Hirst's Notes

From Amis to Waugh, writers and artists have always been gastronomically obsessed. Christopher Hirst pulls out a few plums from the library.

27 December 2020

Gorgonzola sandwiches for two thousand, please

Hirst's Notes

Despite its “feety savour”, the sandwich provided by James Joyce for his hero’s lunch in Ulysses  is the most celebrated meal in literature. Christopher Hirst shares a bite with Mr Bloom… —Have you a cheese sandwich? —Yes, sir. Like a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer. Good glass of burgundy; take away […]

15 November 2020

Hemingway puts the knife in

Hirst's Notes

The cool, luscious descriptions of the oysters consumed by Ernest Hemingway in Paris have never been bettered. Christopher Hirst explores the shellfish starters in A Moveable Feast I asked the waiter for a dozen portugaises and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there… As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea […]


27 January 2020

Alice’s marmalade

Hirst's Notes

How Mrs Liddell’s recipe spread across the world… By Christopher Hirst Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what […]

5 December 2019

John Steinbeck’s ‘silvery billions’

Hirst's Notes

Christopher Hirst fishes out the facts on the cheap nutritious and tasty sardine… Probably the busiest time the girls of the Bear Flag ever had was the March of the big sardine catch. It wasn’t only that the fish ran in silvery billions and money ran almost as freely… The men from the sardine fleet, […]

2 November 2019

Proust’s madeleines

Hirst's Notes

Chris Hirst savours the most famous nibble in literature She [Marcel’s mother] sent for one of those squat plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell … I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had […]

24 February 2019

It ain’t chattin’ food’

Hirst's Notes

Christopher Hirst reports on a legendary hot chicken outlet in Nashville A recent issue of the New Yorker contained an article that was deeply disturbing to the army of gourmands who have made the pilgrimage to a small fast food joint in an edgy suburb of Nashville, Tennessee. Following an attempted smash-and-grab raid a few […]

4 February 2019

Oscar at Table

Hirst's Notes

Oscar Wilde was far from averse to food. Before his imprisonment, there were cruel remarks about his ballooning bulk and, following his release, friends maintained two years of prison diet had the effect of improving his looks. Unfortunately, food makes little or no appearance in his writing. One exception is the cucumber sandwiches that make […]

31 January 2019

Joyce Conyngham Green reflects on British puddings

Hirst's Notes

I used to think ignorantly that marrow puddings were made of the vegetable marrow; only recently did I find an 18th century receipt which brought enlightenment, and I realised that they were similar to bread and butter puddings with bone marrow between the slices taking the place of butter. The bread and marrow were layered […]

9 January 2019

Turtle Soup

Hirst's Notes

Turning to turtle: how Mrs Beeton catered for the aspirations of her readers The impossible recipe is commonplace today. The bestselling cookbooks by Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria (to name only the most blatant examples) contain nothing else. But weird concoctions of recondite or massively expensive ingredients cooked in a complex and fiddly […]

24 September 2018

Elizabeth David’s sour view of sourdough

Hirst's Notes

Running to 600 pages, English Bread and Yeast Cookery was the magnum opus of Elizabeth David, widely regarded as Britain’s greatest food writer. Informative on almost all aspects of English bread, it even includes a chapter of recipes for toast. However, this comprehensive volume is pretty much dismissive of one loaf currently at the height […]

26 August 2018

George Melly owns up about Fifties dining

Hirst's Notes

Unbuttoned and wonderfully well observed, George Melly’s Owning Up (1965), a memoir of his time as vocalist with Mick Mulligan’s Magnolia Band, is one of the funniest books of the post-war era. Any reader with an average endowment of humour will find themselves frequently laughing out loud, with the possible exception of the inhabitants of […]

23 August 2018

A visit to a New York food market in the 1830s

Hirst's Notes

Christopher Hirst agrees with Frederick Marryat’s critical view of the New York oyster Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), the novelist best known for Mr Midshipman Easy, wrote his Diary in America after a contentious visit in the late 1830s, when his opinions led to him being threatened by a mob and burned in effigy. Almost 200 years […]

4 August 2018

‘God! Guests!’

