Monday, September 27, 2021

Swissing Pride and Prejudice

The following was part of the very first blog post I wrote upon arrival in Switzerland, in August of 2015. I had not reread it until today and was astonished to find it absolutely hilarious! My mind was in such chaos at the time (the post went live the same day our furniture arrived from overseas), and other than remembering writing something of the sort, I had no recollection of the details. I feared I would be embarrassed by my ignorance of the culture, but instead I'm proud of this piece. That's so nice. There is also a good bit of Austen's youthful, absurdist tone incorporated into my vision for three Pride & Prejudice mashups with classic Swiss tales. Perhaps I took inspiration from her own Plan of a Novel. I really don't remember. The first is based on the tale of William Tell, the second on Heidi, and the third on The Swiss Family Robinson. Enjoy! 

Fitzwilliam Darcy-Tell: Folk Hero of Hunsford

In this Austenesque twist on the famous Swiss legend, Darcy forsakes his top boots for a bow, leaving readers all aquiver. When the domineering Lady Catherine insists all residents of her domain bow to her marital arrangements, our hero stands defiant, declaring his love for the comparatively lowly Elizabeth Bennet. He may marry her, his incensed Aunt cruelly declares, if he can shoot an apple off the “obstinate” girl’s strong head, never believing it possible. But Darcy easily splices the offending piece of fruit in two and is forced to flee with Elizabeth on foot, the evil tyrant trailing them all the way. Finally, they reach the free kingdom of Pemberley, and as Darcy crosses the gates, he turns and unleashes a last arrow into Lady Catherine’s wicked heart, felling the villainess. As news of his triumph spreads, subservient relations all over England rise up and overthrow the domination of their most officious kin, bringing forth an age of peace and prosperity.

Lizzy of the Mountain

Overwhelmed with an excessive number of daughters, a young Lizzy Bennet moves with her disillusioned father to live in an isolated cabin upon Oakham Mount. There the two find peace and happiness in their bucolic seclusion until Aunt Philips, having learned of a wealthy young lady in need of youthful companionship, takes Lizzy away to live in London. Overwhelmed by the metropolis and missing her long walks through the wilderness, Lizzy’s own health flounders, even as she finds solace in Georgiana Darcy’s friendship. The heiress was victim of a nefarious plot on her fortune and heart, but Lizzy’s purity begins to restore her faith in humanity. Her loving brother sees the improvement and duly credits Lizzy, whose frank and open manner have also touched his own heart. However, Madame de Bourgh, the Darcy’s rigid housekeeper, blames the rustic girl for a series of mishaps and disruptions to the household, subjecting her accordingly to increasingly severe punishments. When worrisome sightings of a ghostly apparition prove to be Lizzy herself, sleepwalking due to the stress of homesickness, Madame is not slow in packing the girl off to her woodland abode. There Mr. Darcy pursues her and declares his love for the now mature Elizabeth. He moves the entire cabin from Oakham Mount to within the confines of Pemberley’s library, where Mr. Bennet happily spends the remainder of his days.

Swiss Family Gardiner

Traveling north for a pleasure holiday with their niece, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner’s carriage breaks down. Abandoned by their servants and lost in the wild county of Derbyshire, they must learn to survive on what they can scavenge from the wreck and what Mother Nature provides. They build a rustic shelter and begin to cultivate the land. One day, Elizabeth find herself upon the edge of a murky lake. Seating herself upon its shores, she ponders whether she will ever be reunited with her family and the wider world. Imagine her surprise when a half-dressed gentleman emerges from the watery depths! She recognizes him as Fitzwilliam Darcy, the suitor whom she harshly rejected but a few months before. Both stammer in discomfort and embarrassment, but Elizabeth, seeing an opportunity for rescue, manages to express her plight. He follows her back to her family’s encampment, which proves to be on his own estate of Pemberley. Rather than arresting the Gardiners for poaching, he demonstrates his worthiness by welcoming the family warmly, catering to their needs, and gracefully navigating them all through an exceedingly awkward situation. After being ensconced in one of Pemberley’s best guest rooms and luxuriating in a delightful bath, Elizabeth learns she can return his love, after all.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Decoding an "18th century crumb cake" recipe

A streusel coffeecake.
I'm veering off from Jane today. Indulge me.

Twenty some years ago, I served my now in-laws the first meal I had ever prepared for them. It was brunch, and I had called my grandmother to acquire the family's "crumb cake" recipe, that I could serve it to my prospective future family. To my surprise and delight, my now father-on-law walked in the door (the house entered directly into the kitchen), saw the pretty unassuming cake on the table, and said, eyes alight, "Oh! That's a Streuselkuchen. My mother used to make that." 

