Courtly and Kosher: Dinner with Lady Judith Montefiore
Lady Judith Montefiore, one of the richest women of her era, was known for her kind heart and advocacy on behalf of the Jewish people. But few people know that she was also the anonymous “Lady” who authored the first Jewish cookbook to be published in the English language. This cookbook, along with her diaries, gives us a fascinating insight into kosher dining during England’s Regency era—an era that was famous for its scrumptious food and elegant dinner parties.
In 1846 the planet Neptune was discovered, the Potato Famine was raging in Ireland, the Liberty Bell cracked, the sewing machine was patented, and the United States went to war with Mexico. It was also the year when an anonymous English “Lady” published the first kosher cookbook in the English language: The Jewish Manual, or Practical Information in Jewish & Modern Cookery with a Collection of Valuable Recipes & Hints Relating to the Toilette.
For almost a century the identity of the person who wrote The Jewish Manual was a mystery. Then in the year 1983 some Jewish researchers, who were of course searching for something else entirely, came across an article from an October 1862 issue of England’s The Jewish Chronicle, which discussed a Yom Kippur sermon by Britain’s then chief rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Marcus Adler. Rabbi Adler suggested that a fitting memorial to Lady Judith Montefiore, who had recently passed away, would be to set up a fund to defray the dowry costs of a Jewish girl “who has distinguished herself by her unstained moral character.” Preference would be given to Jewish girls who had been trained to serve as Jewish cooks, since Lady Judith “wrote a book for Jewish cookery, or at least assisted in its composition.”
But if the mystery of the cookbook’s author has been solved, the solution creates yet another question: Why would Lady Montefiore—who was a fabulously wealthy woman and presumably had a house full of servants—write a cookbook? Although the lady of the house was expected to supervise the menu and the household accounts, what could someone like Judith Montefiore know or care about the finer details of boiling and braising?
The answer may be found in the age when she lived, a time of great change for England and an era of unprecedented wealth and opulence due to the Industrial Revolution, which created a new class in class-conscious Britain—well-to-do manufacturers, merchants, and financiers (such as her husband, Sir Moses Montefiore). All this created an opportunity for the country’s Jews to climb up the social ladder. But that climb had its dangers. The more open society often led to assimilation, and since dining out was practically the national pastime during the nineteenth century the first entry into “fashionable” non-Jewish circles was usually at the non-kosher dinner table.
The Jewish home wasn’t immune to the influences of the “street” either. As Lady Montefiore laments in the Editor’s Preface to her cookbook, wealthy Jewish girls were no longer being instructed in the domestic arts: “The various acquirements, which in the present day are deemed essential to female education, rarely leave much time or inclination for the humble study of household affairs; and it not unfrequently happens, that the mistress of a family understands little more concerning the dinner table over which she presides, than the graceful arrangement of the flowers which adorn it; thus she is incompetent to direct her servant, upon whose inferior judgment and taste she is obliged to depend.”
The Jewish Manual was therefore an attempt to “guide the young Jewish housekeeper in the luxury and economy of ‘The Table,’ on which so much of the pleasure of social intercourse depends”—i.e., teach the young woman some useful culinary tricks—and show that one could keep kosher and still eat well!
When Do We Eat?
The remainder of the evening we passed in reading and walking, and at ten o’clock our friend came according to appointment to supper, which consisted of a roast duck, green peas, potatoes, and a boiled gooseberry pudding, and an excellent bottle of red port. We passed till twelve o’clock in conversation at which we took leave of our friend, and after returning thanks to God, retired to rest.—Diary of Lady Montefiore
In an age when diversions and entertainments were less plentiful, dinner was often a person’s main social event and therefore the eagerly awaited highlight of the day. So what time was dinner served?
At the beginning of the nineteenth century dinner was usually eaten sometime between two and three o’clock in the afternoon. The early hour allowed people to take advantage of natural sunlight to light the dining area (candles were expensive!) It also enabled people who lived in the country to return safely home before nightfall, when the roads lit only by moonlight became dangerous. By the end of the first decade, though, fashionable London was sitting down to the dinner table at around eight o’clock at night (the price of candles wasn’t a concern for the very rich) and the middle class slowly followed suit, with dinner being served sometime between four and six o’clock. Of course, Jewish families would eat their evening Shabbos meal after nightfall, regardless of the fashions of the times, and so for at least one night of the week they would eat their meal by the glow of candlelight.
In Lady Montefiore’s personal diary, which she began on her wedding day—June 10, 1812—she often mentions who she dined with and what she ate. She also discloses that she much preferred small dinner parties where the guests were family members and close friends. But as the wife of Sir Moses Montefiore she would be expected to entertain on a more lavish scale. What might she have served at one of her dinners?
Since one’s table was considered to be a symbol of a person’s wealth, the answer can be summed up in one word: lots!
The meal always began with soup, and an etiquette guidebook of the time, True Politeness: A Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies, advises to never refuse it. “If you do not eat it,” writes the author, “you can toy with it until it is followed by fish. ... Soup must be eaten from the side, not the point of the spoon; and in eating it, be careful not to make a noise, by strongly inhaling the breath: this habit is excessively vulgar; you cannot eat too quietly.”