Hirst's Notes

Arabian Sands, the beautifully written account by Wilfred Thesiger (1910 – 2003) of crossing the Empty Quarter by camel, is a classic of travel literature. His journeys, which took place between 1945 and 1950 in the final days before the arrival of motorised transport in Arabia (an innovation loathed by Thesiger), frequently involved severe deprivation. […]

25 July 2018

Piquant tastes in Vile Bodies

Hirst's Notes

Christopher Hirst explores the tasty food references in Evelyn Waugh’s second novel… Well-heeled Waugh fans can enjoy an on-going treat in the projected 43 volumes of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh from Oxford University Press. Generally, the tribute of a learned edition goes to the daunting sobersides of literature, so it is a pleasing […]

22 June 2018

Waverley Root recalls the perfect Parisian bistro

Hirst's Notes

The American writer Waverley Root (1903-1982) is best known for his authoritative work The Food of France. His posthumously published memoir The Paris Edition, covering his spell as an expat journalist during the inter-war years, takes a more unbuttoned and humorous approach. His account of Gillotte’s, a local dining haunt on the Right Bank, describes a bistro […]

8 June 2018

Truman Capote buys fruit in Hollywood

Hirst's Notes

Yesterday, feeling greedy, I remembered ravishing displays of fruit outside a large emporium I’d driven admiringly past a number of times. Mammoth oranges, grapes as big as ping-pong balls, apples piled in rosy pyramids. There is a sleight of hand about distances here, nothing is as near as you supposed, and it is not unusual […]

8 May 2018

Joyce Conyngham Green turns gooseberry jam into guava jelly

Hirst's Notes

It looks like being a good year for elder flowers and fruit… Elderflower buds make a delightful pickle, which is also useful as a garnish, and, as all that has to be done is to pour hot white wine vinegar into the jars full of unopened flower-sprays, tying them down when cold, not much trouble […]

19 April 2018

Apple on Marmalade

Hirst's Notes

Formerly a Vietnam war correspondent and political journalist. R.W ‘Johnny’ Apple (1934-2006), ended a 40-year stint on the New York Times by exploring the foods of the world. His gastronomic writing, collected in Far Flung and Well Fed (2009), ranges from soft-shelled crab in Chesapeake Bay to grappa in the Veneto. His investigation of marmalade, […]

8 February 2018

Helen Gurley Brown’s Diet Tips

Hirst's Notes

Helen Gurley Brown, editor of American Cosmopolitan, first started dieting in 1959 in preparation for her wedding day…and never stopped. The woman who believed in ‘having it all’ didn’t believe in having much to eat. ‘The foods that make you sexy, exuberant, full of joie de vivre’, she wrote her bestseller Sex and the Single […]

7 December 2017

Mince pie at Magdalen College

Hirst's Notes

From his spell as a junior lecturer in the Fifties, Alan Bennett recalls the weird palaver associated with this humble pud ‘The food was delicious but meals could be a nightmare. I remember we once had mince pie but not, of course, the common individual variety but a great dish of a pie from which. […]

25 November 2017

Christmas at Dove Cottage

Hirst's Notes

After a lifetime of tending to her brother the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, Dorothy spent her final years suffering from dementia. Food was the only thing that cheered her up. Here her sister-in-law, Mary, records her joy at receiving a surprise Christmas turkey… I wish you could have but seen the joy with which that […]

25 November 2017

How Christmas made Elizabeth a Crosspatch

Hirst's Notes

Trying to create the grand finale to the English Christmas feast on a Greek island, Elizabeth David came to realise the complicated reality of this familiar item Living on the Greek island of Syros in 1940, Elizabeth David charmed islanders with her piccalilli from an improvised recipe. ‘To me the mixture seemed fairly odd, but […]

21 November 2017

A bit of a turkey…

Hirst's Notes

Why is the rump of a turkey (or chicken, or goose or any other fowl) called the Parson’s Nose? Examples in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that it was regarded as a titbit or, in Longfellow’s phrase, an ‘epicurean morsel’ (1839) and therefore reserved for the parson. Another example describes it as a ‘savoury mouthful. […]

28 October 2017

A Bay Leaf from Thomas Hardy’s Birthplace

Hirst's Notes

Tom, the bay leaf I’m putting in this boeuf a la mode was plucked from a tree growing in the garden of Tomas Hardy’s birthplace,’ Catherine called from the kitchen. She did not really expect an answer and indeed none came from Tom sitting hunched over his typewriter, so she went on, almost to herself, […]

