Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll – review

The author of Kitchen Essays (1922) was sister-in-law to the great Gertrude Jekyll, whose biographer wrote that if she ‘was an artist-gardener, then Agnes was an artist-housekeeper.’ Agnes was a famous hostess (the guests at her first dinner party included Browning, Ruskin and Burne-Jones) and her home, Munstead House, ‘was the apogee of opulent comfort and order without grandeur, smelling of pot-pourri, furniture polish and wood smoke’.
Publication date – 20 October 2008
If anyone tells you that a 1920s cook book and collection of food essays can’t be entertaining, then show them Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll.

Many of the recipes themselves have fallen out of favour today. There are mention of ice packs used to freeze, in a time when freezers were not the norm. There are suggestions for replacement foods that were rationed. There is also an abundance of aspic, which has definitely fallen out favour a century later. There are perhaps surprising meals too, with curry featuring and even a recipe for baked beans.
The commercialisation of Christmas is lamented so not much has changed in nearly 100 years. There is discussion as to how much has altered since the war, in this instance WWI. There is mention of changes in family dynamics, reduced funds and moves away from domestic staff. There are suggestions for quick suppers, packed lunches to take when travelling and alternatives for heavy meals at parties. There are even sections for those who need to either put on or lose weight.
Source – loaned copy
There are handy hints for any good housewife, with sections on what to serve at a hunting party and to remember bovril and sandwiches for the chauffers of your supper guests. There’s even a recipe for baked beans.
Published by Persephone Books
It would seem that the idea of taking a packed lunch rather than pay for service station food is not a new thing. A chapter is dedicated to a picnic lunch to be eaten on a motor trip, rather than pay the expense of an inn, though perhaps the suggested warm mulled claret flask should be reserved for passengers nowadays.
Each chapter is based on the theme depicted in it’s title and is a mixture of commentary interspersed with recipes, told in the style of an old friend sharing cookery secrets.  Topics range from “In the Cook’s Absence”, perhaps obsolete 100 years later to “Bachelors Entertaining”, which acknowledges that women can also be single. There are ideas for wedding breakfasts and Sunday suppers and everything in between.
During 1921-2 (the now) Lady Jekyll wrote unsigned essays for The Times with titles such as ‘Tray Food’ and ‘Sunday Supper’. The Observer Food Magazine commended ‘lovely Persephone Books’ for reprinting Kitchen Essays, India Knight in The Shops called it ‘beautifully written, sparkling, witty and knowing, an absolute delight to read’, while the BBC Food Magazine praised ‘this exquisitely reprinted period piece’.
This book is as much a social commentary as it is a recipe book. It is an insight into the lives of people from a century ago, with insights into every day issues such as staff, holiday plans, wedding arrangements and housekeeping. It is a snapshot in time and a fascinating one at that.