Friday, 26 September 2008

Love-Givers and Loaf-Givers

What does "cooking" mean?

It means the knowledge of Medea, and of Circe, and of Calypso,

and of Helen, and of Rebekah, and of the Queen of Sheba. It means

the knowledge of all herbs, and fruits, and balms, and spices; and

of all that is healing and sweet in fields and groves, and savory

in meats, it means carefulness, and inventiveness, and

watchfulness, and willingness, and readiness of appliance, it

means the economy of your great-grandmothers, and the science of

modern chemists; it means much tasting, and no wasting, it means

English thoroughness, and French art, and Arabian hospitality, and

it means, in fine, that you are to be perfectly and always


I used to have this Ruskin quote on my sidebar, along with and extract Elizabeth Barratt Browning's Aurora Leigh. I kept Aurora Leigh, because it sums up so much of what I feel about mothering:
Women know
The way to rear up children, (to be just,)
They know a simple, merry, tender knack
Of tying sashes, fitting baby-shoes,
And stringing pretty words that make no sense,

and that children
Become aware and unafraid of Love. Such good do mothers

It seems to me to be the biggest job in the world, to make the next generation unafraid of love. Barret Browning's poem is good and ambitious and neither sentimentalizes womanhood nor puts it on a pedestal, but sets out to describe the absolute essence of motherhood; selflessly supplying a just and indispensable love. And, although we can never claim that poor old Ruskin did not put the fairer sex onto a rather high an unobtainable pedestal, like Barratt Browning he has achieved that "getting to the essence" of rather a big subject; cooking. Moreover, cooking as a traditional female skill. It's not that I want to ignore the boys here, men make both great home cooks and wonderful professional chefs, and indeed most of this quotation is absolutely applicable to cooks of either gender, but there is something in it which speaks of cooking as female knowledge, and a knowledge which has traditionally been passed down from mother to daughter for generation upon generation.

It is not Victorian fancy to define the word lady as loaf-giver or loaf-keeper, but simply an applicable definition of the Anglo-Saxon, and it is not by chance that the second most popular word for describing a person of the female gender in English is somehow inextricably linked to the keeping, preparing and giving of food. In farming communities, how the harvest was kept, prepared, and portioned out was just as important as to how it was sown, grown and gathered. What is the point of a large glut of grain if there is no-one in the village with the skill to keep it well, cook it and portion it out so that none are hungry?

And, indeed in Tudor farmhouses a good "huswife" was indispensable. Her knowledge of how to keep and prepare food meant financial security (no waste), good nutrition for the household (needed for the hard labour of the working day), medicine (herbals and cookbooks were one and the same at this period) and pleasure and conviviality (she prepared food for feast days and made the comforting familiarity of the daily bread and beer). This period of history is often termed the "golden age" of English house-wifery; where farms were like mini-kingdoms, self-governing and self-sufficient; the housewife being the farm's co-manager, its queen. In the eighteenth century, a far more practical, if nonetheless eccentric, man than Ruskin, William Cobbett, stated that a good bread-making, beer-making wife, could save a man £100 per year! Although I'm glad Cobbett did his sums and found that a good woman's price was roughly the same as rubies, I prefer Ruskin's more romantic estimation of a practical woman's worth.

And when Ruskin talks of cooking as an application of ancient knowledge he is not only referencing traditional forms of English house-wifery but what used to be called wisdom;

and of Helen, and of Rebekah, and of the Queen of Sheba

a characteristic which is personified in the Bible as female. I think that Chesterton gave a good definition of wisdom as something which is not learned but acquired (I'm wildly paraphrasing here), it takes practise and patience to be wise. Wisdom is knowledge on a slow burner, it is often mixed with natural instinct and is always judiciously applied. So Ruskin's home "cook" has similar qualities to Barret Browning's "mother"; a giving woman, with a loving, natural instinct applying her knowledge judiciously. It is an ideal of womanhood, yes, but an ideal which does not necessarily imply conformity of thought and practice, and therefore one which I believe can be very modern. I'd like to be this woman.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful post chuck, thank you.

Laura A said...

I really enjoyed this--making the next generation unafraid of love, passing knowledge down from person to person, farms like mini-kingdoms, and wisdom as knowledge on a slow burner. All concepts to keep.

I've read parts of that Cobbett book online somewhere, I think. I liked it.

I'm enjoying your old photos of old kitchens and such, too. It's strange to think of cooking in such a room, but I know from experience that working in a kitchen is mostly a matter of practice, and of making an loving art of what you know, which is, of course, the whole point of your post.