George Justice, Editor

In Praise of Gruel

Tea with Jane Austen

By Kim Wilson.
Jones Books, 2004. xvii + 108 pages.
66 B/W illustrations. Hardcover. $16.95.

Reviewed by Bobbie Gay.

When asked to review a book for the JASNA News, I was at first apprehensive that I might not be able to review effectively an arcane or abstruse book, but agreed upon learning the topic was “tea.” I decided to review Kim Wilson’s new book as a cookbook rather than as literary text, and toward that end, planned two tea parties at my home, both for relative tea neophytes.

When I received the book, I was a little disappointed at the small number of recipes included. I was, however, utterly charmed by the collection of so much information about tea in Jane Austen’s day, including extensive quotes from the letters and novels, references to other contemporary sources, and acknowledgments to old friends such as Maggie Lane, Deirdre Le Faye, Brian Southam, and, a personal favorite, Mark Girouard. Chapters include “Tea in the Morning,” “Tea and Shopping,” “Tea away from Home,” “Tea and Health,” “Tea in the Evening,” and of course, “Making the Perfect Cup”—all generously illustrated in black and white. Wilson’s personal tone throughout was delightful, and her knowledge of Austen unimpeachable. As to the recipes, I enjoyed reading the recipes from 1807, but was thankful that Wilson had translated the ingredients and methods into modern terms; who would not prefer beating cake batter in an electric mixer for eight minutes, rather than by hand for an hour and a half!

Now to the tea parties. At the first party, I made “Water Gruel,” followed by small sandwiches of my own devising, then scones, and then “Rout Cakes for Mrs. Elton,” and “Lemon Cheesecakes for Fanny and Edward,” along with kir royale, as none of us cares for sherry. (Kir royale is champagne mixed with crème de cassis to taste.) I am an inexperienced baker, so I followed these recipes exactly as written, weighing the flour instead of measuring it. The rout cakes, essentially shortbread cookies, were a bit dry, possibly owing to the low relative humidity where I live (Tucson) affecting the flour, but the flavor was outstanding. Half were made with dried currants, half with caraway seeds; the seed cakes were a rare success! Caraway is, of course, generally associated with sauerkraut or cole slaw, but as a crunchy bite in a cookie, it was unusual and tasty, especially as a foil to the sweeter fare. The lemon cheesecakes, made with the whole peel of lemon including the white pith, were pleasantly bitter.

At the second party, I again made gruel followed by sandwiches and scrambled eggs, then “Plum Cake for an Elegant Breakfast,” and then rout cakes, lemon cheesecakes, and kir royale. The plum cake was the hit of the party! Wilson’s book is worth the price for this recipe alone. Not your great auntie’s “unpleasant dried lump,” this is the lightest, most delicate fruitcake imaginable. I used real dried fruit—cranberries, blueberries, cherries, and strawberries—and the result was something I will make again and again. For the rout cakes, I used less flour and all caraway, and they were an even bigger success. The lemon cheesecakes were more bitter this time; using only the yellow part of the lemon peel might solve this.

So what about the gruel? Served in ceramic custard cups to be drunk instead of spooned up, my guests approached it cautiously, being versed in Dickens as well as Austen. What an amusement to see the faces light up! “Oh, it’s oatmeal-water!” “I would drink this again on a cold day!” “Very soothing!” At the first party, I made it exactly as written and felt it was too thin for my taste. At the second, I doubled the amount of oatmeal and it was so thick that I had to thin it with hot water. To make “a basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin,” I recommend that you increase the amount of oatmeal to four tablespoons, especially if you plan to thin it later with another liquid.

For those who wish to try the gruel, here you go:

2 cups water
3 tablespoons quick-cooking oatmeal
Salt and sugar to taste
1 tablespoon butter
Flavorings: pepper to taste, or
Nutmeg and/or wine, sherry, or port (or spirits, recommended for a cold), or
A cinnamon stick or a bit of lemon peel boiled with the oatmeal, or
1-2 teaspoons lemon juice squeezed into the finished gruel

Bring the water to a boil; gradually stir in the oatmeal. Add the lemon peel or cinnamon stick, if using, at this point. Let the mixture boil gently, about 5 minutes stirring often. Then strain it through a colander to catch any big bits—this is supposed to be a drink, more or less. Add the butter and the sugar to the liquid and stir until smooth. Stir in any desired flavorings. Serve warm in a basin (a la Mr. Woodhouse) or in a cup. Makes one large serving.

Go ahead and try this on the next damp, chilly day. Mr. Woodhouse would be proud.  

Bobbie Gay, the 800-number operator for JASNA, is also the Regional Coordinator for Southern Arizona and the Associate Coordinator for the 2006 Tucson AGM.  

JASNA News v.21, no. 1, Spring 2005, p. 14

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