Reveling in Books: The Garden Cottage Diaries

Most of the time, I judge food by its looks and books by their covers.

Sorry, but give me a little art, a bit of color, and a mob cap any day of the week.

Mob cap?

Take the cartoon-like cover of The Garden Cottage Diaries for example.

Like a magnet, this visual rendition of a locavore’s dream popped the romantic in me right into the scene:  an intrepid woman wearing a mob cap digs in the ground with a pitchfork while sheep frolic in the clover and smoke seeps from the short brick chimney of a stone cottage. Pastoralism to the nth degree. The subtitle of this book published by the Scottish Arts Council caused me to click the “Buy Now” button on “My Year in the Eighteenth Century.” And Scottish author Fiona J. Houston’s moniker, “The History Woman,” clinched the click.

Once the book arrived, I didn’t experience the buyer’s remorse that often accompanies impulsive acts of mine like, you know, buying books.

As the cover blurb states, “history woman” Fiona J. Houston, a museum researcher and writer, bemoaned “the evils of the modern diet” one too many times, saying that people 200 years ago ate better.

So a friend challenged her to a duel, so to speak. If the food in the 18th century tasted so great, why not go back to that time and eat and live in the manner of 18th-century Scotland?

That’s how Houston, a budding locavore, spent the whole calendar year of 2005 living in a cold, damp crofter’s cottage located on the same property as her main house in Scotland. She took as her role model an ancestor who served as a dominie or parish minister and based most of her daily life on the writings of Dorothy Wordsworth (Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, ca. 1775) and the First Statistical Accounts, data collected in the early 1790s about everyday life in Scotland.

Arranged by months, January through December, The Garden Cottage Diaries includes lavish illustrations and practical notes on cooking, gardening, house cleaning, lye making, mattress ticking, writing ink, and quill pens.

But it all boils down to a sobering reminder: we cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Now  remember that other people besides Houston — including Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life), Gary Paul Nabhan (Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Food), and Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon (The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating) — also wrote about their forays into the joys (and sorrows) of locavorism.

The difference between those books and Houston’s lies in Houston’s almost-total immersion in another century — the 18th — to the point of wearing period clothes, using an authentic method of (how do I put this delicately?) defecation, and avoiding the radio and other modern conveniences (for the most part — she took a bus trip to see her newborn grandson). The damp hems of her long skirts and the trials presented by the tinderbox vexed her mightily throughout the year.

In other words, Houston rarely returned to the future. Though she longed to.*

After reading Houston’s description of how one day she found mold under her wool mattress, because she’d ignored the sage advice of early accounts and her old aunt’s admonitions, the realist in me began to kick in, booting out the fond images of women and men living in the idyllic countryside, their loyal hounds sprawling at their feet in front of a bubbling pot of bean soup.

Fiona Houston

Houston confirms a theory held by many scholars of the past that the Lenten fast may have served a practical as well as a spiritual purpose. By fasting, refraining from eating too much, people could carry their winter surplus a little further until spring came. Houston says that after Easter, the “hungry gap” in April presented some serious, if not precarious, challenges to her health.

I still had some winter stores — a few apples and plenty of potatoes, carrots and onions — but there were almost no greens left in the garden. I began to appreciate the critical importance of kail [kale]. This not only survives the winter, but when the new shoots start to grow in April, becomes sweeter and sweeter.

Scurvy was widespread during the “hungry gap,” that season when the old stores are giving out but there is nothing new to harvest. It nearly crept up on me. I found myself craving blackcurrents, and it did not take me long to ask myself why. One apple and a few potatoes a day would provide enough Vitamin C when the fruit and vegetables were fresh, but by the end of April, their vitamin content must have been flagging. My body was telling me that it needed more …

Nettle Soup (Photo credit: Jean-Luc Pourroy)

Houston writes of her recipes for nettle soup and for trout cooked in clay over an open fire, her July efforts to keep milk from souring, and her lists of the ingredients in each of her monthly larders. October’s reads:

From garden: turnips Swedes, parsnips, leeks, carrots, kale, red cabbage, apples. From wild: field mushrooms, elderberries, crabapples. From stores: potatoes, onions, marrows, custard marrows.

A faint tinge of desperate loss hovers over the pages of these books.

Smith and MacKinnon, in their The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, lament the loss of many foods in their diet, but the lack of wheat bothered them the most (the closest wheat sold in their organic foods store came from wheat grown 600 miles away). On a plus note, they write of how they discovered new tastes and new foods, of how they learned from the grandmothers.

And there lies the weak joist in the framework of the whole locavore movement — the demise of knowledge about food, of how to grow it, and of how to prepare it. The wisdom of the elders, poof, gone.

An old African saying, one I am fond of trotting out whenever possible, states that the death of an old man (woman, too!) is like the burning of a library. In a culture that despises older people, how else will the locavore advocates learn how to, well, be locavores without the voices of the elders?

Houston is one of those voices, yes, and she does not romanticize her experience, at least not much. Clearly she grew closer to nature (throughout the book, she tacks on delightful observations in tiny information boxes called “Nature Notes”). And she stayed physically fit just by the sheer amount of physical labor she had to do just to keep eating.

Like the Counterculture movement of the 1960s, the locavore movement — which actually extends that movement — will change the way America eats and the way Americans think about food in unforeseen ways.

Le Petit Trianon "Farm"/ Hameau

But my guess is that it won’t be a real “back-to-the-land” cataclysmic stampede, because, as Fiona J. Houston shows us in The Garden Cottage Diaries, it’s just not sustainable for most people.

People with money and education drive the locavore movement right now.

As most authors of  most books on the local foods movement inevitably point out, consciously or not, there’s a proverbial brick wall that local foods advocates hit in seeking to do right by the earth, themselves, and their communities: most of these few writing about the locavore life really know food. Because they know agriculture, they know history, and they know how to cook, these most dedicated of locavores make their way fairly well through their self-imposed years of (frankly) hardship.

They hit the ground running, in other words. Most people can’t do that, for many reasons.

So much ground needs to be covered, no pun intended, before  “eat local” predominates the culture. Houston’s book points out all too obviously the vast differences between the ideals of  “eat local” now and what passed for local in the past. (Don’t forget the toothpaste.)

I’d wear a mob cap, if need be, but the line goes down in the sand with the pig-raising business in the back yard.

Come to think of it, Marie Antoinette wore a mob cap and pretended to farm at Le Petit Trianon …


*And she did, quite happily. Quite.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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