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HOW I KEPT HOUSE BY PROXY,
AND WHAT CHEK SAÚ GAVE US FOR THANKSGIVING.
BUT who was Chek Saú, and how came he to be associated with anything having so genuine a ring of New England as Thanksgiving"? He was a cook, and a real Chinese-the very prince of cooks we thought him; and I hardly know whether even the "Celestial Empire" can produce many specimens quite equal to our Chek Saú. So, you see, I could afford to make him my proxy, especially as he was forty years old, and had spent nearly all his life in traveling, and studying cookery as a real profession, practicing, too, as he learned; while I was just out of school, and a complete novice in all the mysteries of the culinary art. During this, the first year of my married life, we had been roaming over the Orient, drifting hither and thither as new scenes attracted, and luxuriating in the thousand fascinating wonders that so beguile the tourist in Eastern lands, though seldom tarrying long in any locality. But now we were "at home" in Bangkok, and I was to make my first essay in housekeeping. How strange and impossible it seemed, with my total lack of experiencethe cuisine, from beginning to end, an unsolved problem, and the vernacular of the country, in which I must communicate with my servants, if at all, wholly unintelligible to me, since I had not yet taken my first lesson in either Siamese or Chinese. Everywhere in the East, China alone excepted, so strong are the national and religious prejudices against any mingling of household avocations that an oriental can seldom be found to undertake more than one kind of labor. If he sweep, he will do nothing else; if cleaning lamps be the vocation he has selected, to that alone will he apply himself; and if he can be idle two-thirds or nine-tenths of his time, he likes it all the better. "Small work and small pay" he considers every way preferable to even a single year of mixed labor, with an assured competence at the end. So there are, in every household of ample means, cooks, dining-room servants, bodyservants, washermen, a tailor, a keeper of the bath, a porter, a lamp-cleaner, a yardsweeper, two watermen,-one to bring and another to cool and take care of the water,one or more to run of errands, a syce to run VOL. XXII.-53.
with each horse, and another to cut grass for him, either palanquin-bearers or boatmen, as may be needed in that particular locality, and so on, even to male and female sweepers, as some parts of a house must be swept only by a man and others only by a woman. What a retinue of servants for a family of two or three people! Every foreigner, on first arriving, votes the whole arrangement a nuisance, and declares he "will not submit to such absurd nonsense." But he is quietly informed that "it is the custom of the country"; and finding that he cannot help himself, he submits philosophically to his fate, deeming it useless to quarrel with the inevitable. Fortunately for the heads of these vast establishments, wages are low, and the employer has nothing to do with feeding or clothing any of his dependents. In an Anglo-Oriental ménage, the chief cook is always head servant of the establishment and purveyor-general of the household, buying everything that is needed, employing such other servants as are required, superintending their daily duties, paying their wages, and making such changes as become necessary from time to time. In fact, he holds in charge the entire domestic arrangements of the family, which are well or ill managed just in proportion to the ability and fidelity of this most important personage. If he be faithful and competent, the whole machinery moves regularly as clockwork; but disaffection or incapacity in the chief cook is inevitably attended with confusion and annoyance in every department. The master and mistress deal only with their head man, holding him responsible for the good conduct of all, and expecting him to account, in his regular weekly or monthly statements, for the number of servants employed, and for all outlays, except marketing, which is settled daily. Hence the vast importance, not only of making an appropriate selection of a head cook, but almost equally of being able to communicate freely with him. The former I thought just possible, but the latter I scarcely dared hope for, until I had time to acquire one of the many languages spoken at Bangkok. My joy can, therefore, be imagined at meeting with a cook who was able to speak even the mongrel dialect that a Chinaman calls
"talkie Amelicane." It happened on the very day we had taken possession of our first oriental home. As I stood on the veranda of our pretty bungalow, giving orders to the English boatmen about the placing of some furniture, I was accosted by a remarkably pleasant-looking Chinaman, who, with a profound salam, inquired whether "the lady sahib would engage a cookie." He was dressed in sky-blue silk trowsers, gathered, à la Chinoise, full around the waist, with a long silken girdle, the ends of which were very richly embroidered. His white cambric jacket fitted loosely, and was fastened by a multitude of tiny gold buttons, placed very near together, from throat to hem, and from wrist to elbow. A broadbrimmed straw hat, from beneath which I could see the glossy black hair, braided and tasseled, hanging almost to his feet, stockings made of white cambric, and the clumsy, silk-embroidered shoes of his country, completed the quaint costume, that attracted me at once by its neatness and adaptation to that sultry clime. In one hand he carried a fan, and in the other an account-book, the insignia of his office; though he looked far more like the perfect type of an oriental gentleman than an aspirant for the office of cook. But he proceeded at once, in a sort of mongrel Anglo-Chinese dialect, which he interspersed with many profound salams and protestations of devotion to my interests, to inform me that he was a perfect adept in all the mysteries of the culinary art; that in English and Chinese, French and American, Bengal and Malay cookery he was equally au fait; and that "if the Amelicane lady sahib would condescend to accept him as her servant, he would devote to her forever the varied talents and untiring fidelity that were now laid at her feet, in the humble hope that she would not reject them, and send away their possessor in despair." What a speech for a cook to make! Can it be supposed, for a moment, that I had the heart to turn away from so rare a combination of all the excellences that could be desired in the head of our domestic ménage? If I had thought of permitting such a Godsend to go unappropriated, the Celestial's long, low salam-made by placing his joined hands over his heart and then bending his whole person forward till his head nearly reached his knees would surely have caused me to relent. But I was only too glad to veil my own deficiencies as a novice housekeeper behind such marvelous skill as my new ac
quaintance professed; and, feeling assured that if he could work only half as well as he could talk, I should possess a rare treasure in my head cook, I engaged him, without hesitation, to come to us on the following morning. As he bowed himself out, I drew a sigh of relief that my dreaded mountain had been only a mole-hill after all, and the knotty question that had given me such a world of trouble in anticipation had been so easily disposed of. But my selfcongratulation was of short duration, for, as the Celestial passed out, our friend Dr. Jentered, his beaming face fairly aglow with fun.
