Monday, March 28, 2011

I'm Wondering About Dessert

My great-grandmother, who baked fabulous bread, and my grandmother, who made a dessert for every dinner.

Anna at Pleasant View Schoolhouse posted a day's menu from the vintage cookbook, The American Home Diet, or, What Shall We Have for Dinner? published in 1920. It doesn't take long to see that this diet is packed with carbohydrates and sweet delectables, in one form another, for each meal. Since the epidemic of obesity had not yet struck America in 1920, it is interesting that people could eat through such a day's menu.

When I was between four and eight years old -- quite a few decades ago -- my mother and I lived with my grandparents. My grandmother did most of the cooking. Every evening, dinner was served in the dining room, on a table cloth -- not in the breakfast nook adjoining the kitchen. Every night there was dessert. Years later when I looked through my grandmother's recipes and those of her mother, at least 50 percent of the recipes were for sweets--puddings, sherberts, cakes, pies, cookies, sweet sauces, tarts. For each kind of fruit there was an array of recipes, so you could cook it when it was in season in all kinds of ways. If are making 365 desserts a year, you need variety.

There are plenty of differences between the 1920s, when my grandmother first started cooking for her husband and family, and today. For one, many more people moved their bodies in the course of doing their daily work, rather than sitting in an office, or walked a lot more as part of their commutes or trips to the store.

Our portions are reported to be much larger today.

Food represents a much smaller portion of the family's monthly budget -- that is, it is cheaper.

But was there a difference in the experience of the meal itself, especially the family dinner? At my grandmother's, meals were regular (I don't remember eating in restaurants), and eating ended when the meal ended. Adults never ate between meals.

Ergo, missing from the grocery store that we went to every Friday night were the huge aisles of snack food that we see in today's supermarkets. In my local grocery store, there is one side of an aisle devoted to candy, another to popcorn and nuts, another to frozen desserts, a double aisle of cookies and crackers, and another double aisle of chips, pretzels, and other snack food. With the exception of the desserts, crackers with soup, and cookies for lunch, none of these foods are eaten at meals, yet they consume close to 25 percent of the supermarket floor space devoted to food items.

I am wondering if there is a correlation between the lack of a ritualized family dinner, complete with dessert, and the rise in snack food?

I am wondering, do many women today still make a dessert when they prepare the family meal at night? Do you? And if you do, does it help decrease your family's eating between meals?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Housekeeping in Lamb in His Bosom 2

Here are more quotes from Caroline Miller's Lamb in His Bosom that give an idea of the work of women in non-slaveowning families of southern Georgia in the two decades before the Civil War.

Weaving and Spinning
Ma was happy at her loom, or when she was spinning, the long hum of the wheel filling the house, or when she was dyeing, mixing her likkers of indigo with maple bark or poplar, or this or that or the other root she had to see what color it would make. She would souse the hanks of cotton or worsted yarn into the pot, pushing them gently under the bubbling, swirling surface. She would take them out, and dry them on a leaning bush, and the colors would be softly blent through the threads, set with the lye of the green-oak ashes. She used the juice of the poke-berries for short lengths of red for bright bibs and tuckers. But that color would run in the washing, and it was a pity.

Spinning wheel, an ancient tool for making thread from fibers.
Cean would try new dyes herself when she made cloth. Lonzo would set her up a loom when the cotton was in. He was working at her spinning wheel now by the firelight of nights. The wood squeaked softly under the blade of his knife where he rounded off a corner or settled a spoke into place. Cean would make all her frocks straight blue or yaller, or block her colors together as she wove then. She would have frock of blue with flounces of yaller across the bottom.

used for dyeing.

