, food-lovers pay attention. In America, many gaze heavenward and say MFK Fisher more often than not. In the UK, it is often Elizabeth David who gets the treatment. But who did she love? Well, in David’s case, Norman Douglas was a friend and mentor and much admired.
Drawing by DH Lawrence, 1929
Known more for his literary achievements (especially for his magnificent 1917 novel Southwind that influenced a generation), and the joy of his company among the literati of the first half of the 20th century, his delightful recipe collection, Venus in the Kitchen was published in 1952, the year Douglas died. His friend Graham Greene wrote the foreword. The book had been in the works at least as early as 1929 when DH Lawrence did a rather disturbing drawing for it (sadly missing from the American version) but things went sour between them. David said that “The illustration Lawrence had done for the aphrodisiac book was so perversely hideous, so awful an example of Lawrence’s gifts as an artist that Norman thought it was good joke. He decided to use it.”
Elizabeth David, 1943 (1913-1992)
As you might have imagined from the intro, Douglas was no slobbering romantic –– his advice to a love-stressed young Elizabeth David had no saccharine whatsoever, “Always do as you please, and send everybody to Hell, and take the consequences. Damned good Rule of Life. N.” Elizabeth David thought the world of Norman Douglas as a brilliant writer and friend but also as a food lover for he, “was a great epicure in matters gastronomical, and so he was – in an uncommon way; in a way few mortals can ever hope to become. His way was most certainly not the way of the common wine sipper or of the grave debater of recipes. Connoisseurship of this particular kind he left to others. He himself preferred the study of the original sources of his food and wine. Authenticity in these matters was of the first importance to him.”
Norman Douglas and Graham Green (1904-1991)
Truth be told, Norman Douglas was much loved by many. Graham Greene said of Douglas in the preface that “It is fitting I think, that his last book should be as unserious and shameless as this collection of aphrodisiac recipes, to close a life in which he had enjoyed varied forms of love, left a dozen or so living tokens here and there, and been more loved himself than most men…. With its art of scholarship, its blend of the practical – the almond soup – and the wildly impracticable – the Rôti sans Pareil, the crispness of the comments (we only have to add his customary endearments to hear the ghost speak): ‘Very stimulating, my dear,’ ‘Much ado about nothing,’ ‘Not very useful for people of cold temperament,’ with a certain dry mercilessness in the introduction, this book will be one of my favorite Douglases.”
This book is a cult favorite even now. Stephen Fry, born years after Douglas died, was a fan of Venus in the Kitchen, “Any book that is written with such style, grace and comic sensuality, a book in short that dares be so different and so direct, can only be welcomed.”
From Venus in the Kitchen, picture from HERE
David revealed the origins of the little book in her An Omelette and a Glass of Wine “…one night after a convivial dinner, he ‘was deputed or rather implored’ by those of his companions who had been bemoaning their lost vigour, ‘to look into the subject of aphrodisiac recipes and the rejuvenating effects of certain condiments and certain dishes’.” This struck Douglas as mad, for in the end, the book was “an exposition of the absurdities, the lengths to which humanity will go in its search for the lost vigour of youth.’ In spirit it was a send-up, a spoof.” David recommends the book but not for what you might think. “Anyone who hopes that Venus in the Kitchen is going to provide a roll on the dining-room floor would do well to reconsider. And to buy the book for a different kind of fun. For the fun that is, of reading about the spices and wines and herbs, the fruit and flowers, the snails, the truffles, the birds, animals and parts of animals… which went into the cooking pots of ancient Rome and Greece and of renaissance Europe; for a glimpse, just enough to send us looking for more of the same kind, of the cinnamon and ginger and coriander flavoured games dishes , or creams, the carnation conserves, the gentian and honey-flavoured wines, the Easter rice, the Sardinian pie of broad bean, the rolls of beef marbled with hard-boiled eggs and ham, the fennel and the almond soups which have all but vanished from European cooking.”
Elizabeth David wasn’t over-the-moon about the book, published as it was after Douglas’ death when he couldn't defend his work against misinterpretation. She was particularly miffed by the illustrations that are, cutesy in the extreme and absolutely antithetical to the author’s intent, “Did they hand a typescript or a set of galley proofs to their illustrator? Or did they think it sufficient to commission him to provide ‘decorations’ for what they innocently supposed was a cookery book which would sell on a title and illustration s with an erotic twist? .. Anything more anaphrodisiac than his simpering cupids (in bathing trunks), his bows and arrows and hearts, his chefs in Christmas cracker hats…his lifeless, sexless couples seat at tables for tow, it would be hard to envisage.”
Norman Douglas 1935
Douglas had shared the amusing origins of the little book with her years before. It seems “…one night after a convivial dinner, he ‘was deputed or rather implored’ by those of his companions who had been bemoaning their lost vigour, ‘to look into the subject of aphrodisiac recipes and the rejuvenating effects of certain condiments and certain dishes’.” This struck Douglas as mad, for in the end, The book was “an exposition of the absurdities, the lengths to which humanity will go in its search for the lost vigour of youth.’ In spirit it was a send-up, a spoof.”
