Thursday, December 10, 2009
Jane Austen’s Muffins – part 1
[Let’s take a trip with Eberle as she leads us thru an imagined morning in young Jane Austen’s life—the conclusion will be posted next Thursday.]
Start with a tea tray in front of a parlor fire, a fire-screen painted by the hands of a maiden aunt, rows of pomegranates on flock wallpaper and the sound of a steady November drizzle outside the window. Now zoom in on the tea tray, the cream from the rectory dairy, the sugar that has traveled by ship from faraway lands, the strawberry jam that brings a summer garden’s warmth to the wintry day. Under a silver cover lies the muffin, and all the comforts of the room find their focal point in this classic tea cake.
The story of muffins in Jane Austen’s household begins before dawn when the lower housemaid wakes up. She’s 15 years old in 1791, the same age as Jane, and sleeps in one of the attics at the top of the Stevenson rectory. She gets dressed in the dark and heads downstairs to the kitchen. The stairs are narrow and unadorned as she starts her progress down but they become wider as she descends; after the last landing, they are carpeted and edged with a carved railing as they pass through the domain of the Family and meet the ground floor. This evolution is reversed when she returns to her attic at night.
The kitchen is dark, and the twin points of light from the eyes of the scullery cat seem to float in an airy region by the sink. She rakes back the banked coals in the hearth, adding tinder until small flames leap up, warming her hands for a moment. The only matches in the house are kept in a special box on the mantle piece in the large parlor, to be touched by the hands of the Father of the Family alone. He seems absurdly proud of them, though they smell foul when they make their small single explosion—the cook shakes her head privately and calls them newfangled engines of the Devil.
The yeast for the muffin dough has been left to soak overnight in an earthenware bowl and the housemaid pours the liquid off, leaving the yeast ready for the cook. She also sets a jug of water at a distance from the fire where it will become warm but not boil. It’s November, so she sets the jug a bit closer than she would in the summer, and she sighs as she remembers summer, the season of strawberries instead of chilblains.
When the cook is ready to make the muffin dough, she adds warm water to the yeast. Although modern science will not be able to explain the mysteries of yeast until the mid-nineteenth century, cooks had a practical understanding of its chemistry for a long time before that—water that is too hot will kill the bacteria in the yeast, resulting in muffin that is lacking the nooks and crannies intended to drip butter and jam later in the day. The cook’s livelihood depends on her not making mistakes like that.
The housemaid has by now carried jugs of hot water to the Family upstairs, brushed the carpet in the dining room, and is making up the downstairs fires. She goes into the small parlor and inhales the fragrance of the rose pot pourri mingling with the faint aroma of manure from the barn—this tells her the wind is from the west. She stares for a moment as she often does at the pomegranates marching in orderly rows on the flock wallpaper—strange fruits she doesn’t recognize, though she has a brother who has gone for a sailor and has traveled to the conquered lands from which they come. Jane has never seen an actual pomegranate either, but has closely examined a picture of one in a book on ancient Greek mythology.
The housemaid steps cautiously around the griffin feet of the mahogany furniture to dust the pier glass standing above a low table against the wall. One of the maids who traveled with the Family to London said she saw pier glasses on the walls between the windows, exactly the same shape and size as the windows themselves in a grand house. Uncanny it was, she said, you saw the outside through the window and then in the same shape as the outside, your own self in the mirror that looked like a window.
If her chilblains aren’t hurting too much this morning, the housemaid might be humming a popular tune as she heads back into the kitchen to lay the table for the servants’ breakfast. When her chilblains are very bad she asks cook for some of the ointment made of ginger and hot pepper she makes specially for this.
She hums a familiar tune wordlessly under her breath, but the words are clear in her mind:
I was but seven year auld
When my mither she did die;
My father married the ae warst woman
The warld did ever see.
For she has made me the laily worm,
That lies at the fit o’ the tree,
An’ my sister Masery she’s made
The machrel of the sea.
The song is one she hard from the cook, who is extremely fond of it and is singing it again while mixing up the muffin dough. What is a Laily Worm, she asks the cook, although she has asked this before and knows it is a dragon, but loves the face the cook makes when she says “a terrible dragon.” For some reason, though, the part about her sister being turned into a mackerel frightens her more.
[Be sure to check in next Thursday for the rest of the story!]