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Jane Austen and Food

Jane Austen and Food - Maggie Lane Exactly what it sounds like: a lively exploration of food in Jane Austen's life and fiction.

Except there really is a lot more to it than that. It's true Maggie Lane explains things I always wondered about, like why General Tilney was upset about "the butter being oiled" (whatever that meant) or how Miss Bates baked her apples twice (wouldn't you just bake them until they were done?).

Lane also gives detailed information about things I didn't know enough to wonder about. The meaning of the word "morning" in Austen's time, for instance. Silly flippin' me, I figured it meant then what it means now: the span of time from waking until noon. Nope. "Morning" didn't begin until after breakfast was eaten, and it extended until dinner. It was basically another word for "day," as Austen makes clear in a letter to her sister: "We breakfasted before 9 & do not dine till ½ past 6 on the occasion, so I hope we three shall have a long Morning enough."

So women didn't pay their "morning" visits until what we would call early afternoon, because ladies often wouldn't breakfast until nine or ten o'clock, and would spend the next hour or two sewing, reading "horrid" novels, or engaging in light household chores such as consulting with the housekeeper.

And if morning extended until dinner, "afternoon" was the few hours between dinner and tea. An "afternoon" walk, such as the significant one in Emma, actually took place in the early evening; and tea was not an afternoon snack but an evening ritual.

Lane explains all of this deftly and engagingly. She also gives ample details as to what sort of food one might be offered at any given time of the day in a genteel household, and what those offerings symbolize. Mrs. Bennet's invitations to supper speak of her lower-class origins; the French bread and morning chocolate at Northanger Abbey's breakfast table scream of General Tilney's selfish snobbery.

Just don't expect recipes. Lane writes about Regency food; if you want to learn how to actually prepare such food, you'll need a copy of Hannah Glasse's 1747 The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, or Mrs. Rundell's A New System of Domestic Cookery. (I got a copy of Persephone Book's 1816 edition of this latter book. It's gorgeous, but I did have to order it from England. Glasse's book is available from Amazon, and will tell you everything you need to know about how to make a vegetarian Hedgehog for dessert. But I digress.)

Jane Austen and Food is essential reading for anyone researching the Regency. It's also a lot of fun.