By Val Hewson
After posting our Edible England blogs for Heritage Open Days 2021, we found that we have more to say on literary food. By the way, there are spoilers below, though I’m not sure this matters much in P G Wodehouse.
It begins with a Prairie Oyster. After a ‘rather cheery little supper’ the night before, Bertie Wooster is trying to read Types of Ethical Theory, which his terrifyingly intellectual fiancée, Lady Florence Craye, feels will improve him:
‘If you would drink this, sir,’ he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. ‘It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.’ …
For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and generally speaking, hope dawned once more.
‘You’re engaged!’ I said, as soon as I could say anything. …
‘Thank you, sir. My name is Jeeves.’P G Wodehouse, Jeeves Takes Charge (1916).
Bertie is now in safe hands:
‘Good morning, sir,’ said Jeeves. He put the good old cup of tea softly on the table by my bed, and I took a refreshing sip. Just right, as usual. Not too hot, not too sweet, not too weak, not too strong, not too much milk, and not a drop spilled in the saucer. A most amazing cove, Jeeves. So dashed competent in every respect.P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)
It is fortunate that Jeeves is ‘so dashed competent’, given Bertie’s and his friends’ incompetence.
In Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch (1922), Bertie has acquired another terrifying fiancée, Honoria (her laugh is famously ‘like the Scotch express going under a bridge’). Her father, Sir Roderick, a nerve specialist or in Bertie’s words, ‘a sort of janitor to a loony-bin’, wants to ‘satisfy himself that [Bertie is] perfectly normal’. Bertie is instructed by his Aunt Agatha to give Sir Roderick lunch.
‘Please remember that he drinks no wine, strongly disapproves of smoking, and can only eat the simplest food, owing to an impaired digestion. Do not offer him coffee, for he considers it the root of half the nerve-trouble in the world.’P G Wodehouse, Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch (1922)
Bertie is rebuked for suggesting a ‘dog-biscuit and a glass of water’. On the day, Jeeves serves ‘cold consommé, a cutlet, and a savoury, sir. With lemon-squash, iced.’ Bertie has left the choice to Jeeves – a sign of how much master relies on manservant. The lunch is exquisitely awkward, with Bertie rambling nervously. And when three cats, a salmon and a stolen hat intrude. Sir Roderick, who fears cats, stalks out. ‘No wedding bells for me, what?’ says Bertie, realising that Jeeves has engineered the situation to save him from Honoria Glossop. Wodehouse’s menu tells us that a Wooster – Glossop match is not to be.
In Jeeves in the Springtime (1921), Bertie’s friend Bingo falls for Mabel, a waitress at ‘one of those blighted tea-and-bun shops’:
Bingo studied the menu devoutly. ‘I’ll have a cup of cocoa, cold veal and ham pie, slice of fruit cake, and a macaroon. Same for you, Bertie?’ I gazed at the man, revolted. … ‘Or how about a bit of hot steak-pudding, with a sparkling limado to wash it down?’ said Bingo. You know, the way love can change a fellow is really frightful to contemplate. This chappie before me, who spoke in that absolutely careless way of macaroons and limado, was the man I had seen in happier days telling the head-waiter at Claridge’s exactly how he wanted the chef to prepare the sole frite au gourmet aux champignons, and saying he would jolly well sling it back if it wasn’t just right. Ghastly! Ghastly! A roll and butter and a small coffee seemed the only things on the list that hadn’t been specially prepared by the nastier-minded members of the Borgia family for people they had a particular grudge against, so I chose them, and Mabel hopped it.P G Wodehouse, Jeeves in the Springtime (1921), chapter 1.
Again the food tells us that Bingo and Mabel are not meant for each other. Jeeves must sort the mess out. In this case he turns out to have a personal interest, having an ‘understanding’ with both Mabel and Bingo’s uncle’s cook, Miss Watson. It all ends happily, of course: Bingo is freed from an unsuitable attachment; Jeeves and Mabel can get together; and Bingo’s uncle, Lord Bittlesham, who ‘devotes himself almost entirely to the pleasures of the table’ gets engaged to Miss Watson, on whose services he ‘sets a high value …’ (P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves, chapter 1).