Making Soap

Tomorrow Cean would make soap-grease out of the scraps [of the butchered pig], when her lard was cold in the kegs, and her sausages were all strung up in greasy links in the smokehouse. Not every woman knows how to make good strong soap that will not shrink away to nothing when you lay it out in hunks on the smokehouse shelf. But Cean knew how, for her mother had taught her when Cean was not knee-high to a duck. Like meat-curing, there is no quick way to make good soap. Wait till the dark of the moon to cook up your soap-grease and pot-ashes, and while the mixture is boiling stir it from left to right with a sassafras puddle; when it is thick and ready, let the fire die under the pot. Next morning you will find the soap shrunk a little from the sides of the pot, and a little wet-like dew will be gathered upon it; then you can slice it in hunks and lay it away, sure of fine, strong soap for another year.

Washpot, used for making soap, doing the wash, and making big stews for large gatherings.

Doing the Laundry

Four times she had soaked his and her clothes in the wash-trough, had battled them free of dirt on the block, had boiled them white and rinsed them through the spring water, had hung them out on the elder bushes to dry. Together, in the water, she had washed their clothes—his long, sweaty shirts and britches, her short shimmies and full-skirted homespun dresses of pale natural color, and of the soft blue of indigo, and of mingled colors patterned on the loom.

Butchering the Calf

And now Lonzo would butcher him and they’d eat him. Cean would beat the tender pieces and fry them on the fireplace; she would try out the yellow tallow for candles, and boil the tough pieces, and she and Lonzo would carry Ma a half of beef. Lonzo would stretch the hide to the back side of the house, and the sun would dry it. Then Lonzo would tan it, and rub it down till it was soft and giving, and then he’d make shoes for them on the shoe-last that lay under the bed.

Making and Preparing Food
For Cean and Lonzo had aplenty and to spare. Out in the smokehouse there were kegs of lard and sides of meat, sweet brown hams and shoulders, and sausages fried and buried in lard; piled back in the corner were pumpkins, pale-colored in the half-light; behind the corncrib were mounds of dirt and pine straw covering banks of potatoes—all Cean had to do was go and grabble out as many as she needed; in the loft were dried peas aplenty; in stone crocks Cean had preserved all manner of things in thick sweetness—mayhall jelly, blackberries, huckleberries, watermelon rind, wild plums. Like her mother, Cean set a good table. With corn aplenty for meal and hominy, with potatoes to fry, with syrup to be sopped up with a hot biscuit, and preserves to be had for the asking, it was no wonder that Cean had only a coming war to worry her. When her table was set, neat and tidy with its crockery plates and bone-handled knives and forks and pewter spoons, it was a pretty sight to see. Maggie and Kissie would rake the coals from the top of the oven, would push the coals from under the pots and skillets, would lift the pot lids and let the food cool a little. Rich simmering would mingle with the floury, fresh odor of buttermilk biscuits and varied scents of boiled beans, stewed pork, and such like—all fitten to stir the hunger of a stone man. The roasted potatoes would come out of the hot ashes to be peeled and buttered. “Fine rations,” Lonzo would say as he sat down to eat… And for the next meal she might stir up a sugar-cake to please him and make him eat the heartier.

Berries of the mayhall bush, found in southern Georgia. You can buy it from Southern Grace Farms here.

Fixing Wounds

She washed the gashes that tapered to scratches down her arm, and caked the open places with tallow melted with clear turpentine. The hot liquid seared with its heat and sting, but she must do this or have blood-poison or proud flesh, and high fevers, and be dead, maybe, before ever Lonzo found her.

Tallow, rendered from animal fat, usually beef, which was used for making soap and candles.

Laying Out the Dead
Seen washed her new dead while dawn was breaking. Margot helped her. The two women were steeled to the emergency…. They washed his naked, wasted, sore-eaten body. Once the breath was gone, here was an unclean body to be prepared for its burial in the clean earth…. She raised the limp body, and Margot helped her clothe him in clean clothing. She set her hand under his chin to see that the jaws were set together properly. She brushed his hair down with a bristle-brush; it was docile under her hand as he been docile since he was sick, but never before. Margot shook out a clean sheet….

Family cemetery from the mid-19th century. The Carver-Smith family buried their dead on their own land.

