“There were always oysters…and those to praise them”
How odd that my introduction to oyster soup should come via novels written by mainly landlocked authors in the America of nearly two centuries ago; the Laura Ingalls Wilders and Susan Coolidges who wrote of fathers walking through the door carrying flat cans of preserved oysters in their pockets, a treat for families tired of sustenance fare after a winter of blizzards, pressed up against the blunted end of the hunger gap when fields and orchards had yet to catch up with spring-awakened appetites.
Londoners revolted against being served oysters too often which were so cheap and plentiful even Dr Johnson fed oysters to his cat, Hodge, but back in the American Midwest where the newly-laid tracks for the iron horse allowed time and seasons to be overcome via haulage of delicacies such as the canned oyster or those shipped fresh in barrels of straw and ice, they were a treat. The first canneries were built near the oyster ports and over time oyster farming replaced the naturally occurring shellfish scraped up from the bottom of the gulf and eastern coastal waters. Native Americans might have been eating them for over 3000 years and New Yorkers had long grown accustomed to feasting upon the great oyster beds that originally fed the Lenape Indians and then the Dutch as they built Manhattan from the ground up, until the beds expired from familiarity and pollution, but inland they carried the cachet of the new. By 1860 canned, pickled and dried oysters had made their presence felt alongside their fresh brethren, a contrast to the platefuls of stodge needed to sustain people as they toiled in the fields, manual labour always threatening to outpace what could be loaded into their bodies in the form of calories.
Ma Ingalls sometimes cooked her oyster soup with salt pork, served with little saltines crumbled over a broth rich with fresh milk from their own cow. When the Long Winter had caused their cow to go dry, they thinned the broth down with water and made do. Their soup wasn’t a prelude to the goodness to come as Louis De Gouy believes it should be but was instead the main event; this may not have been through choice.
In parts of Kansas oyster stew possesses symbolic and ceremonial meaning and is served on New Years Day, a custom dating back to the arrival of that iron horse and the belief that the oysters would bless diners with fertility in the coming months although those hardworking Christian prairie dwellers might wish to draw a delicate veil over such matters of the flesh. So popular were the bivalves over a hundred years ago, it was not uncommon for ordinary Kansas families to possess their own set of oyster serving utensils even when their kitchens were otherwise sparse in their appointments.
M.F.K Fisher was concerned that we might confuse an oyster soup with a stew. ‘An oyster stew is not stewed, and although they are made of the same things and even cooked almost the same way, an oyster soup should never be called a stew, nor stew soup,’ she declared.The difference seems to be time and impulse, the soup being made as fast as the hand can follow the mind; thickened with flour, crumbs or eggs; and leaving room for what is to follow, namely the main course. A stew, according to Mary Frances, will suffice on its own and it is, as she says, a meal in itself and a more timely one to prepare at that.
The oyster soup in Wharton’s Age of Innocence might have been thickened with cream although it stops short of using the more refined term, bisque, to describe itself: ‘After a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers, then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters, followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and a celery mayonnaise,’ canvas back being turtle and shad a fine and seasonal fish enjoyed by people living close to the Potomac on the east coast. Its roe is particularly sought after. When Martin Scorsese filmed his version of the book, he engaged the services of food stylist Rick Ellis to bring Wharton’s dinner scenes to life. Ellis turned to Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving by Mrs Mary F. Henderson, published in 1878, to provide a recipe for the oyster soup served to the diners. This soup had a flour and butter roux and was augmented by cream and cayenne pepper and Henderson makes a similar distinction to Fisher; ‘An oyster soup is made with thickening; an oyster stew is made without it.’
Make Helen Bullocks recipe for oyster soup from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion and what you’ll taste is oyster soup in its nascence; the oysters being seasoned with salt and pepper and thickened with milk and a liaison of butter and flour. The recipe was published in 1938 but dates back to 1742 and would have used fresh oysters and their liquor, whereas once canning became popular, the quality of the product was determined by a lack of liquor, thus offering the purchaser more oysters weight for weight. It is a shame because I consider the liquor invaluable. Later recipes see all manner of inclusions such as Worcestershire sauce, mushroom and the fatback or salt pork of Ma Ingalls.
It is to the homely comfort of Ma Ingalls and Laurie Colwin that I gravitate though, as opposed to the froideur of a grand society setting. Colwin is bang on the nail when she wrote about soup being the only thing you need to feel safe and warm on a cold, wet night.
“In all her life Laura had never tasted anything so good as that savory, fragrant, sea-tasting hot milk, with golden dots of melted cream and black specks of pepper on its top, and the little dark canned oysters at its bottom. She sipped slowly, slowly from her spoon, to keep that taste going over her tongue as long as she could.” By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Hunger is the best sauce, said Pa. Here’s my version of Ma’s simple oyster soup.
two 8oz cans of smoked oysters (in brine or oil)
2 rashers streaky bacon
4 oz Jacobs cracker crumbs
1 tbsp butter
16 fl oz full fat milk
8 fl oz single cream
pinch ground mace
pinch ground nutmeg
pinch black pepper
salt to taste
Put the bacon into a hot pan and fry until crispy. Remove from pan and drain on a paper towel, keeping the rashers warm. Drain the oyster liquor into a measuring jug (if you are using oysters canned in liquor and brine) and add enough water to make this up to 8 fl oz. If you are using oysters canned in oil, drain them well, ensuring as much of the oil as possible is removed and just use water or 8oz of seafood stock. Pour into a saucepan and add another 8 fl oz of water. Take the crushed crackers and stir them, along with the butter into the hot liquid. When it comes to the boil, add the oysters and slowly simmer for a couple of minutes. Now add the milk, the cream, the mace, nutmeg and pepper and bring back to a slow boil. Reduce to simmer for 30 seconds then take off the heat. Taste and adjust seasoning, pour into bowls, crumble the bacon into shards and sprinkle these over the soup.
“It was a world of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapour had frozen over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar, Everything was rigid, locked up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made us sneeze.” … Winter not only sets in hard for Laurie Lee, but inspires him to write one of the most evocative depictions of Christmas in literature, His words resonate deeply with those of us living in the northern hemisphere where a sudden drop in the temperature turns noses the colour of cooked quince, bursts the tender cells of dormant plants as it clads the landscape in a brittle tracery of frost.
‘Cold December brings the sleet, blazing fire and Christmas treat’ goes the saying, as the earth moves its vast bulk to faces the shortest days of the year, square on. Daylight hours are misty and crepuscular meaning indoor lights remain lit but this unrelenting greyness is interrupted by the gaiety and colour of Christmas: scarlet holly berries and shiny gilt bells; a forest of trees and garlands looped from wall to wall; and the exotic poinsettia, the Christmas flower of Mexico now popular here. Sheeny sweet wrappers get balled up and left down the sides of sofas and outside, decorative festive lights are reflected in the wet cement of the town, making walks home at the end of the day less austere. The smells are different too: the smokiness of decaying autumn leaves and the hot sweet scent of chestnuts from street sellers; the spiced citrus rime from bowls of clementines and sweet baked fug of hot apples ‘hissing and bubbling with a rich look’ as Dicken’s Mr Pickwick enjoyed them.
In the midst of this can be found the Christmas experiences of others, committed to the pages of novels and memoirs, a rich source of pleasure on dark evenings when a book, a blanket and warm chair are all one needs. Some of our most vivid memories are these written recollections and their remembering serves as a kind of collective seasonal synergy where Christmas plans become suffused with the idealised images of celebrations we’ve read about. Dylan Thomas understood this when he wrote A Child’s Christmas in Wales with its richly- stirred pot of the real, the imagined and the magical, His words are the sum total of a child’s magical thinking married with an adult need to recreate what was most enjoyed for our own children:
“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
Take carolling- I’ve never been, but having read Laurie Lee’s childhood account of stumbling through the snowy village lanes and surrounding fields with friends and other villagers, I feel as if I was there alongside, cupping my mittened fingers and huffing into them to combat the freezing air:
“Mile after mile we went, fighting against the wind, falling into snowdrifts, and navigating by the lights of the houses. And yet we never saw our audience. We called at house after house; we sang in courtyards and porches, outside windows, or in the damp gloom of hallways; we heard voices from hidden rooms; we smelt rich clothes and strange hot food; we saw maids bearing in dishes or carrying away coffee cups; we received nuts, cakes, figs, preserved ginger, dates, cough-drops and money; but we never once saw our patrons. We grouped ourselves round the farmhouse porch. The sky cleared and broad streams of stars ran down over the valley and away to Wales. On Slad’s white slopes, seen through the black sticks of its woods, some red lamps burned in the windows.
