It’s not all that often that I’m willing to gush in public about a book that I am also willing to admit I haven’t read.
But this isn’t really public, right? I mean, it’s only the internet.
The book is The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder (accompanying website here), and I love it already. I love it so much that I want everybody here to read it, and then come over for chatter and pie, because nothing complements nostalgic and loving book talk like pie.
This book makes me think of Miss Osborne and her quest to catch up on all of the literary heroines she missed as a girl—Laura Ingalls Wilder and others, surely with more to come—and what a joy it’s been to her and to those around her (note: mostly me), watching her.
It makes me think of my own history with all the classic “girl books” (not to corroborate the infuriating assumption that girls in books have cooties, and might diminish the character of our delicate boys, because come on)—I read most of them during that especially voracious ten-to-thirteen period, and while I’m still a committed bookworm, I think there’s something extra special about the reading we do at that age. Then, I read like I meant it—the characters in the classics became a part of me like no other reading I’ve done. Ironically, I came to Jane slightly later in life—well into my teenage years, and in such a way that I don’t even count her in the same category as my old summer-vacation standbys. But perhaps she’s the beginning of a new category? Perhaps she’s (approximately) where my childhood heroines end (so to speak) and my grown-up heroines begin—Elizabeth Bennet and Co. as ushers into the era of Helene Hanff (as writer and character; sneaky!), Haven Kimmel (same; also this one), Julia Child (ditto), Ruby Lennox, Flora Poste (who might actually be in the wrong category, though I met her as an adult), and so many others. Perhaps they’re the connection to my best inner reader, and I intend to love and venerate them as such, just as I do the Anne Shirleys and the Caddie Woodlawns of my life.
In any case, I’m thrilled about this book, this collection and celebration of so many of the bookish ladies I’ve held dear over the years, and about the friendly discussions it’s sure to bring about. Let the chatter begin. (Also: pie.)
As someone who celebrates eating and cooking, I thought it would be exciting to write an Austenacious cooking article or two. But I have to tell you that it’s been slow going trying to put aside my food sensibilities and imagine eating Regency-era food. Fan of Jane Austen that I am, she doesn’t exactly provide any tantalizing descriptions of meals.
Before you start to think of me as Judgey McJudgemental Food Snob, you have to know that I’m not truly a snob. Nor am I afraid to try new things. Yes, I get a weekly organic vegetable box. Yes, I looooooove to bake complicated and artery-clogging desserts. And I (heart) Julia Child. But I also love candy corn, sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on Thanksgiving, Oreos, and processed cheese. I think, mainly, I’m afraid of animal parts. You know—the pieces that are fatty, stringy, and not particularly meaty.
Here are some ingredients that jumped out at me as I perused The Jane Austen Cookbook to find a starter recipe:
suet My issues here are 1) it’s mostly used to make tallow, and that to me sounds as appealing as eating earwax, and 2) as a prime ingredient in various English puddings, I find it such a disappointment that “pudding” equals something that isn’t a creamy, sweet dessert (that might even have “Jell-O” on the package).
veal knuckle Really?
mutton Whenever I think about Regency food (or any pre-1900s British cooking), “mutton” is always the word that comes to mind. Actually, I’m quite sure that when I first started talking to Mrs. Fitzpatrick and Miss Ball about making an Austen-appropriate meal, I muttered something like, “Good God, am I really going to have to cook mutton?” Why is it that “lamb” just doesn’t sound half as bad? Maybe it’s just that I always picture a morbidly obese Henry VIII chomping away at a mutton haunch and complaining about his gout.
chicken joints Why? I mean, they’re so tiny. And bony. Why bother?
furred game Could we be a little more specific? (Note: I used to be horrified at the though of eating rabbit—poor Thumper!—but I became a convert after eating the most delightful rabbit and pasta dish at Bottega last year.)
forcemeat balls I gather forcemeat is something like a sausage or salami, so that’s appealing. The name is not.
pigeon livers They’re dirty, horrible animals…particularly if you live in an urban area. When I lived in London, there were pigeons that had eyes missing, partial wings, and they were simply covered in grime. I realize that people willingly eat pigeons in France, but here (and in London), pigeons are winged rats. There’s no way in hell I’m going to eat their livers.
sweetbreads Sweetmeats don’t contain meat, and sweetbreads aren’t bread. So confusing. I have to remind myself that it sounds good, but it’s made from the thymus and pancreas. I just have a really hard time with organs.
beetroot This isn’t odd at all. I just added it to the list because I’m passionately offended by the taste of beets. (Yeah, yeah, I know…some people think they’re delicious. I think they taste like jellied dirt. On the other hand, I love Brussels sprouts, so give me a pass on the Beet Hate.)
anchovies It’s funny, for all the horrible blandness that you think of when you think of traditional British food, half the recipes in the book call for anchovies. Sounds promising.
streaky bacon rashers I have no idea what these are, but I liked the name! (“In local news, the Oakland Raiders game was halted for five minutes while stadium security subdued more streaky bacon rashers. This is the second incident in the month.”)
negus This spicy, hot beverage actually sounds delightful! But nerd that I am, I saw it and thought, “Hee…like the Grand Nagus in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” And who doesn’t like Wallace Shawn?
Isinglass Fish bladders. I just don’t know what to say about that.
Despite my aversion to organs and stringy animal bits, I will not be deterred! Who knows…maybe I’ll love mutton. Well, I might…if it were fed to me by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.