This series has shown us the power and the pitfalls of remembering. The work of art that has been featured on our site over these two months is by Florence Winterflood, and it’s called Alzheimer’s Disease. Held by the Wellcome Collection, Winterflood’s oil and ink painting was “created shortly after ‘Mama’, the artist’s grandmother, moved to a nursing home after her Alzheimer’s disease progressed to a stage where could no longer look after herself. ‘She lost a lot of weight, and a broad, strong, matriarch became a feeble, bird-like woman. Yet however small her frame became, her hands remained large and strong and capable.’ The hand, here a strong tangible image, represents the way the body can settle and remain hardy, even when the mind has become chaotic. The maps breaking up the lines of the hand further represent fragmentation of character, particularly in the way Alzheimer’s interrupts neurological pathways in the brain, disrupting and even tearing up, knowledge, thoughts and memories.”
Strength and chaos, breadth and fragmentation, capability and disruption are all represented in the way that recipes are recalled and remembered. As we share them, ingredients can be forgotten, instructions lost, temperatures reset. But it is a recipe’s very capacity for and easy adaptation to communication, generosity, swapping, and donation which gives it such longevity, allowing it to transcend people, time, and space.
There was something wrong about the package that was delivered to me at work one early spring morning years ago. It was addressed to me, and the return address also had my surname. But I didn’t recognize the name as a family member, and I didn’t know anyone in the town in Connecticut on the address. So I opened it with some sense that this package wasn’t intended for me, and that sense was amplified when I found inside a pair of house slippers, a zip-top plastic baggie that seemed to hold some dry ingredients, a recipe for Irish soda bread, and a note signed “mom.”
Why did some other Kathleen Lynch’s mom send me her soda bread recipe, never mind the slippers? That was the question I asked when I found a phone number online and called to report that this mom’s package had gone to the wrong Kathleen Lynch. In conversation, the mom assured me that she had addressed the package to her daughter correctly, and that said daughter was in Washington for a congressional internship, staying on East Capitol Street. A closer look at the package’s address confirmed that Kathleen was staying right across the street from my workplace, Folger Shakespeare Library, and that the package had been misdelivered, not misaddressed.
I rewrapped the package, added a note of apology, and left it on the doorstep of a townhouse across the street. I must have asked about her family’s soda bread recipe, noting that mine featured raisins to her caraway seeds. The next day, I had a charming note in return, discussing that Kathleen’s grandmother’s approach to soda bread, “equal parts deference and rebellion towards the old way.” What we shared was an appreciation for a simple bread, easily prepared, best eaten warm out of the oven, and laden with memories of our grandmothers, and for me, a recipe I will always call Aunt Pat’s. But were either of our breads true soda breads? I knew both could be dismissed as “tea cakes,” not soda breads. For some, it is an adamantly held distinction.
Intrigued, I wanted to know more about the history of soda bread in Ireland. In particular, I wanted to know if the oral history was true that I had heard many decades ago when I spent a year at university in Cork: the British government denied yeast to the Irish. In any Irish cookbook I pick up now, I read the headnote to breads to see if they introduce the history. Though Colman Andrews prefaces his Country Cooking of Ireland with “A Note on Geopolitics,” addressing the still contested terminology for national boundaries and county names, it does not address the specific trade regulations or coercive practices that framed rural subsistence diets. In My Irish Table, local chef Cathal Armstrong calls these “quick breads,” and notes that “yeast would have been too expensive for people in the countryside in the time of the British occupation” anyway.
Whatever the longer history of Irish hearth-based home cooking of breads in ‘bastibles’ or cast-iron, three-legged pots, the soda bread recipe took its recognizable shape in the mid-nineteenth century with the introduction of baking soda into Ireland. Combined with sour milk or buttermilk, this agent worked to create “a very light and palatable leavened wheat bread that can easily be produced at home,” as Regina Sexton reported in A Little History of Irish Food. And as Armstrong adds, “most households in Ireland have their own recipe for quick breads passed down through the generations.” In stressing ease and simple ingredients and tools, these authors all lightly skirt the question of impoverishment in old Ireland. For the spread of this breadmaking through Ireland also tracks the years of famine, death, sporadic relief efforts (including by English Quakers), the introduction of maize meal by the British government to offset the failing potato crops, and mass emigration.
