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Friday, June 22, 2018

It's About the Muffins

JACK. How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can't make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.
ALGERNON. Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.
JACK. I say it's perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.
     Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. Act II, p. 60

This play has all kinds of references to food as many of the scenes take part during the English teatime: cucumber sandwiches, muffins, teacakes, and crumpets. Inspector Montalbano in the mysteries written by Andrea Camilleri spends a lot of time eating and describing Sicilian foods so that the food almost becomes a character. But even a small reference to food—a mere soupçon—can give authenticity and interest in a historical novel.
Afternoon tea at Prestonfield House, Edinburgh, Scotland
But, as you’re aware, we do need to do research for the time period and country. In the scene above, for example, they’re talking about English muffins, not American muffins, but our readers may not know this unless we give them some hints. We can Google information, but we can also find old documents and books from the time period, some of which I’ll mention below.

If we’re writing about Europe in say, the Middle Ages, there would be no tomatoes or potatoes in any of the dishes. Those did not appear in Europe until the 16th century with the discovery of the Americas. So Ireland had no potatoes, and what did the Italians eat without tomatoes? Europe would have eaten mostly corn. (A trick reference! Corn in Britain means grains [wheat, oats, barley] as in the Bible and you may have encountered it in a Regency novel with a reference to the Corn Exchange, a place where merchants sold their corn. It has no relationship to American corn which is typically called maize in Europe and usually fed to animals.)

In those days the staples were grains, milk, cheese and game (venison, etc.) and domesticated animals. (Do you know why there are two words in English for certain domesticated animals? It goes back to 1066. Sheep, cow, pig are the “on the hoof” words from Anglo-Saxon as the English peasants took care of the animals while the Norman conquerors, i.e. elite, ate the animals, hence mouton [mutton], boeuf [beef], and porc [pork]. There are depictions of banquets in the Bayeux Tapestry which celebrates the Norman Conquest; it wasn’t just the battle.)

A book I own, The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black, not only has history of food and culture, but recipes translated from Middle English. It surprised me that they use a lot of saffron which is a really expensive spice made from the stamens of a particular crocus. And they also used quite a few spices which were imported from far away places. In fact, spices were so important to Europeans, there was a fifty-year war fought between the Dutch and Portuguese in the 1600s. Other explorer countries such as Britain, France, Italy and Spain vied for control of the spice trade too. The discovery of America came about when Columbus tried to find a quicker route to the Far East to outwit the Venetians' hold on the spice trade.

Black’s book mentions several people who put together household and cooking guides during this time period, one was the English poet, Chaucer, and another known as the Goodman of Paris. The latter “employed Dame Agnes, a woman of the charitable society called the Beguines, to act as chaperone-housekeeper to his young wife. Dame Agnes comes across in his comments as a careful and pleasant guide for an adolescent girl in the new experiences which marriage might entail” (p. 12). Black has given several recipes from this household.

Savarin named after a French gourmand
We can glean information about what people ate during various time periods by searching cookbooks compiled by various chefs and housewives. France’s Marie-Antoine Carême became the first celebrity chef in the late 1700s-early 1800s who was a codifier of French haute cuisine (high cuisine). His fame spread to other countries such as Britain which is why it families in high society had to have a French chef to show their status. During the Victorian/Edwardian period, Auguste Escoffier became a celebrated chef who published Le Guide Culinaire which still influences chefs throughout the world. I used to have a copy of this, but never used it; it was much too complicated though I still own a copy of Larousse Gastronomique.

Also in Victorian times, if you want to find out about British cooking, Isabella Beeton published Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management in 1861. My 1970 edition fell apart but I now have a Kindle version. This book is also useful because it gives hints not only on cooking, but cleaning, childrearing, and entertaining during that time period. Fanny Farmer was the American equivalent of Isabella Beeton. She published her best-known work, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, in 1896. As writers of historical fiction, you may already be aware of this book, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist—the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England. And, of course, there’s a lot you can glean from the Internet.

In my current WIP set in 1813 Scotland, I use food as one way to emphasize the difference between common folk and high society. I’ve found that researching cooking throughout the ages and in various countries, can lead to the discovery of fascinating facts that adds interesting and authentic touches to a historical novel.

Bon appétit!
Karen Edwards Pierotti

Isabella Beeton, Wikipedia
Black, Maggie. The Medieval Cookbook, (1992), New York: Thames and Hudson.
Marie-Antoine Carême. Wikipedia.
Auguste Escoffier. Wikipedia.
Fanny Farmer. Wikipedia

Pittenweem, the setting of Joy to My Love
Author Bio: I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland (Welsh father/Scots mother) but lived in various places in the UK and Gibraltar (Spain) as my father was in the RAF (Royal Air Force). I've done a lot of traveling in Europe. I joined the LDS church while working in Lugano, Switzerland then came to the United States to study at BYU. After several years, I received a MA in rhetoric. In the meantime, I married an American and had four children; I've lived in Utah for about 40 years. I worked at BYU for 29 years as secretary/admin assistant in various departments and after my MA, taught first-year writing part-time. I am a family history consultant and in auditing a creative writing class to help write biographies, I discovered I enjoyed writing novels. My WIPs: a completed historical novel, Joy to My Love, set in 1813 Scotland and which I will self-publish after a professional edit; a sequel in NaNoWriMo-mode, i.e. a mess; a contemporary romance set in France which I'm rewriting to include two POVs; and, the beginnings of a YA historical novel set in Algeria and NYC (not sure if I can write YA, but experimenting). I'm also writing biographies of my two grandmothers and my husband's.  I'm on Facebook and am in the processing of creating a website. I have a blog: Musings which, for the past year or two, has focused on thoughts about writing.  (BTW: boireannach means woman in Scottish Gaelic which is different than Irish Gaelic.)


Donna Hatch said...

Great post! Food is certainly a great way to add texture to a scene and can even play a key part of the story.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, it does add texture. I admit I use it only when it’s necessary for my characters to eat, but I’m careful not to use anachronistic foods. A friend of mine, however, a well known historian, does have her characters eating in great detail, usually in the form of dinner parties, when she writes fiction, and thinks I should be doing the same. ;-)