With a few exceptions, the women in Isabella’s stories spent a lot of time in the kitchen. One hundred years ago when Isabella wrote her novels, keeping house for her family was a woman’s primary concern; and preparing food filled up the majority of her waking hours.
Chrissy Holmes Hollister was a something of an exception to the rule. Although she could easily afford to hire someone to do the daily cooking, Chrissy’s mother had taught her how to properly manage a kitchen. Chrissy had also been taught to bake a decent loaf of bread and prepare a delicious meal when needed.
In Her Associate Members Chrissy’s husband Stuart was struggling to recover from an illness. On doctor’s orders, Chrissy and Stuart removed to a warm southern state to pass the winter; but Chrissy had a hard time finding a boarding house that was well-run and could serve palatable meals to her invalid husband.
In the boarding house they finally settled in, Chrissy found the food so distasteful, she negotiated with her landlady, Mrs. Stetson, for permission to make Stuart’s meals herself.
Soon Chrissy’s trips to the chaotic and messy kitchen to prepare a cup of beef tea for her husband became opportunities for her to teach Mrs. Stetson to run her kitchen more efficiently. That’s when she discovered how much Mrs. Stetson disliked having to cook for her boarders.
“What in the name of wonder will I get for dessert?” Mrs. Stetson pronounced the word as though she were speaking of the plains of Sahara. “I wish to the land folks didn’t have to have dessert every blessed day of their lives! It hasn’t got any reason nor sense in it, to my way of thinking. Eat a good big dinner of roast beef, and two kinds of potatoes, and beans, or something, and pickles and bread and jelly, and everything they can get, and then begin all over again, with fresh plates and all, and swallow down something sweet and sticky. I’d like to know who first got up such a ridiculous fashion, anyway! But there is no use in talking; folks do it, and so I s’pose folks will keep on doing it to the end of time. But I don’t know more than the babes in the woods what to have, nor how to make it.”
Mrs. Stetson’s lament gave Chrissy an idea. Since her arrival she had been patiently waiting for an opportunity to do something nice for overworked Mrs. Stetson, and she now saw an opportunity:
“Mrs. Stetson, I have been looking at some beautiful lemons while I was at work. Do your boarders all like lemon pie, and do you care to have me make some for dessert?”
Mrs. Stetson didn’t hesitate in answering:
“Like lemon pie? I should say they did. Every last one of them looks as though he had had a fortune left him when he sees a piece coming!”
So Chrissy set to work preparing her ingredients, while Mrs. Stetson sat back and had a much-needed rest.
Although Chrissy made it sound as if it were easy to whip up a lemon pie, dessert making was a tricky business.
Ovens in those days did not have thermostats, and cooks who followed printed recipes had to know what it meant when a recipe called for a “quick oven” instead of a “moderate oven.”
Stove-top cooking had its challenges, too. Burners had no gauges to modulate high, low, or medium heat; cooks controlled the level of heat with the amount and type of wood they fed their stove. One too many pieces of wood on the fire or one too few, and a cook could easily scald the contents of a pot, or undercook a sauce on a burner that wasn’t hot enough.
If you’d like to get a sense of what it was like to cook and bake in Isabella’s time, visit A Hundred Years Ago, a blog that prints old recipes, then updates them for today’s cook.
Recently, A Hundred Years Ago took a 1916 dessert recipe for Baked Rice Pudding and updated it with instructions that make it easy for you to make the creamy, sweet delight today.
In previous posts, One Hundred Years Ago has also printed old recipes for making candies and fudge, then tweaked them, of course, to also print updated versions of the original recipes.
One thing that becomes clear as you read through those old recipes is the amount of time cooks must have spent stirring, beating and whipping their ingredients together. Since they didn’t have the luxury of our modern-day mixers and blenders, it’s easy to understand why Mrs. Stetson grew to hate making desserts each day for her boarders.
But Mrs. Stetson’s life was about to change, because Chrissy soon became not only Mrs. Stetson’s new boarder, but her friend, too. And as Chrissy helped Mrs. Stetson implement simple changes in her kitchen that made her life easier, Chrissy kept watch for a chance to make over Mrs. Stetson’s heart, as well.