I don't think I need to explain my delight at this reaction, but my surprise was due to the fact that these two families, from very different cultural background, made this same dessert. The family from whom the recipe derived is actually my step-father's family (everyone to whom I am related to by blood has much more humble roots), and they are of English descent, long settled in the United States, and deeply entrenched in Philadelphia society. My husband's paternal family is very German, immigrated to the US in the late 19th century, and settled in Kentucky. I found it further perplexing because my grandmother claimed the family had been making it since the 18th century.

Sometimes, family lure gets exaggerated. The so-called "crumb cake" (which I almost always refer to as a coffeecake, for that is what it more resembles, the streusel topping not being as heavy as your typical crumb cake) cannot be an authentic 18th century recipe because it uses baking powder as a rising agent, which wasn't invented until the mid-19th century. It also calls for crisco, first marketed by Proctor & Gamble in 1910, but, obviously, this could have been a one to one replacement for lard (I use all butter). The baking powder is the big red flag. Could a very similar cake have been made by the family using different ingredients before this time? Yes, but the history of the coffee cake in the United States suggests otherwise. 

Though my British friends look at me like a lunatic when I explain that "coffeecake" doesn't typically have any coffee in it, like so many other labels (ie soccer), the term originated in England but then fell out of use there, while remaining part of the American lexicon. These early confections, like our modern versions, did not contain any coffee, but, much like tea cakes, were intended to accompany hot beverages. With the advent of chemical leavening agents in the 1840s to 1860s, they became the de facto ingredients in coffeecakes, which were distinguished by the speed of their preparation. The recipes for these early versions are very much like the one passed down from my grandmother.

So from where comes the German connection? Well, at about the same time, an influx of germanic immigrants introduced the yeast-based, Streuselkuchen to the United States, mention of which can first be found in documents produced in Pennsylvania in the 1860s, soon spreading to the Midwest. If you search through modern Steuselkuchen recipes, they are still almost always made with yeast. There are, however, some quick versions that rely on baking powder and fairly closely resemble my family's recipe. I think it quite feasible that my father-in-law's mother made something of the sort. Regardless of the rising agent, the look of a Streuselkuchen is almost identical to my grandmother's version. 

One of the neatest things about having relocated to "the old world" is learning more about the origins of the food we eat in the United States. It's fascinating, the journey food takes, as it is reinvented in the melting pot and influenced by technology. 

Anyway, here is the "Crumb Cake" recipe, supposedly an 18th century Radford family secret. It is so much like a thousand other recipes you can find online, but this one is tried, true, easy, and delectable. My sister and uncle both modify it to make it more akin to a proper crumb cake, doubling the amount of topping and, as a result, reducing the quantity of cake, but I prefer the original proportions, which is why I almost always describe it as a coffeecake. As mentioned, I substitute the crisco for butter, and especially here in Switzerland, where the butter has a higher fat content than in the US, this results in a much longer cooking time (an additional 15-20 minutes). I also sometimes make these as cupcakes, which my daughter loves, and which conveniently reduces the cooking time. If you bake this at home, please let me know how it turns out, and do please call it an 18th century recipe, even if it isn't one, because the heritage, though exaggerated, is part of the fun.

For more information on the history of coffeecake, I highly recommend this article by Gil Marks, upon which I heavily relied in the writing of this post:

Cupcake version of the family recipe.
18th Century Radford Family Crumb Cake Recipe

    • 3 cups flour
    • 2 cups sugar
    • 1/2 cup cold butter
    • 1/2 cup Crisco
    • 1 tablespoon baking powder
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 2 eggs, beaten
    • 1 cup whole milk
    • ground cinnamon
  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Grease and flour two round cake pans.
  3. Mix all dry ingredients in a large bowl.
  4. Work in butter and crisco with a pastry cutter or fingers until the mixture is lumpy.
  5. Remove one cup of the mixture. Add cinnamon to taste and set aside for topping.
  6. Beat the eggs and milk together in a separate bowl.
  7. Add liquid ingredients to the dry in two stages.
  8. Pour into prepared pans.
  9. Sprinkle crumb topping over the batter.
  10. Bake for 30 minutes or an inserted toothpick comes out clean. The cake will be set and slightly browned.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Great Wash

My dryer is broken. First of all, let me acknowledge that it is a bit unusual to have a proper clothes dryer in Switzerland. Some apartments come equipped with a tumbler, but not a dryer, while most utilize shared facilities. It ought not feel a hardship to suddenly have to contend with line drying my clothing, but I am spoiled, and I'm finding the experience pretty darn frustrating.

