Baking for Bookworms: Fried Potatoes from Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel

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Every once in a while there’s a book that’ll leave a bad taste in your mouth. I was really eager to read The Scarlet Pimpernel, as it’s a book that many people regard as classic historical fiction, which happens to be one of my favorite genres. I already knew the general story line, and wanted to read about the supposed dandy Sir Percy Blakeney, who is really an English spy helping to rescue French aristocrats from the guillotine. I was all set to love this book, but its gratuitous anti-semitism at the end left a horrible impression on me, and I was hard pressed to even finish it.

I mean, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t in love with the book even before I started the final third of the novel. I didn’t think it was all that well written, and I thought the plot left something to be desired. But then I came to the final third, and I was shocked. For those of you who don’t know, Blakeney dresses up as Jew. His “filthy” appearance means that the French investigators don’t go near him, and so the Englishman is not discovered. They abuse him verbally and physically because of his religion, and even the main characters feel this disguise is abhorrent. It’s possible that there was a missed opportunity to make this section clever; if it had been a conscious decision on Blakeney’s part to use the biases of the French against them while knowing that it was wrong to treat any human being that way, then maybe I would have excused it. I do support satire, and I think that it’s a writer’s job to turn a mirror to society. However, Orczy doesn’t do that. She uses the “filthy Jew” as a plot device as if it’s of no consequence, either giving into and sharing the prejudices of her time or simply not challenging them. Neither is acceptable in my opinion.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand, perhaps better than many people do, what the popular sentiment in Europe was against Jews. I understand the context in which this book was written. That doesn’t make this book less anti-semitic than it is, nor does it excuse the author. No matter the era, there are always people who are willing to speak out against injustice, and one voice speaking out can turn a crowd.

I think everyone is particularly sensitive to at least one kind of intolerance and injustice–this particular one hits home for me as it has affected my family and larger community irrevocably. Many people are able to brush this sort of thing off. As a lover of classic films, I know that it’s easier to forgive a black face number in a musical for being part of its time rather than speaking out against it. It’s also easy to say that we’ve moved forward, or to dismiss it in some way. The truth is that prejudice and ignorance are all around us. And reading about intolerance or watching it on screen makes me a little nauseous.

So why am I cooking from this book at all? Well I considered not doing it, but then I thought that it was more important to speak out about this book than to leave it forgotten on its shelf.  I know many people will forgive it and excuse it, or just avoid reading it, but I won’t do that. I will remember it. Only by remembering and speaking out against things that display intolerance and ignorance are we able to fight them and avoid letting history repeat itself.

Okay I’m getting down from my soapbox now. I know that many people love the romance of these books and the characters of Marguerite and Blakeney. I don’t think that people who enjoy this book are bad or anti-semitic–I certainly see the appeal of this book and others like it. I just think that it’s important to stand up for what you believe in, and for me that’s tolerance. Everyone is free to (respectfully) disagree with me. I’m eager to hear what you think/thought of this book if you’ve read it.

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These fried potatoes are one of the only dishes mentioned at all in the novel, and the mention occurs at the very beginning of the book in the tavern where the scene is being set.

“She looked cross for a minute, and thoughtfully rubbed her hands against her shapely hips; her palms were itching, evidently, to come in contact with Martha’s rosy cheeks–but inherent good-humour prevailed, and with a pout and a shrug of the shoulders, she turned her attention to the fried potatoes.”                                                                                   (11)

Fried potatoes

  • 3 small or 2 medium potatoes (I used red, but feel free to use russet)
  • 2 tablespoons butter (you could also use your favorite cooking oil if you don’t use dairy)
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • you can put any seasonings you like in this dish–I chose dried parsley and thyme, along with some paprika and a little coriander

Cut your potatoes in thin rounds, then cut into quarters. Try to make your cuts as even as possible.

Heat a skillet to medium-high heat and add the butter. After it melts, add in the garlic for 30 seconds, stirring it around, and making everything fragrant.

Add in the potatoes and cook until tender. Throw in the seasonings and continue cooking until the potatoes reach your desired crispiness. The potatoes should take about 10-15 minutes to cook when it’s all said and done.

Serve for breakfast with your choice of accompaniments, or for dinner as a side dish.

If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, there is a great discussion on Deanna Raybourn’s blog here. As always, comments on this book, the food, or anything else are welcome. I kindly ask that you keep all your comments respectful.

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