The Vicomte In The Kitchen (1934)


by Vicomte de Mauduit, Covici – Friede, first printing, first edition, 1934. An unheralded masterpiece, out of print for more than 70 years. Hardback, brick colored cloth, near-perfect dust jacket, 326 pages. Subtitled “The Art of Cooking, Preserving, Eating and Drinking; also a Selection of Recipes from Many Countries.” Introductions by English cooking doyen Elizabeth Craig, and Frances, Countess of Warwick. There’s a pen and ink caricature drawing of the author on the front inside free page.

This is an amazing cookbook-- witty, urbane and knowlegable. George de Mauduit de Kevern was a British-educated French nobleman, a World War I aviator, a bon vivant in high society in several countries, and a enthusiastic traveler. His full name was Georges de Mauduit de Kervern. He was the son of a cavalry officer and grandson of a French general who went to St. Helena with Napoleon. For some reason he was sent off to England for his schooling during the fin de siècle, and had to brave the ghastly English public school food of the era. Afterwards he returned to France, and certainly by the 1920s, was also a hands-on gourmet, roaming around his homeland and soon gaining extensive knowledge of the preparation of all strata of French cuisine. His travels also allowed him to learn something about the cuisines of the U.S., Sweden, Italy, Greece, South Africa and others. Of course, as a nobleman, he never held a job as a cook or chef. Instead he acquired his culinary knowledge through self-study and by hanging out in the kitchens with locals all over the world. He was not a fan of British cooking. Early on in the book he wrote that while the Brits have an abundant variety of foodstuffs, sadly few on the Isle in that era knew about (or cared about) herbs and spices or cooking methods beyond plain roasting, boiling and baking.

Here is Mauduit preparing to tell us how to cook an artichoke. But not before he tweaks the noses of his British pals: “And now we come to that most edible plant the artichoke…which is rarely seen on English tables. And I shall tell you why. It is because the British are not an inquisitive race, and hate to be given the slightest trouble while eating. It is for these reasons that fruits are seldom offered in England in their original form. To peel an apple, an orange, or tackle an artichoke is an insoluble problem to the Englishman….”

“Let me tell you this,” he continues, before actually laying out the recipe for cooking artichoke. “The more protected a plant is, the more delicious it is. An easily conquered woman is uninteresting, but how delicious is she whose principles and honour protect her! How interesting she is, and so is the artichoke!”

Don't expect the formulaic and precisely measured list of ingredients like "Joy of Cooking" and its descendants -- his recipes are always encased in a charming narrative and he uses measures like "a morning coffee cupful." It's like getting the lowdown on a dish from your country cousin. I have never read some of his cooking tips before. For example, if you suspect some bad mussels in a bagful, he writes: “I will tell you of an infallible way to enjoy them in safety. When cooking them always add a silver coin or a solid silver teaspoon; if when the shellfish is cooked, the silver article remains bright; eat and enjoy the mussels. But if the silver spoon has turned black, throw (them) away...making sure to retrieve the silver article before doing so!” There are other little known tips and delightful bon mots spread around all through the couple hundred recipes within. There are also good chapters on cocktails and wine.

The publisher of this book, Covici-Friede, was famous for publishing exceptional and often on-the-edge books. And somehow, in addition to publishing a young Nathaniel West, John Steinbeck, Ben Hecht and Radclyffe Hall, Mauduit came to their attention, and they brought him out in a small edition. A few years later, the English low-budget publisher Anscombe reprinted it, but then it went out of print for good. Sadly, the Vicomte’s full and bountiful life ended badly. When World War II broke out, and France fell, the Nazis captured him in 1942. Nobody knows what happened, but he didn’t make it out alive.

He left behind this splendid book and a few others, equally obscure, and a final one, more important to English society at the beginning of World War II, “They Can’t Ration These” (1940). It was an extended treatise and how-to manual on foraging -- how to utilize wild game and fish and usually uncultivated vegetables, grains and plants that grow in the English countryside which could provide for food (and medicine) in tough, perilous times, as Hitler ravaged Europe and was bombing English cities. Thankfully it has been reprinted by Persephone Books in the U.K.

I have no idea of why Mauduit was not lauded and acknowledged by cookery writers on both sides of the Atlantic other than Elizabeth Craig. Apparently, he slipped between the cracks. Condition: Pages equally tanned by age; virtually no wear on book or DJ: VG+/VG+.

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