52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 13: Burns Night
Recipes from Meg Dods’ Cook and Housewife’s Manual have featured in a couple of earlier posts in this series, but Burns Night (25 January) provides the perfect excuse to explore this remarkable book in a little more depth. First published in 1826, the Manual is a practical, well-organized, and very successful cookery book which went through at least 16 editions in the nineteenth century; it’s also an intriguing ‘Scottish literary in-joke’ (Pam Perkins) which purports to be written by one of Sir Walter Scott’s fictional characters and where, in the ‘Introductory History’, characters from Scott and Susan Ferrier meet and form a Club to discuss the science of cookery.
The title page of The Cook and Housewife’s Manual declares the work is ‘By Mrs Margaret Dods, of the Cleikum Inn, St Ronan’s.’ In 1826 Edinburgh this would have been an obvious reference to the feisty landlady of the Cleikum Inn, Meg Dods, in Scott’s novel St Ronan’s Well, first published in December 1823 (though the title page of the first edition is dated 1824). Meg has a sharp tongue and an autocratic disposition, but she is an exemplary housekeeper and ‘her kitchen was her pride and glory’, so her name lends a certain authority to the recipes. But the real author, the prolific journalist and writer Christian Isobel Johnstone (1781-1857), is doing something far more interesting than simply taking a pseudonym from a recent novel. By borrowing Meg’s persona, Johnstone is associating her recipe book with Scott’s commercial success, and giving it a distinctive and memorable tag that would pique interest in a crowded market, but she is also linking the worlds of domestic economy and literature.
Scott appears to have endorsed Johnstone’s borrowing of his character, commenting in his Notes to the 1832 reissue of St Ronan’s Well that Meg Dods ‘has produced herself of late from obscurity as authoress of a work on Cookery’, and adding ‘in bearing this testimony, we protest that we are in no way biassed by the receipt of two bottles of excellent sauce for cold meat, which were sent to us by the said Mrs Dods, as a mark of her respect and regard’. He also inscribed in an Icelandic cook book in his own collection at Abbotsford ‘The Icelandic Meg Dod’s’. (I am grateful to Lindsay Levy for this information).
This copy of The Cook and Housewife’s Manual came to the University Library through the Copyright Act, which entitled the University to claim a copy of every book printed in the United Kingdom and entered at Stationers’ Hall. The entry in a list of books received from Stationers’ Hall shows that it was part of a parcel which was opened on 27 April 1826 and was one of a number of ‘12mo [books] in Sheets’, that is, unbound.
I suspect the inclusion of the extra detail ‘(of Cleikum Inn)’ to qualify the author’s name acknowledges the allusion to Scott’s novel.
After the comic introductory history and culinary lectures, and some directions for carving, the first proper recipes are contained in a notable chapter on ‘Scotch National Dishes’. The chapter begins by declaring ‘Every country is celebrated for some culinary preparation, and … all national dishes are good’, before listing emblematic national dishes which are ‘all equally good of their kind’: the Spanish olio, the Italian macaroni, the French ragout, and the Turkish pillau, but this cultural egalitarianism gives way to patriotism when the haggis is given precedence.
Haggis is also given pride of place in an engraved plate showing a suggested menu and table arrangement for a national festival such as St Andrew’s Day or Burns Night.
Recipes are given for several of the other dishes shown here, many of which are obscure to modern readers: a Fitless Cock, for example, is an oatmeal dumpling ‘moulded somewhat in the form of a fowl’ and Crappit Heads are a forcemeat stuffing for the heads of haddocks and whitings.
In honour of Burns Night I wanted to try one of Meg Dods’ national dishes, but making haggis just involves too many entrails. The extreme butchery involved in Sheep’s Head Broth was likewise too gruesome to contemplate. But in St Ronan’s Well, one of the dishes with which Meg Dods ‘suffered no one to interfere’ is ‘the cock-a-leeky’, which appears at the top of the plate in the Bill of Fare.
Cock-a-Leekie is a classic Scottish chicken and leek soup. Traditional recipes often thicken the soup with barley or, as the note to this recipe observes, oatmeal, and modern versions usually substitute rice. Some recipes add prunes before serving but they are not mentioned here. Their inclusion is roundly condemned by the Ettrick Shepherd in one of the ‘Noctes Ambrosianae’ columns in Blackwood’s Magazine:
SHEPHERD. Speakin’ o’ cocky-leeky, the man was an atheist that first polluted it wi’ prunes.
NORTH. At least no Christian.
SHEPHERD. Prunes gie’t a sickenin’ sweetness, till it tastes like a mouthfu’ o’ a Cockney poem; and, scunnerin’, you splutter out the fruit, afraid that the loathsome lobe is a stinkin’ snail.
(‘Noctes Ambrosianae No. LIX’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. XXX, November 1831, p. 804. St Andrews copy at per AP4.B6M2
Meg Dods’ recipe is quite purist, consisting of just a good homemade beef stock, a whole chicken, and a lot of leeks. The recipe doesn’t specify how many, but to get the soup ‘very thick of leeks’ I ended up using twelve. What is needed is plenty of time and patience as you gently simmer the beef bones for the stock (at least 4-6 hours, plus another hour if you roast the bones before simmering them) and then poach the chicken and leeks in the stock.
Adding the leeks in two stages means that half of them cook to the point of disintegrating into the broth, thickening and flavouring it, while the rest retain more of their shape, texture and colour.
Saying that ‘Sometimes the capon is served in the tureen with the cock-a-leekie’ seems to imply that you might reserve the poached chicken for other meals, which would be economical but I feel rather misses the point. If this soup were being served as part of an elaborate Burns Night Dinner as in the Bill of Fare the chicken could be carved elegantly and returned to a tureen with the broth and leeks, but for a family supper I shredded the cooked chicken and ladled the soup on top. The result is a hearty, seasonal and delicious meal. And not an entrail in sight.
– Rare Books Librarian (Collections Research)