early 19th century housewives had it rough

Dear Uma: Another cookbook arrived in the mail, this one ordered by Pete as a Christmas surprise. Mailed from Seattle, and having travelled as far away as Kentucky and New York State, with two stops in Richmond, BC, it finally made it to the Yukon.

Dear Uma:

Another cookbook arrived in the mail, this one ordered by Pete as a Christmas surprise. Mailed from Seattle, and having travelled as far away as Kentucky and New York State, with two stops in Richmond, BC, it finally made it to the Yukon.

This book is old; it was published in 1806 and is called The Dominion Cookbook, written and published by a woman named Ann Clark—a no-nonsense name for a no-nonsense book.

Many of the ingredients are unknown to me, with many of the others being unobtainable here; while unlikely to cook from it, I cannot put it down. Rarely have I read anything with the amusement and wonder I’ve felt perusing this particular book. It also could be said to be of historical value, especially to women, as it unintentionally describes the life of a woman in those times.

These recipes are not for the faint-hearted; every dinner recipe begins with carcasses fresh from the barn or the field: cows, pigs, goats, rabbits, chickens and geese, still furred or feathered and with their innards in place.

Each endeavour, and these were daily chores, begins with the peeling, disembowelling and dismembering of some hapless creature.

Imagine being faced with a calf’s head on the counter, its eyes still asking the eternal question: “Why me?”

Or boiling a turtle (alive, I am assuming) and then drawing the feet and head from the shell with the aid of skewers before towelling the skin off with a rough cloth.

The kitchen must have been a bloody scene, presided over by a woman in a stained pinafore, perspiring from the heat of a wood stove, who’d risen at the crack of dawn to begin her culinary labours.

I cannot imagine one of these women as being anything but slender. The occasional cup of tea or a biscuit to nibble on would be the most she would have the time or inclination with which to nourish herself.

Her work did not stop at the kitchen, but also encompassed the garden and the hen house. Most of the recipes for side dishes assume the vegetables to be fresh, which means the soil preparation, the planting, the weeding and the harvesting would be her responsibility.

Another whole section is devoted to the preservation of the garden bounty, an activity which smacked of extreme hazard—no automatic timers on those pressure cookers.

The meals sound splendid: tasty, rich, and undoubtedly organic. Gobs of butter, pints of cream, cup after cup of sugar, and real vanilla are mentioned. Food that today would make the health-conscious cringe, thinking of cholesterol and high blood pressure. Vegetarians must have been unheard of in those times; every meal featured meat of some kind.

What would such a woman think of today’s cooking, I wonder:

“Remove from box, pull back one corner of foil and microwave on high for five minutes. Open and serve” or “Pour mix into bowl, add one egg and one cup of water. Stir, pour into pan and bake”.

I read through the book, increasingly appalled and sympathetic as I read of cooking pig’s feet and sheep’s stomachs and how to most effectively draw the innards from a goose.

Then I arrived at the medical section.

“How To Restore A Person Apparently Drowned.”

“How To Thaw A Frozen Person.”

“Headache Sponged Away,” strongly recommended by the author because a woman with a headache “cannot enjoy or, more importantly, be enjoyed.”

“To Remove Nervous Anxiety,” a condition very likely brought about by the daily massacre in the kitchen, recommends purging the bowels, a light diet, and seeking pleasant company.

“Apoplexy” was a good read, being thought to occur mostly in stout, short-necked men. These fits are fixed by stabbing the patient in the arm in order to have him bleed freely, while putting warm mustard poultices on the soles of the feet and the insides of the thighs and, of course, having the bowels “freely opened” by a dose of castor oil and calomel.

The ingredients of many of the recommended tonics and dosages are unknown to me. Flour of brimstone, lunar caustic, roots of briony, Mindirin’s spirit, and ipecacuanha wine are a just a few things mentioned.

Alcohol is often referred to as a means of a cure for various illnesses, as is laudanum. I looked up the latter and found it to be a tincture containing opium, referred to as a “working class drug,” and commonly available in Victorian times. Some things remain the same…

The descriptions of illness and injury in this book are detailed and somewhat queasy-making to one who has no stomach for these things; I skipped over those bits and read the cures.

When I came to “Hysteria, A Nervous Affliction Seen Mostly In Females,” I was caught, reading on with total attention.

Hysteria was the vacation for those slaves from the domestic routine of those times.

Firstly, it would not be hard to get it; the lifestyle alone would have seen me diagnosed after one day.

If one was of sterner stuff, however, it would not have been terribly hard to display the symptoms when one was ready for a break from the daily grind. The condition, it says, can simulate almost every disease to which humanity is liable.

The one easiest to achieve, and the one I think offered the most emotional release, would be when the trunk and limbs became strongly convulsed, so much so that an apparently feeble woman would require three or more strong persons to restrain her from injuring herself.

Should one be disinterested in self-inflicted injuries there could be twitching and heaving, with hysterical sobbing and crying alternated with fits of laughter. A tearing of the hair and some rending of clothing were to be expected, with even some attempts to bite those imposing the restraint. The latter must have been, in many cases, almost irresistible.

Also allowed, symptomatically speaking, was copious evacuation, vomiting, and delirium.

An end to the fit was indicated by a going off into a calm sleep.

If such a cathartic event sufficed, one could emerge from this sleep entirely cured and refreshed. If not, one could have yet another hysterical fit, thus ensuring the long-term treatment, during which it is suggested the woman do “only what she wishes.”

This not only made all the rending, tearing, biting, and sobbing worthwhile, but explained those alternate fits of laughing.

A cautionary note: one did not want to get carried away with a display of symptoms. The holiday would not be nearly so pleasant if one’s hands were tied and there was an application of leeches, as well as that ever-reliable purging of the bowels.

If the symptoms had been clearly manifested but not too strongly, one could relax and enjoy shower baths, regular exercise, a light diet, and cheerful company. A suspension of all regular duties was endorsed, and the reading of books for pleasure recommended.

No mention is made of a time limit and this puzzled me: who was to do all the bloodletting and plucking of feathers, the digging and jarring while the woman of the house rested and read books?

There must have been some way of getting those women to voluntarily get back into the kitchen.

The answer was found in the section called Sick Room Cookery.

A light diet consisted of revolting-sounding items such as “egg broth” or “eel broth” to be supplemented by something called a “meat jelly.” Desert might be “blanc mange”—all food guaranteed to make the hysterical woman make haste from the sick room.

There’s more, much more. I don’t think this book is readily available, so I will lend it to you when I am done reading. Don’t hold your breath in anticipation; I have a feeling it will be a while before I have had enough of this particular tome.



Heather Bennett is a writer

who lives in Watson Lake.