Venus in the Kitchen or Love's Cookery Book by Norman Douglas
by Gary Michael Dault
In his very amusing introduction to this famous (infamous), highly specialized culinary self-help book that purports to be a handbook to the preparing of libidinous foods in support of the flagging libido, Stephen Fry observes that Venus in the Kitchen (originally published in 1952) "has all the proud, name-dropping ornament, ostentation, and, one might say, showoffiness, of much of Douglas's work, but it is directed humorously and purposefully. Any cookbook which can begin a recipe with the instruction, 'Clean and truss a young crane' clearly has a great deal going for it. How, too, can one dislike a book that includes such commands as '...take several brains of male sparrows and half that quantity of the brains of pigeons which have not yet begun to fly'?"
One can't, I dare say. Dislike it, I mean. One might find oneself occasionally restive, I suppose, at the book's unending outlandishness, at its jaunty grotesquerie, its carefully wicked outrageousness. But, as a longtime admirer of Norman Douglas's writings at large (his dates are 1868-1952) , I can assure the wary reader that outre quality of Venus in the Kitchen, its endless verbal and procedural extravagance, is simply what Douglas is like as a writer.
I own a handsome, two-volume, 1929 edition of Douglas's best known novel. South Wind (first published in 1917). I've been trying to read it for years, never before getting much past page 50. It was only in the last few weeks that, once again determinedly assaying its sustained sparkling wit and the author's often caustic pillorying of his own free-floating characters, I am now nearing the end of Volume 1 and am loving every overheated page of it. Douglas is a dandy among dandies, a consummate writer of what is sometimes called mandarin prose." He's not an easy read. But he offers the reader untold riches in what is now a pretty bleak and joyless age. As novelist H. M. Tomlinson (another writer I enjoy who is, alas, little read anymore) wrote in an exquisite little book about Douglas in 1931, "With Norman Douglas, erudition is as airy as the bright balls a conjuror weaves fascinatingly aloft."
My journey back through all the Norman Douglas I could find, led me, of course, to Venus in the Kitchen.
The recipes in the book are clearly not all wildly Priapian. Some of them, like Almond Soup, are downright cozy:
"Blanch a quart of almonds and pound them in the mortar with the yolks of six hard-boiled eggs till they come to a fine paste.
Mix them by degrees with a quart of chicken stock, and a quart of cream. Stir well together, and when well-mixed, put in a saucepan
over a gentle fire, and keep stirring all the time, Take care it does not curdle. Serve when hot."
Sounds innocent enough. Norman's Baked Truffles is perhaps a little more arcane (Douglas loved truffles passionately):
"Choose some good white truffles, wash with care, wrap each of them in five or six pieces of paper previously soaked in water.
Cook in hot cinders, remove the sheets of paper, dry the truffles, and serve them hot among the folds of a well warmed table napkin.
Familiar, and yet too little eaten."
Familiar to Norman Douglas maybe.
One of my favourite, essentially dada recipes in Venus in the Kitchen is Douglas's outlandish, well-nigh impossible Roti sans Pareil. It's more a work of conceptual art than the route to fine dining:
"Take a large olive, stone it and stuff it with a paste made of anchovy, caper and oil [I'd stop here, if I were you]
Put the olive inside a trussed and boned bec-figue (garden warbler).
Put the bec-figue inside a fat ortolan.
Put the ortolan inside a boned lark.
Put the stuffed lark inside a boned thrush.
Put the thrush inside a fat quail.
Put the quail, wrapped in vine-leaves, inside a boned lapwing.....
This carefree, wanton stuffing of bird into bird then continues for ten more hapless creatures (involving a guinea-fowl, a duck, a pheasant, a "fat wild goose," a turkey and a "boned bustard"). You end by fitting the whole arrangement into a big saucepan with onions, carrots, small squares of ham, celery, mignonette, several strips of bacon and two cloves of garlic, and then roasting it over a gentle fire for ten hours. As a PS to the recipe, Douglas notes ruefully that "it might be difficult to find Bustards in Europe nowadays." He also expresses sorrow that "the common partridge, one of the best of all game birds, is not represented in this aviary." A pity, certainly.
After such licentiousness, what forgiveness?
Well, a couple of pages after his roast aviary, Douglas, apparently contrite, suddenly turns sweet and comforting. Here is his Anchovy Toast:
Cut some slices of bread, toast nicely, trim to any shape required. Have ready a hot-water plate, on which pit four ounces of butter; let it melt; add the yolks of four raw eggs, one tablespoon of anchovy sauce, Nepaul pepper to taste. Mix all well together, and dip the toast in, both sides; let it well soak into the mixture. Serve very hot, piled on a dish, and garnished with parsley. Anchovies have long been famed for their lust-provoking virtues.
Venus in the Kitchen also offers drinks. Here is Douglas's Hippogras Aphrodisiac:
Here is a recipe for this unrivalled stimulant:
Crushed cinnamon 30 grammes
Ginger 30 grammes
Cloves 8 grammes
Vanilla 8 grammes
White sugar 2 pounds
Red Bourgogne wine 1 quart
And, finally, his Hysterical Water:
Take seeds of wild parsnip. betony, and roots of lovage, of each two ounces; roots of single peony four ounces;
of mistletoe of the oak three ounces; myrrh a quarter of an ounce, and castor half an ounce. Beat all of these together, and add
to them a quarter of a pound of dried millepedes. Pour on these three quarts of mugwort water, and two quarts of brandy. Let them stand in a closed vessel eight days, and then still it in a cold still pasted up. You may draw off nine pints of water, and sweeten it
to your taste. Mix all together and bottle it up.
Was this a joke? Knowing Norman Douglas's writing as I do, I doubt it.