Ladies of the Pen and the Cookpot: The Other Mrs. (Lydia) Child

Events constantly reinforce the old saying, “History repeats itself.”

lydia-maria-child Like the other Mrs. Child (Julia, that is), Mrs. Lydia Maria Child wrote a best-selling cookbook, The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who are Not Ashamed of Economy (1829). Like Mary Randolph (author of The Virginia House-wife), Lydia Maria Child (1802 – 1880) married a man more in love with bad debts and other troubles than with her.

And again like her modern “namesake,” Julia Child, Lydia Maria lived in Boston.

Lydia Maria walked through life with the soul of a writer more than that of a cook.

In 1824, she published Hobomok, the story of a mixed marriage between a white woman and a Native American. Instant fame followed. In 1826, she started the first American magazine for children, called Juvenile Miscellany.

Then came The Frugal Housewife, born no doubt from necessity and not artistic hubris, given the money problems of her husband, David Lee Child.

Besides writing to support her family, Mrs. Child worked tirelessly for the abolitionist movement. In 1833, she wrote a book called An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, a treatise quite academic in nature. As Laura Schenone says in A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, “Well-bred, credible women simply did not appeal to men as intellectual equals, nor did they debate political issues in such an overt and public manner.” Lydia Maria’s anti-slavery fervor cost her the many readers supporting her magazine, Juvenile Miscellany and she couldn’t publish her books or articles. Later, in 1841, she moved to New York City, where she edited the National Anti-Slavery Standard.

american-frugal-housewifeBut before the deluge, she enjoyed unusual success with her cookbook, By 1832, with the eighth edition, the title changed to The American Frugal Housewife, because the new title differentiated Mrs. Lydia Maria Child’s book from English cookbook author Susannah Carter’s The Frugal Housewife (published in London in 1765 and in Boston in 1772). Frugality was something Lydia Maria knew very well, because of her own financial circumstances and because Americans in general considered frugality to be a virtue.

The American Frugal Housewife portrays the daily of women of the times, urban and rural, but mostly rural. Passages let modern readers in on what cooking demanded of women, before the multitude of kitchen conveniences that began appearing toward the end of the nineteenth century, baking powder and commercially canned food, for example. Electric stoves, too.

In a section entitled “Odd Scraps for the Economical,” Mrs. Child delivers a number of aphorisms that would have made Brillat-Savarin proud, he being the doyen of those:

Look frequently to the pails, to see that nothing is thrown to the pigs which should have been in the grease-pot.

Look to the grease-pot, and see that nothing is there which might have served to nourish your own family, or a poorer one.

See that the beef and pork are always _under_ brine; and that the brine is sweet and clean.

All commonsensical exhortations, to be sure. She adds more:

See that the vegetables are neither sprouting nor decaying: if they are so, remove them to a drier place, and spread them.

Examine preserves, to see that they are not contracting mould; and your pickles, to see that they are not growing soft and tasteless.

Then she discusses the perennial problem of leftover, stale bread:

As far as it is possible, have bits of bread eaten up before they become hard. Spread those that are not eaten, and let them dry, to be pounded for puddings, or soaked for brewis. Brewis is made of crusts and dry pieces of bread, soaked a good while in hot milk, mashed up, and salted, and buttered like toast. Above all, do not let crusts accumulate in such quantities that they cannot be used. With proper care, there is no need of losing a particle of bread, even in the hottest weather.

Another way to use up stale bread, more familiar to modern readers, is bread pudding, now becoming popular once again. And Mrs. Child doesn’t fail to deliver the goods: here’s her recipe.

Notice the perfunctory number of raisins allowed …

bread-ouddingBREAD PUDDING.

A nice pudding may be made of bits of bread. They should be crumbled and soaked in milk over night. In the morning, beat up three eggs with it, add a little salt, tie it up in a bag, or in a pan that will exclude every drop of water, and boil it little more than an hour.

No puddings should be put into the pot, till the water boils. Bread prepared in the same way makes good plum-puddings. Milk enough to make it quite soft; four eggs; a little cinnamon; a spoonful of rose-water, or lemon-brandy, if you have it; a tea-cupful of molasses, or sugar to your taste, if you prefer it; a few dry, clean raisins, sprinkled in, and stirred up thoroughly, is all that is necessary. It should bake or boil two hours.

More about Lydia Maria Child:

Hoeller, Hildegard. “A Quilt for Life: Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife.” ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), Vol. 13, 1999.

Karcher, Carolyn L. The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child

Kenschadft, Lori. Lydia Maria Child: The Quest for Racial Justice

© 2009, 2010 C. Bertelsen


One comment

  • This is a brilliant series of posts/blogs – thank you so much. I have most, if not all of Gray’s and MFK fisher’s etc but hadn’t heard of some of the others – will start searching!


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