"So, so!" he said. "You have had an application for the post of honor in your household. I knew Chek Saú would call, as he always does on every new-comer, and I meant to warn you against him. will, no doubt, seek to entertain you with a description of his varied accomplishments, but I caution you to have nothing to do with him. Of course you did not engage him?"
"Of course I did," was my reply. “But what is the trouble about him? I like his looks, and he certainly promises fairly. I was just thinking what a rare treasure had come to me, without even the seeking."
"A treasure indeed," said the Doctor"if possession were identical with profession, and promises were always faithfully kept. But this man will leave you the moment you presume to give an order in your own house. He has always acted so with every family that employed him, seldom remaining a week-never, I think, an entire month-with any. So you had better send him word that you have made other arrangements, and I will see what can be done."
Impossible," I replied. "My word is given, and there is nothing for me to do but to bear heroically whatever the frowning heavens shall decree."
An ominous shake of the head was my friend's only reply as he left me to ponder, now that it was too late, the consequences of my foolish haste. I could have cried with mortification at the dilemma into which my precipitancy had plunged me. But it was of no use. The dreaded Celestial must come, that was clear; and I could only promise myself that the next time I would be more cautious. The next morning, bright and early, Chek Saú came, full three hours in advance of the appointed time. Having given no orders for the
morning meal at home, we had expected to breakfast with a neighbor; but, on entering our own drawing-rooms at nine o'clock, our cook-elect made his appearance from the piazza, where he had been watching for our coming. With a profound salam, he informed us that breakfast was already served, and that, though the notice had been somewhat brief, he ventured to hope that this first repast in our new home would not prove altogether unworthy our acceptance. Savory odors were already greeting us from the open door of the pretty little breakfast-parlor, which was a cheerful, airy room, covered with India matting, and having long windows opening to the floor, from which were looped back fresh muslin curtains, revealing the beautiful creepers and flowering shrubs that completely surrounded the verandas on the four sides of the house. On the round table in the center of the room was spread a repast that a king might have feasted on, every dish garnished with choice flowers, fair, fresh, and fragrant as the morning it self, while over the table was a huge punkah, pulled by a servant outside, and serving the double purpose of fan and fly-brush. In hissing urns on the side-table were such tea and coffee as are seldom seen this side of the Cape of Good Hope; while the raising of cover after cover revealed broiled and fricasseed chicken, pork-cutlets served en papillote, shrimps, oysters, eggs, omelets, and, to crown all, the invariable concomitant of every oriental meal-rice and curry. Everything was perfect, and, deeming any interference with such a jewel of a cook wholly uncalled-for, I retired, when breakfast was over, without venturing on a single order for the future. But Chek Saú followed me, apologizing for the intrusion, and asked for his "orders" for twenty-four hours; and also the number of servants we wished engaged, the hours for meals, and the amount to be expended daily at the bazaar. The next morning he again sought my presence at the same hour, gave an account of the expenditures of the previous day, and received his funds and orders for the next. And so on every day, as the weeks grew into months, and the months to years-with never a trouble or disturbance in our model household, of which my accomplished cook was the mainspring and prime motive power. We had never an inferior or badly cooked dish, meals were served always promptly, every room in the house was well kept, and our
On one occasion, we happened to have an unusually large party of Americans assembled at Bangkok; and we decided to "keep Thanksgiving" after the New England fashion, and dine all together as one large family. But who would undertake to provide the banquet for so many, was the question. Rather exultant of the superior qualifications of Chek Saú, I petitioned for the privilege, which was very readily accorded, especially by those before whose mind's eye rose unwelcome visions of incompetent servants, half-prepared dishes, and the Herculean labors that in such cases devolve on the unfortunate mistress. So, calling in my trusty Chinese, I explained to him the manner of keeping "Thanksgiving" at home, and expressed my desire that he would do his very best to honor the occasion, and give our friends a hospitable reception. By this time I had the language at my control, and could give utterance to my wishes; so Chek Saú readily caught the idea, and placing his hand over his heart, as he always did when he wished to express his fidelity and devotion, he bowed himself. out, while I returned to my study. I gave the subject no further thought, well assured that my accomplished Celestial would do all that was possible to be done, and fully vindicate his right to the appellation of the "best cook in the city."