David recommends the book but not for what you might think. “Anyone who hopes that Venus in the Kitchen is going to provide a roll on the dining-room floor would do well to reconsider. And to buy the book for a different kind of fun. For the fun that is, of reading about the spices and wines and herbs, the fruit and flowers, the snails, the truffles, the birds, animals and parts of animals… which went into the cooking pots of ancient Rome and Greece and of renaissance Europe; for a glimpse, just enough to send us looking for more of the same kind, of the cinnamon and ginger and coriander flavoured games dishes , or creams, the carnation conserves, the gentian and honey-flavoured wines, the Easter rice, the Sardinian pie of broad bean, the rolls of beef marbled with hard-boiled eggs and ham, the fennel and the almond soups which have all but vanished from European cooking.”
The recipes are, for the most part simple. David reflects , “What makes this particular little anthology notable is not the recipes. It is the characteristically irreverent Douglas spirit which imbues them, and the style in which they are presented; a style which gives the impression they were written not with a pen, but with a diamond cutter….” In this spirit of fun, not all of the recipes promise to be scorching hot aphrodisiacs. There’s Cray fish soup (“an approved aphrodisiac”) or consommé viveur (“very stimulating indeed”), frog’s legs (“a noble aphrodisiac”) to provide culinary backup for your amorous adventures.
Many have gentle warming properties, like Sweetbreads à la D’Ayen (“another reliable stimulant”), curried chicken (“a favorite with elderly epicures”), pork in milk (“a good restorative”).
Norman Douglas with Laetitia Cerio
Thing is, food can inspire so many desires and tastes. It can stimulate and calm and soothe as it restores beautiful memories with every taste and perfume. Depending on where you are in your relationship and who you are with, there is a dish to please every lover, from those in search of a serious aphrodisiac to others looking for a sweet reminder that good food is a great companion to love and always has been. It has often been thought that a person who doesn’t appreciate the sensual delights of the table, rarely has much success with passionate love. Imagine someone waxing poetic over the texture of a beautiful fruit or one snarfing down a greasy burger while talking on the phone. Who would you like to share Valentine’s Day with? David put it well, “What Norman Douglas did know about, and better than most, was the importance of the relationship between the enjoyment of food and wine and the conduct of love affairs, and for that matter of most other aspects of life.”
Since it' s Valentine's Day week, I chose to make something from the book with oysters. They have always had a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Casanova used to eat 50 for breakfast before an assignation – it has now been proved he was right to think they were powerful aphrodisiacs. Oysters contain a rare amino acids (D-aspartic acid (D-Asp) and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)) that trigger increased level of sex hormones, their high zinc content replaces the zinc lost in sex (Casanova also used the act of eating them as part of his seduction, with the woman sucking the oyster from its shell and he playfully kissing it back from her –– you can see a playful oyster seduction in action in Tom Jones HERE around 2).
For his recipe for said oysters, let me tell you, Mr. Douglas is a genius. This is one of the sexiest oyster preparations I’ve ever had. Putting them on toast is lovely, but I could also see these oysters strewn over beautiful buttered pasta or a creamy risotto minus the cheese or just put back into warmed shells and slurped down as you look into your beloved's eyes. Sounds odd I know but something about the madeira and the cinnamon and those herbs with the oysters is divine and it just takes a minute to make. With its sensual texture and dark warm velvety flavors -- the dish is absolute magic, especially if you use a great madeira like one I used, a special Porto Moniz Verdelho Special Reserve.
Oysters in Wine
Heat the oysters in their shells. Open them, take them out and collect their liquid in a pot. Put the oysters in a pan with butter, a sprig of garlic, mint, marjoram, pounded peppercorns, and cinnamon. As soon as they are lightly fried add their liquor and a glass of Malmsey or another generous wine. Serve them on toast.
Oysters in Wine
*1 Dozen oysters (freshly shucked, straining and reserving the liquor)
4-6 T butter (depending on size of the oysters)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T marjoram, chopped plus more for garnish
2 t mint, chopped plus more for garnish
pinch of cinnamon
¼ t pepper
1-3 T Madeira (depending on size of the oysters) Porto MonizVerdelho Special Reserve
from the Rare Wine Company**
Salt to taste
Melt the butter and add the garlic and oysters over a medium low heat (too high a heat makes them rubbery). Sprinkle with the herbs, pepper and spices. Stir to barely cook the oysters. Remove from the pan and add the reserved liquid from the oysters and the Madeira. Reduce slightly and put the oyster back in the pan. Serve over toast (or over noodles or a simple creamy risotto sans cheese or back in warmed shells).
* make sure your oysters are fresh and briny and plump. Anything less would be a crime.
** Rare Wine Company historic series is available at many fine liquor stores. The Porto Moniz Verdelho is available online.
An After Love Drink
Into a Madeira glass pour: a quarter glass of Maraschino, a yoke of egg, a quarter glass of cream, a quarter glass of old brandy. Serve without mixing, seeing that the yolk of egg is not broken. The whole should be swallowed in one gulp. Highly recommended by my friend Baron de M….