Everything was quiet: everywhere there was the faint crackling silence of the winter night. We started singing, and we were all moved by the words and the sudden trueness of our voices. Pure, very clear, and breathless we sang:
‘As Joseph was walking He heard an angel sing; ‘This night shall be the birth-time Of Christ the Heavenly King. He neither shall be bored In Housen nor in hall Not in a place of paradise But in an ox’s stall.’
And two thousand Christmases became real to us then; The houses, the halls, the places of paradise had all been visited; The stars were bright to guide the Kings through the snow; and across the farmyard we could hear the beasts in their stalls. We were given roast apples and hot mince pies, in our nostrils were spices like myrrh, and in our wooden box, as we headed back for the village, there were golden gifts for all.”
Food at Christmas carries all the richness and exoticism of the gifts carried across far away lands by the Three Wise Men although frankincense, gold and myrrh are symbolised by sweetly-plump preserved and dried fruits from Israel and Egypt, Southern Spain, Italy and the Levant. We eat ‘foreign born’ sultanas and raisins in minced pies and cakes, in yeasted stollens from Germany and steamed puddings crowned with a sprig of holly and spiked with gold coins, representing the wealth of the kingly coffers. Our wines are fortified and sweetened and spirits are drunk in generous measures: three fingers or more of golden raisin-y liquids are released from their wooden casks after years of quiet and solitary maturation, swirled and appreciated as their vapours rise up to join the spirits of all Christmases past and present.
No matter how poor, the household does its best to proffer these sweetmeats to visitors and when it cannot, families improvise with their own music and seasonal cheer as did Flora Thompson in Lark Rise to Candleford:
“There were still bands of mummers in some of the larger villages, and village choirs went carol-singing about the countryside; but none of these came to the hamlet, for they knew the collection to be expected there would not make it worth their while. A few families, sitting by their own firesides, would sing carols and songs; that, and more and better food and a better fire that usual, made up their Christmas cheer.”
Thompson reminds us that extravagant Christmas festivities in grand country houses will mean that other families must do without their loved ones, who work tirelessly as servants for the local landed gentry: “ There was little visiting of neighbours and there were no family reunions, for the girls in service could not be spared at that season, and the few boys who had gone out in the world were mostly serving abroad in the Army.”
The day passed in an understated way, with some seasonal and religious markers:
“Christmas Day passed very quietly. The men had a holiday from work and the children from school and the churchgoers attended special Christmas services. Mothers who had young children would buy them an orange each and a handful of nuts; but, except at the end house and the inn, there was no hanging up of stockings, and those who had no kind elder sister or aunt in service to send them parcels got no Christmas presents.”
We’re not deprived of descriptions of tempting food though:
“Every year the farmer killed an ox for the purpose and gave each of his men a joint of beef, which duly appeared on the Christmas dinner-table together with plum pudding – not Christmas pudding, but suet duff with a good sprinkling of raisins. Ivy and other evergreens (it was not holly country) were hung from the ceiling and over the pictures; a bottle of homemade wine was uncorked, a good fire was made up, and, with doors and windows closed against the keen, wintry weather, they all settled down by their own firesides for a kind of super-Sunday.”
Margaret Powell was in service and in the first of her three memoirs, Below Stairs, she shines a little light on Christmas from the perspective of servants in grand houses where every task was strictly delineated and decorating the tree was delegated to the Nanny. Powell found having to line up in the servants hall to receive a gift from the family very humiliating, noting that the servants were not given anything deemed frivolous. Instead of perfumes, silk stockings or delectable chocolates they got lengths of uniform material, aprons and black lisle stockings. They had to suffer what she referred to as their employers’ ‘social welfare expressions’ with the children looking at them as if they were ‘beings from another world, which I suppose we were to them’ and then spend twelve hours slaving away producing a feast fit for kings. “If we were to have perfumes or silks we would go astray, they thought” she wrote. “So I hated this parade of Christmas goodwill and the pretence that we also had a good time at Christmas.”
The Victorian Christmas fascinates me for many reasons. During this period, there was the redefining of Christmas as a private family time although a previous obsession with Stuart style public, baronial feasting was reinterpreted as the family table groaning under the weight of home-produced meals. What was eaten during national festivals gained a totemic significance with certain foods depicted as British and imbued with nationalistic qualities, such as plum pudding. I’m also interested in the contrast between religious prudence and more earthly pleasures and appetites in the farmhouse Christmases depicted in literature. It seemed to me that a Victorian Christmas had the potential to become a spiritual battleground in the minds of the devout, torn as they were between sparing the rod and spoiling their children with gifts, stories and the gift of un-boundaried time, versus the drudge of a farm and their own daily religious rituals – and the need to protect their livestock from any changes to the routines that keep them healthy and productive.
This was never more obvious than in Alison Uttley’s ‘A Country Child’, a lightly fictionalised account of her own Derbyshire childhood in which she appears as Susan, a ‘most fanciful child’, never happier than when she is head down in a book, and born a ‘snow baby’ in December. Her farmhouse home went all out for Christmas, described over the course of a whole chapter: cheeses with layers of sage running through the middle ‘like green ribbon’ and stone jars of white lard sat on the pantry floor, similar in shape to those which hid the forty thieves. The wine chamber stored bottle after bottle of elderberry wine and golden cowslip wine whilst great platters teetered under the weight of mince pies, slabs of fruited cake and jam tarts. Susan and her mother went into a frenzy of decorating:
”Holly decked every picture and ornament. Sprays hung over the bacon and twisted round the hams and herb bunches. The clock carried a crown on his head, and every dish-cover had a little sprig. Susan kept an eye on the lonely forgotten humble things, the jelly moulds and colanders and nutmeg graters, and made them happy with glossy leaves. Everything seemed to speak, to ask for its morsel of greenery, and she tried to leave out nothing.”
The farmhouse kitchen was the heart of the home and especially during festive times when visitors would be received, fed and sometimes kissed if they were family and “everyone who called at the farm had to eat and drink at Christmas time.” The successes of the Victorian age, their colonies, trading strength and central place in global politics were commemorated too in the choice of decorations:
“In the middle of the kitchen ceiling there hung the kissing bunch, the best and brightest of holly, made in the shape of a large ball which dangled from the hook. Silver and gilt drops, crimson bells, blue glass trumpets, bright oranges and red polished apples, peeped and glittered through the glossy leaves. Little flags of all nations, but chiefly Turkish for some unknown reason, stuck out like quills on a hedgehog. The lamp hung near, and every little berry, every leaf, every pretty ball and apple had a tiny yellow flame reflected in its heart.“Twisted candles hung down, yellow, red, and blue, unlighted but gay, and on either side was a string of paper lanterns.”
Uttley told of Christmas Eve embroidered texts (‘God bless our home’), guising and folk tales: The Mistletoe Bough was read each year by Joshua, one of the elderly farm hands, as Susan sat unseen in the corner of the kitchen, frightened eyes dark of pupil, until her mother notices and sends her to bed with a candle. As she prepares for sleep, she muses upon another tale told her- that at midnight all the livestock goes down on bended knee in honour of the newly born Christ child. Similar to a tale my own grandfather told me, I lived in hope of catching the creatures outside doing the same, from the hedgehog that visited us nightly to the mistle thrushes that lived in the high trees surrounding my grandparents’ garden. Do hedgehogs have knees I’d ask and ever since, in the minutes approaching midnight, I stand in my own garden wrapped in a blanket, looking at the stars and wondering…
Lately I discovered that Thomas Hardy wrote this: “Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock./ “Now they are all on their knees,”/ An elder said as we sat in a flock…” and published it on Christmas Eve 1915 in the London Times. The Dorset superstition was that oxen used to kneel every Christmas Eve, honouring the holy birth so Hardy told readers that were he to be invited by a farmhand to witness this miracle: “I should go with him in the gloom,/ Hoping it might be so.”
