Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

(Here's the latest installment in Eberle's Women's Art is Women's Work series; & don't worry folks, I'm still in existence & even expecting to regale the residents of the local assisted living center with music & song this afternoon.)

It does not come as a great surprise that men in the past often seemed to feel most comfortable with the idea of “Woman” when it meant young and beautiful and not too bright. Convenient scientific theories, such as the notion that too much reading would damage women physically, enabled men to keep education largely to themselves. Many male writers placed feminine accomplishments such as child-bearing and house-keeping on a lesser plane than their own chosen spheres of books and letters. Women writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, presented an alternate view of the matter. In a variety of ways, they stressed the importance of the domestic sphere and reminded readers that it held its own with the weightiest concerns. Cooking comes in for its due share of tongue-in-cheek rehabilitation:

I have seen the time myself when an apple-dumpling changed the face of creation.
Harriet Spofford,
The Thief in the Night (1872)

Women, as producers of both food and books, were not ashamed to align the two. Literature itself, that product of the pen, can be compared to the products of the kitchen. The place where literature and cooking meet is of course in cookbooks, and women writing about cookbooks reveal their depth of feeling about this genre. Women as writers of cookbooks were authors creating multi-dimensional works about their lives, their thoughts, and their community with other women as well as about food. They took this authorship seriously.

Mamma says she will instruct me how various favorite dishes are composed, and I am to have a book of my own, in which to
write the rules and recipes of all that I make with my own hands. I don't see why it won't be as nice as learning a new language, and about as extensive too...
Lydia Howard Sigourney, Lucy Howard's Journal (1858)

For women, t
he cookbook holds a special place in literature. In The Adopted Daughter and Other Tales (1859), Alice Cary describes the intimate relationship a woman can have with her recipe-book, and the way it makes a connection with the past:

She had an old receipt-book of her mother's, yellow with age, worn almost to undecipherable tatters by ceaseless consultation, and marked all over with tastes or specimens of every article that had been made by its instructions in fifty years.

As an aside, the word “receipt” was used in this era the way we use the word “recipe.” Earlier cookbooks contained not only recipes for food, but also for beauty concoctions, household remedies, preparations for brewing and distilling, dying, cleaning and polishing—for all the various aspects, in fact, of the contained world of the household.

Alice goes on, somewhat heretically, to compare the cookbook to the Bible and to Shakespeare—just in case anyone felt the inclination to trivialize this genre of writing:

This was her vade
-mecum—her oracle—her almanac—we had almost said her Bible…. To (her)…it had a beauty such as the earliest folio Shakspeare had in the eyes of Charles Lamb….

The cookbook is also described as transgressing the rules of other books, and the na
ture of this transgression is intriguing. First of all, this cookbook is not ordered in a traditional way-- the rules of logic are thrown to the winds and words are delightfully mixed up with kitchen realities. Getting to one recipe is a concrete journey through many others rather than a process of abstract selection:

She was emphatically a woman of one book, and she spent the more time ov
er it because, although very bulky, it possessed no table of contents; so that in order to find a rule for salting down hams, one might be obliged to plough through plumcakes, soar with puffs, wallow in washes, stick fast in plasters, take the shade of dye-stuffs, and put up with all kind of sauces.

Finally, a secret sisterhood is implied, a kind of speci
al knowledge that unlocks the magic pertaining to the mysteries of domestic life.

All the eye-waters in the book were not sufficient to make it intelligible to any but the initiated.

Food has always been associated with the most profound mysteries of life. Whether it’s a question of eating the bodies of your enemies to obtain their strength (nineteenth century readers were fascinated by
reports and interpretations of cannibalism in other cultures) or a cake ritualistically edged with frilly edible flowers to celebrate a wedding, food creates a connection to the past, to a cultural heritage, to an inward identity.

Twelfth Night cake, for example, continued to be eaten long after 1752 when the calendar change placed Twelfth Night at the end rather than the beginning of Christmas festivities and brought its central role as a revel to a close. However, the plum cake traditionally prepared for Twelfth Night lived on and eventually found itself reincarnated as fruit cake.

The Twelfth Night cake of ages pa
st was a plum cake with a pea and a bean baked inside. Traditionally, the finder of the pea in her slice of cake was crowned Queen of the revel, and the finder of the bean crowned King. A mock court among the guests then assembled around these figures of royalty, drinking “Lamb’s Wool”—ale seasoned with sugar, spices, and roasted apple pulp.