31 August 2017

M F K Fisher eats oysters at Crespin’s in Dijon

Hirst's Notes

Then there was Crespin’s, the simplest and one of the best restaurants in the world… in the winters an old oysterman stood outside always by his fish, stamping his feet like a horse and blowing on his huge bloody mottled hands. He had baskets of dark brown woven twigs, with the oysters lying impotently on […]

26 August 2017

H L Mencken on Baltimore cuisine in the 1880s

Hirst's Notes

How the stomachs of Baltimore survived at all in those days is a pathological mystery. The standard evening meal tended to be light but the other two were terrific. The repertoire for breakfast, beside all the known varieties of pancake and porridge, included such things as ham and eggs, broiled mackerel, fried smelts, beef hash, […]

26 July 2017

Anselm likes tripe

Hirst's Notes

The culinary preferences of German painter Anselm Kiefer were revealed on a recent stroll round New York’s West Side Kiefer reached the river, and walked north. He recalled the area as he first knew it, on visits to New York in the Seventies and Eighties; he had explored unsafe piers, and watched the demolition of […]

19 June 2017

Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, presents a pasta course in Sicily in 1860

Hirst's Notes

When three lackeys in green, gold and powder entered, each holding a great silver dish containing a towering macaroni pie, only four of the twenty at table avoided showing pleased surprise… All the others showed their pleased relief in varying ways, from the fluty and ecstatic grunts of the notary to the sharp squeak of […]

25 May 2017

James Lees-Milne experiences aristocratic hospitality in 1944

Hirst's Notes

Prospecting possible properties for the National Trust during the Second World War, James Lees-Milne was often offered fare by his patrician hosts that was meagre even by wartime standards. His experience when surveying the Duke of Wellington’s country pile at Stratfield Saye near Reading (above) marked a notable nadir. ‘Having eaten little luncheon I was […]

10 May 2017

Jerome K Jerome’s Irish stew

Hirst's Notes

The Irish stew made at the mid-point of the celebrated voyage reflects the British belief, still strongly held, that more or less anything can be incorporated in this kind of dish. ‘George said it was absurd to have only four potatoes in an Irish stew, so we washed half-a-dozen or so more, and put them […]

22 April 2017

Joni Mitchell’s breakfast

Hirst's Notes

Woke up it was a Chelsea morning and the first thing that I knew, There was milk and toast and honey and a bowl of oranges too And the sun poured down like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses.   From Chelsea Morning (1969)

28 March 2017

Ronald Firbank orders a snack

Hirst's Notes

Author of camp novellas such as Valmouth and Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) was an innovative and hilarious writer who richly deserves rediscovery. His appearance in Bread & Oysters is not due to any prowess as a trencherman but quite the reverse. Obsessed with the slenderness of his waist, he was […]

6 February 2017

Last of the salad days

Hirst's Notes

Q: The current salad and courgette crisis caused by bad weather in the Mediterranean seems to be real, but I’m not prepared to fight frenzied shoppers for the last lettuce. Any alternative suggestions? CH Harrogate Relax and simply use it as an excuse to go back in time to when we all, except for the […]

19 January 2017

Burns Night dilemma or Haggis McHorror

Hirst's Notes

Q: Since Brexit, my boyfriend has become more Scottish than usual, and has suggested that we host a traditional Burns night dinner on the 25th January. The neeps and tatties I can deal with, but haggis sounds disgusting. Is there an acceptable alternative? TY Orpington A: No, there is no alternative, Robbie Burns even wrote […]

7 January 2017

A clam chowder supper in Nantucket

Hirst's Notes

Before joining Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the great white whale, the narrator Ishmael and the harpooner Queequeg take lodgings at the Try Pots Inn in Nantucket, where the bellowed menu consists solely of ‘Clam or Cod?’ When the landlady Mrs Hussey takes the former as answer, Ishmael starts to worry. ‘Queequeg, do you think we […]

23 December 2016

Sprouting fears

Hirst's Notes

Q: I have heard rumours that there is a sprout crisis this winter. What should I do if this is true? Buy if I see one, even if I can’t use it, or find an alternative? BR Wantage. If there is a sprout crisis, then rejoice! You will not have to work out how to […]

21 November 2016

Thanksgiving or no thanks?