We are treated to a wonderful description of Susan’s Christmas Eve bedtime ritual, set in the darkness of the Little Chamber bedroom where the wood furniture lies staunch still and dour in the blue of the early morning light, reflected from the snow fields of the Peak District and the starry skies outside. We are privy to conversations between Susan and her mother as they ponder what stars are during an evening walk to church: “other worlds” according to a STEM-gifted Susan or, as her mother replies, “worlds or angels’ eyes or visions of heaven.” We discover her stocking contents alongside her as she explores by touch in the dark, pulls out a flat square object and sniffs its cardboard scent (it’s a new book!), finds an orange and crunches into a yellow apple from her favourite tree. Reaching deeper into her stocking, she shakes out a handful of knobbly walnuts from Bird in Bush farm, a tin of confits and a sweet sugar mouse. It is, what Rose Henniker Heaton, in her 1932 guide to the ‘Perfect Christmas’, would approve of: “a tangerine wrapped in gold paper, in the toe…to help preserve the shape” and Susan’s inability to wait until it is morning proper is perfectly captured by poet John Mole:
Nuts and marbles in the toe, An orange in the heel, A Christmas stocking in the dark Is wonderful to feel.
Shadowy, bulging length of leg That crackles when you clutch, A Christmas stocking in the dark Is marvellous to touch.
Susan’s Christmas supper is resplendent, a table piled high with the hard earned fruits of her parents labours. There is a cake iced and sprinkled with red, white and blue hundreds and thousands, topped by a union jack paper flag with a tumbling clown on its other side. A ham is handsomely cloaked with brown raspings and a paper frill and a pie stuffed with veal, ham and eggs is surrounded by brown boiled eggs in a silver egg stand which “stood like a castle with eight stalwart egg cups and eight curling spoons around the tall handle, bread and butter on Minton china plates with their tiny green leaves and gold edges, a pot of honey and strawberry jam and an old Staffordshire dish of little tarts containing golden curds made of beastings, filled with currants. “ The cream in the Queen Anne jug is so thick it barely pours out and the beestings are what we’d know as colostrum, milked from a newly delivered cow, and often used to make luxurious curd tarts after being left to set.
Almanzo Wilder was the future husband of Laura Ingalls, of Little House on the Prairie fame, and like Susan, he too found the wait for the day to start proper, excruciating. He was born into a farming family with no access to any artificial light other than candles or kerosene and they had to conduct their early morning and evening animal husbandry in the dark. Such an exhausting regime in the deep cold of upstate New York rendered those hours of warm sleep doubly precious. Almanzo awoke his family very early indeed at 3:30 am with his childhood impatience- “ children, have you thought to look at the clock?” asks Father, in Ingalls Wilder’s account of his boyhood, ‘Farmer Boy’.
Compared to Laura, Almanzo ate very well indeed as the son of prosperous horse farmers. Take this description which reads now as the longings of its adult author, deprived of good food by the Depression of the thirties, when she wrote it: “Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham, he bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.”
Barbara Walker, author of The Little House Cookbook believes that “after a childhood filled with near-starvation experiences,”Farmer Boy became “‘her [Laura Ingalls Wilder] own fantasy of blissful youth, surrounded on all sides by food.’” As a young child Laura’s Christmas Days were full of love, family gatherings, song and religious observance but they were times of material deprivation too: she was fortunate to receive a corn cob doll, a twist of candy in a paper bag and a penny in her stocking whilst Almanzo received livestock, sleighs, clasp knives, toys, a plush store bought cap and ate oodles of doughnuts, cookies, bushels of fruit from a never empty cellar buried under a stream of thick golden cream and maple syrup from their own trees, oh and let’s not forget- popcorn and milk every night.
And yet the descriptions of Laura’s Christmas are just as compelling. Take this Christmas stocking scene from Little House in the Big Woods:
“They plunged their hands into the stockings again. And they pulled out two long, long, sticks of candy. It was peppermint candy, striped red and white. They looked and looked at that beautiful candy, and Laura licked her stick, just one lick. But Mary was not so greedy. She didn’t even take one lick of her stick.
“Those stockings weren’t empty yet. Mary and Laura pulled out two small packages. They unwrapped them, and each found a little heart-shaped cake. Over their delicate brown tops was sprinkled white sugar. The sparkling grains lay like tiny drifts of snow.”
Later on, when they were both approaching their teens the family moved away from the big woods and their wider family to a dug out in the banks of Minnesota’s Plum Creek. Here, times were harder and the family had to rely on the charity of the local church: Laura got the tawny gold little fur muff she coveted from the Christmas church barrel and her sister is given a delicate china dog. The first Christmas at Plum Creek came after a late Summer plague of locusts had decimated their crops and that of their neighbours and the next Christmas was riven with their fears for Pa’s life when he got lost in a blizzard on his way home to them. Yet all’s well that ends well and as readers we are heart warmed by our glimpse of the family through their lace curtain-edged dugout window as they listen to Pa play fiddle, sing, dance and they all luxuriate in the close presence of the people they love the most. At times I did wonder whether Pa was somewhat selfish in his unrelenting desire to go west which constantly uprooted the family and left Ma terribly isolated at times.
That’s not the last time a barrel saves them from a Christmas famine either. In a later book, Laura recounts the travails of a long winter where the family slowly starves along with the rest of their small town. When the train finally gets through after months of blizzards in The Long Winter, it is not a moment too soon and it brings their long awaited Christmas barrel, filled with presents from eastern relatives and one solid-frozen turkey complete with cranberries. In a timely celebration filled with relief so tangible we can feel it, the Boast family arrive to celebrate a belated Christmas dinner and they all feast upon stewed cranberries with sugar, bread made from soft winter wheat, sugar-frosted cakes, fruit pies, bread stuffing and roast turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, and Mrs Boast’s home-made butter. The soft breeze and spring air comes through the open windows and Mrs Boasts’ smile is lovely despite her thin face, made anxious from worry and cold. “The doors were open and both rooms could be used once more. Going in and out of the large front room whenever she wanted gave Laura a spacious and rested feeling, as if she could never be cross again.”
Pa sat out his first blizzard, curled up in his musquash fur coat as many other creatures do deep underground, awaiting the drip and unfurling of spring but for Katy and Clover Carr, sent away to school in eastern USA, blizzards and the severe winters there mean they must sit out Christmas Day in school and, quite possibly, without their Christmas boxes which have been snowed in. We’ve already shivered with them through pages of impossibly Arctic conditions where they wake daily to “toothbrushes stiff with ice in the morning”, “thick crusts of frost on the windowpane and every drop of water in wash bowl or pitcher turned to solid ice”. The windows have been covered in thick dark cloth to preserve heat and the Nunnery, which is what local boys refer to their school as, has become as parsimonious in nature as the most closeted of religious orders. Katy has been long disabused of her previously held idea of winter survival as ‘romantic’ and has struggled to find the part of her soul which might respond in a Christian way to Christmas deprivation when, (oh joy!), a kerfuffle in the dormitory corridor leads to the delivery of their boxes, the only ones in the school to get through.
