It’s the hottest day of the year. Outside the August air is heavy —humid— as Jane Austen wrote, “keeping one in a constant state of inelegance”. At my sink, I feel like the embodiment of a cliché. Pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen, I peel peaches, preparing them for homemade jam. My two daughters, 2 and 4, picked these earlier today, their little arms, struggling to hold their heavy pails, begging for another branch to be pulled down so they could pick one last peach before we had to go inside and escape the heat once again. I wonder how many times this scene has been repeated, year after year, mothers and daughters since Eve, gathering fruit in summer, preparing it for winter, cherishing the fast fleeting moments of childhood. I feel a connection to these women; to my grandmothers and great grandmothers—to women throughout history who’ve planned for and nurtured their families.
As I work, I picture Mrs. Austen, with a young Cassandra and Jane holding her skirts, preparing food in the Steventon kitchen. She might not have been responsible for the day to day meals, but the kitchen, gardens and dairy were her province and she gloried in them. When summer fruit was brought in, no doubt she took her place overseeing their preservation for her ever increasing family. Here, Jane would have learned the secrets to jam and wine making that she would later employ at Chawton—I wonder what summer days in that kitchen were like; of the camaraderie between Cassandra and Jane and now Martha Lloyd.
Earlier this year, I was commissioned by the Jane Austen Centre to compile a cookbook with recipes used by the Austens and “extended” Austen family, i.e. characters in Jane’s novels. The research for this was fascinating—while Austen’s books may hold back on the details of preparing and consuming food, her letters are rife with menus and recipes and descriptions of meals and their organization. She was certainly no stranger to the kitchen. To begin, I turned to Martha Lloyd’s own household book- a little notebook she kept with many of the family’s favorite recipes. I also searched period cookbooks, like Hannah Glasse’s “Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy.” This could very well have been a staple in Mrs. Austen’s kitchen, as it is written not to “professed cooks, but … to instruct the ignorant and unlearned (which will likewise be of great use in all private families), and in so plain and full a manner, that the most illiterate and ignorant person, who can but read, will know how to do everything in Cookery well.”
Lucky me, for in knowing nothing of 19th century cookery, I was, indeed, a most ignorant and unlearned cook. A study of practices of the time, including baking, hearth cooking and roasting soon convinced me that the fabulous spreads of Regency fame, with 20 or more dishes per course, were nothing short of a miracle on the part of the cook. Translating these recipes to modern stoves and other appliances felt a bit like cheating (though thankfully, one no longer has to “beat the whites of five eggs with a fork on a plate for one hour” to achieve a fluffy meringue.) Meals that were once the result of a year’s worth of preparation and several days worth of cooking, could be created in hours, with fresh ingredients purchased at a local supermarket, no matter what the season.
What I did gain, in addition to a new repertoire of dinner recipes (most were surprisingly good!) was a peek into Jane’s life that I would have been unable to fathom by simply reading her novels or a biography. Creating the foods she made with her own hands, enjoying recipes she relished, even tasting foods mentioned in the novels, brought her life and works to life for me. I felt a kinship with her, as if I was joining a sort of sisterhood where everything was harvested locally and made by hand and not a frozen pizza or refrigerated pie crust in sight…though this does sound suspiciously like the creed of the modern “grown local” movement very much alive at farmer’s markets around the country. Perhaps it’s not such a new idea after all.
I hope those who read the resulting book, Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends, will find the same joy in experimenting with these recipes and trying new, old dishes. In the meantime, it’s hot and I’m tired. I am going to take a short cut, here in my air conditioned house, that Jane could never have imagined. Hours of stirring a pot of boiling preserves over a hot stove, magically evaporate as I contemplate two life saving words, “Freezer Jam”.
Come this winter, however, we will remember these last days of summer with the taste of fresh juicy peaches. I will think of the tiny hands and sticky fingers that picked them, and hope that someday, my granddaughters will be standing at a sink somewhere (if kitchens have not, by then, been replaced by food replicators) peeling peaches, picked fresh, on the hottest day of summer, preserving a bit of sunshine for the long cold months ahead.
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Laura Boyle is fascinated by all aspects of Jane Austen’s life. She is the proprietor of Austenation: Regency Accessories, creating custom hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe. Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends is her first book. Her greatest joy is the time she is able to spend in her home with her family (1 amazing husband, 3 adorable children and a very strange dog.)
This article originally appeared in the JASNA newsletter.
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