Sunday, April 28, 2013

Helpful advice for new mothers

Over the past few years I've pointed out historical hints for illness, cleaning house, and other realities of daily life. These tips are often funny and strange, and while I enjoy reading them, it's tough to actually follow their advice. For example, an early 19th-century writer suggested a delicious mixture of onions, butter, pepper and salt, appetizingly named "water-gruel," to get rid of a stubborn cold. (I went for hot tea and Tylenol Cold.) Another writer recommended getting rid of moths by soaking the infested clothes and furniture with naphtha, a neurotoxin and potential carcinogen. (I chose the 7th Generation products and washed all my clothes by hand.) In the fall, the children of a friend were diagnosed with head lice, and I immediately recommended washing their hair in New England brandy, following advice from 1833. (She most likely did not take this advice.)

Now that my friend Emily is expecting her first child, it's time for some new advice: how to raise your baby the 19th century way! A recent article in The Atlantic examined how parenting advice has changed from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and not surprisingly, a lot of the guidelines seem unfamiliar, outdated, or even bizarre. Take the 1920s eugenics book that warned mothers not to think of unsavory things, like ugly people, while pregnant, lest their babies be born weak or impure. Or the early 19th century recommendation to let babies cry so they don't grow up spoiled. This is almost unthinkable today for many Western mothers--the cultural standard is for mothers to attend to their babies' every need.

Instead of leaving readers with these fun facts, though, the writer takes it a step further. Why did mothers let their children cry? She speaks with a professor of human ecology who helps her understand that because of different cultural realities in the 19th century, mothers had different expectations. Often women had so much work on their hands, from cooking over an open fire to washing clothes by hand to watching over many other children, that it was impossible to focus all attention on one child. Better that baby learn early to look after itself than for mom to let the rest of the family go hungry or unclothed.

This gets at the heart of what I love about domestic history: you have to think about the context of cookbooks, parenting books, and other sources in order to fully understand them. Sometimes advice that seems weird was actually the most practical and scientifically advanced thought at the time. That even goes for the tips I mentioned at the beginning of this post: no one knew that naphtha was a neurotoxin and carcinogen; they just knew that it got rid of moths. So why not use it? As the writer L.P. Hartley so famously wrote, "The past is a different country: they do things differently there." Indeed, they cook their food differently, they wear their clothes differently, they raise their children differently. But that doesn't mean they're wrong.*

*Well, except for eugenics. That was hard for many actually living in the 1920s to stomach.

Works cited: Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance by Cecilia Beaux.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Afternoon Adventure: Servant Life Tour at The Elms

I want to say something meaningful about all this horrifying news coming out of Boston, but I can't find the words. There's only so much sadness I can take in at a time, especially when it's on such a vast scale as the Marathon and a citywide manhunt. At some point I just need to turn off the news. Maybe I'm avoiding reality, but once you have the basic information, how helpful is it to dwell on tragedy that doesn't personally touch you?

Instead, I want to think about the still-beautiful things.

On Tuesday, Josh and I drove down to Newport to visit The Elms, one of the mansions on Bellevue Avenue. We listened to NPR for the first half of the trip, but after a while it got to be too much, hearing such gruesome details about limbs lost as we passed flowering trees and sparkling water. So we turned to a music station, though not without feeling a bit callous for enjoying such a beautiful day.

As we wound through the scenic downtown, stopping for pedestrians and peering at the porched and gabled houses in colorful hues, the sadness of the real world seemed to lessen. That only continued when we arrived at The Elms, the one-time summer residence of the Berwinds, who made their fortune in coal. Unlike some of the mansions in Newport (cough Marble House cough), The Elms is a tasteful spinoff of an 18th-century French chateau (but that must be an oxymoron in itself, right?). Lavish statues decorate the grounds and refined gardens, and the interior resembles a fine art museum more than a residence. But you don't get the sense that the owners were trying to show off their wealth quite as much as other Newport residents.

In the 19th century, Newport, RI became a summer playground for the wealthy of New York and Philadelphia. Families like the Vanderbilts and Astors constructed lavish mansions, which they called "summer cottages," and they spent their summers having parties and taking the sea air away from the city. They sent groups of servants to Newport a few weeks in advance to open up the houses and prepare for the summer season, and they hired summer staff to help out with the massive parties they threw almost daily. Today many of these mansions are still standing, and you can visit a lot of them thanks to the work of the Newport Preservation Society.

We've been on a number of "regular" mansion tours in Newport over the past few years, so we decided to go on the "behind the scenes" Servant Life tour. Instead of wandering through the lavish parlors and second parlors and bedrooms, we came in through the servants' entrance on the side, passing under wisteria grown specifically to mask the servants' comings and goings. We hiked up four flights of back stairs to the servants' quarters, which resembled dormitories more than anything else (and were not divided by gender, as in Downton Abbey). We went out on the roof, where the servants could take smoke breaks or hang out when off-duty, camouflaged by an immensely tall wall. And we plunged into the basement boiler room and peered at the coal delivery system, a long tunnel with its own delivery cart.

Our guide told stories of Mr. Berwind firing all 40 members of the summer staff at once for having the gall to request a full day off in the summer. Of 18-hour days when the Berwinds entertained friends and colleagues. Of Irish immigrants finding their first jobs at the mansion and moving on to bigger and better things, like working as seamstresses. The guide didn't tell as many stories as I was hoping for, but nevertheless it was a fascinating glimpse into the "downstairs" life of the Newport mansions.

