Zest, wow wow sauce, and William Kitchiner’s magazine of taste

“Magazine” as in powder magazine, that is, not the periodical kind. A personal arsenal of condiments, created by Regency England’s foremost gastronome. As for zest and wow wow sauce… well, we’ll get to those in a minute.

William Kitchiner (1775–1827) was a physician, optician, amateur musician, and above all a lover of good food. His father, a coal merchant, had left him enough of a fortune that he could spend his career as he chose, and he spent a considerable portion of both his money and his time on food. He wrote a number of books, including a guide to choosing opera glasses, but he was best known for The Cook’s Oracle, as comprehensive a cookbook as ever there was, and as good a read as you’ll find in one too, at least if you like early nineteenth-century English humor. Most of the recipes in the book were tested by Kitchiner’s “Committee of Taste,” a panel of fellow gastronomes who gathered regularly at his home. These dinners were famous and famously strict: if the invitation was for five o’clock, the door was locked at two minutes after, and dinner was served precisely on schedule lest it suffer by waiting. At eleven, guests were expected to leave just as promptly.

He made all this clear in his standard invitation to dinner:

Dear Sir,—The honour of your company is requested, to dine with the Committee of Taste, on Wednesday next, the 10th instant.

The specimens will be placed on the table at five o’clock precisely, when the business of the day will immediately commence….

At the last general meeting, it was unanimously resolved—that

1st. An invitation to ETA BETA PI must be answered in writing, as soon as possible after it is received — within twenty-four possible at latest, —reckoning from that at which, it was dated: otherwise the secretary will have the profound regret to feel that the invitation has been definitely declined.

2nd. The secretary having represented that the perfection of the several preparations is so exquisitely evanescent that the delay of one minute, after the arrival at the meridian of concoction, will render them no longer worthy of men of taste :

Therefore, to ensure the punctual attendance of those illustrious gastrophilists who, on this occasion, are invited to join this high tribunal of taste—for their own pleasure, and the benefit of their country—it is irrevocably resolved— “That the janitor be ordered not to admit any visitor, of whatever eminence of appetite, after the hour at which the secretary shall have announced that the specimens are ready.”1

Few complained or turned down an invitation, though, because the food was so good.

portrait of William Kitchiner from a bust done in classical style

William Kitchiner, a portrait from a bust by Josephus Kendrick. In real life he appeared in glasses and a frock-coat, but I can’t blame the affectation.

Kitchiner was eccentric, demanding, opinionated, and self-promoting (see that portrait, above), and he would likely have been intolerable had he tried to shove his own tastes down everyone else’s throats. But he subscribed to the charming notion that — although there were certain rules for properly preparing food — people ought to enjoy their food as they liked it, not as he did, and he loved making his friends happy. Cooks, he advised, should “be extremely cautious of Seasoning High,” and “leave it to the Eaters to add the piquante condiments, according to their own palate and fancy.”

Oh, but the man did love condiments, though. Some artists work in oils, others in clay; Kitchiner worked in condiments. The Cook’s Oracle contained more than two hundred recipes for “gravies and sauces,” including everything from melted butter (“so seldom done right”) to pickles and catsups (mushroom, walnut, and oyster, but not tomato) to “Wow Wow Sauce for Stewed or Bouilli [boiled] Beef”:

Chop some parsley leaves very finely, quarter two or three pickled Cucumbers, or Walnuts, and divide them into small squares, and set them by ready; —put into a saucepan a bit of Butter as big as an egg; when it is melted, stir to it a tablespoonful of fine Flour, and about half a pint of the Broth in which the Beef was boiled; add a tablespoon of Vinegar, the like quantity of Mushroom Catsup, or Port Wine, or both, and a teaspoonful of made Mustard; let it simmer together till it [is] as thick as you wish it, put in the Parsley and Pickles to get warm, and pour it over the Beef,—or rather send it up in a Saucetureen.2

Wow wow wasn’t Kitchiner’s best work, but the name and the everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach to seasoning are typical of him. And if that wasn’t not sufficiently piquante, Kitchiner recommended adding capers or shallot wine or damn near anything else. Season to your taste, yes, but a man ought to have some.