I still don’t know the documented history of yeast in Irish baked goods. None of Sexton’s historical recipes in her “Cereals” section include it. I do understand how the oral history holds open the wounds of oppression. At the same time, I see welcome new cooking traditions taking hold in Ireland. They are based on the riches of land and seas, and often influenced by the work of the Allen family at Ballymaloe House and Cookery School in County Cork. Each of the authors above gives credit and expresses gratitude to that family. These new traditions speak powerfully to the work of nourishment and healing that food can do.
Memories are slippery things, formed and reformed over time and across experiences. In looking for a printed copy of “Aunt Pat’s” soda bread, I had to consider if I shouldn’t start calling this “Aunt Maureen’s” recipe, given that Aunt Pat—my mother’s sister—told me once that she adopted her recipe from Aunt Maureen—my father’s sister. So maybe it’s a Lynch recipe rather than a Gibbons one. On finding multiple printed copies of a recipe I haven’t consulted in years, I was also taken aback that Aunt Pat listed shortening as the fattening agent. That doesn’t make the bread any more satisfying to a purist, but it holds the memories of poverty closer. Or does it only speak to its time? Kathleen wrote to me that her mother made so many substitutions in the name of a healthier loaf that the “result was a dry, unpredictable rock.”
If in its purest form, soda bread does without even sugar and butter, is that not also a reminder of resourcefulness of the subsistence farmer? If Kathleen and I and all the sisters and daughters of our economically-deprived foremothers add those embellishments for a richer loaf, don’t we do it to carry forward traditions rather than be bound by them? In sitting down to a cup of tea and a slice of steaming hot soda bread with generous dabs of butter, don’t we keep their memories alive?
Irish Soda Bread
4 cups flour
½ cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
½ cup butter
2 cups seedless raisins
1 ½ cup buttermilk (or substitute whole milk with 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar per cup milk)
½ tsp. baking soda
Simmer raisins in pan of hot water. Mix and sift flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Work in butter with fingertips until it resembles coarse corn meal. Stir in drained raisins. Combine buttermilk, egg, baking soda. Stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture until just moistened. Do not overmix. Bake in greased medium baking dish at 375 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.
I think of this as my Grandma Gibbons’ soda bread recipe, and I’ve adapted it from the recipe my Aunt Pat contributed to her garden club cookbook years ago. But Aunt Pat tells me she took it from my Aunt Maureen on the Lynch side of the family. So I pass it along from both the Gibbonses and the Lynches of County Mayo.
Kathleen Lynch researches and writes about the Protestant spiritual autobiography and the communities of devotion that gave rise to them. She is the executive director of the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She tweets @thatklynch. Her only regret about a year spent in Cork, Ireland as an undergraduate is that it predated the opening of the butter museum there.
My digestive tract goes for a toss once seasons are about to change in Assam. I am speaking of that eerie intermediary period when the winds, too, aren’t very sure which direction to follow. With rising temperatures and global warming each year, weaker tummies only go from bad to worse. One cannot predict when the ghastly phenomena of multiple burps or dumps might occur. I have tried everything—eating bland, working out, sleeping early, chucking out midnight Netflix, and even taking mild antacids.
Mother used to say I have a cursed tummy when none of her ‘gut’ suggestions worked. And a sour stomach is a lot to deal with. Imagine the dreariness amidst the super fast-paced nature of life—the speeding cars under the terrace, the local shopkeeper screaming to set up his tiny outlet of edible greens, the small children taking their dolls to the street for they now have no place to play. No time to slow down a bit and look back at the concrete urban disasters one has cooked for oneself.