The whole thing was declared a ‘marvel of packing’ and brimmed over with gifts, flowers and all manner of American home baked goods. Shared out with the other girls, they all sat in bed, wrapped in shawls and fingerless mittens to enjoy their Christmas food. Parcels were filled with ginger snaps and Debbie’s jumbles (circular sugar cookies in in the shape of entwined rings, originally called gemmels which is German for ‘twin’), the German crullers beloved of the Mittel European immigrants to the Midwest and a “splendid frosted plum-cake”. The second box was full of delicate flowers, slightly drooping in their bed of cotton wool which Katy set about reviving. Katy was sorry to have left this box until last although she didn’t identify with these delicate blossoms, finding the cold more bracing than depressing. “There was something in her blood which responded to the sharp tingle of frost.” Her sister Clover was not so fortunate though as ‘a chilly creature’, requiring hot bricks at her feet and many layers of blankets to stay warm and even the hated Miss Jane, a teacher at the school, was visited by Katy with gifts when she was ill in bed and ignored by all the other pupils who couldn’t forgive the cruel way she had behaved towards the Carr girls. The Christmas spirit indeed….
For snowbound wintry reading, little beats Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, set in a tuberculosis sanatorium during the years immediately prior to the Great War. When Hans Castorp, a young engineer, travels to the International Sanatorium Berghof high up in the Swiss Alps to spend time with his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, we’re not totally clear whether he develops a form of Stockholm Syndrome which sees him identify to the point of displaying symptoms of illness himself. He intended to stay a few weeks and ends up remaining there for years as he is diagnosed with TB and assumes his rightful place on the veranda, coughing up his lungs in the face of magnificent Alpine sunsets. Each night he would take to his room with a pile of books, and a glass of creamy evening milk with a shot of Cognac, living a dream-like life where absence from the everyday human trials and responsibilities is a given and they hear of them at a remove, via whispered confidences, letters from home and newspapers bought from ‘below’.
In the sanatorium dining room there is much talk of snow, the start of the ski season and the onset of Christmas, the latter well before Advent, which startles Hans because he had not considered that this might form part of his conditions of treatment: his usual habit was to spend it with loved ones and tries to cheer himself up: “He said to himself, think of all the places and conditions in which Christmas had been celebrated before now!” Quite.
Hans had not yet developed the habit of seeing Christmas as a a kind of vaulting pole which he could use to leap over the intervening endless days of confinement in their visually arresting mountainous sanitorium. He could appreciate how the accelerated metabolic effects of TB might affect the way one viewed time itself and the landscape, freezing cold yet burning of breath and well upholstered with snow, is perfect metaphor for the febrile thinness of the consumptive. The “arch of the loggia, which framed a glorious panorama of snow powdered forest, softly filled passes and ravines, white sunlit valleys and radiant blue heavens above all”, the crystal and diamond world that lay near the black and white forest under the night skies embroidered with stars, all conspired to seduce patients into seeing Christmas as a state of grace and a short interlude from reality, full of frost and fire like their own fevered state. In What Katy Did at School, its author, Susan Coolidge, addresses us thus: “Do any of you know how incredibly long winter seems in climates where for weeks together the thermometer stands at zero?”…”There is something hopeless in such cold” and it is this I remember when reading Mann’s novel, a reminder to be tolerant and kind towards characters who sometimes become preoccupied with concepts I might consider self-indulgent.
Back in the sanitorium, mail grew heavier as the festive season drew closer; marzipan, Christmas cakes, apples and spiced nuts, all “carefully packed remembrances from home” in the manner of those received by Katy Carr. Their dining room tree crackled in the firelight and spread its fragrance and these distressingly ill people wore their jewels, cravats and evening coats to dinner in a poignant facsimile of festive life back home in the grand cities and towns of Europe. They were “gay at the Russian table” where the first Champagne corks popped and Clavdia wore a Balkan style dress with tinkling ornaments on the bodice. Ending the choice meal with cheese straws, bon bons, coffee and liqueurs, it is significant that the food is represented by titbits, those little morsels that are more easily consumed by illness-affected appetites.
As the room dies down and the tree candles burn to stumps, there is an air of let-down as Christmas Day dawns misty and then was all over, leaving the holiday in the past. The sumptuous breakfasts served in the sanitorium, “pots of marmalade and honey, basins of rice and oatmeal porridge, dishes of cold meat and scrambled eggs; a plenitude of butter, a Gruyere cheese dropping moisture under a glass bell. A bowl of fresh and dried fruits stood in the centre of the table” and a “thick, dark, and foaming brownly Kulmbacher beer” aren’t mentioned on the holiest day of all.
This same sense of anti climax permeated Dylan Thomas’s description of Christmas dinner and what came afterwards, a sated afternoon when relatives sleep off their engorgement and children attend to the gifts that were opened with giddy speed earlier on, then discarded in the haste to get to the next thing:
“For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o’-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.”
In a literary sense, it can be challenging to move a story on from the giddy escalation that marks the month of December. Take Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, his largely autobiographical short story first published in 1956 and eclipsed by his brasher output until it was adapted for screen and stage productions. Truman writes fondly of Sook, his cousin who befriended him in Alabama and whose mischief is central to the tale:
“it’s fruitcake weather!”
The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”
Together they haul a straw buggy down to the pecan grove to forage for the nuts which go into their esteemed fruitcakes which are sent to barely known acquaintances or people they have never met at all, including President Franklin Roosevelt. They finance this operation with money that they have accumulated through the year in their Fruitcake Fund and make and gift wrap home brewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting” for relatives. They spend hours preparing the pecans they picked: “Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves.”
Then there’s more delectable descriptions of food as they settle down for the evening:
“We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home” and the next day they procur the whisky that state law prohibits from a certain Mr Haha Jones who operates out of a ‘sinful’ fish fry and dancing cafe.
The prized whisky will flavour their cakes and, as a reward for his help, Mr Jones will get an extra cupful of raisins stirred into his. The actual labour of baking thirty one cakes sounds delectable:
“The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.”
The pair share the leftover whisky with the inevitable mild inebriation, moving two other relatives to scold Buddy’s cousin for corrupting a child. The next morning sees Buddy and his cousin search deep into the woods for their Christmas decorations, gathering wreaths, chopping down a tree and laboriously dragging everything home in their old buggy. The description of the Alabama woods are breathtaking: “A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam.”
Come Christmas Day, a good old southern breakfast hits the spot: “just everything you can imagine—from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.”
But it is inevitably followed by anti climax as Buddy opens his gifts:
“Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.
“This is our last Christmas together,” and for a few more years, ‘fruitcake weather’ continues until the November when she does not get out of her bed to bake…
Alison Uttleys Christmas possets from Recipes From an Old Farmhouse:
“A starved child was a very cold child and I often came home from my long walk from school starved in the winter nights. A posset of hot milk and bread cut into small squares with a dash of rum and some brown sugar brought colour into my cheeks. Milk was curdled with ale to make a christmas posset. Spices were added, cloves and cinnamon, and a grate of nutmeg and brown sugar. The posset was mulled on the hot stove, in a pewter tankard, and poured into smaller mugs of pewter when ready. The ale curdled the milk and made a froth like lambs wool, the old froth of roast apples once used in possets.
I’ve written about my favourite boiled fruit cake here. It makes an excellent Christmas cake too and another recipe that I’ve made for years is Laurie Colwin’s Black Cake. Also mentioned by Nigella in How To be a Domestic Goddess, Colwin’s black cake came to her via her daughters Caribbean babysitter. Colwin died in 1992 and whilst alive, gained a reputation as a novelist of short stories. Since her death, at the age of 48, her books “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking” have rightfully gained her a new following because of her warm and confiding manner. She encourages readers to try their hand at cooking and uses the tribulations of her own life to reassure them that failure is an amusing and life enhancing part of the process. Here is Colwin on that black cake:
“There is fruitcake, and there is Black Cake, which is to fruitcake what the Brahms piano quartets are to Muzak. … Black Cake, like truffles and vintage Burgundy, is deep, complicated, and intense. It has taste and aftertaste. It demands to be eaten in a slow, meditative way. The texture is complicated too—dense and light at the same time.”
The Black Cake calls for burned sugar essence which is essentially melted and browned sugar made the way you would for a caramel, but thinned down with water at the end of the process. There are many recipes for it online but Nigella substitutes molasses. This produces a lovely cake but not THE black cake so if you want to make the real thing, hunt down the technique.
