Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey
Mangoes and the Christmas Goose
The British Housewife: or, the Cook, Housekeeper's and
By Martha Bradley. Prospect books, 1997.
309 pages. Paperback. $19.
Reviewed by Kimberly Brangwin.
When Mrs. Bennet wanted to set a fine table or Anne Elliot wanted to calm a feverish nephew, here is a reference to which they might have turned. Do you want to understand the cure for fruit colic? How to place dishes for maximum refinement and visual pleasure? Which seasonal crops to sow for later bounty? This is the companion guide for you.
Mrs. Martha Bradley wrote this book in 1756, when it was first published in 56 weekly installments. This facsimile edition is being published in six volumes, of which this is the second, covering the months of February and March. It is a wonderful collection of an eighteenth- century Martha Stewart's approach to housewifery.
The diversity of subjects covered, presumably all of importance to the high achieving homemaker, is daunting to the modern reader. Equally challenging are the arcane spellings and abbreviations of this facsimile version. However, as a resource for understanding the tasks of "providing for, conducting, and managing a family throughout the year," it is illuminating reading.
Today, the abundance of foodstuffs and goods available year round make us forget the limits all tables experienced back when the groaning board or bare cupboard provided only what the seasons allowed. February and March were months when pickled and preserved foods provided the only variety. Our menus today may include a plethora of tropical fruits and fresh vegetables anytime. How much more challenging it must have been to create that Christmas feast for the Austen family. Mrs. Bradley would have been able to tell them what to look for in a succulent goose, how to roast it and carve it, and where to place it on the table.
Mrs. Bradley covers not only preparation of the foods, but also descriptions of their origins and how to determine the best variety: "The Mangoe is a large Fruit of the Nature of a Plum sent over in Pickle. The fruit, when ripe, is as big as a Man's fist, they gather it when near ripe, and lay it a few Days to wither a little. After this they put it into Vinegar with Spices, Garlick, and Drugs, such as Galangals, and the like."
If you want to create an authentic Regency repast, you will find the "oeconomy of the table" a fine directive for achieving the proper look, so different than our own. Mrs. Bradley gives credit to the French in being able to create more pleasing forms, due to their round and oval platters, which came in three standard sizes.
The winter table, for twelve diners, would have seven dishes placed on the table precisely and simultaneously, in a manner providing "freedom, safe, and prettiness." An interesting comparison is drawn between the gluttony of the Renaissance table as compared to the refinement of the Regency one. It is assumed that everyone in the Regency dines well everyday at home, so there is no need to feed guests "until they almost burst." In fact, a lady eats little, and restrains herself as she civilly recommends dishes to her guests.
Alongside the gustatory details come further moral admonitions. Since the Creator made food and all its variety to feed Adam and Eve, there is no morality in starving. It is a duty to preserve one's health, and indeed, the recipes for home health care are fascinating. For fruit colic, the care involves first being bled and then ingesting a brew of sena, tartar, and "asshmatick" elixir. Since the symptoms of fruit colic sound much like the flu, one wonders at the efficacy of the cure.
Bradley's style is straightforward and factual. Few metaphors or extravagant adjectives clog up the business-like approach to this guide. There are no four-color glossy photographs to beguile the reader into thinking this occupation is for the fainthearted. The British Housewife was meant to be of strong stuff to cope with all these labors. In conjunction with The Jane Austen Cookbook (M. Black, D. Le Faye), this volume is particularly illuminating. While the former gives more accessible, modern instructions, this volume gives the authentic versions. Together, they provide the intrepid reader valuable background detail. This will readily enhance appreciation of the Austen novels and may inspire delightful recreations of Regency entertainment.
Kimberly Brangwin joined JASNA in 1988 and is a founding member of the Puget Sound Region. She is the Coordinator for the 2001 AGM in Seattle.
JASNA News v. 14, no. 3, Winter 1998
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