Recipes as Autobiography…

When I was working on my book, the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook, I realised that the creative part of my brain – the one I use for writing prose, editing sounds and designing knitwear – is the same part I use for cooking. At the end of long work days, I often found I couldn’t come up with any clever ideas for dinner. As a result, I ate several laughably uncreative meals during that project; the low point being a hula-hoop wrap created by tipping a bag of hula-hoops into a plain flour tortilla that I then scrunched up and ate… (I cannot recommend this meal).

A week or so after my book went to print, I had a sudden inspiration to make a beautiful Caribbean-inspired fish stew containing spices, shellfish, rum, limes, peppers, pineapples and rice with fresh coconut mixed in. As all the colours and ideas for this meal flooded my mind, I realised that my creative projects and cookery draw on the same finite mental resources and that I’d not had the bandwidth to dream up tasty dinners while spending all day thinking about yarn shades and patterns. I also realised that if all my artistic energies are going into a project on which I’m working, I probably need a fall-back plan to avoid repeating the horrors of the hula-hoop wrap – a Bill of Fare, if you will – to tell me what to eat when I find myself out of ideas.

Accordingly, earlier this summer, Mark and I sat down to compose a rotating three-week meal plan. Once a week we look at what’s ahead, adjust The Plan to accommodate any outings or visitors, and buy in our ingredients. It’s been going well so far and there has been no call for savoury snacks in tortillas since we started! The project has made me think about what we like eating and how our menus are connected with other aspects of our lives.

A sample menu plan!

A sample menu plan!

For instance, I feel the presence of the ducks in our schemes as it’s unlikely we would eat so many omelettes or so much avgolemono* unless we had a constant supply of duck eggs to get through… (thank you, Honey and Pretzel!) also, earlier in the summer, we also ate many bread rolls made with kefir** after my parents got me a culture kit and I discovered what a superlative rise kefir gives to an otherwise plain bread roll… Kefir was one of the wondrous discoveries I made on my Estonian travels in 2012 and began to drink here when I found it is stocked in all the local shops that sell Polish fare.

The duck buddies - a constant source of eggs!

The duck buddies – a constant source of eggs!

The influence of the blogosphere is also ever present; I follow Jack Monroe on Twitter (we cook from their book often), while the Rendang was inspired by a blog post on the subject written by a friend of ours… for my birthday this year, instead of cake, I made these sinful confetti cookies after becoming transfixed by images I saw on the Smitten Kitchen blog:

O Happy Food Colouring Laden Magnificence!!!

O Happy Food Colouring Laden Magnificence!!!

The Japanese Wineberries and Mulberries we ate earlier this year from the garden are both the result of us finding these fruits on bushes and trees elsewhere and deciding we must plant them at home…

Japanese Wineberry bush, just before the berries came out

Japanese Wineberry bush, just before the berries came out

…All of which is to say that what we eat each day is highly personal and also richly descriptive of how and where we live and shop. Our food reflects our families and upbringings; the influence of culture and travel; some of what we read online; and what is available to buy locally. Recipes are like co-ordinates that fix us in time and space and, like many of you I suspect, the current globalised food market means that, for better or worse, we are less tied to the timings of seasonal produce than our forebears.

As you may know, I’ve spent a great deal of this year exploring the life of Catherine Dickens for Hearing Catherine – a collection of sound pieces produced for the Charles Dickens Museum to coincide with their exhibition: The Other Dickens, Discovering Catherine. My thoughts today are very much influenced by the work I have done for that project based on her cookbook, written in the early 1850s and titled What Shall We Have For Dinner?

Catherine’s book has bills of fare (suggested menus) at the start, for between two to twenty persons. At the back of the book there are more detailed instructions on the preparation of some of the dishes. Armed with this tome, I am sure that nobody would have had to succumb to the Victorian equivalent of the hula-hoop wrap!

Like our rotating three-week plan, Catherine’s book helps us to understand aspects of who she was; the influence of travel and her familial origins; the availability of various ingredients in London; and of some of Charles’s favourite foods (toasted cheese!). I keep thinking of this wonderful passage from Lillian Nayder’s insightful tome on Catherine Dickens:

In her study of kitchen writings, Janet Theophano describes recipe collections as autobiographies and importance sources of women’s history, “a written legacy of [women’s] art and their lives.”…Catherine’s volume helps us understand the experiences she valued and the ways in which she defined herself… She draws on her time abroad when she explains how puddings are prepared “in many parts of the continent, as well as throughout Switzerland,” while her recipes for Scotch broth, Scotch minced collop, and Kalecannon, like her measures in Scotch pints as well as English quarts, identify her country of birth and make use of its standards and culture.

For Hearing Catherine, I drew heavily on Catherine’s book, and the pieces that you can hear in the kitchen and in the still room at the Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street are based upon it. In my work the text is read by Rachel Moffat in a style reflecting the authoritative tone of Catherine’s writing, and Catherine’s words are accompanied by recordings of me attempting to recreate her recipes on a working Victorian range.

In forensically attempting to recreate Catherine sonically from these sources, I found myself at times frustrated by the lack of very specific sonic knowledge we have about Catherine, but also fascinated by the differences and similarities in how we use a kitchen as an expressive space, across time.

For example, it is unlikely that Catherine Dickens cooked many of the recipes in her book herself; as an upper-middle-class Victorian woman, she would have had household staff. As Susi Rossi-Wilcox has commented, some of Catherine’s skill in menu-planning reflects a solid understanding of “how much juggling is realistic in a small kitchen with limited personnel”. I would love to know more about the household staff who originally made the recipes, and what the kitchen sounded like when the Dickenses were entertaining guests and the staff were bringing Catherine’ menus to life. On the other hand, working with the Victorian range gave me a very rich understanding of its foibles and personality; its clangs and nuances and, best of all, it’s deep, satisfying roar.