Shallot wine, incidentally, was Kitchiner’s means of enjoying the flavor of the onion without its bite: sherry in which were steeped minced and crushed shallots and, optionally, a bit of horseradish and lemon peel used as a seasoning in the kitchen or at table. Nobody likes onion breath — but then fussiness about manners is no excuse for not enjoying your dinner, either. As Kitchiner quoted in a bit of ancient doggerel:

If Leekes you like, but do their smell dis-leek,
Eat Onyons, and you shall not smell the Leeke;
If you of Onyons would the scent expell,
Eat Garlicke, that shall drown the Onyons’ smell.3

I love this, obviously: the embrace of strong flavors, the dry aristocratic snark, the demanding attention to detail while leaving room for individual taste, the ludicrously named recipes, the silly poetry — not to mention the almost complete lack of health advice. But what I think I love most is the way Kitchiner presented condiments to his guests. For convenience he arranged twenty-four (!) essentials into what he called a “Magazine of Taste, or Sauce-Box,” whose “contents will, instantaneously, produce any flavor that may be desired.” It could be used in the kitchen or placed in the center of the table for serving, and he apparently had a smaller portable version designed for when he traveled.

The following Sketch will enable any one to fit up an assortment of flavouring materials according to their own fancy and palate, and, we presume, will furnish sufficient variety for the amusement of gustatory nerves of a thorough-bred Grand Gourmand of the first magnitude, (if Cayenne and Garlick have not completely consumed the sensibility of his palate,) and consists of a sauce box, containing four eight-ounce bottles, sixteen four-ounce, and eight two-ounce bottles.

diagram of the magazine of taste

  1. Pickles
  2. Brandy
  3. Curaçoa [sic]
  4. Syrup
  5. Salad Sauce
  6. Pudding Catsup
  7. Sauce Superlative, or double relish
  8. Walnut Pickle
  9. Mushroom Catsup
  10. Vinegar
  11. Oil
  12. Mustard
  13. Salt
  14. Curry Powder
  15. Soy
  16. Lemon Juice
  17. Essence of Anchovy
  18. Pepper
  19. Cayenne
  20. Soup-herb Powder
  21. Ragout Powder
  22. Pea Powder
  23. Zest
  24. Essence of Celery
  25. Sweet Herbs
  26. Lemon Peel
  27. Eshallot Wine
  28. Powdered Mint

Some of these are obvious; others will require some explanation. Soy was Japanese soy sauce (nobody in Europe grew soybeans then, or had any other use for them). Pea powder was a blend of dried herbs and spices for seasoning pea soup; similarly soup-herb powder and ragout powder. “Pudding catsup” was brandy or (homemade) curaçao and sherry in which was steeped lemon peel and mace; it was used, obviously, as a condiment for puddings. (This was before the era of ubiquitous vanilla extract.) Zest was a “piquante quintessence of ragout” that Kitchiner had invented to fight scurvy in the Royal Navy but which also “awakens the palate with delight.” Zest was available commercially, and so Kitchiner didn’t give out the recipe, but practically everything else on the list was made in-house. And the bottles were square, with graduated markings.

In a lower drawer were stashed:

  • Half a dozen one ounce bottles.
  • Weights and scales.
  • A graduated glass measure, divided into tea and tablespoons.
  • Corkscrew.
  • Nutmeg grater.
  • Table and tea-spoon.
  • Knife and fork.
  • A steel, and a
  • Small mortar.

Dining is war, men. Never go unarmed into the battle for flavor.

I have four kinds of soy sauce and seven kinds of hot sauce in heavy rotation (three of them Asian), along with four different table vinegars and home-blended seasoned salt, and I’m telling you this makes me feel a little inadequate. I console myself with the fact that I haven’t got any servants to do all the work for me.

Still, as a gastronome, and well, a guy, I feel I have something to live up to here. I think I have two projects ahead of me. First, to build a magazine of taste out of some manly and durable wood, a campaign chest for a picnic. (Teak, probably, so I can take it on board ship. Not that I’m planning any ocean crossings, but you never know.) Second, to come up with enough home-styled condiments and/or adapt enough of Kitchiner’s to fill it. That ought to keep me busy for awhile…

  1. Quoted in The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities (London: W. R. Chambers, 1869), entry for February 26, as transcribed here.
  2. This and other culinary quotations are from The Cook’s Oracle.
  3. He quoted this anonymously, and some people have assumed it was his own verse, but given the archaic spellings it seems to have been a far older rhyme. Then again, I wouldn’t necessarily put it past Kitchiner to have written that verse with archaic spellings and slap quotation marks around it so he could pass it off as someone else’s and not have to take credit or blame for it. You can’t play a player.