Over the weekend, Kitchen Arts and Letters, the wonderful culinary bookshop on New York’s Upper East Side, held a sale. I scampered over and, among other treasures, came away with something called The Eccentric Cookbook, by one Richard, Earl of Bradford. The 1985 cover showcases the author sporting one of those aprons made to look like a lady’s body—or, in this case, her brassiere and garter belt.
As promised, the cookbook is idiosyncratic. It is a strange combination of anecdotes and recipes, and the eccentrics profiled within run the gamut from historic figures, to folkloric oddities, to vaguely wacky people in the author’s social circle. The recipes that follow these either do, or don’t, have anything to do with said eccentrics. Examples:
Parsimonious Mr. Densham, vicar of Warleggan in Cornwall, never visited his parishioners. He kept them at bay with a tall fence and fierce dogs; they ceased churchgoing. He propped cardboard cutouts of them in the pews and is said to have preached his final sermon before these and five others, including two reporters. He died in 1953—perhaps from his diet of nettles and porridge?
(A recipe for nettles follows.)
Charlotte Cibber failed at everything—including dressing as a man, because in this guise she had the misfortune to have a very rich young woman fall hopelessly in love with her and she was forced to take up valeting to escape her attentions. Charlotte was bankrupted twice, despite trying the widest possible variety of jobs. She was by turn, among other things, an actress, grocer, innkeeper, and sausage maker.
(A recipe for sausages follows.)
Henry Cope was known as the Green Man of Brighton. Picture if you can a man who wore green from head to foot—so much so that his face reflected all this greenery rather as a buttercup held under the chin reflects yellow. His carriage and groom were green, and his home was. It’s a wonder he didn’t feel seasick in his green environs. Needless to say he ate only green-stuffs!
I think his death is rather sad—walking one day on the cliff-tops by the sea, he came to the edge and just kept walking …
(Recipes for green stuff follow.)
In short, there is nothing in this book one would choose to cook, let alone eat. Eccentric and its variants, are rarely adjectives one wants applied to food. Especially if one has ever suffered under the culinary whims of such types. The hypothetical quickly goes from amusing to horrifying.
There is a restaurant here in New York that I rarely hear talked about. It is deeply peculiar. The space itself is crammed from floor to rafters with dusty tchotchkes and bric-a-brac. The display case is jammed with ancient pastries. The German proprietor (who is also the chef, waiter, and bus-boy) has enormous white whiskers and dresses in a towering toque. He looks like a cross between a cartoon character and a novelty beer stein. The menu boasts of a lifetime spent cooking for dignitaries and Hollywood stars; the food options are suspiciously wide-ranging. If one so chooses, one may take “breakfast in bed”—literally within a grubby bed in a sort of closet. The chef will then bring you your food on a tray.
I must confess, I have not eaten here, although I have purchased pastries just so as to experience it. I am not sure what I find more disconcerting: the online reviewers who seem shocked and outraged that the crab-cakes benedict they ordered were inedible, or those who left feeling that they had experienced authentic culinary artistry.
One hears of the imminent demise of this place from time to time. And I always feel a pang. I like that such strangeness can endure. I do not wish to experience the chef’s “breakfast in bed”—I merely want it to exist, at a safe remove. It is, as the Earl of Bradford might say, rather sad.