The first course also included fish, which was followed by several meat and vegetable dishes. In fact, anywhere from five to 25 different dishes were served at this course, depending upon the wealth and rank of the hosts. The serving dishes were placed in the middle of the dining table and passed round to the guests, and since there was so much food a guest wasn’t expected to sample every dish. And that was just the first course; after it was cleared away there was more to come.
The second course was much like the first, but without the soup. Various meat and fowl dishes were served, which were usually accompanied by several savory and sweet side dishes. While the main part of the meal would end here for most people, the very wealthy might serve ten courses or more on special occasions. For instance, at the coronation banquet for King George IV in the year 1820, the dinner menu for the 300 invited guests included 20 first courses, 22 main courses, 31 desserts, and approximately 1,000 different side dishes.
After the main courses were concluded, the tablecloth was removed and dessert was served. The dessert course served at the dining room table was usually a light repast of pastries, fruit, nuts, and ices. For those who were still hungry, after dinner the group withdrew to the “withdrawing” (or drawing) room, where tea and coffee were served accompanied by more cakes and other desserts. If the guests lingered until late in the evening, a cold buffet supper (also referred to as “the tea board”) would be brought out. This meal might include cold meats, more savories, more desserts and, of course, more tea. The removal of the tea board was a polite way for hosts to signal that it was time for their guests to go home.
What Do We Eat?
We ordered dinner to be ready at four o’clock … which consisted of boiled soles and peas, and beef-steaks and potatoes, ale and a pint of wine.—Diary of Lady Montefiore
The number of dishes served at even a small family dinner shows that nineteenth-century Englishmen had a wider variety of foods available to them than we might suppose. A middle-class family could afford to eat beef or mutton at least once a day. Vegetables such as carrots, peas, turnips, and onions were in plentiful supply, as were potatoes, which were once considered to be poisonous but had become a staple of the English diet.
Since this was the period when Britannia was beginning her rule of the Seven Seas, new and exciting spices such as nutmeg, cardamom, saffron, ginger, and cloves were being added to dishes, along with pepper, which was been a delicacy a few centuries earlier. Beverages such as tea, coffee, and chocolate had also become affordable, as well as the sugar needed to sweeten them.
However, preserving food was still a problem and the fish and meat that appeared on the table would rarely meet the standard of freshness that we’re accustomed to today. And since a recipe for a single cake or pudding might call for a dozen eggs, the cholesterol level of the average person must have been extraordinarily high.
But Is It Kosher?
In addition to a fondness for eggs, cooks of that era loved to lavish all sorts of dishes with thick sauces made from cream and butter (perhaps to disguise the taste of the less-than-fresh fish and meat). Those sauces obviously posed a problem for the Jewish hostess who kept a kosher kitchen. Lady Montefiore’s cookbook addresses the issue by providing alternative recipes for things like “A Fish Sauce Without Butter,” a “Mushroom Sauce” that leaves out the cream, and a “Sauce Without Butter for a Boiled Pudding” (boiled puddings, which could be either savory or sweet, were a popular accompaniment to meat dishes).
The cookbook also gives as a glimpse into the uphill struggle that people like Lady Montefiore faced when it came to convincing their fellow Jews that one could maintain a kosher kitchen and serve all the most up-to-date dishes. Under the entry for Veloute and Bechamel, two popular sauces of the time, she writes:
“These preparations are so frequently mentioned in modern cookery, that we shall give the receipts for them, although they are not appropriate for the Jewish kitchen. Veloute is a fine white sauce, made by reducing a certain quantity of well-flavoured consomme or stock, over a charcoal fire, and mixing it with boiling cream, stirring it carefully till it thickens.
“Bechamel is another sort of fine white stock, thickened with cream, there is more flavouring in this than the former, the stock is made of veal, with some of the smoked meats used in English kitchens, butter, mace, onion, mushrooms, bay leaf, nutmeg, and a little salt. An excellent substitute for these sauces can in Jewish kitchens be made in the following way:
“Take some veal broth flavored with smoked beef, and the above named seasonings, then beat up two or three yolks of eggs, with a little of the stock and a spoonful of potatoe flour, stir this into the broth, until it thickens, it will not be quite as white, but will be excellent.”
An even greater challenge was to find a palatable substitute for the dish that was all the rage in the early decades of the nineteenth century: Turtle Soup.
Perhaps future generations will look back on our generation’s current craze for sushi and scratch their heads, just as we can only wonder about the English madness for Turtle Soup. But the fact remains that no dinner party could be considered first rate without this exotic dish. Turtles had to be imported from the Cayman Islands, located in the Caribbean, and so the soup was very expensive to make—a detail that probably contributed a great deal to its popularity since during the Regency period aristocratic hostesses vied to outdo one another to show off their wealth.
Of course, the cost didn’t matter to the hostess who kept kosher since turtles, no matter where they come from, are treif (not kosher). So what could the Jewish hostess do? Actually, the kosher-keeping hostess was in the same boat as middle-class non-Jewish women who couldn’t afford the real thing. Therefore, a recipe for Mock Turtle Soup was developed which used a calf’s head instead of turtle to give the soup its rich distinctive flavor.
Lady Montefiore included this modified version in her cookbook, thereby ensuring that her contemporaries could give a dinner party that was both unquestionably fashionable and one hundred percent kosher.