Food styles change with the times and food historian Suzanne Corbett’s The Gilded Table: Recipes and Table History from the Campbell House colorfully captures the gilded age of Victorian cuisine. The lavish hardback, beautifully written and illustrated, is part history and part cookbook. And it’s a book that should be on the shelf of anyone who appreciates good food throughout the ages.
The Gilded Table reflects the history and recipes from the Campbell family, wealthy residents of St. Louis, whose palatial Victorian townhouse is now a popular museum. Fortunately for history buffs and foodies alike, family members who inherited the home left it largely intact with furnishings, tableware, and cookware from the Victorian era’s lavish gilded age. The result is a time capsule of this rich period in time.
This history/cookbook is based on Virginia Campbell’s own handwritten recipe book. Of course, the recipes have been updated and expanded for today’s cook. (Victorian cook’s recipes were often little more than ingredient lists.) The recipes reflect the era’s food tastes and what author Corbett calls “tableways,” the opulent styling and multiple dishes and cutlery required for their decadent feasts.
“Preserving House & Table, the first 65 pages of this beautiful book, offer a fascinating step-back-in-time into the Victorian era, its food and the Campbell family and their home. The author’s lively and authoritative writing, along with historic and new photographs of antique tableware, table settings, and other historic artifacts, make this part of the book really come alive. I felt like I’d stepped onto the set of the popular PBS “Downton Abbey” TV set and, as I read this, became completely engaged in the lives and frequent dinner parties of the Campbell family.
Corbett has divided the book into four other major sections: Spring & Summer Plates; Harvest & Holiday Fare; Specialties of the House; and Feasting Like a Campbell. The first three are further divided into: Breads, Soups, and Skillet Cakes; Meats and Seafood; Vegetables and Sides; Cakes, Cookies, Creams, and Puddings; and Pickles, Jams, and Libations. The book also includes an easy-to-use recipe index, divided by ingredient (e.g. beef) and by type of food (e.g. cookies). Not every recipe includes a color photograph. However, enough do (all produced by talented photographer James Corbett III) to temp the reader and make this an attractive book.
Many of the recipes include text from Virginia Campbell’s handwritten cookbook that provides fascinating historical context. The author has also added boxes in nearly every recipe that provide historical tidbits about dishes, ingredients or cooking techniques or tips for success with the dishes that make the recipes even more interesting.
While the recipes in The Gilded Table come from another time, many of them are timeless and could fit well into a modern family’s menu. For instance, the recipe for fried chicken, which is simply flour, salt and pepper, oil, parsley, and milk, is easy and results in delectably crispy chicken that any family would enjoy. Likewise, the recipe for fried oysters makes a tasty, crunchy rendition of this seafood that we loved.
Intriguing Historic Recipes
Some recipes in The Gilded Table, like Stewed Celery, Hot Stuffed Eggs in Tomato Sauce, and Boiled Turkey, strike me as more historic than practical for today’s cooks. Corbett writes about the stewed celery recipe, “Guests dining at Virginia Campbell’s table could always expect the best. The menu reflected dishes prepared with the finest and most prestigious ingredients such as celery. Celery was then an expensive vegetable, warranting its own special serving trays or vases produced in the finest of porcelains or silver.” Little old celery? Who knew?
And that’s the joy of The Gilded Table: Recipes and Table History from the Campbell House. Cooks will enjoy trying the many timeless recipes like Pumpkin Pie, Spice Nut Cookies, Baked Macaroni with Cheese, and Salmon with Caper Sauce. They’ll also love traveling back in time and playing with more historic recipes like chocolate ice cream (frozen in ice cream molds) and classics like Cherries Jubilee and Mint Julep. I want to try the book’s recipe for Pickled Oysters, a dish that’s enjoying a renaissance among chefs here in the Northwest. In fact, thanks to the talents and skillful work of author Suzanne Corbett and photographer Jim Corbett III, The Gilded Table may inspire many of us to re-create our own Gilded Age of cooking. – Bobbie Hasselbring, Editor realfoodtraveler.com