Laurence Sterne (1713 -18 March 1768)

It's Mothering Sunday today, and if you'd rather catch up with that, you can read about it here -

otherwise read on....

‘I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got ... almost into the middle of my fourth volume—and no farther than to my first day's life—'tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out ... write as I will ... I shall never overtake myself.... At the worst I shall have one day the start of my pen—and one day is enough for two volumes—and two volumes will be enough for one year.'

From Tristram Shandy (Vol 4 Ch 13) by Laurence Sterne

Where would English letters be without those eighteenth and nineteenth century vicars such as Sydney Smith, Gilbert White, James Woodforde and Francis Kilvert, all blessed with a classical education and lots of time? The earliest of those great literary vicars was Laurence Sterne, author of ‘Tristram Shandy’ and he died of consumption two hundred and forty four years ago today.

Coxwold is a pretty village on the edge of the Hambleton Hills in North Yorkshire. It’s famous because the vicarage was Sterne’s home towards the end of his life. Sterne renamed the vicarage ‘Shandy Hall’ as a testimony to his most famous work and it stands today virtually unaltered from his time. It’s now a museum owned by the Laurence Sterne Trust.

Sterne was born into a poor branch of an otherwise wealthy family and his father was an Ensign in the British Army. Sterne senior was the unreliable younger son of a younger son in the days when primogeniture meant that the oldest son got the lot and the younger ones were inevitably destined for the Church or the Army even if, as in Sterne's case they were quite unsuitable. The eighteenth century was also a time when preferment in the Church of England depended the patronage of the rich, and eventually Sterne's family connections led him to parishes in North Yorkshire.

Sterne was a very unsatisfactory vicar and his unhappy marriage led him to frequent indiscretions with housemaids, opera singers and other men’s wives. His wife was very disturbed - at one point she went completely mad and thought she was the Queen of Bohemia.  Her wayward - and I have to say sometimes lascivious, husband was really just too big a personality for the life he led, like Samuel Pepys he bursts exuberantly out of it in all directions.

Sterne is not the easiest read, but he is very funny. Tristram Shandy is bizarre, beginning with the author’s account of his own conception and following a story line that is anything but linear; full of asides, diversions and incidental stories and never getting to the point. As you can see from the extract above when he gets to volume four he's still only one day old. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said  that Sterne was ‘a squirrel soul leaping restlessly from branch to branch’. The author of Tristram Shandy is so brimming with enthusiasm he gets lost in his own narrative, and you can’t help but love him for it.

Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy near the end of his life. It made him famous overnight and he loved fame and all the opportunities it gave him - a London social life, good food, lots of drink, pretty women....

As you can imagine for such a full on character, there are food references in everything he wrote. Right at the beginning of ‘A Sentimental Journey through England and France’ the author is in a Calais eating house....

'I sat down to my dinner upon a fricasseed chicken, so incontestably in France that had I died that night of an indigestion….' He goes on to say that the King of France would have inherited all his worldly goods. The implication is however that as soon as the British traveller gets to France the food is indigestible.

So chicken fricassee it is. This is adapted slightly from a recipe in 'Clubland Cooking' by Robin McDouall, subtitled ‘Recipes from the Gentlemen’s Clubs of London’ and published in 1974. It’s a rather dated book, full of the sort grown-up nursery food gentlemen’s clubs used to produce and probably still do.

Most chicken fricassees seem to be ways of rehashing some dried out left over old fowl by smothering it in thick white sauce, I like this much lighter version.

Pulled and Grilled Chicken Fricassee

You will need a cooked chicken.  You could poach it rather than roast it, then you can use the lovely stock for something else. Joint the chicken and divide the white meat from the dark. Leave until completely cold.

Make a paste from a tablespoon of English mustard powder, a teaspoon of curry powder and enough Worcester Sauce to bind it to a thick paste.

Take the cold cooked thighs and drumsticks, preferably with their skin intact, and cut deep slashes right through to the bone. Put your paste in the slashes and roll the chicken in seasoned flour or coarse cornmeal. Fry in butter until very brown.

Take the breast meat and break into chunky pieces. Warm 200ml of single cream in a saucepan and add a few peppercorns and a bayleaf and some salt. Heat the white meat gently in the cream until piping hot. The cream thickens naturally as it cooks.

To serve, put the white meat in the centre of a warmed serving dish and place the devilled legs around. Sprinkle with parsley. The contrast betwen the spicy dark meat and the creamy white is what makes this dish.

I think watercress salad would go well with this. They probably serve it with mash in the Athenaeum.

Fame is a bee.

It has a song—

It has a sting—

Ah, too, it has a wing. 

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)


Anna Louise Lupton said...

As a young child I spent many an hour sat in Mr and Mrs Charlie Smedleys kitchen playing with their old dog.While my father and Mr Smedley discussing farming issues. A right Yorkshire farmhouse kitchen with a black range. Today it serves a different purpose -guests staying with us at go to see where Sterne lived taking in the history and enjoying the garden.What guests will never experience the wonderful hospitality of the Smedleys which James Herriot in his capacity as a vet enjoyed too.

Grazing Kate said...

Hi Liz, I remember eagerly starting my university reading list in the summer of 1989, the first book on there was Tristram Shandy. I was going to study Russian and French.... Our hopeful (and also rather playful) tutor had told us that over the summer we should read the entire works of Shakespeare, the Bible, The Koran, and basically the whole canon of classical literature. I think I managed about 100 dutiful pages of Tristram and then basically gave up on the whole list...