The next morning we attended early church, and my lady friends all returned with me to spend the remainder of the day. At one, lunch was served-a dainty little repast of tea and sherbet, sandwiches and cake, at least forty varieties of fresh fruit, and an incredible variety of sweets. At two, came the invariable afternoon siesta in which everybody indulges in the East; then the bath and fresh toilets for the evening, after which we all went out in our boats on the river, for a mouthful of fresh air; and at six the gentlemen joined us at dinner. We were forty in all,-including the children. and some English officers we had invited to dine,-and a cheery, happy party we were as one could meet at home or abroad, exiles though we called ourselves, and thousands of miles from the land that gave us
birth. When dinner was announced, I really knew no more of what was to compose the repast than did my guests, but firm faith in the ability of my incomparable cook left no room to fear that the creature comfort of our guests would not be duly cared for. As usual, Chek Saú, cambric jacket, gold buttons and all, was at the sideboard to superintend the carving, having, as I afterward learned, left a brother cook (hired at his own expense for the occasion) to send up such after dishes as might be needed. For the first course, we had genuine oriental chowdah, turtle, chicken, and bird's-nest soups-the latter cooked as only a nativeborn Celestial can prepare them. Then came fish in many varieties, all dressed and seasoned to suit the veriest epicure. When the second course had been removed, then came really the dinner par excellence, consisting of boned ducks, and capons stuffed à la Bengalee, pork and kid chops en papillote, fricasseed fowls, game of several kinds, stewed shrimps, baked lobster, vegetables, native and foreign, in many varieties, and over and above all, that special delight of every true-born Celestial, i. e., pigs barbecued à la Chinoise, standing on all fours, holding huge lemons in their gaping jaws, and their heads adorned with fantastic flowers formed of chillies, salads, and celery. When these had been duly discussed, everybody finished off with a plate of rice and curry, taken at the conclusion of dinner "because it is the custom," just as everybody takes soup to begin with, whether he wants it or not. Then came the massive dessert-and such a medley it was that one would have been puzzled to know in what quarter of the globe he happened to be dining. Short as was the notice, Chek Saú had found time to visit all the ships in port, and procure from his brother cooks in English and American families whatever was rare and foreign. First he gave us English plum-pudding with genuine cockney sauce; then pies made from pumpkin grown on Connecticut soil; peaches canned in the Empire State, floated in Bangkok cream; crystallized pears grown in the Celestial Empire had found their last home on our "barbarian" table; and towering above all was a pyramid of luscious fruit-cake, to which the good "Old Dominion" had contributed the flour, Scotland the butter, Siam the sugar, classic Greece the raisins and currants, Spain the citron, Arabia the almonds, and Singapore, the fairest gem of the ocean, its many spices, while the flowers that adorned the lofty
pile had been gathered, that morning, sparkling with dewy gems, from my own fragrant parterre, in this grand old metrop olis of the "sacred and great kingdom of Siam." The confectionery, upon which my tasteful and ingenious cook had lavished unsparingly time and skill, fully vindicated his assumptions on our first acquaintance, and proved the culinary arts of all coun tries to be equally familiar to him. Nothing was wanting save ice-cream, which, under that fierce tropical sun, would have been most acceptable of all. But as on account of the lack of ice, that was clearly impossible, we sipped our cool sherbet and pomegranate-juice, feasted on ripe, luscious fruits, and voted ices decidedly unwhole
who was one of our guests, said jocularly, when we had adjourned to the drawing-room:
"'Tis said 'Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise,' and to-day, for the first time in my life, I have learned that ignorance may be a good thing. Certainly it has served my friend here a kind turn; for had she known Chek Saú's antecedents, she would scarcely have employed him and had she been a good New England housekeeper, she assuredly could not have kept him-since the very first attempt to impart to this accomplished Celestial any item of culinary lore would inevitably have disgusted and ultimately driven him off. But a novice in housekeeping, who knew nothing to teach, suited him exactly, and so the whole machine works to admiration, and unquestionably produces good dinners."