Pecan tassies, inspired by Truman Capote:
These gorgeous little mouthfuls are a classic Southern holiday favourite, also popular at church socials, weddings and the like and provide, as Wendell Brock once said, “a combination of flavours that are the greatest of autumn’s comforts- butter, pecans and brown sugar”. A tassie is a Scots variation of “cup” and a pecan tassie is a small cup packed with pecan pie filling, using a nut (although technically it is a ‘drupe’) which grows abundantly across the South. In his book ‘My Mothers Southern Kitchen’, the eminent food writer James Villas includes a favourite recipe from his mother, Martha, who serves them at her guild meetings and I would be amazed if Truman and his cousin didn’t eat tassies regularly.
Villas knew Capote: in his own words, he “hobnobbed on royal banquettes with Capote, the King of Spain, Dali and a contingent of other gold plated swells.” and got “smashed after cocktails at the Plaza Hotel” with him and Don Erickson, the legendary executive editor of Esquire. The beauty of Southerners is that no matter how rarefied the air they breathe in celebrity-soaked circles becomes, they retain a connection with the food they grew up eating and seem to countenance no snobbery towards it.
The recipe uses the US cup system but its not hard to convert.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
In a mixing bowl, combine butter, cream cheese and flour and mix with hands until dough can be formed into a soft ball.
Pinch off 24 pieces of dough, and press each piece firmly onto bottom and sides of two greased 12-cup muffin tins.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a small bowl, beat egg with sugar and salt and stir in pecans and vanilla. Spoon filling into lined cups and bake till the pastry is golden, about 25 minutes. Let the tassies cool and carefully unmold on a large plate.
Books we love as children can date and grow out of kilter with our modern mores and beliefs – we still enjoy them, albeit with a more knowing heart and mind. We haven’t checked the Law of Books as to what delineates a classic as of late but these are some of our candidates- both niche and mainstream, for kids which feature fulsome or whimsical descriptions of food in their pages. Some are based around food and others use it to enhance the narrative or as a theme or metaphor but they are all compelling and have stood the test of time, ready to be rediscovered by each new generation of children.
The moral of this story is “Be careful what you wish for.” Frances loves bread and jam so much she wants to eat it every day. Frances is a fussy eater too. She won’t touch her squishy soft-boiled egg. She trades away her chicken salad sandwich at lunch. She turns up her nose at boring veal cutlets. Unless Mother can come up with a plan, Frances just might go on eating bread and jam forever! Mum Badger in her infinite parental wisdom knows the best way to deal with this is to let Frances learn that some things are made less special by over familiarity. Adventures with food and fussy eating is addressed with a light non moralising hand as Frances learns to try new things to eat and more importantly, works this out for herself. Richly descriptive in word and illustration, Hoban creates a prose masterpiece about a childhood life experience.
“Not in a box. Not with a fox. Not in a house. Not with a mouse. I would not eat them here or there. I would not eat them anywhere. I would not eat green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am”
(From Green Eggs and Ham by Doctor Seuss)
Do you like green eggs and ham?” asks Sam-I-am and Sam keeps asking persistently (like very young child we have ever met). With distinctive characters and unmistakable rhymes, Dr. Seuss’s beloved books have earned a place in the cannon of children’s classics. Growing cumulatively longer and longer, the list of places to enjoy green eggs and ham, and friends to enjoy them with, grows. Follow Sam-I-am as he insists that this unusual treat is indeed a delectable snack to be savored everywhere and in every way then cook Nigella’s famous riff on the meal- Green Eggs and Ham.
“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.”
This description of Turkish Delight by CS Lewis in the ‘Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is the one that tantalised, confused and ultimately disappointed me the most when I finally got to try it for myself. Bouncy, jellified and perfumed, the texture and taste of Turkish Delight was so far removed from the candy of my imagination that to this day I wonder if CS Lewis actually muddled it with some other, lovelier candy. The magical description allied itself with a magical world during my childhood- a time when I so very desperately needed to be taken out of my own unloving and bleak home and my disappointment after trying Turkish Delight for the first time was bitter indeed.
Once upon a time there was a town called Chewandswallow, devoid of grocery stores. Food is provided by the weather and comes three times a day. It snows mashed potatoes, has split pea soup fog, and rains orange juice. It begins to storm and flood making the food become giant. This forces residents to build boats made out of bread and sail away in search of a safer place. Imagine super sized donuts rolling down the streets and wondering if a pancake could really be bigger than a house? It’s a great story that opens up questions about the weather and how fun the imagination can be, facilitating mind bending feats of creative thought. Read this with your children, get them drawing their own imaginary foods then click here for some surreal Cloudy inspired recipes to make with them.
Matron: “You are suffering from Midnight Feast Illness! Aha! You needn’t pretend to me! If you will feast on pork-pies and sardines, chocolate and ginger-beer in the middle of the night, you can expect a dose of medicine from me the next day.” (From the Malory Towers series of books)
One of my very favourite things to read as a child was any of the Enid Blyton boarding school tales from the cliff top Malory Towers to the less striking St Claires, attended by the O’Sullivan twins. Despite being set around the time that war would have resulted in serious privation, we are kept insulated from the vagaries of this and other historical event- indeed Clive of India was one of the only historical figures I recall being mentioned (as the groan-worthy subject of revision). Despite the broadest of plot and character brushstrokes, I still read them as an adult. As Jane Brocket writes in ‘Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer’, a Proustian revisiting of the world of food in children’s literature with its recreations of famous meals and recipes, Blyton is especially gifted at depicting amazing scenes of food. Consider that these books were written during a time of rationing, surely Blyton must have been gripped by the throes of wish fulfilment as she wrote? Either that or she had great contacts in the world of black-market foodstuffs.
Think of the writing skill it takes to make sardines pressed into slices of ginger cake sound tempting. That is what some of the girls ate during one midnight feast, as they sat by a cliff-top swimming pool carved from Cornish cliffs wearing tennis shoes and sturdy utilitarian flannel and wool dressing gowns. Then there were the unctuous sounding match tea ‘Jammy Buns’ to celebrate their Malory Towers fifth form Lacrosse win. So much more desirable than their Greggs equivalent! We read the account of the midnight feast in a St Clare music room where Isobel and Pat fry mini-sausages on a purloined camping stove and rail against the sneakiness of Erica who subsequently ratted then out to their schoolmistress. To this day I can smell those sausages…and I don’t even like them. Even the description of Elizabeth’s peppermint creams in ‘The Naughtiest Girl in the School’ books made me long to try what are actually pretty average tasting candies.
In fact this love of celebrating the food in children’s books from an adult perspective leads me onto my next book discovery, the ‘Little House Cookbook’ by Barbara Mi Walker who discovered the “Little House” series when her daughter, Anna, was four. Eight further years of intermittent reading, writing, and testing produced The Little House Cookbook, a lovingly detailed exploration of just about every foodstuff mentioned in the entire series, including the appetites of the seemingly gluttonous Almanzo- Laura’s future husband.
The authors bibliography is four and a half pages long and in each chapter, she locates recipes within their historical context and explains every ingredient. Did you know that at in Laura Ingalls’s day, the tomatoes available were not sweet in the manner that they are now? There were no chemical raising agents (egg whites would be stiffly beaten and ipes to the modern day kitchen.
Take the recipe for Stewed Jack rabbit with Dumplings, “If you can’t find a hunter to give you a skinned rabbit (he will want the pelt), look for a farm-raised rabbit at a German butcher shop. (Hasenpfeffer is a favorite German dish).” There is the Mittel European influence upon American migrant cooking right there.
Horehound candy, vinegar pie, parched corn and Johnny Cakes; fried apples ‘n onions, (the favourite birthday treat of Almanzo); green tomatoes or pumpkins were used for pie when apples were not available. They ate Vanity cakes at a Plum Creek birthday, the cakes’ puffed up emptiness serving as analogy for the hated Nellie Olsen and savoured salt-pork melting into pans of baked beans: even the loaves made from wheat hand-ground in a little coffee grinder during the blizzard racked Long Winter are researched and written about. I was obsessed with trying Wintergreen Berries, something that Almanzo (again!) and his sister Alice went ‘pawing for’ on the snow-frozen slopes of New York State where their father had a prosperous farm. The description of crunchy berries gushing aromatic icy juices into their mouths was more than I could bear. The fact that I live in an area with chalky alkaline soil, ill suited to growing the plant that bears these berries, Gaultheria procumbens is a further torture.