When I asked their parents about their nonchalance, they told me the grapes are all sour. I had invited them to my terrace—I thought, well let’s have some thekera (garcinia peduncalata). Most of them had homes outside Assam. They’d not really tasted it and thought it was some black-coloured leaf.
My weekends are now often occupied in drying fresh thekera and storing it in small containers. I befriended a local fruit-seller; he too knows that an ill person has a dozen medical bills and he’d rather not fleece them. His name is Hemendra Deka, Hemen for short. His wife left behind twin daughters whom he has to feed by selling fruits and veggies by evening and milk by day.
Local proverbs tell us one shouldn’t eat anything sour alone: ‘sakala tengati okole nakhaba’. Doing so irritates the tummy more. The idea here is that sourness stimulates enzymes and makes one crave it more—greed, after all, is a vice. Thus, sharing sour fruits and vegetables is a sign of caring for each other—a kind of intimacy even. Elderly women also believe harsh tanginess can be injurious to health, and must be balanced out with sweeter stuff (like sugar syrup and jaggery) at weddings and social events. But to totally cut it out is to miss out on the spice of tanginess altogether. The term ‘tenga hoi gol’ implies it has gone all to waste—this is used liberally from rotten food to relationships. There’s also ‘tenga lagise’ as a synonym for tiredness to mean ‘I am now bored and sick of it.’ The reference to unpleasant tastes and rotten food as having gone ‘sour’ is quite interesting.
Basking in the winter sun isn’t a distant memory to me. I still find excuses to do it while peeling lemons, oranges, tamarinds, and other stuff like mixing chillies and salt with robab tenga, our very own pomelo (Citrus Maxima). The locals also consume the tender leaves of the edible garcinia and add them into their curries. A slight addition also adds a distinct flavour. The Northeastern region of India is home to a lot of piquant species—there’s a tanginess spectrum and a rich, rich palette. One cannot pin it down to an either/or.
To me, the sourness of thekera isn’t like lemon or the abundantly available elephant apple, ou-tenga—both of which are mostly consumed raw. But thekera is usually sun-dried and for usage later on. Amongst the diverse sour plants and fruits, thekera has a kind of moderate tanginess—the reason why it balances the stomach. Available and consumed across Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries, it works wonders with reflux ailments. Powdered thekera is a medicinal potion to ease digestive problems like dysentery; it also helps menstrual aches heal.
No Quick Fixes
During that time of the month, I crave some tangy eating, unlike my cousin sisters who don’t have lemons or anything sour to prevent too much bleeding. What I do is dip one or two slices of thekera into boiled lentils or my fish curry. For those who enjoy more tanginess, you can soak thekera overnight in water and use it as a souring agent in your dishes the next day. My mother used to add thekera in case other kinds of vegetables like tomatoes were not as sour as she expected them to be. It worked as a quick fix back when I was a child.
But life now is very far from such quick fixes. Hemen told me new fruits in the market are mostly chemically-ripened and that there is cutthroat competition. Local sellers are desperately juggling to make ends meet. “Raising daughters is no mean feat—you too must be careful, don’t eat tangy stuff all the time, tummies can be delicate at this age”, he advises me with his ‘fatherly’ basics, as he puts some thekera into my bag.
I think of him dearly very often, wondering what his daughters might look like and how difficult it is to make do without a parent. My summer evenings are no longer filled with rum and whiskey but with thekera-flavoured water. Perhaps life too is going to be more of the same—a choice between dried tanginess and raw acidic toxins. I guess one has to keep swimming!
The Thekera Cocktail
3 slices of dried thekera (soaked overnight in water)
Sugar or honey
1 medium glass of chilled water
The next day, strain the water into a separate glass. Mix 4-5 tbsp of that into a glass of water. Add honey/ sugar and salt to taste. Add the ice cubes. Your humble cocktail is ready.