Cean, back home on a low slope bounded by swaying stretches of broom straw and tilled fields, sheltered by lofty pines and the blazing bright dome of heaven, prayed God-almighty that she would never have just cause to leave Lonzo; but over and above any other thing, each day raising her heart to an altar, she prayed for patience—patience to listen to a child’s fretting; patience to endure a man’s hard displeasure over bad weather or the death of a hog; patience to love God as she ought, this being hard to do since never might she see His face until she died.

Along a path from the Cean's house to the road her husband planted a row of crape myrtle, that exuberant bush-tree that blooms in the summer in the southern states.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Housekeeping in Lamb in His Bosom 1

Here are some quotes from Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller that give an idea of the work of women of non-slaveholding farming families in Georgia in the two decades before the Civil War.

Thoughts on Setting Up Her House
Now she was a woman and would churn her own butter, scald her own milk-crocks and set them in the sun to make them smell sweet and clean; now she would own and tend her little patches of herbs and melons, drop corn behind her own man, and watch it grow, and hoe the grass out from around the sharp, clean blades cutting through the earth.

Typical milk crock

Creating the Bed
She went into the house where the floor of split logs had never been scrubbed and yet was clean, where Lonzo had set the bedplace in the corner with its depth of dry cornshucks soaked and softened in water, and dried again in recent suns. Over these shucks, that would rustle softly with the turn of their bodies, was spread a thick mattress of soft new cotton, caught between its homespun ticking with strong thread in the hands of Cean’s mother. Atop the cotton mattress lay Cean’s feather bed, the feathers saved from every goose for years gone. Atop this were homespun sheets and Cean’s quilts, one of them the bright and dark scraps of the Widow’s Trouble pattern, sewn by Cean’s fingers through her girlhood. She had two other quilts—Star of the East, and Maiden’s Tear—that she had pieced herself. That would be more than enough cover for these bright, cool nights, and before winter came again she would make other quilts. Lonzo’s mother had promised wool for two comforts when the sheep should be sheared in April.

Widow's Pane Quilt Pattern from Carolina Patchworks (Is Widow's Trouble the origin of this pattern?)

Making the Broom
Cean gathered the bushes of the gall berries for brush brooms and laid them on top of her wash-shed to dry. The brittle stems, beaten free of leaves, would keep the dooryard clean of trash. Each morning as she swept the yard the twigs of the brush broom left their little wavy marks on the thin sand about her doorstep.

Gallberry bush

Cean’s House

When they needed more room Lonzo would ceil the room and make a loft for another room. Now there was room aplenty; and truth to tell, Cean liked the dim space overhead where the corners were veiled with dusty cobwebs that the little gray spiders had woven, bringing good luck to this house. She loved her house; from the beams of it hung her bronze-red pods of pepper drying for sausage seasoning, her beans strung to dry for winter use, her seeds gathered fresh, season by season, and tied in clean rags to hang safe from the rats’ greedy teeth….

Yonder on the wall hung the little looking-glass that Lonzo had brought from the Coast so she could see to comb her hair; on the narrow shelf below the looking-glass lay the fine bone-backed bomb and the bristle hair-brush, and the little pipkin of ointment compounded of witch-hazel tea and rose leaves, to soothe her lips and hands from winter chapping. On her floor were yellow shuck rugs of her own plaiting and sewing, and deep bearskin rugs from the backs of the honey-robbing, lamb-stealing beasts that Lias, dare-devil! had killed in the swamp. Far in the corner was her bed, and close beside it was the cradle where the babies would sleep, each in its time.


You may also enjoy:
Housekeeping in Great Forest: The Trees 2
Housekeeping in The Fields

Friday, March 18, 2011

Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller

Lamb in His Bosom is about a poor white farming family living in the wiregrass country of south- central Georgia in the two decades before the Civil War. It's about the life and extended family of Cean Carver Smith, beginning with her marriage to Lonzo Smith and their setting up housekeeping in their newly built tree-chiseled home among the pines, six miles west of her parents' farm.

Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for Lamb in His Bosom in 1934. The book was a bestseller, as readers could see, in the story of how the Carver-Smith family endured the harsh difficulties of life in antebellum Georgia, a mirror of their own struggles to survive in the Great Depression's meanest years. I would not be surprised if John Steinbeck drew on Lamb in His Bosom for his 1939 Grapes of Wrath.

Conrad Richter said his novel, The Trees, was heavily influenced by Lamb in His Bosom, which is one of the reasons I made an immediate beeline for it. Miller's novel is historically authentic, writes historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese in the book's afterword. How the farmers and their families did everything -- from building a house to making dinner to sowing their crops to butchering a pig -- is authentic, along with the characters' dialect and reliance on the Protestant religion. Fox-Genovese notes:
Miller understood the context of the lives of those she was writing about. Her accounts of the business of everyday life ... conform in extraordinary detail to what we know about the Old South from a myriad of sources. It is difficult to think of a single other text that could give students of antebellum history as complete or accurate an account of the lives of nonslaveholding whites.
I thought the main character, Cean Carver Smith, was fully drawn, and I felt close to her most of the time. We see the anguished work of her soul as she struggles to physically and emotionally survive one catastrophe after another. None of the stories seems implausible, but only too painfully true of the difficulties American frontiersmen and women faced and persevered against.

Miller may in part be indebted to Sigrid Undset for the richness of her portrayal of Cean and other characters; she told an interviewer for the Atlanta-Constitution in 1933 that she liked Sigrid Undset "better than a dozen others all rolled together." In comparison with the female heroine of Richter's Awakening Land trilogy, Cean Carver Smith is a real woman. However, most characters in the book do not fundamentally change over time, including the heroine, so I do not come away with the same sense of closure I felt upon leaving Undset's Kristin Lavransdattar. The book's momentum derives from the unfolding lives of the family and the challenges they overcome, or, in some cases, as in any family, are unable to overcome, and their deep faith in God and His love for and tutoring of their souls.

Lamb in His Bosom was Miller's first novel, published when she was 30 years old. She never went to college but was mentored in literature by her high school English teacher, whom she married and with whom she bore three sons, who were collectively nicknamed "the three twins," her niece reports. Her impetus for writing Lamb in His Bosom was the hard time she was having keeping house and minding her children! As she told an interviewer:
When my twins were two years old (and Billy was four) I thought I would break under the strain of trying to take care of them and do the hundreds of other little things any normal wife and mother is called upon to do. But one day it suddenly occurred to me that I was not half so weighted down with duties as the pioneer women used to be. Even my mother and grandmother, who had such large families, seemed to get through with much less effort and energy than I was expending. I couldn’t help wondering why. They had something, something very real, very tangible, yet almost indefinable, that anchored them and gave them faith and courage, and I needed that something so much.

From that day I turned to the examples set by the pioneer women of Georgia. I gathered my material around Baxley and in the surrounding country, and it has been a wonderful help to me. Needless to say, I feel that I have derived more benefit from writing the book than my readers could ever obtain through reading it.

Miller began collecting stories and information from her family. Her own parents had buried six infants, including two sets of stillborn twins, and two toddlers. A preacher in the book is modeled on her great-grandfather who built a New Light church in the area. With her children in tow, she visited people beyond her town of Baxley, in the Georgia countryside:
I’d get in the Ford and ride about the country and talk to the people. I’d buy chickens and vegetables from them, and they’d tell me about their lives, in the language which even today preserves many of the picturesque and graphic figures of speech which their ancestors used. These people are obscure, but they are an important part of our history. Their forbears fought in the Revolution, and in the Confederate army. They are loyal Americans, patriotic citizens, and people of high moral character.

And while I found my book among these people, I also found something which helped me. I discovered the fine spirit in which they met the hardships and tragedies. What they suffered and their nobility in the midst of desperate conditions made my own problems less difficult. I hope that I have captured something of their patience and courage and faith, not only in my book, but also for myself.

In its liveliness of speech and description, its authenticity, and its story, Lamb in His Bosom, listed by Abebooks as a "lost Pulitzer," is ripe for revival.