W. H. Pyne. “Welsh Peasant Washers.” From The Costume of
Great Britain
.  London: William Miller, 1808.

Thank goodness the weather has been good! Still, we don't get a full day of direct sunlight on our small patio, and I've had to be pretty creative in claiming new drying spots in windows and stairwells. I have not often had to think of such matters, but as my days have become regulated by shifting and turning items about, trying to help them dry faster, while watching the weather carefully for stray showers, I have inevitably dwelled on how mundane such thoughts and considerations were to Regency women. One of the most tedious and arduous of all household tasks at the time was doing the laundry, and even the most exalted had to have care and concern for the time and manpower involved. 

Jane Austen only really hints at the labor intensity of doing the laundry once in her novels, by my reckoning, in the fragment The Watsons, which I reread for the first time in about a decade this weekend. A recollection that doing the wash was mentioned inspired me. I've always far preferred Sanditon as a fragment and historically found The Watsons almost unbearably depressing. I enjoyed it much more this reading. Maybe the world is more depressing now, so it suits my mood better, or maybe ten years of intense Austen study has allowed me to properly understand the text. I certainly am more familiar with change, upheaval, and loss than I was when last I read it. Nevertheless, or perhaps as a result, the story doesn't seem so hopeless as it used to. I want to read it again and further crystallise my thoughts, so look forward to a proper post on the text.

For my purpose here today, there is just one line I'd like to examine. For those of you unfamiliar with the story (you can read it here), Emma Watson, our heroine, had just returned to her family home after years of privilege and comfort as the ward of her aunt and uncle. When the latter died, the former remarried a fortune hunter, who quickly dismisses Emma back to an already financially strained family. Elizabeth is her eldest sister and manages their meager household. Very early in the story she says to Emma, "Since you have been at home, I have been so busy with my poor father and our great wash that I have had no leisure to tell you anything ...." The modern reader may wonder why Elizabeth would have scheduled the wash for when her sister, unseen for eight years, is finally returning home, but she may have had very little choice. Obviously, the weather was a factor. Especially considering the wet climate in England, housekeepers had to be opportunistic about utilising fair weather. Not only does the sun whiten linens, it also prevented the necessity of having to find a place to dry everything inside the house, further discommoding everyone (particularly, one presumes, the servants). But there was more to it then taking advantage of limited sunshine. Most households would hire washerwomen in advance to come in and manage the process. These were experts in their field, with knowledge of how much soap and chemicals were required on which fabrics, and possessed of the strength to churn, lift, and wring heavy, soaking wet linen and wool. The task was formidable, and the lye soap utilised was disastrous to your hands, so to be avoided at all cost by any woman with pretensions to gentility. 

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Laundress, 1761.
Oil on canvas. Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The wash would take at least two whole days to complete. It would begin the day before the
washerwomen would arrive, when a servant would be set to guard and tend the fire under the "copper," preparing it for use when the washerwomen arrived. There was then an order of operations to follow regarding what you washed first. A variety of cleansers were used, including urine on some of the more heavily soiled items, and blue dyes to counteract yellowing fabrics. Huge amounts of water were required for boiling and rinsing. It was a project to consume an entire household. Poor Emma must have felt quite out of place and useless to return home to such occupation and disorder. 

Of course, this just refers to table linens, bed clothes, undergarments, and corse garments. Fine fabrics and gowns required specialised care. A valuable gown would be disassembled for washing, all buttons removed, and reassembled with an eye to fixing and stretching that may have occurred to the fabric. All of this labor involved in the simple maintenance of clothing heavily reinforced class divides. It was simply impossible to maintain cleanliness without a small army of assistants. 

There are several excellent descriptions online of all that was entailed in doing the laundry. You'll find links to a few of my favorite below. I just want to reflect on how fortunate we are to have such an easy time with laundry, even as it still consumes a ton of my time and seems a never ending task (and that's when the dryer works). I am always so grateful to climb into a bed made with fresh sheets. That is a luxury that has never been lost on me. But now I will learn to be grateful for towels that are soft and fluffy instead of hard and crunchy. Indeed, I might be on the verge of down and breaking resorting to fabric softener for the first time in decades. Maybe the repair shop will call soon, and it won't have to come to that. Here's hoping!

18th Century Life: Ways to Wash your Linens

Jane Austen's World: Everyday Chores of Laundry and Scullery Maids, and Washerwomen

Pen and Pensions: The Georgian Washing Day