03 November 2009

A Book of Flowers


I recently lamented that the fabulously eccentric Sitwell siblings never compiled a family cookbook. I have no doubt it would have been a wonderful document. In his memoir, Voices, Frederic Prokosch remembers Edith Sitwell:


“It was delightful to watch Miss Sitwell. Her face was rather llamalike, but she had a gift amounting to genius for adapting it to a “period.” When she spoke of the Elizabethan it assumed a jeweled symmetry. She touched an imaginary ruffle and fingered an invisible necklace. When I mentioned the medieval she looked Gothic instantaneously. Her voice grew liturgical, her hands were peaked in prayer, even the wrinkles of her dress assumed a sculptural rigidity.”

And he tells this story about Sitwell and the critic Edmund Wilson:

The butler slid past with a tray of boiled shrimps. Edmund Wilson approached the sofa with a glass in his hand. He plucked a shrimp from the tray and dipped it in the mayonnaise. He held it in the air as he sipped his whisky. I watched him with frozen horror as the shrimp slid from its toothpick and gracefully landed on Miss Sitwell’s coiffure. But Miss Sitwell ignored it and continued with serenity.
“It is always the incantatory element which basically appeals to me. In Paradise Lost the incantatory is dominant. ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is a murmuration of the cryptomagical. And as for Eliot….”
“’The Holy Men’ is pure incantation,” said Edmund Wilson. He kept peering at the shrimp with a scrupulous curiosity. “I heard Eliot read it aloud once. It was a marvel of rhythmically.”
“Even in Dryden,” said Miss Sitwell, “there is a sense of abracadabra. When I read Dryden I can hear the tom-toms beating in the jungle. Now with Pope it is different. There is still a hint of incantation but it has risen to a fragile, almost crystalline tinkle…”
I kept staring at the shrimp with a feverish fascination. It lay poised on Miss Sitwell like and amulet of ivory. I visualized it in terms of the Victorian, the Elizabethan, the Gothic. I suddenly began to rather like Edith Sitwell.”


The closest thing there is to an Edith Sitwell “cookbook” is in her edited collection entitled, A Book of Flowers. Sitwell complied a book of writings by gardeners, poets, philosophers, a saint and a few cooks. She seemed rather fond of the elixirs and waters blended in old books. Here is a famous tonic.

A Cordial Water of Sir Walter Raleigh

Take a gallon of Strawberries, and put into them a pinte of aqua vitae, let them stand four or five dayes, strain them gently out, and sweeten the water as you please, with fine Sugar, or else with perfume.

Sitwell credits the recipe to a cook for Queen Henrietta Maria of France from the 1655 edition of a book entitled, The Queen’s Closet Opened.



We never find out if Edmund Wilson retrieves the crustacean from Miss Sitwell’s coif. Use your imagination for a cryptomagical conclusion…

... and give a listen to Edith Sitwell discussing her poem, Two Loves.

1 comment:

  1. Delicious! as her receipt for cowslip cream. Wasn't she just It?
    ( see my cowslip cream post) Thank you for this one. la

    ReplyDelete

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