As we drove back towards Providence, I could feel the solemnity of the real world creeping back in. But instead we rolled down the windows and let the wind ruffle our hair, and tried to stay in that bygone world of servants and wealth just a bit longer. Sometimes a historical afternoon adventure is just the escape you need.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Spring greening

Ah, spring! When a young lady's fancy turns to...plants?

Yes, it is all plants, all the time around these parts. When Josh and I go for a walk, I coo over the tiny purple stars blooming in the myrtle. I envy the flocks of daffodils cheering up the still-drab grass. I tend lovingly to the starts toughening up under my grow light.

Now that the weather is warming up, I'm slowly getting the plants ready to go outside. This is a process called hardening off, and you have to take the plants outside in the sun over a period of days, letting them stay out longer each time to get used to wind, sun, and fresh air. I've also started moving some of the biggest starts into actual containers for the official growing season. (You can see the results of using Cow Pots below--the roots just grow right through the pots!)

So far, I've had mixed results. The plants are hardening off just fine, but last week I left some of the snap peas and peppers outside during a rather serious few days of rain, which meant the plants went swimming. The poor guys got so waterlogged that I had to pour off rainwater on more than one occasion. But they seem to be perking right up now that the sun has returned, and I'm looking forward to moving more starts into containers.

And perhaps the most exciting news around here is that I got permission from our landlords to spruce up the yard! I've been busily drawing up plans and completing soil tests to prepare the yard for planting. Because we live in an old house (danger of lead) and the yard isn't huge, I'll be sticking with the container plan for my edibles and planting only ornamentals in the actual yard. But it's still tremendously exciting. Plus, it gives me more of a reason to admire other people's plants...right?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Ancient Table: Roast boar

Obelix with dinner
I have this habit of getting totally immersed in whatever topic I'm teaching in history. The Declaration of Independence? Let's watch 1776! Ancient Greece? Let's check out The Odyssey from the library! The Gupta empire? Let's eat Indian food for a week!

For the past couple of weeks, the cogs of my "immersion" brain have been turning, slowly putting together disparate strands of information. We've just started studying ancient Rome. There's a stand at the farmers' market that sells boar. I used to think boar looked delicious in Asterix comics. (And anything that lets me refer to Asterix while teaching is good in my book.)

Finally, it comes together: let's roast some boar the ancient Roman way!

When I told Josh my plan, he said, in characteristic fashion, "Oh, boy." But then he realized how grand it sounded: roast boar! The manliest of dishes!

It took a few more weeks to get organized. First, there was the recipe. While I took Latin in high school, my translation skills have atrophied to the point where I need to refer to an English-language recipe (sorry, Ms. V.). I found the perfect book at the library, Around the Roman Table by Patrick Faas. According to Faas, the Romans originally served boar divided in three parts, but they transitioned to serving whole wild boar towards the end of the Republic (as they moved to an empire). However, I have neither an oven large enough for a boar nor the capacity to consume a whole boar, so adaptations had to be made. I relied primarily on Faas' recipe, which he converted from a recipe by M. Gavinus Apicius, author of the only ancient Roman cookbook still in existence. But I also occasionally referred to modern recipes for loin roast of wild boar, since the temperatures and timing were more appropriate to my experiment.

Next, the boar. My friendly neighborhood farmer sold boar in smaller pieces, so I chose a 3-lb boneless loin roast. A few days before I planned to cook, I let it defrost in the refrigerator. Exactly two days before I planned to cook, I rubbed the meat with a fragrant spice rub of crushed, toasted cumin, pepper, and sea salt. Then I let the meat marinate for two days, turning it occasionally.

Finally, the big night arrived. Roasting went pretty much as I expected, though the "low and slow" method recommended by so many websites left me tapping my toes, waiting for the meat to be finished. (This probably happened because I didn't let the meat return to room temperature before cooking.) You really need a meat thermometer for this kind of experiment--mine was invaluable. As the meat cooked, I prepared a rich wine sauce to serve alongside the boar; apparently the Romans liked their boar with regular and dessert wine!

We set out plates with meat, sauce, and rather more modern braised leeks and carrots. Then we tasted it.

"I love this!" Josh exclaimed. "I usually hate pork, but...I love this!"

Yes, friends, if you're not a fan of pork, then roast boar is the way to go. It's lean and moist, and it picks up the fragrance of the spice rub so that the whole roast tasted faintly of toasted cumin. And the wine sauce? Divine.

Goscinny and Uderzo weren't lying: that roast wild boar in Asterix really is delicious.

Roast Boar

for the boar:
3 lbs boneless loin roast of boar
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp sea salt

for the sauce:
250 ml red wine (a little over 1 cup)
1 tbsp honey
100 ml dessert wine (about 1/3 cup)

To make the boar:
Two days before cooking, rinse the loin roast and pat dry. In a dry skillet, toast the cumin seeds over low heat until fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Move to a mortar and pestle and grind the seeds with the pepper and salt. When you have a fine mixture, sprinkle all over the boar. Refrigerate the boar for 2 days, turning occasionally.

When you're ready to cook, preheat the oven to 500 F. Let the boar return to room temperature. Set the boar on a rack in a roasting pan and insert a meat thermometer if using. Place the boar in the preheated oven for 10 minutes to brown, then reduce the heat to 250 F and cook for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, checking the thermometer. Meat is done when the thermometer (or an instant-read one) reads 150 degrees. Remove the meat from the oven and place on a platter, then tent it loosely with aluminum foil. Let sit for 10 minutes to finish cooking and preserve the juices.

To make the sauce:
Reduce the red wine to about half a cup over medium-low heat. Add the honey and dessert wine, mixing well, and add salt to taste.

Carve the boar into thin slices and serve with the wine sauce.

Works cited: Welcome to Brussels (image). Around the Roman Table.