Roar!

Roar!

Shovelling many scuttles of coal into it gradually ramped the temperature up to a point that proved perfect for frying onions but not burning them, and for keeping an Eve’s Pudding steaming away happily for several hours; getting things cooler when required proved trickier, and there is nothing instantaneous about bringing the oven up to baking temperature when you’re working with a range…

Working Victorian range at Acton Scott

Working Victorian range at Acton Scott

…By contrast, on my own gas cooker at home, I just turn a knob up or down to reach the perfect temperature, and it’s a rare day when neither the dishwasher nor the washing machine are purring along while cooking is taking place: we don’t have any staff but happily we do have appliances that make housework much easier today than it would have been in Catherine’s lifetime. The sound of the gas cooker whooshing into life is one of my favourites.

To Boil Cauliflower with Parmesan... the 2016 edition

To Boil Cauliflower with Parmesan… the 2016 edition

To boil Cauliflower with cheese... in the 1850s

To Boil Cauliflower with Parmesan… 1850s edition

Screwing up newspaper, stacking it with twigs and wood into a grate and hearing the flames kindle has a sonic magic all of its own, but it’s not the sound I’ve grown up with and, having lived with a Victorian range for a few days, it’s now also indivisible from the sounds of a coal scuttle, of iron pokers, of grates and ash-pans and a high degree of constant clanging, and of things taking so long that you end up eating your tea in the dark!

Eve's pudding by candlelight

Eve’s Pudding with suet, boiled for hours and hours on the range, and eaten by candlelight

I have begun introducing some of Catherine’s recipes into our own contemporary eating plans. Last week I made Eve’s Pudding, but omitted the suet. This is a steamed pudding, made with nutmeg and citrus peel, breadcrumbs, eggs, currants and sugar and it works wonderfully with dried oranges in place of citrus peel if that is what you have in your cupboard.

Eve's Pudding without suet!

Eve’s Pudding without suet!

It did not hold together as well as the suet-laden version that I made on the Victorian range, but this might have been because we were impatient to eat it at once and left it no opportunity to set in its little enamel basin. The main sonic difference that I noticed, was in weighing out ingredients on my little battery-operated scales here, vs. the lovely old metal weighing scales that I used in the Victorian kitchen. You can hear the weights in the recording I made for Hearing Catherine.

I also made Cauliflower with parmesan, as per Catherine’s instructions. I missed the intuitive way of making this on the Victorian range, where it was easily boiled on the top then baked in the oven below, but it turned out well enough in our gas cooker, and the sauce (made from egg yolk beaten with lemon juice, nutmeg and parmesan) is less sturdy and more luxuriant than the white-sauce based version I remember from the cauliflower cheese of my youth.

Egg yolks and melted butter, ready to whisk together

Egg yolks and melted butter, ready to whisk together

Finally, we made made Catherine’s fish curry here last week, though I confess I bumped up the spice component as I felt Catherine’s recommendations were rather stingy, and I blitzed the whole sauce with a stick blender before putting in the fish, as I could not face rubbing the whole lot through a tamis as would have been done in the 1850s. (Though I do now find myself wondering how it would have sounded to do that.)

Salmon Curry made with Cod because there wasn't any decent looking salmon in Morrisons

Salmon Curry made with Cod because there wasn’t any decent looking salmon in Morrisons

I feel that Catherine’s imminently sensible proposal to plan meals in advance has exerted its influence positively in inspiring our own bills of fare. I love making Catherine’s recipes and listening to what is different now from in the kitchens of the mid-nineteenth century in which the meals from What Shall We Have For Dinner? were originally prepared. For me the cooking and eating and listening is about transmissions across time from one kitchen to another, and hearing what is the same and what is different is one way of getting to the tiny details that make our lives particular. I like finding the ways in which we truly *are* what we eat, and discovering how the sounds of food preparation are part of our ephemeral and autobiographic domestic soundscapes; these processes have been crucial to trying to reclaim Catherine’s sonic memory from the past. How can I listen to the details of a life from many decades back if I am not present to the ones that are sounding here, today, in my own life?

Felicity Ford, Rachel Moffat and Louize Harries at the Dickens Museum this Wednesday!

Felicity Ford, Rachel Moffat and Louize Harries at the Dickens Museum this Wednesday!

On Wednesday myself, Rachel Moffat and Louize Harries are putting on an event at the Charles Dickens Museum in which we shall celebrate Catherine in stories and songs. Our idea is to bring Catherine to life for contemporary audiences and to draw sonic parallels between then and now. We’ll play music that Catherine would have heard in her lifetime mixed with punk records from more recent times, and we’ll juxtapose Catherine’s historic recipes from the 1850s with suggested bills of fare from the audience; we’ll be asking What Did You Have For Dinner?

In the space between your answers and Catherine’s bills of fare is a glorious story of evolving culinary and social history; the tales of thousands of kitchens; an ever-evolving history of gender roles and housework; many sounds, and many flavours… and hopefully only one sad, crunchy tale of a hula-hoop wrap.

Hope to see you there?

*a Cypriot recipe by Jack Monroe for a hearty soup made using eggs, lemon and rice
**a sour and slightly alcoholic fermented milk drink, produced using a special combination of probiotics and yeasts, and not for the faint of heart

One Response to Recipes as Autobiography…

  1. Noemie says:

    That sounds fascinating… There is a fully working Victorian kitchen near me, in a national trust property called standen house. I wonder if you have ever visited it? It must have sounded very similar to what you have documented here… 🙂

    Kefir rolls taste divine don’t they? 🙂 I love your breakfast plan! 🙂

    Thanks for writing this, very inspiring and interesting, as usual!

    Noemie.

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