Who can measure the magic of apples? From Eve’s temptation to the Roman goddess of fruit trees, Pomona, the poisoned fruit of Snow White and Harriet Spofford’s apple-dumpling, the apple has drawn to itself the power of myth. Wassailing the apple trees was another ritual of food and drink that took place on Twelfth Night. By the light of bonfires in orchards, people would gather around the most fruitful tree and pour cider or beer on its roots, drink toasts to the tree, place bits of moistened cake on bough tips or dip the boughs into pails of cider. This was the night when the Holy Thorn would blossom, leaves rustle without wind, and bees come singing from their hives.

For a taste of Twelfth Night magic, try the followin
g plum cake recipe, from the Household Cyclopedia of General Information (1881).

Plum Cake Recipe:
Take l pou
nd of fresh butter, 1 pound of sugar, 1 1/2 pounds of flour, 2 pounds of currants, a glass of brandy, 1 pound of sweetmeats, 2 ounces of sweet almonds, 10 eggs, 1/4 of an ounce of allspice, and 1/4 of an ounce of cinnamon.
Melt the butter to a cream and put in the sugar. Stir it till quite light, adding the allspice, and pounded cinnamon, in a quarter of an hour take the yolks of the eggs, and work them in, two or three a
t a time; and the whites of the same must by this time be beaten into a strong snow quite ready to work in, as the paste must not stand to chill the butter, or it will be heavy, work in the whites gradually; then arid the orange peel, lemon, and citron, cut in fine strips, and the currants, which must be mixed in well with the sweet almonds. Then add the sifted flour and glass of brandy. Bake this cake in a tin hoop in a hot oven for three hours, and put sheets of paper under it to keep it from burning.

The comforts and luxuries of life, its roast-beef and plum-pudding, are the oil that keeps the machinery of society in operation.
Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Married or Single?

Pictures from the top
Pomona, Goddess of Fruit Trees by Nicholas Fouché
Alice Cary (2)
An Illustration of a Twelfth Night Revel by Phiz
An illustration from a 19th century Icelandic version of Snow White
A plum!


  1. I think we retain a bit of the connection to our recipes in this day and age. I know I have handwritten recipe cards and bits of paper and books with notations and I can sit and read cookbooks as if they were any other sort of book. The difference is where the recipes originate. Not often are they handed down, but rather found in magazines or newspapers or now, online.
    It's sad that we are losing that tradition of passing things on the way we used to, but then the concept of the "family dinner" or the grand dinner party has also gone out of fashion.
    I would love to come across one of these singular receipt books. It would certainly be a treasure!

    I really enjoyed the post. Thank you.


  2. Hi Kat:

    Eberle & I love old cookbooks too. You might be interested in checking out the following site, called Feeding America. It has a number of 19th century cookbooks, including one that Eberle & Audrey have studied a lot, the Frugal Housewife by Lyida Child.

  3. Another excellent post, Eberle. I can smell the plum cake from here! The recipe sounds heavenly.

  4. Hi Willow:

    Pinch-hitting for Eberle here-- thanks so much-- glad you enjoyed it. The recipe does look good.

  5. My family's most treasured cookbook is Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cookbook. I bought one for my daughter, lest she be seduced away by The Joy of Cooking. Tucked among the pages of my Fannie Farmer - and also in a very disreputable index card box - are recipes in my handwriting, my children's, their grandmother's, and that of friends I haven't seen in thirty years. Every time I read the recipes, I am reminded of someone I love, or someone I once knew and had nearly forgotten.

  6. Hi Sandra:

    I'm particularly fond of an old Fanny Farmer cookbook we have, too. It's quite dilapidated, but it has so much aura & great recipes.

  7. You did a great job with this. You and your husband make quite a couple. As I've said b/f, if I lived nearby, I'd have to make you frequent photo subjects. So much life springs forth just from the few glimpses I get in the photos you've posted.

    I really liked this article. It make me think of my dear friend Jeanie who loved to cook. She subscribed to all the cooking magazines - was awash in domestic responsibilities - never gave thought to feminist ideals - and yet, was strong, indepedent, fully woman. Cooking was her poetry and even though she was a bit of a lousy cook, she was so poetic in her approach, you were convinced it was wonderful.

    You should see about publishing this piece. I love all the research you put into it. In America, few people know what currants or sweetmeats are these days.

  8. Hi Jen:

    Thanks! Both Eberle & I appreciate all the support. Actually the "Women's Art is Women's Work" series is an earlier version of a work co-authored by Eberle & Audrey Bilger that is being shopped to publishers. We'll see how that goes.

    Thanks again!


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