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? 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 half–a–pound,And stews them in a pan until they’re brown’d.What’s next my dexterous little girl will do?She pops the meat into the savoury stew,With curry–powder, table–spoonsfuls three,And milk a pint (the richest that may be),And, when the dish has stewed for half–an–hour,A lemon’s ready juice she’ll o’er it pour;Then, bless her! then she gives the luscious potA very gentle boil—and serves quite hot.P.S.—Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish;Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind of fishAre 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.