When I was a little girl I greatly enjoyed reading the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books, which featured chapter after chapter of misbehaving children and their hapless mothers who turned to good old Mrs. Piggle Wiggle for help. The cures ranged from “let the kids stay up late as long as they want until they’re too tired to do anything fun, so they’ll stop complaining about bedtime,” to “I’ll let you borrow my pig with lovely table manners to act as a model/shame your child into eating politely,” to “here are some magic pills that will turn your child invisible whenever he’s showing off.” The books were hopelessly dated even back when I read them– they all involved happy housewives and mostly absent husbands, and everyone wore gloves and attended luncheons and ate ridiculous 1950’s food. Which is what brings me to this, um… masterpiece.
Because really, the 1950’s produced some seriously awful stuff, and while I think that the foods mentioned in the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books were deliberately exaggerated (prune, noodle, and sardine surprise, anyone?), this one was just too bizarre-yet-plausible to pass up.
The table was decorated with pink tulips, a pink tablecloth, pink candles, pink napkins, and pink nut dishes. The main course was a maraschino cherry, walnut, marshmallow, pineapple, strawberry, cream cheese and cabbage molded salad, accompanied by pink biscuits. There were also pink mints and pink gumdrops. And luckiest of all, Mrs. Harroway just happened to be dressed entirely in pink with even pink gloves and pink roses on her hat. All through lunch she was so happy and gay everybody said, “You look adorable, Helen dear, I wish I’d worn pink.”
I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond on my own as a kid, but then had it spoiled for me by my school’s making it required reading. Nothing makes you hate a book more than having to sit through your classmates’ laboriously reading aloud one paragraph at a time while you’re forced to listen and keep track of where they are so you can take your turn. Bleh.
BUT, at least the book left one abiding pleasant memory– blueberry corn cake, which Hannah Tupper (a nice old lady who is later accused of being a witch) gives to Kit (a rebellious teenaged girl in Colonial Connecticut) to comfort her after a really tough day.
Hannah had set a wooden trencher on the table with a small corn cake studded with blueberries, and beside it a gourd filled with yellow goat’s milk. She sat watching as Kit ate, taking nothing herself. Probably, Kit thought too late, swallowing the last crumb, that was every bit of dinner she had!
I think that when I first read this, I was picturing a square of cornbread with blueberries stuck to the top– kind of like how you stud an orange with cloves by sticking them all over its surface– but I’ve since realized that the author was likely referring to a single cake with blueberries stirred into a cornmeal batter.
I’ve already mentioned my love for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess— quite apart from the doll reference, Sara was a character I could relate to (at least in some respects), always telling stories and imagining things.
There are several references to food in the book– rich, savory soups, hot muffins, sandwiches, cakes– but the most prominent takes place when Sara is out on a cold winter day. Tired, cold, and extremely hungry, she daydreams about being able to buy some hot buns, when suddenly she happens upon a lost four-penny piece!
And then, if you will believe me, she looked straight at the shop directly facing her. And it was a baker’s shop, and a cheerful, stout, motherly woman with rosy cheeks was putting into the window a tray of delicious newly baked hot buns, fresh from the oven—large, plump, shiny buns, with currants in them.
As a child, I didn’t really know what currants were, but “large, plump, shiny buns” sounded delicious. I figured that these buns would be lightly sweet, studded with rehydrated dried currants, with a shiny egg wash and perhaps even a light sugar glaze over the top.
Sticking with the classics, my next trip down memory lane is Almanzo Wilder’s fried apples n’ onions from Farmer Boy. This book is seriously FULL of good eating– I came across a website that quoted every meal he ate in the book, and was drooling by the end of it. It all sounded amazing, but it’s too hot this summer to be roasting spare-ribs and cooking baked beans with salt pork, so I decided to go with something simpler: fried apples n’ onions.
This dish is just what it’s named– apples and onions, fried together. I don’t understand why most recipes online make it so sweet, adding tons of brown sugar and cooking until the apples and onions turn into mush. This is not apple pie we’re talking about here, this is a side dish, and Almanzo states in the book that he ate four helpings in one meal! If it were sweet I’m not sure that even I (with my notorious sweet tooth) would’ve been able to eat that much…
For the next installment of Reader’s Digest(ibles), I’m going with white soup. Originating in 17th Century France, white soup (a variation of it, at least) became a popular food to serve at balls in Jane Austen’s time. The dish is referenced in Pride and Prejudice by Mr. Bingley, as he plans the Netherfield Ball.
“By the bye, Charles, are you really serious in meditating a dance at Netherfield?—I would advise you, before you determine on it, to consult the wishes of the present party; I am much mistaken if there are not some among us to whom a ball would be rather a punishment than a pleasure.”
“If you mean Darcy,” cried her brother, “he may go to bed, if he chuses, before it begins—but as for the ball, it is quite a settled thing; and as soon as Nicholls has made white soup enough I shall send round my cards.”
When I first read the book in high school I had no idea what “white soup” could be, and given the context I initially speculated that it might be some weird term for envelope paste or something necessary for the invitations. But eventually I learned that it was an actual soup, and when considering what to make next for this series it immediately presented itself as an option. As implied by its name it’s a creamy soup, generally based on a meat stock, thickened with bread, and it includes almonds.
I love to read. I love to cook. What better set of projects to undertake than foods inspired by my favorite books? I can’t count the number of times I’ve been comfortably curled up, reading a description of something delicious being eaten/made/thrown by a character, and thought “I wonder what that tasted like?” So I figured that I’d try to bring some of those dishes to life.
First up is a classic from my favorite book in the world, Anne of Green Gables. There are numerous references to food in the book, mostly mentioned in passing (ice cream, chicken salad, chocolate caramels), but a few stand out as plot points. One of those is the layer cake Anne makes for a tea party, despite having a head cold that prevents her from smelling the bottle-full of what she thinks is vanilla extract– with disastrous results, since it’s actually anodyne liniment. Based on the text, the cake is a vanilla-flavored layer cake, sandwiched with jelly.
The cake did rise… and came out of the oven as light and feathery as golden foam. Anne, flushed with delight, clapped it together with layers of ruby jelly and, in imagination, saw Mrs. Allan eating it and possibly asking for another piece!
While the Anne of Green Gables Cookbook (written by Montgomery’s granddaughter) provides a recipe for this cake, reviews indicate that it comes out somewhat dense, which doesn’t jibe with the “light and feathery as golden foam” description in the original book. I decided to go another route, using a hot milk sponge cake recipe which has been around for a while and is supposed to produce a light, tender cake.