In an editorial response to Maurice Francis Egan’s article “Dinner with Novelists” (originally published in The Literary Northwest)—an article devoted to the “art of dinning in literature”—it is quickly brought to our attention that Dr. Egan found some of the most tantalizing literary dishes in the novels of Ouida. I would certainly have to agree with Dr. Egan on that point. So much so, in fact, that with the goal of enriching the experience of reading her novels and short stories, I took several opportunities to try some of the food and drink recipes found in her work while reading them. In the spirit of bringing the literary dining experience to life, I am presenting a list of five appealing Ouidean food and beverage mentions. I haven’t tried all the recipes listed here; nevertheless, I still recommend matching these meal and drink choices with their corresponding stories for the full effect:
1. Puck - Ducks Bigorrés
Ouida’s Puck (1870) is nearly as much a story about the culinary pleasures of life as it about the nature of art in theater. Food and dinning play such a huge role in the narrative that the novel ends with the Toy-terrier, Fanfreluche, stating that “there is nothing on Earth satisfactory except—A GOOD DINNER.” This book is often cited for the lengthy set of instructions for ideal dining outlined by Ouida in Chapter Eighteen. Along such lines, there is a reference to Ducks Bigorrés (referring, most likely, to a region in southwestern France) found in Chapter Ten which calls for the pairing of duck with “Seville oranges.” I found a recipe for braised duck with Seville oranges on Goodfood that just might fit the description.
2. Friendship – English Tea
Tea plays almost as big a role in Ouida’s Friendship (1878) as dinning plays in Puck. This point is most visible in the scenes set around the tea tables of Lord and Lady George Scropes-Stairs and their daughters. Ouida herself, it is known, was a fan of the smoky Lapsang Souchung (my personal favorite varietal as well). For this novel, however, I recommend making yourself a perfect cup of English tea using either a FTGFOP second flush Darjeeling or an Earl Grey. If you can get your hands on it, the Fortnum & Mason’s Royal Blend makes for a very lovely cup.
3. Guilderoy – Soup, Fish, Prawns, and Capon
Although my actual diet would probably be closer in range to the past adherents of the Fabian Society than to any of Ouida’s cast of fine-dining aristocrats, I have often found the simple cuisine of some her peasant characters rather appetizing in description. That stated, Ouida's Guilderoy (1889) includes one of the author's most robust examples of a full course country meal. As a true blue-blooded aristocrat, protagonist Evelyn Herbert, Lord Guilderoy is accustomed to only the finest and most delicate cuisine. Even so, he cannot resist the quiet enjoyment of a rustic feast in the domicile of a self-deposed lord who owns little but a country cottage. This humble cottage is the place that John Vernon and his daughter, Gladys—the object of Guilderoy's temporary infatuation—call home. Linked here are some recipes for a plain soup, pan-fried fish, prawns with sherry, and lemon-thyme capon combination that are likely to live up to the spirit of the scene.
4. Syrlin – Claret and fruit
As a mystical bohemian, Lorraine Iona can be categorized as one of Ouida's philosopher character-types. In Syrlin (1890), Iona is portrayed as the ideal conversationalist for the novel's namesake. Usually hermitted-away in a Palestinian mud-hut, Iona's boho-chic style London flat comes complete with Turkish tobacco and coffee. However, it is a brief, inconspicuous remark couched in his observations on the eating habits of fin-de-siècle Londoners that I find best in accord with the pursuit of epicurean enjoyments. To quote the passage directly, Iona informs us, "Noon is the time to eat fruit; to eat it and make a meal of it with a glass or two of good claret." Consequently, I followed the advice of wise Lorraine, and I tried the combination for myself with some citrus, stone fruits, and fresh berries. In truth, I found the combination to be as pleasant as one imagines from reading it, and so I made sure to add it to this list.
5. "Little Grand..." – Milk Punch
Good food and drink references are not only found in Ouida's novels; her short-stories and novellas also feature some dishes and drink mixes of note. To illustrate this point, I was puzzled by a passing mention of "milk punch" that I came across in her story "Little Grand and the Marchioness". I never heard of such a drink before coming across it in this story. Now, this quasi-coming-of-age tale features an immiscible pair of budding young men who maintain somewhat of a love-hate relationship as they quarrel over their mutual love for a woman. The woman, as it turns out, is playing the two against each other. And much to the chagrin of the story's hero, St. John finds his seemingly flawlessly elegant maiden of a soulmate chugging Guinness Stout straight from the bottle. The dissonance made him feel the way that he felt after his first taste of milk punch. So, after curiosity got the better of me, I searched out this mysterious milk-based alcoholic beverage, and I learned that it brings together brandy, cream, simple syrup, and vanilla extract topped off with a nutmeg finish.
Ultimately, I found that the reference to "milk punch" was a perfect metaphor for the two main characters. Simply put, St. John would be the "milk" and Little Grand, the "punch." Try a glass or two of this mix-drink while reading this story, and its comedy and cleverness are sure to jump out of the page and into your heart.
Gilder, J. L & J. B. “Dinner with Novelists.” The Critic. Critic Printing and Publishing Company. June 25, 1892 vol. 17, no. 540, p. 358.