Minute Marginalia

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Six Little Cooks

Decades challenge; 19th-century women writers challenge.

E. S. Kirkland’s Six Little Cooks; or, Aunt Jane’s Cooking Class (1877; 6th ed, 1891; available via google books) shares a number of traits with Mary E. Bamford’s The Second Year of the Look-About Club (discussed in the previous post) . Both were written by 19th-century female authors; both have groups of children – friends and relatives -- working together to improve themselves (and faithfully recording information and their discoveries in notebooks); both place aunts in important roles as tutors. (Kirkland’s book is dedicated to her three nieces.)

Unlike Bamford’s book, however, here the participants are all female: six girls, ages nine to twelve, become skillful cooks under the tutelage of their aunt. The story begins when Aunt Jane’s niece Grace reads about a girl who enjoys cooking and is “seized with a desire to do likewise without delay.” Off she rushes “to get her mother’s permission, tripping over a footstool as she went, banging the edge of the door in her haste to get round it.” The narrator adds, “[Grace] always began everything with the same wild enthusiasm but was somewhat apt to grow weary of the new employment before she had thoroughly tried it.” (7)

Such an opening suggests this will be a book where the core activity transforms its practitioners. This section, however, is about the only attempt at character development, for Grace’s clumsiness and impulsiveness miraculously vanish as soon as she enters the kitchen. After the first day, she does not need to be reminded to wash her hands or don a clean apron, and all of the delicacies she prepares come out perfectly the first time. Apparently a desire to learn, a talented teacher, and a few good recipes are all that is needed for culinary success. (Indeed, the unspoken theme appears to be that everything works out magnificently once one begins cooking: the girls’ recipes result in delicious dishes in every chapter, with never a burnt crust or mis-seasoned offering; moreover, at one point, all Aunt Jane needs to do is remark that she wishes she had a marble slab for rolling out pastry, before one of her nieces immediately remembers that “there is one next door! When [the] hall-table slab was broken, Papa had it set out in the shed, and there it is now, just as large as life” and ready for use . . . )

The book is structured by days rather than traditional chapters (i.e., chapters are titled “First Day,” “Second Day”), though it’s evident more than 24 hours has elapsed in some cases. The bulk of each chapter is devoted to recipes, which Aunt Jane provides and the girls faithfully record in their notebooks. One hopes any young readers who decided to try making them had a knowledgeable adult nearby, since the book is stronger on ingredients than process.

Those looking for practical fare will need another book to supplement Strickland’s; hers is clearly designed to entice beginning cooks. Sweets and similar fare predominate: according to the index, of the 207 recipes in the book, 54 are for cakes (including 3 types of icing); 34, for puddings and sauces; 24, tea cakes and biscuits; 18, pastries; 16, custards and jellies; 14, confectionary and candy. That leaves 12 breakfast dishes, 14 lunch dishes (including 4 types of salad dressing), and 18 for “Sick room cookery” (5 types of gruel, 4 of tea, as well as lemonade, egg nog, and “toast water”). Appropriately, the book ends with a tea party for which the girls make tea biscuits, Virginia wafers, company tea cake, Dover cake with fruit, sponge cake, jelly cake, chocolate cake, macaroons, wine jelly and whipped cream, and chocolate meringues. (The feast at which these are consumed is not described, Strickland explaining “as my efforts have been limited to giving my little readers some account of their cooking lessons, I must not transgress bounds by describing anything outside” [231] -- a statement not completely accurate, but perhaps understandable here.)

A few recipes, for the curious.

No. 127 – Jenny Lind’s pudding [which Marion Harris Neil’s Something-Different Dish [1915] confirms is named for the singer because Lind liked this pudding so much]

One tumblerful milk and the same of flour, half a teaspoonful salt and one egg. When the egg is well beaten stir in half the milk, then salt and flour, and beat all together; then add the rest of the milk. Bake in patty-pans and serve with

No. 127 – Jelly Sauce

Half a cup currant jelly, two tablespoonfuls melted butter, the juice and half the grated peel of a lemon, half a teaspoonful nutmeg, one tablespoonful powdered sugar, two glasses wine. Beat the jelly to a smooth batter, then add gradually the butter, lemon, and nutmeg; beat hard, then add sugar, and lastly wine. Keep warm, and also well covered, to prevent the escape of the flavor.

[And, should that disagree with you, from the section on Sick Room cooking:]

No. 79 – Mrs. Miller’s Beef Tea

One lb. lean, juicy beef, one pint cold water, two even teaspoonfuls salt. Cut the beef in bits about an inch square, cover it with the cold water, and let it stand one hour. Heat it slowly over the fire till it reaches the boiling point, then strain and season.

