The book: The Vet’s Daughter (NYRB Classics) by Barbara Comyns
Pairing: A full English breakfast, hopefully not at the expense of someone else.
Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter is a dreamy horror story about a supernaturally talented girl contending with an abusive veterinarian father in Edwardian London. While the daughter is not entirely innocent herself, her father’s cruelty looms large over the narrative. For example, while his daughter and first wife must be content with soggy bread and weak tea, the titular vet gets to feast on crispy bacon, fried tomatoes, strong tea; the list goes on, and frankly it makes my mouth water.
Maybe a disclaimer is in order: half of my family is from the United Kingdom. While you might not think that this heritage leads to a yen for both high and low British cuisine, you would be wrong because it really does, at least for me. Many food items that other people (stupid people) might spurn are among my favorites: Branston pickle, marmite, HP sauce, baked beans on toast, Heinz salad cream. (Don’t ask what that last one is; it’s both too hard and too easy to explain, as shown by the limp-wristed branding of “salad cream.”) I swoon at the prospect of lemon curd, greatly anticipate full English breakfasts cooked by my father, and puzzle over combinations of meats and starch. Reading such a vividly detailed novel with what seem to my empty stomach like endless descriptions of meals, I decided to craft a good breakfast for myself. But repeated mentions of one food gave me pause: kippers.
A kipper is a whole herring, split from head to toe and gutted, salted or pickled or smoked, and served at breakfast in the UK, Japan, and Haiti, of all places. Unverified Internet sources report that working class people enjoyed kippers, and they had it basically with any meal other than lunch. Still, when I think of my unabated love for British foods, I tend to dream about Maynards wine gums or a slab of stilton on crusty bread. Kippers do not appeal. If I were to make myself a properly Edwardian, suitably macabre breakfast, could I get away with eating fried tomatoes, eggs, and crusty bread with marmalade, drinking loads of tea, and calling it a day? I did more research; I emailed my dad.
He responded with the same appetite I had, supplying a list of things I should eat—in general, not in any way connected to this book. On the subject of kippers he wrote that they were “possible, but a little too Scots. “Try the kedgeree instead, sir,” he wrote, slipping into a buffet-style reverie. What is that, I thought. It sounds mammalian, like the technical word for the belly of some animal you’d have to shave.
Kedgeree involves no hairy animals. It is a presumed descendent of an Indian dish brought back to the isles by British colonials in the Victorian era, and its foundational ingredients are haddock, spices, rice, and eggs. Looking for kedgeree recipes leads predictably to the website of Jamie Oliver, the average-bloke British Cuisine Evangelist. His version of the dish is accompanied by the typical types of online recipe commenters: the few people who loved the recipe as it appeared, without equivocations; people who hated the recipe because of something quirky about the cook’s recommendations; people who hate and slander the cook (only applicable if the cook is some celebrity and/or, let’s face it, a woman); people who loved the recipe but then go on to describe how they cooked it with entirely different ingredients and measurements, which is more common and confusing than you’d think; and people who are expecting to get in touch with a celebrity cook via their comments, e.g. “please send me your recipe for yorkshire pudding I did have it but lost the recipe they were the best I ever made” and “hi Jamie nice 2 meet U thank you.” From this stream of culinary consciousness, I surmised that I could maybe use smoked salmon instead of haddock, which sounded great to me. My father, on the other hand, put his foot down. It would have to be haddock, and I must have kedgeree.
But the rub with ingredients that were used in ubiquity almost a century ago is that time has passed and resources have waned. What was once all over the place and cheap is no longer easy to find, fish especially. A trip to my local Fairway, usually a slam dunk in the British foods department, disabused me of the notion that haddock would be within reach. In fact, when I went to look for smoked or jarred fish, I found a huge array of herring, but nothing haddocky to speak of. Plenty of kippers were in the refrigerator with the smoked trout, fish eggs, odd sausages, and containers of suspiciously green kimchi. Even on the shelf away from refrigeration, there were (shudder) kipper snack-packs alongside tubs of mint jelly and marmite. Perhaps a better cook would know what to do at this point, but my tastebuds weren’t ready to experiment with herring in a tin. I’m barely okay with tuna cans.
So what to do? My solution to the problem of kedgeree vs. kippers is simple, but not totally in step with the Vet’s Daughter description: forsake both for some old-fashioned bubble and squeak, also known as leftovers. This is breakfast after all, and when you want to eat breakfast you are usually tired and go with what you’ve got in the fridge. That means whatever dinner was, but also crusty, hearty, toasted bread with orange marmalade—the good stuff with visible rinds, nothing Smucker’s-related allowed—and tomatoes so fried that the skin is puckered and falls off your fork. No coffee; make a nice pot of Earl Grey tea, or go for English Breakfast if you are literal-minded. Tetley, if you want the ubiquitous; Twinings, if you’re like me; Fortnum and Mason, if you are fancy. Forget PG Tips; they are so far out of the Edwardian era that the internet would shut down if Lady Mary Crawley asked for them for her afternoon tea. I’m odd and like milk in my tea, and that seems to be what the cruel vet liked too. And since this is his breakfast we’re preparing and not what his poor cultishish daughter had every day, milk in the tea seems just fine.
Also maybe consider reading how to drink like a Kingsley Amis character?