A Soldier-gastronome Visits the Jewish Kitchen

An important figure in food history and food writing is Lieut.-Col. Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, active at the end of the 1800s and until the First World War. He was an acknowledged influence on Elizabeth David, the greatest food writer of the post-WW II era in my opinion, or perhaps any era.

As a restaurant reviewer and author of books on food and travel he was a progenitor of today’s Rays, Olivers, Ramsays, etc. That he could write circles around any of them is perhaps less relevant now given that culinary information is primarily conveyed in visual form, at least to the population at large.

At the same time, his ability with the pen, which disclosed mild humour, great knowledge, and an affable spirit, makes the work attractive and surely is the reason he is still remembered.

This soldier-writer had joined an elite infantry regiment after his education. Even then he was a gastronome-in-training, e.g., during the long years in garrison in India and elsewhere.

Upon retirement at only 40 he alighted in London as a (never-married) man-about-town, blasé as he called himself with some exaggeration, and opened a cookery school for the bon ton.

He also wrote novels and plays and the books for stage and ballet production. He knew his way around literary and bohemian London while bringing an upper-crust, post-Harrow sensibility to it all. I don’t know if he knew Oscar Wilde, or William Morris, but such associations would have been natural for him.

In his first book published at turn of the century and later issued in new editions he reviewed numerous London-area restaurants of different types.

This essay reviews a Jewish restaurant, Goldstein’s. It is the type of restaurant I discussed earlier that was once common in Western cities: home-style vs. the delicatessen genre. Extracts of the menu (available via Hathitrust, here) and some of the Colonel’s opinions are shown appear above.

The Colonel was impressed with the meal almost to a dish. I was struck too by the respectful tone toward Jewish customs and rites. Too often in 19th-century writing and well into the 20th century for that matter, general writers (American, English, European, etc.) disclose prejudice, casual or worse, in regard to Jews. It was hard-edged in some cases, the English journalist and author George Sala is a particularly grating instance.

Often such writers were equally derisive of people of African or other non-Anglo-Saxon background. The Irish too came in for their share of abuse on this account.

Newnham-Davis appears free from such an animus, and this is unusual for that reason alone. True, the meal was hosted, but that doesn’t account for the warm tone, I think he was just like that. Perhaps his involvement in artistic and bohemian circles inclined him to a greater tolerance than the average writer at the time.

Eliza Acton was another Victorian food writer of great influence on Elizabeth David. Writing earlier than Newnham-Davis, she showed a similar toleration and interest in Jewish cookery and ritual customs. It seems unlikely Newnham-Davis was unfamiliar with her work.

The Colonel’s essay on the Cheshire Cheese tavern in London is good, too, in the same volume. He drank beer there – a bitter ale – but his account is mostly of the atmosphere, food, and people he encountered.

The book in toto is much more than a curio: it forms a direct link to our modern food culture. Academic food studies is aware of his importance, as testified for example by Andrea Broomfield’s article Soldier of the Fork published in Gastronomica a few years ago, see here.*

Broomfield focuses on his conscious, successful attempt to make the ethos of eating out familiar to the prosperous middle and upper classes. They had to face the fast-disappearing domesticity of Victorian social relations but lacked experience in the subset of cosmopolitanism that was dining out.

Most dishes on the Goldstein menu are familiar to anyone who knows Jewish eating of European (Ashkenazi) origin. He was also served examples of its deli kitchen, including something that appears similar to Montreal smoked meat or New York pastrami.

The Colonel protested against the plenty offered him, too much for one dinner, he said. But he had gotten through similar horns of plenty – multiple courses and wines – in the town’s restaurants at the Edwardian height of fashion of such service.

Did the food critic’s enforced regimen contribute to his rather early demise? Hard to say. He died in his mid-60s during a late, new stint in the army, he was put in charge of a keep for German POWs.

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*See in the comments below where I link to a pdf of Prof. Broomfield’s full article available on her website.

 

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