Bingo, being Bingo, soon falls in love with another waitress, over lunch with Bertie at the Senior Liberal club, where ‘the cooking’s the best in London’ (P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves, chapter 17):
‘How would this do you, Bingo?’ I said at length. ‘A few plovers’ eggs to weigh in with, a cup of soup, a touch of cold salmon, some cold curry, and a splash of gooseberry tart and cream with a bit of cheese to finish?’ … I looked up and found that his attention was elsewhere. He was gazing at the waitress…
Happily, this waitress turns out to be more suitable – she is the romantic novelist Rosie M Banks, working as a waitress merely to get material for her new book – and soon she and Bingo are married.
One of the most important minor characters in Wodehouse is intimately connected with food: the French chef, Anatole, ‘with a moustache of the outsize or soup-strainer type’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves!, chapter 20). Anatole works for Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia and is a ‘monarch of his profession’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves!, chapter 4). Bertie’s friend, Tuppy Glossop, says:
… the thing that I admire so enormously about Anatole is that, though a Frenchman, he does not, like so many of these chefs, confine himself exclusively to French dishes, but is always willing and ready to weigh in with some good old simple English fare such as this steak-and-kidney pie to which I have alluded.P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8.
But things begin to go wrong when, at Bertie’s behest, Tuppy Glossop refuses his dinner:
‘Let us get this straight. Tonight, at dinner, when the butler offers me a ris de veau à la financiere, or whatever it may be, hot from Anatole’s hands, you wish me to push it away untasted?’P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8.
Tuppy is persuaded because he can raid the larder later:
‘There is something cold there … A steak-and-kidney pie. … One of Anatole’s ripest. …’.P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8
Bertie persuades Aunt Dahlia and Gussie Fink-Nottle to forego dinner too for various reasons. But, unlike Jeeves’ schemes, it doesn’t work. ‘The whole thing more than a bit like Christmas dinner on Devil’s Island’, (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! chapter 9) as nonnettes de poulet Agnès Sorel and cèpes à la Rossini are refused. Anatole, like all his race and profession, is temperamental and naturally gives notice:
‘I hear that when the first two courses came back to the kitchen practically untouched, his feelings were so hurt that he cried like a child. And when the rest of the dinner followed, he came to the conclusion that the whole thing was a studied and calculated insult …’P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 11.
After much farce, including Bertie getting engaged to yet another girl, Madeline Bassett, Jeeves contrives to make everything ‘oojah-cum-spiff’ again, with a fire bell, a bicycle and a key.
Bertie ascribes his valet’s brilliance to diet, to fish.
‘It’s brain,’ I said, ‘pure brain! What do you do to get like that, Jeeves? I believe you must eat a lot of fish, or something. Do you eat a lot of fish, Jeeves?’
‘Oh, well, then, it’s just a gift, I take it; and if you aren’t born that way there’s no use worrying.’P G Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves (1919).
Food is clearly important in P G Wodehouse. He uses food as image, often hilariously: ‘she looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho! Jeeves, chapter 20). Food offers a framework for Bertie’s life – breakfast from Jeeves, lunch at the Drones and so on – and for Wodehouse to write his set-pieces, like the disastrous dinner cooked by Anatole. Wodehouse describes food – the hearty food of his childhood and the rich French dishes popular in the Edwardian era – with obvious relish. And food may be an indicator: characters with unconventional tastes in food like Sir Roderick are to be treated with caution, while those with a good appetite for ‘proper’ food, like Tuppy and Bingo, are approved of.
Here is a recipe for a Prairie Oyster. It is said to be a cure for a hangover. Mix together a raw egg or yolk, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, a dash of vinegar, a dash of tomato juice (optional) and salt and pepper. The drink is swallowed in one go, with the egg/yolk whole. Jeeves apparently adds red pepper and perhaps a secret ingredient.