NINETEENTH-CENTURY GENDER STUDIES ISSUE 3.2 (SUMMER 2007) Camping in the Kitchen: Locating Culinary Authority in Elizabeth Robins Pennell's Delights of Delicate Eating

Jamie Horrocks
<1>Elizabeth Robbins Pennell begins her 1896 collection of gastronomical essays, The Delights of Delicate Eating, with an unexpected renunciation. In her introduction, she announces, with uncharacteristic brevity, that her collection "does not pretend to be a 'Cook's Manual'" (8). This delineation of what her essays are not instantly checks the expectations of curious readers seeking out supper suggestions, readers who have turned to Delights hoping to find exactly what we hope to find in the
more » ... okbooks we peruse: a narrator whose culinary expertise far exceeds our own. At the same time, however, Pennell's definitional protest draws a smile because it asserts, with considerable cheek, what the essays themselves attest-that Delights is, essentially, a cookbook. (1) <2>This initial insistence that Delights is not what it appears to be appropriately derives from the pen of an author who established her culinary authority by renouncing her knowledge of cookery. To Henry Cust, the Pall Mall editor who commissioned the essays of the unknown journalist and thereby propelled her to short-lived literary fame, Pennell confided that she was completely helpless in the kitchen (Williams xv). Pennell openly admitted as much to readers of her memoir, confessing that her "only qualifications [for writing the cookery column that would be collected in Delights] were the healthy appetite and the honest love of a good dinner usually considered unbecoming to the sex" (Cookery 2). The cookbook collection she amassed over the course of her life in England-comprised of more than 400 limited, rare, and first editions that now reside in the Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress-began from gifts offered to Pennell by friends who enjoyed her company but couldn't abide her dinners. (2) Thus, as odd as it might seem, this non-"Cook's Manual" is authored by a non-cook-a very humorous prospect, indeed. <3>The reallocation of authority prefigured in Pennell's declaration that what is, is not-a gesture she repeats throughout Delights-lies at the foundation of my argument, which, for convenience, I've separated into three segments: first, that as Elizabeth Pennell abdicates her authority as both a writer and a food critic, she adopts the voice of aestheticism, a discourse dominated in the 1890s by male writers and artists but becoming increasingly amenable to women(3); second, that Pennell's appropriation of aestheticist tropes, themes, and rhetoric is quickly subverted by her employment of aesthetic camp, which provides her with a methodology for critiquing and revising the philosophy she adopts(4); and third, that Pennell's efforts transform the practice of cookery into a philosophy that aspires to the condition of art.(5) The revision of aestheticism that Pennell achieves as she sheds one kind of intellectual authority for another offers readers a model of self-critique that we would do well to put into practice, revising our notions about who "did" nineteenth-century aestheticism and how, with the same candor, the same sympathy, that Pennell exercises in The Delights of Delicate Eating. <4>Elizabeth Pennell, an American expatriate who moved to London to continue her career in journalism shortly after her marriage in 1884, wrote the essays that would be collected and published first as the Wares of Autolycus and then as The Delights of Delicate Eating while working for the Pall Mall Gazette throughout the 1890s. In the text, the essays are arranged so as to correspond with the order of meals in a day and courses in a formal supper (beginning with chapters on "A Perfect Breakfast" and ending with tributes to "Indispensable Cheese" and "Enchanting Coffee"), as do many other Victorian cookery books. With its premeditated categorization of foods, then, Delights call to mind the kitchen-dominated manuals of domestic economy popularized in mid-century by writers like Eliza Acton and, of course, Mrs. Isabella Beeton.(6) But as Pennell's introductory assertion makes clear, her literary project descends only nominally from the "Housewife's Companions" (Delights 8) authored by these women. Instead of the direct, "iterative" (Meir 134) voice that gives Acton's Modern Cookery for Private Families its unassailable note of finality, for example, Pennell offers readers her thoughts on "The