Shortly after Chek Saú came into our service, he heard us mention casually, at the dinner-table, that the day was the anniversary of our marriage. It was, of course, too late then for any special demonstration in honor of the occasion, but on retiring we found twin wreaths of white lilies twined with ivy reposing in fragrant beauty upon both our pillows, and we readily guessed whose hand had placed them there. The faithful servant also made a note of the day, and never afterward, while we remained in the country, forgot to celebrate its return. At each anniversary our chairs at the dining-table were wreathed with ivy, and a crown of fragrant flowers, or, rather, two crowns woven in one, adorned the center of the board. Whether we had company or not, dinner on these occasions was always gotten up with extra care; and the crown
ing glory of the dessert was a huge pyramid of cake-wedding-cake, Chek Saú said, and certainly a very marvel of beauty and excellence. This cake was regularly presented by our cook, with the compliments and good wishes of the day, and its cost was never included in the household accounts.
Once, on the return of the Chinese NewYear, the grandest gala in all the calendar for John Chinaman, Chek Saú asked permission to give us a real Chinese dinner. Nothing loath to test the skill of our cook in a new line, we gladly consented. So the viands, cookery and all, even the plates and dishes, were genuine Chinese, and all was served in Celestial fashion. In the soup line there were clam-chowdah and bird'snest, lucksar, or Chinese vermicelli, and a delicate, fragrant compound called towgay, which is produced from a sort of bastard pea, known in the East as gram. The peas, being kept moist for a few days, shoot forth their tiny sprouts, and then, when about two inches or more in length, are gathered and compounded into a soup, with the addition, I suppose, of as many delicacies as the Frenchman put into his stone-soup, for our tow-gay was altogether too luscious ever to have been produced from pea-sprouts alone. The second course was fish, including many varieties of shell-fish, lobster, turtle, crabs, and shrimps. But that which most attracted me in this line was the páràug, or "knife-fish," with its long, round body and beautiful silvery skin, which had, however, all been peeled off, the denuded fish securely rolled in banana-leaves, and baked between hot stones. It was very delicate and nice, but we could only taste it, as there was such a legion of other dainties demanding a like courtesy. Boiled capons with oyster-sauce, turtle-steaks, roast pork, venison, and rice-birds variously cooked, and a ragout of sharks' fins came next, served with egg-plant, onions, tara-root, yams, radishes, greens, and rice. The curry, on this occasion, was composed of biche-de-mer, or sea-slug! I did not taste it, savory, golden-hued, and tempting as it looked. How could I, under such a name? But had Chek Saú ever dreamed of either name or dish exciting disgust, he would certainly never have placed it before us. Among his countrymen the biche-demer is esteemed a rare delicacy, and, as such, he had selected it on this occasion. "De gustibus non est disputandum," and why
is not a sea-slug as fit to be eaten as an oyster, and a rat or dog as the swine, the most filthy of all filthy brutes? Our little feast à la Chinoise wound up with tea, served in tiny tea-pots and cups that held about half a wine-glass, used without either spoon or saucer, and the tea without sugar or cream. So orientals always take it; but they eat cakes and sweetmeats with their tea, and we had several courses of fruits and confections served with ours. Among them were oranges pressed and dried like figs, preserved nutmegs, and a beautiful transparent jelly made of sea-weed, or agar-agar, as it is called by the Malays.
One day, when somebody's age happened to be spoken of, Chek Saú remarked that he could never guess the age of foreigners-ladies especially-they all looked so much alike. The fact was that he had seen only very young foreign ladies, and could scarcely imagine how those of mature years would appear. When I asked him how old he thought I was, he would not venture a guess; but when I told him that I should be eighteen on the fifth day of the next month, he exclaimed, with surprise: Why, I did not think you were near that old! You seem to me so very youngalmost like a little girl." He was evidently sorry for the discovery he had made, and, I have no doubt, thought me already un peu passé, perhaps fearing that the increase of years might bring a desire on my part to assume the reins of government and usher in such an era of discord as would compel him to resign. However, his fidelity was proof against even the discovery of my eighteen years of age, that had at first so astounded him; for, when my birthday came around, though it had not been again spoken of, and I supposed Chek Saú had forgotten it, we found the dining-room decorated with wreaths and arches of evergreen, and choice bouquets of cape-jessamine and magnolia all over the house. In the evening the table was brilliantly lighted with wax-tapers, we had a grand dinner, and one of Chek Saú's most tasteful des
And so every time the anniversary came around, my husband's birthdays being always celebrated in the same way, and without even a suggestion on our part.
When our first baby came to us, Chek Saú overwhelmed my husband with congratulations, illuminated the house, and would have made a grand feast in honor of this first-born son of the house. As the little one grew, our cook was never weary