Charles Henry Baker, Jr. was born in Florida and died in Florida, but in between, he married well (to an heiress he met while working on a cruise) and traveled the world writing about food and drink for Esquire, Gourmet, and other magazines.
The Gentleman’s Companion is a compilation of his recipes and adventures, written in a matey style, and gathered from diplomats, travelers, and sportsmen (see his multiple references to Ernest Hemingway).
But these are not just notches on his wooden spoon, Baker is “interested in the history of those exotics, their traditional background their romantic origin!,” and he’s endeavored to capture a bit of that history in his headnotes and chatty recipes.
Some of the history is apocryphal, but with his unique style, Baker made a bit of his own history. He is the precursor of Bourdain, the internet obsession with bacon, and the hipster obsession with niche items. His manly swagger reads as kitsch and his sexism is absolutely fossilized. He falls back the dated trope (even then) of ladies eating tea sandwiches and is terrified of feminine dishes like Floating Island and other “quaint tapioca affairs.”
The two volumes–one “being an Exotic Cookery Book,” and the other “being an Exotic Drinking Book,” are presented with idiosyncratic (some would say pretentious) capitalization and though his voice can be mannered, the breadth of recipes is undeniable, especially the cocktail recipes, which are getting a fresh look these days.
For example, he writes “CONVEYING the THOUGHT that Dressing up Caviar is Far Worse than Gilding Lilies.” I am conveying my own thoughts right now on precious titling and “artistic” uppercasing, but peel away the posturing and there’s good reading here. He suggests an only slightly fussy way to make a frozen bowl for serving the caviar and a very fussy way to stuff poached eggs with caviar, roll them in flour, beaten egg, and bread crumbs, and then fry them. He’s says they’re “…Delicious!” and I bet they are, but I’d rather have my eyelashes pulled out one by one than try to empty and stuff a poached egg. Quaint tapioca affairs indeed!
You get the feel of the man from this recollection in a 2002 Miami Herald article:
“Oh, he was grand, and rightly so – yachtsman, raconteur, amateur botanist, friend of the famous, famous himself in certain circles, a small-town Florida Cracker who knew (or smoothly could find) his way around the world. “He was tall, dark and handsome, with an Errol Flynn moustache,’ says his daughter, Pamela Baker Johnson. ‘And he was just as charming as his books.’ His name was Charles H. Baker, Jr. Friends called him Bake.”
Every recipe has a story–usually garnished with a wink and a nod. The Avogolemono was served at Hotel Grande Bretagne after a crawl over the Acropolis with “a young, tireless, handsome, agile, and elusive lady from Greenwich, whose name and genius it is not pertinent to mention.” A smothered chicken dish called Pollo Pina comes courtesy of a friend “‘in sugar'” in Camaguey Province, Cuba. A Simple Curry Routine is provided by “Our Filipino Number One.”
But you really do feel that he’s bringing back treasures. In the 1930s, when these pieces were first published, his were reports from a wider and adventurous world, even if it did seem Baker moved from one hotel bar to the next. And there’s an effort at authenticity, though the goal is for you to cook them at home, as with the simplified curry or with pollo mole thickened with cornstarch rather than pipian flour.
My advice? Make your favorite cheese straws, stir up a cold boozy punch, recline in the backyard, chuckle at the political incorrectness, and travel the world.
And if you are a hungry easy rider, check out Alton Brown’s Feasting on Asphalt, for some updated road food machismo.
He makes the river run up the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Minnesota, eating along the way. Red Beans and Rice, Apple Fritters, Turkey Legs, Rabbit Stew, Fried Chicken Livers, and more.
And, I’m assuming sitting on a motorcycle works your core–some kind of road trip pilates?