I have never drunk tea and detest milk but I got my grandmother to make me a Cambric tea just like little Grace drank- basically hot water flavoured with milk and a smidgeon of tea, so comforting during the cold and a hint of just how poor the family often were. I basically spent my childhood pretending to be Laura and named my first born after her too. “At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove. They all drank cups of strong, hot tea. Ma even gave Grace a cup of cambric tea. Cambric tea was hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it, but little girls felt grown-up when their mothers let them drink cambric tea”. (The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder).
Another fantasy figure from my childhood (I begged for a hay filled mattress that would smell clean and sweet), Heidi lived the kind of simple life that even as a young child, I recognised as something of an unattainable fantasy. The contrast between this unctuous piece of cheese on toast and the hard rolls with the knot on top served at the formal dinners in Clara’s frigid and cold city home was painful to me. The author, Johanna Spyri was actually a resident of Zürich and thought of the story of the simple Alpine girl while she was convalescing from an illness in the Grisons, which is in the eastern part of the country and a biographical parallel with Clara’s illness:
“Meanwhile the old man held a large piece of cheese on a long iron fork over the fire, turning it round and round till it was toasted a nice golden yellow color on each side … the old man filled her bowl again to the brim and set it before the child, who was now hungrily beginning her bread having first spread it with the cheese, which after being toasted was soft as butter” (from ‘Heidi’ by Johanna Spyri)
Finding out what type of cheese this was turned out to be no easy task when you consider that goats cheese was actually not eaten that often in Switzerland then, even though Uncle Alp was a goat farmer who made cheese from his own animals. Cheese toasting over a fire was not restricted to people living in huts on the side of an Alpine mountain though; this method using toasting forks was also written about by Enid Blyton and by Robert Louis Stevenson in ‘Treasure Island’ but none comes close to Spyri’s description. It is THE uber cheese on toast but unlike Proust I have yet to rediscover my Heidi Temps Perdu. I Still don’t know what type of cheese it was although Raclette is the likeliest candidate, being an excellent melting cheese.
As a young girl I read and re-read Susan Coolidge’s ‘What Katy Did’ series of books and was intrigued by the bottle of shrub they took to drink on one of their rainy day picnics in the loft at the very start of the book. Although Cece later admitted that the ‘Shrub’ was little more than vinegar and water, I was determined to both try it and enjoy it <shudder> and took a glass of what we had, Sarsons, mixed with tap water down to the orchard at the bottom of my grandparents garden and tentatively forced myself to drink it. Illusions firmly shattered and deciding that American vinegar was clearly superior to ours (or they had the stomach and constitution of goats) I shelved any ideas about this becoming my new go to summer refreshment.
Until the latest post from the Bojon Gourmet landed in my in box that is. One of my favourite food writing bloggers from San Francisco, her Shrub recipe has about as much in common with my (and Cece’s) version as the saintly and slightly sanctimonious Cousin Helen from the books had with Mae West. Lavender, Kumquat, honey and apple cider vinegar all add a mellifluous depth that cancels out any tendency towards the tongue-sucking rasp of vinegar. The colour is amazing, the floral and citrus sophisticated enough for parties. Go on, try it. Even Katie would have been made good by this drink and would thus have avoided the back injury this, in part, morality tale visited upon her to show us what happens to naughty girls.
The ‘What Katy Did’ series are liberally scattered with references to food and to the occasions surrounding it. Here is the picnic in their version of Paradise where they built a rose bower to eat under;
“Katy, who sat in the middle, untied and lifted the lid of the largest basket, while all the rest peeped eagerly to see what was inside.First came a great many ginger cakes. These were carefully laid on the grass to keep till wanted; buttered biscuit came next – three a piece, with slices of cold lamb laid in between; and last of all were a dozen hard-boiled eggs, and a layer of thick bread and butter sandwiched with corned-beef. Aunt Izzie had put up lunches for Paradise before, you see, and knew pretty well what to expect in the way of appetite.Oh, how good everything tasted in that bower, with the fresh wind rustling the poplar leaves, sunshine and sweet wood-smells about them, and birds singing overhead! No grown-up dinner party ever had half so much fun. Each mouthful was a pleasure; and when the last crumb had vanished, Katy produced the second basket, and there, oh, delightful surprise! were seven little pies – molasses pies, baked in saucers – each with a brown top and crisp, candified edge, which tasted like toffy and lemon-peel, and all sorts of good things mixed up together”
And who recalls Debbie’s Jumbles sent in the boarding school Christmas hamper to end all hampers? I found the books faintly torturous; even the ‘thick pale slices of pudding with a thin sugary sauce’ served by the new headteacher on one of her weird food fad regimes for school lunch tempted me. What on earth was this pudding?
Katy’s trip to Europe with its ill fated expeditions to various locations associated with her favourite novels had her gravely disillusioned with our food, showing particular distaste for some disagreeable flannel blanket-textured muffins, which she described as ‘scorched and tough’. Little pan fried fish reminiscent of what she called ‘Scup’, commonly known now as ‘Porgy’ with its fine light flavour, and a light gooseberry preserve both met with her approval in what she called ‘Storybook England’.
An old, little known book, ‘Girl of the Limberlost’ by Gene Stratton Porter, is a story of a girl of the mid western woods; a buoyant, loveable self-reliant American with a philosophy of love and kindness towards all things; her hope is never dimmed. The story and romance of Elnora growing up in the wetlands of northern Indiana is also a cautionary tale for ecology-lovers.
Gene Stratton-Porter paints a picture of coming industry destroying nature and those who try to save what can be saved for future generations. My sigh of relief when Elenora’s mother turned her life around and started acting like a good mother as opposed to her original not so good one, was immense and of course that meant that food = love with glorious descriptions of the goodies placed in Elnora’s lunchbox- spice cookies, raisin turtles, candied pears, popcorn balls, haws, doughnuts, and hazelnuts to share with friends or feast on alone.
Turtles brand candy were developed by Johnson’s Candy Company (which became DeMet’s Candy Company in 1923) in 1918, after a salesman came into the commissary’s dipping room and showed a candy to one of the dippers, who pointed out that the candy looked like a turtle. Soon after, Johnson’s Candy Company was making the same kind of candy and selling it under the name “Turtles.” Commonly made in the American South, they are now a classic of the candymaker- as a child without the internet to do my research, my mind ran in ignorant riot over their name. You can imagine what I thought they were made from.
Less a children’s book and more of a book that I read as a child, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘ by Betty Smith beat Jamie Oliver to the post regarding the mythologizing of Cuisina Povera with its delicious description of mother figure Katie Nolan’s pitiful attempts to make a bone with scraps of meat on it, an onion and some stale bread into what she called Frikadellen.
Frying scraps of stale bread, sending the children to cajole that bone from a butcher who would give them the one with the most meat attached (in exchange for a ‘pinch on their cheeks’), making nothing stretch to something because of her marriage to a charming yet feckless Irish singing waiter, Katie is a true heroine. Jack Monroe and her campaign against food poverty with a blog offering inexpensive ways to feed a family,comes to mind when I read this book and as an adult, fully cognizant of the hardships faced by many families, it makes me weep. Read this and see what I am referring to:
“The Nolans practically lived on that stale bread and what amazing things Katie could make from it! She’d take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.
“Mama made a very fine bread pudding from slices of stale bread, sugar, cinnamon and a penny apple sliced thin. When this was baked brown, sugar was melted and poured over the top. Sometimes she made what she had named Weg Geschnissen, which laboriously translated meant something made with bread bits that usually would be thrown away. Bits of bread were dipped into a batter made from flour, water, salt and an egg and then fried in deep hot fat. While they were frying, Francie ran down to the candy store and bought a penny’s worth of brown rock candy. This was crushed with a rolling pin and sprinkled on top of the fried bits just before eating. The crystals didn’t quite melt and that made it wonderful.
