Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
~ William Shakespeare, “Richard III”
Most writers live the sad truth about writing: it’s usually hard, thankless work, it’s usually unrewarding financially, and it’s always an absolute tyrant. Procrastination and avoidance win hands down any time a writer wakes up and dreads the trip from the bed to the desk. Which is just about every day.
But writing, for me, is like eating. Necessary. No, let me rephrase that: writing’s more like breathing. Vital. I can’t not do it. (Double negative – very naughty me … .)
In the winter of my discontent,* at the rise of the sun this morning, I pondered the grit of writers who wrote long before me, plugging away, with scant payback during their lives. Especially the women, who often could not even dream of actual publication, condemned by the patriarchy to fill page after futile page, pages that seemed as if they would never be read by anyone except the writers themselves. And I am so glad they never gave up, because their words still exist, in spite of the indifference of the readers of their day. Found in all this lost writing is the joy of digitization, bringing to the fore these supposedly irretrievable words.
Here’s a good place to contemplate an 18th-century cookery writer, Martha Bradley, who had the good fortune to find a publisher for her words.
The postperson recently dumped a huge Royal Mail sack on my front porch, and, in that strange parcel, I found a 6-volume copy of Martha’s book, The British Housewife (1756). Inside the bright red paperback covers was a facsimile edition of this remarkable book, reprinted by Prospect Books in 1997. Unlike Mrs. Raffald, Martha did not enclose a picture of herself, nor did she expound on her qualifications other than to mention her thirty years of experience in the kitchen, on the title page. Nor is there a long, digressive paean to any patron or patroness, as was so common at the time in many books, not just cookbooks.
Martha’s 752-page opus starts out with an explanation of what readers are getting into when they unfurl the pages of her book:
“We are to conduct the Cook and Housekeeper throughout the Year, and we begin with the first month. January is a dead season: … ”
And so she begins to instruct the housewife in the niceties of cooking with the seasons. Of March, she makes no particular comment, but just marches on with instructions on roasting , boiling, frying, and ends with sage advice on the fruits of the March garden, including the growing of flowers, saying “March is a busy Month for the Person who takes Pleasure in a Flower Garden.” (p. 307, The British Housewife)
The only way I know Martha, then, is through her words, through the precise directions she gives in the recipes and other material. She has no qualms about taking recipes from other published works – primarily Hannah Glasse’s and Vincent La Chappelle’s, an act that would get her into serious trouble today, but was a par for the course in earlier times. She’s organized and she understands how a cook’s mind works. And she admires French cooking.
With the usual high hopes and the longings that underlie so much of a writer’s soul, Martha sat in her lodgings in Bath, England, a city where she’d cooked for thirty years, and wrote her cookery book. Yet, despite the unique seasonal arrangement and the richness of information found in her enormous book, all that proved insufficient. The book flopped financially. Only one edition ever left the publisher’s workshop, and Martha found her book relegated to the modern equivalent of the remainder table almost immediately. Martha’s desire to be all things to all readers – lady of the manor, servants, gardeners, healers, and animal husbandmen – doomed her work. Another fault lay with her insistence on featuring Frenchiness in her recipes.
Ah, the fickleness of the reader. And the obtuseness of the writer?
How so the latter?
It just so happens that Britain and France went to war in the New World in 1756. The French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years’ War. Hardly the time to tout French cuisine.
Poor Martha, she picked the wrong political climate for publishing, but she also failed to recognize a trend in British cooking that started around 1750. Gilly Lehmann remarks on this in her Introduction to Martha’s book, by quoting a certain Reverend Stotherd Abdy after the wedding of Susanna Archer, a member of the Houblon family, country gentry thanks to their 17th-century trade-made fortune :
“Monsr … Cook [French chef hired for the wedding] had taken his leave, and that we should feel too sensibly […] the want of everything hard named & out of the wayish as to eating; and that we must now be reduced to plain mutton and apple dumplin[sic]. We, instead of being mortified at this account sincerely rejoiced at hearing it, as our eyes had not blest with such a sight for above a week. When we came to table we had the pleasure of seeing seven good eatable dishes, and could really tell what they were, and we enjoyed our meal thoroughly.” (p. 48, “Introduction,” The British Housewife)
I imagine that Martha felt the tyranny of writing, too, as she stepped out of her feather bed on a wintery March morning, staring out at the leafless trees, little knowing that 260 years later, a cookbook lover in the former British colony of Virginia would be reading her book. And gearing up to cook from it, too.
*Post-op eye surgery, and not cataract.
©2016 C. Bertelsen