Percy Bysshe Shelley was a young, idealistic poet whose beliefs often set him at odds with the rest of British society in the early 19th century. He was an atheist who got kicked out of university for being a bit too vocal about his atheism. He was a strict vegetarian in an era when beef broth and pork jelly were the go-to cures for the common cold. And at the age of 20 he deserted his young wife for the even younger Mary Godwin (the future author of “Frankenstein”), thereby becoming a pariah to much of mainstream society for the rest of his life.
Not that he wanted much to do with mainstream society in the first place. Romantic poets so infrequently do.
After that first turbulent year with Mary—during which they ran off in the night to France, walked most of the way to Switzerland and returned broke to England a few months later—he found himself in the countryside north of London, feeling just a bit the worse for wear. Mary suspected that he was merely malnourished, subsisting as he was on a diet that consisted primarily of bread, butter and lemonade. “Lemonade” in this case being a bit of a code word for a widely used and commercially prepared medicinal concoction of opium and ipecac.
In short, it is hardly surprising that the poor boy was wasting away. While his vegetarianism as such was hardly to blame, the opium and ipecac were surely not helping the matter.
Into this scene strides the brisk, practical figure of Thomas Peacock, a novelist and poet who had met and befriended Shelley just a few years earlier. Peacock was a few years older than Shelley—just senior enough to be able to get away with ordering the younger man about, it seems—and it’s pretty clear that he had his feet set rather more firmly on the ground. After assessing the situation of his pale, wan friend, Peacock apparently convinced Shelley to expand his diet and experience some good, old-fashioned British cooking.
Specifically, he suggested that Shelley partake of that peculiarly esteemed meat of the 19th century: mutton.
While some scholars speculate that Peacock’s recommendation of a few good servings of “well-peppered mutton” was actually a salty suggestion that Shelley’s love life needed spicing up—mutton being one of the many slang terms of the time for a prostitute—the traditional interpretation is that the lad simply needed a few good lashings of protein.
And it appears to have worked, too. After a season in Peacock’s company—during which Shelley enjoyed some more meat in his diet, many long walks along the river and the stimulating company that he always seemed to require in order to do his best work—Shelley emerged a heartier, happier and fatter poet. His most productive period by far still awaited him, and Peacock’s influence had undoubtedly helped strengthen him for the work that lay ahead.
The braised lamb chops below are a modernized version of a traditional mutton dish that Shelley might well have enjoyed during the summer of 1815. May they inspire many more peerless masterpieces of English literature for years to come.
RESTORATIVE LAMB CHOPS FOR ROMANTIC POETS
Start to finish: About 30 minutes
4 small lamb chops (about 16 ounces total)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
1/2 cup unsalted chicken stock
Coat the lamb chops in a thin layer of olive oil, then season generously on all sides with salt and pepper. Combine the rosemary and thyme together in a small, shallow dish, set half aside for garnish and lightly dredge the chops in what remains.
Heat remaining olive oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot but not smoking, place both chops in the skillet and cook on medium for about 1 minute. Deglaze the pan with about 1/4 cup of stock and cover. Simmer for about 4 minutes. Uncover, turn chops over and add another 1/4 cup of stock to pan. Cover and cook for another 4 minutes.
Remove chops from pan and arrange on plates. Reduce remaining stock a few seconds longer, scraping together the seared meat and scraps of herbs that remain on the bottom of the pan. Pour reduced stock mixture over plated chops. Garnish with reserved herb mixture and serve.