“Saturday supper was a red letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added for flavor. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot ketchup. These meat balls had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.
“They lived mostly on these things made from stale bread, and condensed milk and coffee, onions, potatoes, and always the penny’s worth of something bought at the last minute, added for fillip”
The most memorable banquets aren’t necessarily the most palatable or convivial: take the very adult Oscar Wildes black banquet in ‘Portrait of Dorian Gray’ with charcoal pathways, basalt-edged ponds and baskets of purple-black violets adorning the black-clothed table. Feasting on dark olives and Russian rye bread, slices of black puddings turgid with clotted blood shipped over from Frankfurt and wild game served in puddles of liquorice-dark sauces, the guests wore black and ate off black-edged flatware whilst mourning the passing of the protagonist’s sexual potency. Not one for children although the pepper laden meal that Cruella De Vil invites the dogs owners the Dearlys. to is just as forboding and sinister. Taking place in a Dalmatian-inspired room with its black marble walls and white marble table, reminiscent of a sarcophagus or grand tomb, Dodie Smith tells us:
‘The soup was dark purple. And what did it taste of?
Pepper! The fish was bright green. And what did it taste of? Pepper! The meat was pale blue. And what did that taste of? Pepper! Everything tasted of pepper, even the ice cream – which was black. (The Hundred and One Dalmatians)
The meal become entrenched in our minds eye in a far more potent manner as it takes the staff of life- food, and marries it with death in that tomb -like room.
These gorgeous books come in a series- crab cat, spider cat etc and were much loved by my daughter. Crab Cat is a cat who wants to be a crab. He imagines lurking in a rock pool waiting to pinch children’s toes (which would make my daughter squeal and curl her toes up), the illustrations are rich in detail providing plenty to point at and talk about. These tiny little books are perfect.
Aviary Wonders Inc: Spring Catalogue & Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth
This might be the weirdest picture book published this year although its central premise- that in the future (2031 to be exact) birds will be extinct, or at least, birds as we know them- isn’t that left field, sadly. It begins, “Whether you are looking for a companion, want to make something beautiful, or just want to listen to birdsong, we’ll supply everything you need to build your own bird.” The next 30 pages are an illustrated catalog of wings, legs, tails, combs, and feathers for kids to choose from. In the back are “Assembly Instructions” (“Step 2: Attaching The Beak.”) The illustrations are serious art — full-color paintings that would look at home in a museum. At its heart the book is a warning about habitat destruction, but mostly, it will make you laugh, and children with a sense of whimsy will be delighted to imagine building a bird. (For ages 9 to 12)
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
How could we possibly leave this wonderful series of books off our review pages? Recommended by the Local Editor from Leicestershire who writes- “This book is perfect for Christmas, for children aged anywhere from 3 to 11. With beautiful illustrations, it’s the first of the famous stories of this pioneering American family. It has a wonderful Christmas scene in it that is guaranteed to make you cry. And the best last lines of all: ‘She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.’ I’m off to weep right now..”
My Big Shouting Day by Rebecca Patterson
OK, here’s a good one for small children – and especially good for their parents. My Big Shouting Day, by Rebecca Patterson. This book tells you EVERYTHING you need to know about having a toddler and a baby at home at the same time.
Superworm by Julia Donaldson
The wiggly, squiggly superhero is now available in paperback. Never fear, Superworm’s here! He can fish Spider out of a well, and rescue Toad from a busy road. But who will come to Superworm’s rescue, when he’s captured by a wicked Wizard Lizard? Luckily, all of Superworm’s insect friends have a cunning plan. With impeccable rhythm and rhyme, wonderful illustrations by Axel Schleffer, this book is a must for the bookshelf.
The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden
Thankfully newly reprinted, this book was made into a wonderful yet disturbing children’s TV series in the late 70’s. Telling the story of Kizzy, a little girl badly bullied because she is half Romany Gypsy, the themes are of even greater relevance today. Full of cultural detail cleverly woven in, the book has held up well and treats its subject with dignity.
Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden
Another beloved book from my own childhood with themes of being far from home both in distance and culturally, explored sensitively. When little Nona is sent from her sunny home in India to live with her relatives in chilly England, she is miserable. Then a box arrives for her in the post and inside, wrapped up in tissue paper, are two little Japanese dolls. A slip of paper says their names are Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Nona thinks that they must feel lonely too, so far away from home and Nona has an idea – she will build her dolls the perfect house! It will be just like a Japanese home in every way and will even have a tiny Japanese garden. And as she begins to make Miss Happiness and Miss Flower happy, Nona finds that she is happier too.
Crammed with creepy-crawly doodles to create and complete, Doodle Bugs also includes fascinating facts about the insect world – a perfect gift for any budding ‘bugologist’. Let your imagination run wild. These doodle books are so popular with every child I have bought them for. There are every permutation of subject available (including some less appealing gender stereotyped editions ie pink for girls) so finding one to suit your child’s tastes won’t be hard.
Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah
Suitable for children aged thirteen and up. Alem is on holiday with his father for a few days in London. He has never been out of Ethiopia before and is very excited. They have a great few days together until one morning when Alem wakes up in the bed and breakfast they are staying at to find the unthinkable. His father has left him and it is only when the owner of the bed and breakfast hands him a letter that Alem is given an explanation. Alem’s father admits that because of the political problems in Ethiopia both he and Alem’s mother felt Alem would be safer in London – even though it is breaking their hearts to do this. Alem is now on his own, in the hands of the social services and the Refugee Council. He lives from letter to letter, waiting to hear from his father, and in particular about his mother, who has now gone missing…A powerful, gripping new novel from the popular Benjamin Zephaniah.
Vikings Sticker Book
Delve into the past with this extravagantly designed sticker book, packed with over 100 stickers of amazing artefacts from the Viking World. An interactive way of finding out about Vikings’ everyday lives: their clothes, food, homes, weapons, culture and their legacy. For children interested in history, for reluctant readers and to back up school history, this is a great choice for over 8’s.
Duck, Death and the Tulip
This book will break your heart. I read it in the bookstore and sat weeping in the corner of the store. Death and broaching the subject with our children – any children- is always going to be difficult but this book does it beautifully.
Duck strikes up a friendship with Death, a slightly sinister skeletal figure that lurks nearby. Death is treated as a normal part (or consequence) of life as Duck learns to first tolerate and then accept its presence eventually finding a kind of solace in its proximity. Finely drawn illustrations and gentle leading prose means the moment when Duck grows tired and lays down is not such a shock. The only problem with this book is wondering how on Earth you can read it without bawling.
Architecture According to Pigeons
One of those books that makes me think ‘why didn’t I think of this?’ so cool and clever is its central premise – that pigeons make the best guides to the basic principles of architecture with their birds eye view. Speck Lee Tailfeather, the pigeon in question reveals that pigeons are great aficionados of architecture and delivers an account of a journey around the globe with fun facts about each of the iconic buildings he visits. The book features the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and dozens of other buildings in a non didactic and engaging manner. I loved this book and will be adding it to the list of books bought for all the children in my life.
Wow Said the Owl
This super cute little board book is a great budget buy for babies and toddlers and will help them learn their colours. The extremely alluring thought of being awake when you are ‘supposed’ to be sleeping is brought to life when Owl decides to stay awake all day, only to be wowed by the colours and sights. The idea of not taking for granted that which is most famliiar is emphasised by Owls realisation that the stars that light up the night sky are, to her, the most beautiful of all.
Owls big eyes will be appealing to babies who tend to focus most upon these. The illustrations we felt, would be more suited to older toddlers with their melded shades and less defined outlines.
“In the belief of the Gond tribe, the lives of humans and trees are closely entwined. Trees contain the cosmos; when night falls, the spirits they nurture glimmer into life”
The Night Life of Trees
Created by hand and illustrated by tribal artists of India, each page tells the folklore that surrounds a different tree. The tree artwork is silk screened onto black paper, creating vibrant images that would make beautiful art works in themselves.