Rini Barman is an independent writer and researcher based in Assam. Her interests include art and culture, ethnicity, folklore among others. Her essays have appeared in esteemed national dailies and magazines. She tweets @barman_rini.
Midway through Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), Esther Summerson relinquishes her beloved role as adopted housekeeper and assumes another: sick nurse. In a tense scene that’s painfully relevant in this era of COVID, Esther rushes to isolate herself and Charley, a servant who has contracted smallpox. Quickly locking her bedroom door, Esther quarantines with Charley and nurses her around the clock. The two women mark Charley’s recovery by drinking tea. “It was a great evening,” Esther tells us, “when Charley and I at last took tea together.”
But it is the night of the celebratory tea that Esther realizes she and Charley have shared more than a room and a food ritual. Esther has contracted Charley’s smallpox. In a role reversal foreshadowed by the chapter’s ambiguous title, “Nurse and Patient,” Esther becomes the patient and Charley, at thirteen years old, the nurse.
Although told from Esther’s perspective, the chapter “Nurse and Patient” makes one thing clear: for many Victorian women, illness and disease was not a private but a collective experience. “If I am to be ill,” Esther tells Charley, “my great trust, humanly speaking, is in you” (433). Esther’s assumption that she and Charley—both young, inexperienced, and of different social classes—are capable of and responsible for nursing each other through a grave disease exemplifies what Talia Schaffer calls the “reciprocal” and communal nature of Victorian caregiving. For much of the nineteenth century, “nursing occurs within the home,” Schaffer writes. And so, “in Victorian fiction, care really does take a village” (198; 193).
While the realist novel might have fictionalized collective care through food, another genre offered explicit instructions in how to provide such care: “invalid cookbooks,” or cookery books intended to nourish the ill and disabled. Such cookbooks were not groundbreaking; invalid recipes appeared in manuscripts and print domestic manuals since the Renaissance (Notaker 201). Yet, Victorian discoveries in nutrition science and the ensuing effort to reform domestic cookery prompted a plethora of publications geared to help women prepare nutritionally-appropriate meals for the sick (Adelman 189; 194; 203).
For all their claims to modernization, however, a glance across the dishes in mid-Victorian invalid menus reveals a noticeable uniformity with cookbooks past—and with each other (Adelman 193-4). In her bestselling 1859 Book of Household Management, for example, Isabella Beeton includes a chapter on “Invalid Cookery,” with dishes that echo Hannah Glasse’s 1747 The Art of Cookery: mutton broth, barley water, gruel. Other writers boosted this trend. Caregivers who wished to spice up Beeton’s recipe for “Toast Sandwiches”—a slice of toast layered between two buttered and salted slices of bread—need look no further than J.W. Walsh’s recipe for “Toast Sandwiches for Invalids” from The English Cookery Book (1859). In a twist on the bland diet traditionally assigned to the ill, Walsh’s recipe permits a dab of mustard (316).
On the one hand, the repetition of recipes across Victorian invalid cookbooks testifies to received beliefs around invalid diets. As Juliana Adelman argues, such texts established a “canon of foods” for the ill (193). But Victorian writers were not merely standardizing but collecting; they self-consciously harnessed the recipe’s status as a form built for exchange in order to construct a discursive care collective for working- and middle-class women who, like Esther and Charley, found themselves performing the role of nurse. What I especially want to emphasize is the centrality of the recipe as a narrative form to this enterprise. Janet Floyd and Laurel Foster explain that “[t]he root of the word recipe,” the Latin imperative recipere, or “take,” signals the restlessness of the form; its need to “exist in a perpetual state of exchange” (6). “Meaning both to give and to receive,” they write, recipes function as what Luce Giard calls ‘multiplications of borrowing’” (6). Recipes are mobile; they are traversable; they cross borders of time and space. With each “borrowing,” the “care community,” to borrow Schaffer’s term, multiplies.