650 American Red and White Quilts!

Thanks to Ancient Industries, I have learned of this extraordinary exhibition in New York City's Park Avenue Armory. What's showing: a collection of 650 red and white quilts constructed by American women over three centuries. The quilts, from the collection of Joanna S. Rose, are on display from March 25 through March 30.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

How Do They Make Those Bejewelled Dresses?

The Wall Street Journal reports that beading and embroidery were prominent in this year's Fashion Week. If you would like to see how these elaborate dresses are created, watch the movie Brodeuses (Sequins), available at Netflix -- a visually beautiful movie and one of my favorites.

Scene from Brodeuses, when a young girl dedicated to embroidery applies as an assistant to the local embroidery contractor for Paris haute couture.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Awakening Land Trilogy by Conrad Richter

Statue of Pioneer Woman in Hamilton, Ohio (compliments of Hanneorla)

As I suspected, The Trees, the first book in the trilogy called The Awakening Land by Conrad Richter, is in a class by itself for the beauty and vitality of the language that Richter surfaced from the annals and letters and diaries of early America. That language and the story of the "woodsy" Luckett family that first staked out a home in the deep forests of early Ohio took this reader by storm.

Statue of a pioneer farmer in Kansas.

In its sequel, The Fields, we see the leading figure of this trilogy, Sayward Luckett Wheeler, now married to Portius Wheeler, an attorney who has come, for reasons unknown, from a well-off family in the Bay State of Massachusetts to the Ohio woods, where until Sayward married him, he lived alone in a shanty cabin and spent his time memorizing Latin, Greek, and English classics. Portius and Sayward produce ten children. In The Fields, Sayward is the driving force for clearing the trees, planting crops, building a church, and starting up a school. As we leave The Fields, which has the flavor but not the force of the language of The Trees, the village of Moonshine Church is on the brink of becoming a town.

By the end of The Town, Sayward lives in a large brick house built at her husband's insistence, and she, her husband, and her grown children are leading citizens and even political figures of a large town, now called Americus, that is on the brink of becoming a city.

Thus, through the span of Sayward's life, Richter gives us a window to the relentless activity and the hopes that built this country. While in The Fields, Sayward is marching at the head of the line for progress, by her middle age, the coming of town and city ways make her yearn for the old days of isolation (softened by reliable hospitality to strangers) and extremely hard work. Work is redemption for Sayward.

As the trilogy progressed, I became increasingly irritated with Richter's drawing of his characters. Although he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Town in 1951, to me this last book was a step down in quality from The Trees, written in 1940. I felt that Richter had withdrawn from the inner life of his characters, freezing them into positions representing ideas or a worldview and skirting the complexities of human flesh and blood. Even in The Trees it sometimes struck me that Sayward had the sensibility in human relationships of a man, rather than a woman. She becomes a formidable matriarch for her family. She is devoted to her children, she diligently does her duty for her husband, she both loves and fears God, she loves the land. We see her views of the changing world around her. What's missing are the tensions and upheavals of her heart. She is pure stoic; her inner struggles last but a minute.

Other than Sayward, we sometimes see things through the eyes of her children, but we never get a glimpse of the insides of her husband. Sayward and Portius seem to operate on parallel tracks to the same destination, but the rails never seem to meet emotionally or spiritually. We never see below the surface.

Given that The Awakening Land centers on the life of a strong woman, I couldn't help but compare it with a trilogy I well love, Kristin Lavransdattar penned by the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset in 1921-1922. Like The Awakening Land, Kristin Lavransdatter is a work of historical fiction; in this case the setting is medieval Catholic Norway.

The young Sigrid Undset (1882-1949). She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

Here, against a backdrop of political power struggles and the medieval church, we read about Kristin who becomes a wife, a noblewoman, and a matriarch and exhibits robust capabilities for perseverance and manorial management. But we are far closer to Kristin and her family than we are ever permitted to be with Sayward and hers in early Ohio five centuries later. Indeed, as Kristin discovers herself in the final book, we come away feeling that we also know her. Kristin truly loves.