Hirst's Notes

Talking turkey and other Christmas dilemmas… Q: I am aware of a number of articles in the media suggesting that we ought to celebrate Thanksgiving with a traditional turkey dinner. Should I ignore them? MP Lincoln A: Yes, unless you are an American, or addicted to turkey. This event  has not much to do with […]

31 October 2016

Lord Byron laments the dietary insularity of his manservant

Hirst's Notes

Towards the end of his two-year Grand Tour, Byron explained in a letter to his mother why he had dispatched his manservant Fletcher, a Brexiter avant la letter, back to England. Besides the perpetual lamentations after beef & beer, the stupid, bigoted contempt for every thing foreign, and insurmountable incapacity of acquiring even a few […]

31 October 2016

Restaurant Chefs have it Easy

Hirst's Notes

Dear Kitchen Agony, I feel inadequate every time a TV food programme goes behind the scenes in a restaurant kitchen. The chefs are always super-efficient and the kitchen runs like clockwork. My dinner parties are fraught with chaos, panic and dropped potatoes. What am I doing wrong? Give yourself a break. Ask yourself these questions: […]

24 September 2016

MFK Fisher eats tripes a la mode de Caen in Dijon

Hirst's Notes

The small restaurant is gone now but for a long time it served some of the simplest and lustiest meals I have ever eaten… There were always snails, of course, except in very hot weather, and in the cool months oysters out on the sidewalks in kelpy baskets, and both downed by the dozens. There […]

7 September 2016

Sam Weller’s impersonation of an oyster

Hirst's Notes

We have said that Mr Weller was engaged in preparing for his journey to London – he was taking sustenance, in fact. On the table before him, stood a pot of ale, a cold round of beef, and a very respectable-looking loaf, to each of which he distributed his favours in turn, with the most […]

22 August 2016

Lord Byron’s Diet

Hirst's Notes

Prone to podginess, Lord Byron engaged in periodic diets. Like certain celebrities of the present day, these tended to be ostentatious in their eccentricity. The wealthy banker and minor poet William Rogers (1763-1855) described the dismaying consequence when he asked Byron to join a literary soirée at his house. ‘When we sat down to dinner, […]

7 August 2016

Too many cooks

Hirst's Notes

  Dear Kitchen Agony, I’m a huge fan of celebrity chefs. I never miss a favourite’s TV programme, buy all their books, cook their recipes and try to live the foodie lifestyle to the hilt. But I’m scared that my interest is becoming unhealthily obsessive. It’s eating up all my leisure time and spare cash […]

14 July 2016

You are what you eat

Hirst's Notes

Dear Kitchen Agony, Given Brexit’s wholesale rejection of European values, will we now have to give up garlic? As the most successful foreign cultural infiltrator to Britain in the past 40 years, garlic should be a prime candidate for the Brexit bonfire, along with all the other European ideals, freedoms and pleasures that we suddenly […]

25 June 2016

Duke Ellington’s diet

Hirst's Notes

From The Hot Bach, a 1944 New Yorker profile of Duke Ellington by Richard O. Boyer Duke, who is always worrying about keeping his weight down, may announce that he intends to have nothing but Shredded Wheat and black tea. . . . Duke’s resolution about not overeating frequently collapses at this point. When it […]

25 June 2016

How to feed small children

Hirst's Notes

Dear Kitchen Agony, I am having my young nephew and niece to stay for a couple of days and as I have no children of my own, I’m worried about what to feed them. My sister says they eat anything, but I have just witnessed a child in my local café scream with fury on […]

25 April 2016

A single egg – what are you good for…

Hirst's Notes

What can I do with a single egg…? A PG Wodehouse thought ‘the good old egg’ was ‘the foundation of daily life… I’m never much of a lad till I’ve engulfed an egg or two and a beaker of coffee…’. Wodehouse was naturally engulfing in multiples; it probably would never have occurred to him that […]

21 April 2016

Fridge scrapings

Hirst's Notes

I came home from work hungry for supper the other day and looked in my fridge for inspiration. I found a couple of old limp carrots, a leftover piece of broccoli and the end of a cauliflower. There was a sausage too, but it looked worryingly long-term in its residency. What could I have made […]

20 April 2016

How do I make a stew for one?

Hirst's Notes

How do I make a stew for one? It’s something I ate almost on a weekly basis when married with wife, aga and several children. Now I’m single, and have an oven it’s taken me two weeks to work out how to open, a saucepan and a metal spatula. Somehow these things don’t seem to […]