To see the invalid recipe in action as an exchanged object, we might turn again to tea; this time, to the popular invalid dish “beef tea.” Between Beeton and Walsh, we find six recipes for beef tea, including plain, “baked,” and one “quickly made.” The recipe I want us to notice, however, belongs to a third writer: the celebrated French chef, Alexis Soyer. Beeton borrowed Soyer’s previously published “Savoury Beef Tea” for the chapter. Visually demarcated by the parentheticals “Soyer’s Recipe,” yet tucked between her own beef tea recipes, Beeton’s recirculation of Soyer’s instructions makes visible—and replicable—another option to administer care. In Walsh’s cookbook, the network of exchange materializes in the very subtitle, undergirding the work’s structure itself: “Receipts Collected by a Committee of Ladies.” Although “compiled” by women “at the head of well-conducted establishments,” Walsh spotlights their diversity and dailiness. “Many come from their own family scrap-books,” he boasts, and are “In Daily Use By Private Families” (iii; Title Page).
Invalid recipes are a form of recollection; a food memory. As formal objects with histories of exchange from “family scrap-books” to the print marketplace to sickrooms across Britain, invalid recipes like Walsh’s collect and publicly record private sickroom experiences of both eating and feeding. As we track the kinetic energy of the recipe, its urge for movement across space and time, a vast collective record of care, illness, and recovery comes into view. Perhaps more than any other recipe type, invalid recipes thus occupy the border of public and private memory. In his study of food and its relationship to memory, David Sutton argues for food’s ability to blend “social” and “individual” memory. “In producing, exchanging and consuming food” he explains, “we are continuously criss-crossing between the ‘public’ and the ‘intimate,’ individual bodies and collective institutions” (160).
Perhaps this is why Esther narrates her personal recovery from smallpox through a shared food memory. “How well I remember the pleasant afternoon when I was raised in bed with pillows for the first time, to enjoy a great tea-drinking with Charley!” (481). Both the communal act of drinking tea and the recollection of doing so carry healing for Esther. Yet this alimentary care is delivered not by Charley alone, but relies on a third woman: Esther’s beloved friend Ada, who prepares a tea-table for the event. Although banned from the sickroom per Esther’s strict infection protocol, it is the tea-table’s traversability that I want to call attention to, particularly its ability to move between and bind together three women of different social classes isolated in separate spaces of their home. For “nurse and patient”—and for their friend, relegated downstairs and off the page—the “great tea-drinking,” like the invalid recipe, connects the nodes in the care network and memorializes its collective labor.
Adelman, Juliana. “Invalid Cookery, Nursing and Domestic Medicine in Ireland, c. 1900,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 73, no. 2 (2018): 188-204.
Beeton, Isabella. Book of Household Management. London: S.O. Beeton, 1861.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House, edited by Jennifer Mooney. New York: The Modern Library, 2002.
Floyd, Janet and Forster, Laurel. “The Recipe in its Cultural Contexts.” The Recipe Reader: Narratives, Contexts, Traditions, edited by Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. 1-11.
Notaker, Henry. A History of Cookbooks: from Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.
Schaffer, Talia. “Disabling Marriage: Communities of Care in Our Mutual Friend.” Replotting Marriage in Nineteenth-Century British Literature, edited by Jill Galvan and Elsie Michie. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2018. 192-210.
Sutton, David. “A Tale of Easter Ovens: Food and Collective Memory.” Social Research: An International Quarterly, vol. 75, no. 1 (2008): 157-180.
Walsh, J.T. The English Cookery Book. London: G. Routledge and Co, 1859.
Dr. Bonnie Shishko is Assistant Professor of English at Queens University of Charlotte. Her research and teaching focus on the history of women’s domestic writing, especially the Victorian cookbook and the contemporary food novel. Her work on the recipe and its transformation into a mode of art criticism in the late-Victorian era is forthcoming in the edited collection Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Critical Essays (Edinburgh University Press, Spring 2021). She has also explored the connection between Victorian recipes and the national trend of baking bread during Covid-19. Her essay can be read here.