Follow that Line by Laura Ljungkvist
One single line carries you through every spread of the whole book forming the shapes for illustrations along the way. Kids run their finger along the line tracing their way around the World. By bus, helicopter and ship (among others) we discover the glories of both the natural and man made world. This is just one of a whole series too.
This is London by M Sasek
With the same wit and perception that characterised his quirky and gorgeous little books on Paris, New York, and San Francisco, M Sasek presents stylish, elegant London in This is London, first published in 1959 and now updated for the 21st century. Highly stylized and loving in its depiction, with some of the landmarks no longer in existence, this is still a relevant book to own and share with a child (or just for you!)
Oh, the Places You’ll Go Pop Up by Dr Seuss
Or how to find your own pathway through this life… In celebration of its 20th anniversary, this classic bestseller has been transformed into a pop-up book by master paper engineer David A. Carter. Fantastical, breathtaking and glorious paper constructions retain the whimsy and deep deep emotional intelligence of the original text. Apparently this book is bought for many a graduating young person and is then filled with written messages from family and friends. A treasure in the making.
Tiddler, the Story Telling Fish by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
In which the tiniest fish can tell the biggest, tallest tales. Every day Tiddler’s lateness at school is explained away by increasingly fantastical tales involving flying rays, mermaids and Gruffalo fish. Children will enjoy the rhythmical flow of the story which encourages chanting of the dialogue and the ever captivating, vivid and alive illustrations of Schleffler.
The Sea Witch by Annie Stewart
Ellie and Lucy are twins holidaying with their Grandmother in Devon; a holday which is about to take a strange turn after their discovery of a seashell on the beach. Their newly struck friendship with a sea witch called Mia comes to their assistance when another friend goes missing and is feared kidnapped.
Full of fun, suspense, witchery and drama, this novel reflects a long tradition of child as detective aided by the mystical. As limitless in imagination as that of the children who will read it and suitable for ages 8 plus.
Shh! We have a Plan by Chris Haughton
‘Shh! We have a plan’ follows four hapless characters in the woods, looking for birds. The smallest, quietest one is ignored by the other three who are determined to get the bird by brute force. The story shows that diplomacy and understanding wins the day. Chris Haughton is a fantastic illustrator and clever storyteller and Oh No George is a huge favourite of my many children. A fun story that is perfect for reading aloud, predicting events and is open ended, giving you the opportunity to explore what might happen next.
My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards, Illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Lovely, timeless stories with great illustrations. A favourite of mine when I was young and my daughter and son loved them too. Lovely language and great stories about the naughty antics the little girl gets up to.They are quite old fashioned but this seems to add to the appeal and the description of the birthday trifle that Bad Harry and naughty sister end up devouring after they find it in the larder has stayed with me since first reading about it over forty years ago.
Cosy Classics : Jane Eyre / Moby Dick / Huckleberry Finn and others by Jack Wang & Holman Wang
The Cozy Classics board books retell “cozy” versions of hefty stories like Les Misérables, War and Peace, and Jane Eyre. Better yet, they’re illustrated with lovable photographs of painstakingly needle-felted scenes from classic literature. Classics never go out of style and the concept for this series of booksis simple: every classic in the series will be condensed to 12 child-friendly words, and each word will appear alongside an illustration. Each word is carefully selected to relate to a child’s world, such as “friends”, “sisters”, “dance”, “muddy”, “boat”, and “leg”. The books work as word primers, even without any reference to the original stories. If you, as a parent, can fill in some of the original tale as part of the reading experience, so much the better.
Cozy Classics are not intended to provide babies with any kind of academic leg up and unfortunately, in the minds of many, classics are associated with academics. However, no classic was written for the classroom; every one was written to give pleasure and these books offer a fresh and simplified (but not dumbed down) take on these timeless stories.
Haiku Baby by Betsy E Snyder
This totally adorable board book introduces infants to the ancient Japanese art of haiku poetry, as well as key early literacy and education concepts like sounds, seasons, and nature. All in a baby-friendly format.
Haiku Baby follows a tiny bluebird, the book’s would-be protagonist, as it visits its various animal companions–from an elephant that shades the bird with a parasol to a fox in a meadow and a whale in the ocean. The little bird’s story is told primarily in pictures, and through the book’s six haiku: rain, flower, sun, leaf, snow, and–of course, it would not be a board book without–the moon, making it ideal for the bedtime line-up. Adorable collage-cut illustrations work nicely with the haiku form to give the book a whimsical, yet serene, feel. And the haiku are light and fun without being too cutesy. Index tabs on the right margin, with pictures that tie to each of the poems (leaf, raindrop, snowflake, etc.), create a unique look, and make it easy for toddlers to flip through the pages on their own without having them stick together like they can with other board books.
Babylit Series by Jennifer Adams & Alison Oliver
The BabyLit series uses literary classics as loose inspiration to teach subjects like colors, numbers, and counting, and includes gorgeous riffs on Alice in Wonderland, Anna Karenina, Dracula, Pride and Prejudice, Jabberwocky, and others. In ‘Moby Dick’ Little Master Melville teaches little ones the language of the sea: from ships and sailors to squawking gulls and moody good captains, Alison Oliver’s brilliant illustrations and Jennifer Adams’ clever, simple text will make a sea dog out of any young shipmate.
One of the most inspired adaptions of this series is Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Tattle Tale Heart’ in which the plucky, mischievous toddler Edgar the Raven is at it again in a spirited story with some important lessons. What will Edgar do when he accidentally breaks a statue sitting on a dresser? Will his sister, Lenore, tattle on him? Will Edgar tell his mother the truth? Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” little lit lovers will delight in this new adventure with characters illustrated in a most “poe-etic” way and without the appalling Gothic darkness of its original tale which is most definitely NOT for tiny readers.
Andy Warhols Colours by Susan Goldman Rubin
In the vein of fine art for babies, Susan Goldman Rubin’s awesome board books use classic and modern art to teach infants concepts like colors and counting. In Andy Warhol’s imagination, horses are purple and golden monkeys wear pink baubles on their tails and the simple text “Big Red Dog Barks Bow-Wow-Wow,” and such is the kind of repetitive funny wording that appeals to babies and toddlers. Other featured artists in the series include Jacob Lawrence, Wayne Thiebaud, Matisse, Magritte, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Touch Think Learn Series by Xavier Deneux.
I really like the way the stylish die-cut illustrations in this board book series teach shapes, numbers, and colors in a hands-on, multi-sensory way — babies can experience what a circle actually feels like by touching the shapes while hearing the words and seeing the pictures. Such a clever way to translate abstract concepts.
Wiggle by Garo Tomi
I’m a total sucker for Taro Gomi’s whimsical, playful doodles, and was stoked to discover that he’s authored several board books just for babies. I love the interactive element ofWiggle!, which features illustrations that are incomplete without a wiggling finger — including an elephant’s trunk, penguin’s beak, chameleon’s tongue, and robot’s nose. And it’s up to young readers to help them out. Kids can finish the illustration by wiggling their fingers through suitably placed die-cuts. Children are sure to giggle at the silliness of turning their fingers into elephant trunks and chameleon tongues—and learn a bit about animal features on the way.
The Quiet Books by Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska
What does “quiet” mean? From “Top of the roller coaster quiet” to “First look at your new hairstyle quiet,” The Quiet Book looks at all kinds of quiet with the help of impossibly sweet bears, rabbits, fish, birds, and iguanas. With its soft covers, rounded corners, and sturdy board book pages, this is a perfect addition to baby’s first library.
Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
This adorable board book has received tons of reviewer and librarian accolades, and it’s easy to see why. A box is just a box . . . unless it’s not a box. From mountain to rocket ship, a little bunny stars in this story that puts an updated spin on the timeless idea that you can be transported wherever your imagination will take you. In addition, anything that encourages children to play with toys that don’t cost hundreds of pounds from Rip-Off-Parents-R-Us is a bonus. Just read this with them and then give them a big ‘ole cardboard box.