I recently reviewed William Sitwell’s book, A History of Food in 100 Recipes, for The Good Web Guide. Meticulously researched and full of intriguing detail, it enlightened me as to the origins of the fork, the supermarket, tomatoes and chocolate and introduced me to some colourful foodie characters of the past. One character in particular – Dr William Kitchiner – struck a chord.
A medical practitioner, scientist and inventor from the early 19th century, Kitchiner’s great passion was, in fact, food. Such was his love of dining and cooking that he penned his own recipe book, The Cook’s Oracle, in which he attempted to standardise cooking measurements. He also formed a dining club (named with glorious pomp, ‘A Committee of Taste’) that sought to bring together the great gourmets of the age. But it was his attitude to punctuality that most endears him to me. He writes:
“What would be agreeable to the stomach and restorative to the system if served at five o’clock, will be uneatable and un-digestible at a quarter past.
And what wise words! For what could be more irksome to a cook than diners who tarry and trail their way to the table once the call that “dinner is ready” has been made? And is there anything more frustrating than being forced to wait until everyone else has been served before tucking into the plate of freshly cooked food laid before you?
Hot food should be eaten immediately and to make people sit there, watching it ruin, is, I’ve always thought, a grossly misguided attempt at good manners; more punishing than polite, and certainly an insult to the chef. As such, in houses that adhere to such folly, I always ask to be helped last (“oh, let so-and-so go before me!”) and make my excuses to the bathroom if they insist that ‘guests’ or ‘ladies’ take the doomed first serving.
Much like my late grandfather, who believed that “five minutes early is late,” Kitchiner maintained that “it was better to be a quarter of an hour early than half an hour late” and had little time for the notion – still alive and well today – that “an invitation to come at five seems to be generally understood to mean six.” He believed that five o’ clock means “five precisely… five o’ clock exactly” and that those who showed up after the appointed hour were merely ‘paralysing’ the entertainment.
As someone who frequently gets ribbed for being overtly timely (as if there is such a thing) and not fashionably late at all, I think it’s a wonderfully fresh perspective. Had I been born in the late 18th century (and been invited to the same parties as Kitchiner), I fancy we would have spent much time together and, indeed, had lots to talk about. As the only two to arrive punctually anywhere, we could have bonded over our shared love of good food and our dislike of the “blundering, ill-bred boobies” (his words) that so often keep us waiting for it.
A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell is available to buy from Amazon.