No. 81 – Plain Gruel

Two quarts boiling water; into which stir one cup Indian meal and one tablespoon flour, previously made into a smooth paste with cold water. Boil slowly one hour. A handful of raisins boiled in the gruel improves it, especially for children’s taste.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Second Year of the Look-About Club

Decades challenge; 19th-century women writers' challenge

Judging by the children’s books I’ve been reading, learning in the 19th-century – at least in literature – was rarely a solitary activity. Instead, one formed a club and learned collaboratively.

One example of this is Mary E. Bamford’s The Second Year of the Look-About Club (1889), which as the title suggests, is a sequel to her popular The Look-About Club. (Second Year is available via google books; the first volume isn’t online.) Nature studies form the core – and justification – for this episodic work. A group of children unite to research and share stories, primarily about the birds, animals, and insects they discover near their home. An assortment of adult relatives offer guidance and participate in some activities, such as “Story Night”; a cousin in far-off California also joins the club, contributing her discoveries in long letters.

Part of the book’s effectiveness rests in its multiple narrative approaches: in addition to the California cousin’s correspondence, some segments follow various characters through their daily doings; others rely on storytelling sessions where family members recount animal-based anecdotes or legends; and over one-third of the book is a pamphlet the club created, with informational stories narrated by the insect or animal being studied. Although naturalists would probably shudder over the anthropomorphized creatures, the result is a very gentle narrative, where insects live in families with siblings and helpfully volunteer information about themselves, almost as if they were new neighbors. For example, in the opening of the segment titled “A Voice from a Hole in the Ground,” the narrator’s tone and word choice almost suggest that of another child – just one from a rather different background . . . :

Don’t look down here. I don’t want anyone coming to look down my little hole unless it is an insect that will tumble in here for my dinner. I am going to be a ground-beetle some day – one of the kind called Calosoma – and I must eat all I can, so as to grow. When I am a fine ground-beetle, I shall eat, too. My folks catch June bugs . . . And another relative of mine does good, for he eats potato-beetles. Another of my relatives, that has bright green wings, will go up trees to catch canker-worms, and another kind does ever so much good in eating those dreadful cutworms that plague vegetable-raisers so.

You cannot see how I look while I am in this little hole, can you? Well, I am long and black and have thirteen divisions to me, and six legs . . . I know you think that I am homely in shape, but my markings are pretty and I shall make a fine beetle. (106-07)

In contrast with the anthropomorphized tone of these accounts, the illustrations – perhaps gleaned from other sources – support the informational bent of the book, depicting insects and other creatures almost as specimens. Most are carefully labeled (“Carabus Adonis”), though a few have more light-hearted captions (“I am going to be a ground-beetle”), even if the illustration doesn’t support such an approach.

Of equal interest are the occasional glimpses of mindsets from the era. The book opens with one club member, Kittie, unhappy because she needs glasses. When she receives a pair, her siblings are quite curious about this novelty. One even asks, “How do you keep them on?” and marvels at “the little gold bows with knobs on the end, that went behind [Kittie’s] ears.” Kittie’s initial pleasure in her improved vision fades after a classmate teases her, but her father has a solution: he and her mother take Kitty “to the Blind Asylum” so she can see “so many worse off than herself” and appreciate what she has. That she does, and the club celebrates with a “’Blind Night,’ on which blind animals were to be talked about” – everything from a neighbor’s blind canary to the fish in Mammoth Cave.

Perhaps because Bamford herself was so interested in nature, the gender differences in the story are minimal – boys and girls participate in the club fairly equally. (Indeed, the girls sometimes seem to take a more prominent role, as does their Aunt Nan.) Interestingly, one bias that occasionally emerges (reminiscent of attitudes found in some contemporaneous series, such as Elsie Dinsmore) is anti-Catholicism. In the final chapter, “The Club’s Story Night,” after Aunt Nan volunteers “a queer Jewish legend about pigeons,” the children’s father looks for “Mrs. Jameson’s Legends of the Monastic Orders” and contributes a story about St. Nicholas of Tolentino:

It is related of this St. Nicholas that he never tasted animal food. In his last illness, when weak and wasted from inanition, his brethren brought him a dish of doves to restore his strength. The saint reproved them, and, painfully raising himself on his couch, stretched his hand above the doves, whereupon they rose from the dish and flew away. (170)

The children – who’ve listened appreciatively to an assortment of other myths and legends throughout the book – respond with “What nonsense!,” a sentiment echoed by their grandmother after their father reads another story, this time about St. Francis of Assisi. (Although the children’s religion is never specified, the California cousin and her parents attend a summer Chautauquan meeting – another touch of the times.)