T.S. Eliot once asked his messenger boy what he would do with £5,000. “I’d have a good dinner,” the boy said. “Duckling and green peas, gooseberry tart and cream.” Having just moved to London, Eliot was impressed by the boy’s expensive taste. “Such is the society I move in in the city,” he wrote, where even 11-year-olds know their food.
In 1916, Eliot’s own dinners were much less extravagant. Having accepted a humble teaching post that included most meals, he was shocked at food prices in the city: “Living is going up. Eggs are three pence,” he wrote. Rather than suffer the costs of dining out, Eliot and his wife, Vivien, preferred to invite friends over—keeping budget in mind. “We had five people to lunch, the most ambitious attempt we have ever made,” Eliot wrote to his mother. “It is easier to have people to lunch than to dinner, of course, because of the impossibility of serving meat; at lunch fish and spaghetti suffice.”
But as his success grew, Eliot’s tastes became increasingly refined, just like that young messenger’s. “I like good food,” he wrote to publisher Geoffrey Faber in 1927. “I remember a dinner in Bordeaux, two or three dinners in Paris, a certain wine in Fontevrault, and shall never forget them.” He recalled, with particular relish, a dinner in Paris held by the journal Action Française. “A private room in one of the best restaurants – fifteen people – and the most exquisite dinner I have ever tasted,” he wrote. “I remember the canard aux oranges with permanent pleasure.”
It’s harder to make my Christmas list every year—that is, to think of physical, wrappable “things.” I still want, but the wanting is less immediate, less tangible. That’s why, with Eliot in mind, I’m hoping for experiences this year: learning to make the perfect pasta dough, trying my first Guatemalan food, cooking a meal without worrying about dishes afterward. They won’t gather dust, they’ll never need recharging, and I can always keep them with me. As Eliot wrote, “The pleasures of dining well are not transitory, but abide forever.”
“I got a small Christmas tree, although it was impossible to find in the shops any of the usual trinkets to adorn it,” Eliot wrote in 1918, when the Great War was under way. His most memorable meal, that canard aux oranges, is an ideal main course for this time of year, when cooking should have maximum impact for minimum stress. Compared with Thanksgiving turkeys, ducks are much more forgiving; at high heat, the fat under the skin renders into the meat, staying moist even when you’re roasting the bird whole.
Although Vivien handled most of the heavy lifting in the kitchen, her husband would often whip something up for himself. Cleaning up was another matter. “My wife has just got back from the country and as I have been doing some cooking in her absence. There is some filth,” he wrote in 1917. Our significant others and poetic geniuses aren’t so different after all! Ask them to take care of the dirty roasting pan this year, as another intangible gift to you.
(Adapted from Gourmet)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 (5- to 6-lbs.) Long Island duck
1 orange, halved
4 thyme sprigs
2 parsley sprigs
1 small onion, cut into 8 wedges
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup duck or veal stock
1/2 celery rib
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup fresh orange juice (from 1 to 2 oranges)
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 to 4 tablespoons veal stock
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon orange zest
1. Place oven rack in middle position and preheat to 475°F. Stir together salt, coriander, cumin, and pepper in a small bowl. Pat duck dry and sprinkle inside and out with spice mixture. Cut 1 half of orange into quarters and stuff in duck cavity with thyme, parsley and 4 onion wedges. Spread remaining 4 onion wedges in roasting pan with carrot and celery, then place duck on top of vegetables and roast 30 minutes (it will crackle loudly).
2. In a small bowl, squeeze juice from remaining half of orange and stir together with wine and stock. Pour wine mixture into roasting pan and reduce oven temperature to 350°F. Continue to roast duck until thermometer inserted into a thigh (close to but not touching bone) registers 170°F, 1 to 1 1/4 hours more.
3. Turn on broiler and broil duck 3 to 4 inches from heat until top is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Tilt duck to drain juices from cavity into pan and transfer duck to a cutting board, reserving juices in pan. Let duck stand 15 minutes.
4. While duck roasts, cook sugar in a dry 1-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, undisturbed, until it begins to melt. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until sugar melts into a deep golden caramel. Add orange juice, vinegar and salt (mixture will bubble and steam vigorously) and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until caramel is dissolved. Remove syrup from heat.
5. Discard vegetables from roasting pan and pour pan juices through a fine-mesh sieve into a 1-quart glass measure or bowl, then skim off and discard fat. Add enough stock to pan juices to total 1 cup liquid.
6. In a small bowl, cream together butter and flour. Bring pan juices to a simmer in a 1- to 2-quart heavy saucepan, then add butter mixture, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Add orange syrup and zest and simmer, whisking occasionally, until sauce is thickened slightly and zest is tender, about 5 minutes. Serve with duck.