The quiet love evoked within the Luckett family in The Trees is not carried over into the family of Portius Wheeler and his wife. As they become more and more invulnerable to the elements, so they seem to become more invulnerable to each other and deserted in emotional isolation. Perhaps this is the message that Richter wanted to deliver, but because he never gives us a glimpse into Portius' mind and heart, I think he was emotionally hesitant as a writer.

Nevertheless, The Awakening Land delivers a vibrant and fascinating portrayal of what it was like to live in the first 80 years of the American republic. With good reason we call our country "the home of the brave."

Also see Housekeeping in the Great Forest: The Trees 2 and Housekeeping in The Fields for some of Richter's beautiful descriptions of women's work.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Housekeeping in The Fields

Pennyroyal (mentha pulegium), which was used as an ant and flea repellant

I devoured in a day Conrad Richter's The Fields, sequel to The Trees. The feeling of this book is different. In The Trees, the drama overshadowing the characters is the problem of physical survival in the face of extreme isolation, lack of necessities and amenities, and a very formidable natural setting. Far more than the pioneers, I suspect, this reader was shivering in her timbers with fear for the characters.

In The Fields, the drama has shifted to the intricate relations among people, since now there are a lot more of them where the Luckett family first plunked down its two kettles, quilts, and hunting and trapping gear. Clearing the forest to make a field and planting a crop is a cruel struggle. We see Sayward Luckett Wheeler's efforts not only to "defeat the trees" as she put it, but also to corral her children to the ways of civilization.

Here are quotes from The Fields that give an idea of Sayward's work.

Even her cabin looked small and pitiful aside of the big timber. But it had a tight roof against the rain, stout walls against the beasts and the winter, a bed to sleep in, a fireplace to cook by and gourds on clapboard shelves spilling over with what grew in woods and patches. Hanging from her rafters she had dittany tea, herbs for complaints, a jug of whiskey if you needed it, sacks of meal and grain. With these she reckoned they could make out.

A piggin
The river was her boundary. Down here was a place to get gourds in the late summer. You sliced off the tops for lids, pulled out the guts and had all the piggins and pipkins [small earthenware pot with a horizontal handle] for your shelf boards you wanted....

Her and Portius’ bed was the only one left down the ladder. This bed Sayward had made new in the fall. First she littered fresh fallen leaves on the bark she had spread on tamped dirt floor. Then she laid ticking [strong ticking fabric] she had sewed up herself and stuffed with corn shucks and wheat straw. Between the yarn blankets on top of this Sayward from time to time took her ease....

My, but the cabin smelled good with its joists hanging with curing dittany and pennyroyal. They had to gather linn [jute] for rope and hickory bark for light wood when candles ran low.

Shellbark hickory (carya laciniosa).
First she stood a slab bench with a gourd of soft soap by the run, and all had to scrub their heads and hands like they were pewter plates. Then she hung up a [black] haw comb, and every time before you came to eat, you had to hackle your hair with it. Oh, she was bound you’d be somebody around here. She put those puncheons [planking] down in the cabin just so she’d had a floor to scour, he believed. Now she talked of getting lime from Maytown and making her boys whitewash the logs…. Her ways were so “cam” you figured she was easy-going, but that’s where she fooled you. The day wasn’t long enough for the things she studied out to do to get you along in the world. She was having a loom built and said she knew where she could get her hands on two more ewes.

Blackhaw (viburnum prunifolium)

Wheat was coloring up fast. It would have to be reaped, bound, shocked, flailed, and the chaff fanned out. Then her flax had to be taken care of, pulled, spread, turned, ripped for the seeds, and that was only a start of the long “tejus” work before it could be spun. All the time corn and potatoes would have to be hoed and sprouts and weeds fought. And meanwhile the hay had be made and put away. It was all coming in a pile. You couldn’t put off a crop once it was ready.


She smelled just the same, that good, clean smell of soap and wood smoke and something broad, sweet and healthy that was just her. He reckoned a part of it came from May apples. She always dried May apples, he recollected, and laid them among her clothes in the chest.