This blog post was written by Jack Moore, SCRC Research Services Student Assistant. Jack has a double major in Political Science and Philosophy from Christopher Newport University. He is currently working on his Master’s in Biodefense at George Mason University.
In looking through our collection of cookbooks, I’ve noticed unique trait that many of the earliest cookbooks possess. It seems that many of these works are written for a particular person, a friend or family member who is a liability in the kitchen, and then are sold in a broader context. Each recipe will have an anecdote or a story that the intended reader will understand. These intensely personal writing endeavors often target broader cooking concepts such as pairing sauces to different meats (In this case, it was a maître d’hôtel sauce and trout), general procedures for baking, or even procedures for properly serving guests at the time. There were specific social protocols that were firmly adhered to, and deviating from what was expected was considered a significant faux pas. This could range from how the table was set to when different alcohols could be served. Thus, it was often the role of the cookbook’s author to specifically provide all the steps and necessary considerations for how dinner was served, not just what was on the menu. Chapter 1 of A Few Hints About Cooking, the subject of this week’s Cookbook Corner, begins by detailing the hiring process of Mrs. Grier’s home cook. Having done the cooking in her house prior to that, she has high expectations of any prospective employees, and the experience to teach them how to cook to her demanding standards. Each chapter is a multi-course meal broken down into its component recipes, and Mrs. Grier will frame the book through the story of teaching her new cook how to prepare and serve each meal.
At its core, the Brook Trout recipe I chose is incredibly simple. After the prep work of chopping parsley and scoring the fish, it’s just a matter of timing cooking the fish fully and having the sauce ready. An interesting point of note, however, is that despite being written for the “idiot in the kitchen”, many of the recipes have vague instructions. For the recipe this week, the only cooking instructions for the fish were “broil slowly. Dish on a very hot platter”. As a younger home cook, I’ve never broiled a dish through the entirety of its cooking process. I’ve broiled as a finishing method to crisp up the outside of salmon, but I had roasted it beforehand. With no concept of how long “broiling slowly” would take, it made it difficult to time out preparing the maître d’hôtel sauce that it was paired with. I did in fact feel like an idiot in the kitchen as I stared through the opening of the oven at the trout without a clue in the world how long it would take. But I’m not the type of man to turn my back on a fire risk, so look through that oven door I did.
Mrs. Grier was certainly right about the maître d’hôtel sauce. It was rich and delicious, but still simple, which would have helped given she planned 4 course meals coming out of a single kitchen. The sauce is comprised of two tablespoons of butter with the juice of a lemon and two tablespoons of parsley. Mix those in a hot pan, and boom, you have a maître d’hôtel sauce. Butter and lemon are a winning pair, and even though I think I started the sauce too early, I could have eaten cardboard and loved it. This recipe served as a lesson: Cook your trout however you like, but butter and lemon are non-negotiable. I’ve found that there are less hands-on methods of cooking fish, (I’ve found more conventional roasting to work well for me in the past), but given that Mrs. Grier published this in 1887, I think we can forgive her for not relying on an electric convection oven with a handy timer.
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