Thackeray

Nearly every writing class I’ve ever taken has, at some point, trotted out the same piece of age-old wisdom: the classic know your audience. Writing comedy? Know your audience. Writing marketing copy? Know your audience. Writing a blog? Know your audience (luckily, you probably already do, since it’s mostly just your best friend and your mom at first).

You don’t hear that advice as often when learning to cook, but I find it even more important in the kitchen. How much salt should I add? Know your audience. Making a vegetarian main course? Know your audience. Serving a snack that’s basically just aerosolized peanut dust? dairy-filled dessert full of peanuts amazing? Know your audience, or that friend with the allergies will never come over to your house again.

One of the best literary examples of a host who willfully neglects this piece of advice is in William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel Vanity Fair, when Joseph Sedley gleefully encourages Becky Sharp to try her first curry, knowing she can’t take the heat:

“Oh, excellent!” said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper.

“Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp,” said Joseph, really interested.

“A chili,” said Rebecca, gasping. “Oh yes!” She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some. “How fresh and green they look,” she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. “Water, for Heaven’s sake, water!” she cried.

Most of us prefer not to torture our dinner guests, but it’s no wonder that Thackeray plays this for laughs: He probably did something similar himself. Born in Calcutta, where his father worked in the Board of Revenue for the British East India Company, Thackeray developed a high tolerance for spice. Although he returned to England when he was five, he retained his love of Indian food. He even wrote a poem, “Kitchen Melodies–Curry,” documenting the British way of preparing it:

THREE pounds of veal my darling girl prepares,
And chops it nicely into little squares;
Five onions next procures the little minx
(The biggest are the best, her Samiwel thinks),
And Epping butter nearly halfapound,
And stews them in a pan until theyre brownd.
Whats next my dexterous little girl will do?
She pops the meat into the savoury stew,
With currypowder, tablespoonsfuls three,
And milk a pint (the richest that may be),
And, when the dish has stewed for halfanhour,
A lemons ready juice shell oer it pour;
Then, bless herthen she gives the luscious pot
A very gentle boiland serves quite hot.
P.S.—Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish;
        Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind of fish
        Are fit to make A Curry. ’Tis, when done,
        A dish for Emperors to feed upon. 

Whether or not Thackeray tried to turn up the heat on his guests, he certainly did test their limits in other ways–particularly their stomach capacity. He was an over-the-top dinner party host, serving dishes like roast suckling pig, turtle and venison; one gathering featured 17 courses, including “about 24 cakes of different kinds.” He was also an over-the-top guest. In a letter, he described his typical routine: “I reel from dinner party to dinner party–I wallow in turtle and swim in claret and Shampang.”

But although Thackeray’s taste buds adapted to his chili pepper habit, his digestive system didn’t. When he was only in his forties, he suffered from recurring painful stomach troubles; his medical records cited “extreme dietary indiscretions” as the primary cause, mostly linked to alcohol and–yes–spicy foods. One night, after returning home from yet another dinner party, he had a vomiting attack so violent, he burst a blood vessel in his brain. At 52, his indulgence was the end of him.

From his letters, it’s clear Thackeray knew his tastes were the cause of his troubles.”In London & everything else there has been a little too much feasting,” he writes. “Can’t I, for heaven’s sake, be moderate?” It’s a question he answered a little too late. It’s one thing to know your audience. But when it comes to eating, perhaps it’s more important to  heed another piece of classic advice: know thyself … and know thy limits.

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Thackeray immortalized his method for making curry in verse, but Kitchen Melodies is a little lacking as a real recipe, and includes questionable details. Only milk–no stock, tomatoes or water? An Indian curry using veal? And if Thackeray was such a fan of chilis, where are they?

Luckily, we do have a more exhaustive record of how British cooks adapted Indian curries at the time. The first British cookbook with Indian recipes, The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy, was published in 1747 and included an entry for curry very similar to Thackeray’s poem (although it did include stock in addition to the dairy).

It would be most recognizable as butter curry in contemporary Indian restaurants, but in a nod to Thackeray’s spicier side, I adapted the recipe to include chilis and tomatoes in a dish that would be more reminiscent of a jalfrezi-style curry. It’s not designed to torture your tastebuds, but just in case, I’m compelled to add a disclaimer that Paper and Salt is not liable for any chili-pepper related deaths associated with this or any other recipes.

2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 1/2 pounds beef chuck, cut in 2-inch cubes
1 yellow onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 green chilis, de-seeded and minced
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 cup beef broth, divided
fresh cilantro for garnish

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Pat beef dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Add to the hot oil and sear on all sides, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a bowl.
  3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter to the empty Dutch oven over medium heat. When hot, add onion; cook 4 minutes, until translucent. Add chilis, garlic and the spices (through to coriander). Cook 2 minutes more, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned.
  4. Add diced tomatoes with their liquid and the brown sugar. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat. Blend with a stick blender into a chunky paste.
  5. Add the beef back to the pot. Stir in beef broth and lemon zest. Cover and transfer to the oven. Braise 1.5 to 2 hours, or until the beef is tender. (If needed, add a little more water or broth.)
  6. Serve curry over rice, with cilantro for garnish, and yogurt for its cooling powers.
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