Mama Deb (mamadeb) wrote,
Mama Deb

Current Readings

I decided to download some books to my PDA on Sunday. I chose three 19th century American books on househood management, cookery and etiquette. Each had their charms.

The Frugal American Housewife by Lydia M. Child, 1832.

This book is mostly lists of tips (how to restore rusty black silk, how to make soap, how to cure cancer) plus basic recipes, all with an idea of saving money. Her most frequent tip? City people should buy as much as possible - eggs, vegetables, woolen fabric - from "friends in the country," as it would be cheaper (and this is the word she uses. Cheap doesn't seem to carry the connotation of shoddy or bad as it does today) and better quality. This seems eminently logical. Also, if you have the storage facilities - and she assumes you do - buy in quantity as much as possible. Girls should be raised to know how to manage a household - how to cook and sew and mend - even if they can afford servants. And don't travel - it's not worth it. This is at a time when travel was getting less expensive, but still costly. She peppers her narrative with little anecdotes, usually about people who acted opposite of their advice, and the bad results of it.

The Young House-Keeper by Wm. A. Alcott, 1838.

As you can see, this is from the same general time period. (BTW, I don't think Mr. Alcott is related to Louisa - her father was an immigrant from England plus his original name was Alcock.)

He spends a few chapters talking about housekeeping in general. Note that by house-keeper, he means "housewife", and he also regards it as synonymous with "mother." He's not referring to a paid position. Indeed, he doesn't believe that anyone should have domestic servants at all, although he has no objections to sending the laundry out. Laundry was, to his mind, a purely mechanical task that taught no moral lessons, and therefore there was no need for it to be done by the mother. His one radical notion that I agreed with, given how backbreaking washing was until the invention of the wringer-washer, was that the *sons* of the household should help out, doing the heavier lifting. Unfortunately, this didn't seem to have caught on any more than his notions of diet - which is the main portion of the book.

He believed that a properly managed household, even in the 19th century, could be run to middle class standards by a single woman, while she also taught all her girls and young sons - best to keep children, especially girls, sheltered. She'd need to get up early, and she'd also need a plan of management, and she should keep a strict accounting of all she spent and reconcile it with her husband. However, that's all quite incidental. The real point of the book? Diet reform. Sort of stealth diet reform - a newly married woman would buy the book thinking it will help her in the early days of marriage and find something else.

Mr. Alcott believed that meat, dairy, fat, fresh bread, white flour, sugar, salt, spices, combined foods and purees were bad. He also believed that all beverages except cold water were bad, and if possible, not even that should be served with food. Certainly, alcoholic beverages were out (Mrs. Child, for contrast, gave recipes for all sorts of beverages, including beer "a family drink" (small beer, of course), and seemed to think every home should have a supply of New England Rum.) He also disapproved, strongly, of hot food.

What did he think should be eaten? Ideally, single-food meals, that single food prepared as simply as possible - boiled or baked, without any flavorings, and served at room temperature. At best, warmed slightly by the fire or stove, but NEVER hot. Bread should be unleavened if possible, and if not, it should be stale or dried (not toasted.) He will allow a very thin scraping of butter, but better not. Food should be of a consistency that requires chewing, since unchewed food will never be digested.

And what are those foods? Farinaceous vegetables - whole grain flours (Wheat, rye and "Indian", meaning corn) to be made into unleavened bread (if possible - otherwise, stale or dried) or boiled puddings (only with water), of course), corn and beans to be boiled. Potatoes - boiled or roasted. Other vegetables - raw or boiled or maybe roasted. Fruits, raw by preference.

Molasses, salt and milk might be used as a condiment, as might a bit of *new* cheese, but not by preference.

And everything should be served at room temperature. Hot foods are bad - after all, breathing hot air is bad, right? So, no one should be "enslaved" to hot food.

And this is the key to his plan - if you don't serve your food hot, and you only serve one dish per meal *and* everything is very plain, you can cook several days' worth of food in advance, while teaching the children (detailing one child to watch) or doing the mending or knitting - or even the washing. His first example was boiled corn - ripe corn, btw, not green corn. The house-keeper should boil a vast quantity of the corn, and serve it twice a day for about a week. The third meal can be vegetables or fruit or bread. Other foods don't last so long, so she should cook smaller quantities.

Yeah, I'm gagging from boredom. I'm also seriously concerned with the lack of protein and fat. He is most emphatically against succotash - corn and lima beans. It seems really unhealthy for kids. I'm less concerned with the lack of flavorings because one can get used to anything, and it's entirely possible that one can get used the plain taste, presuming it's not boiled away.

He even gives examples on how to changeover well and how to do it badly - he is assuming that once begun properly on the path, one will eventually end up eating his way.

Note that while I think the diet is nutritionally suspect and boring, the basic thing of "if a homemaker isn't a slave to his/her stove, they can do more" isn't bad, and remember that cooking was much harder then than it is now, even if you prefer cooking from scratch.

Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John Sherwood M.E.W 1887. No, I don't know what the abbreviation is for. Master of Education for Women?

This is a collection of newspaper columns over several years and is, I believe, meant for the aspiring (in the US, a good thing) middle classes to imitate the wealthier ones. Like the other two, Mrs. Sherwood emphasizes being republican and democratic as part of being American - all are equals (provided they're American and white and, well, women are so obviously not equal to men that there is no point in even saying so.) Except that English and French customs should be acknowledged, and sometimes emulated. It's not very different from other books of this nature written in this time period, actually - how to behave properly at dinner or at a ball, or what sort of clothing to wear when (note that while she does advocate different styles for different body types, she also believes that a large, stout woman need not diet or lace tightly to be dressed becomingly or considered beautiful - nor does a "scrawny" type need to hide who she is.)

It is amusing how much she contradicts Mr. Alcott - hot food is *better* for you. In one amusing passage, she says the reason Americans are all "dyspeptic" is because they all drink ice water, and in the very next paragraph, she details how to place the ice water pitchers and the bowl of ice on the table.

She also talks about fast dishes a hostess can pull together if her cook runs away from the summer house. Given that even middle class homes often had cooks until WWI, I'm taking that at face value (even if middle class people didn't have country homes.)

I'm still reading this one - it's sort of random in organization. But, wow. Mourning was complex.
Tags: books, diet, etiquette

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  • Yuletide Rec

    Shavua tov! I received one of the best stories ever for Yuletide and I want everyone to read it. :) Esther and the Egg

  • Oh, dear

    I am alive. I am well. I am cooking at work. I'm just not feeling the blog right now. I'm active on twitter and in Adam Lambert fandom, and I'm…

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