BY HAROLD N. WALTERS
In one of his songs my hero, Bob Dylan, asks a potential helpmate if she can cook and sew and make flowers grow.
His concern isn’t much different from the concern of Captain Edward Wynne, Governor of Ferryland, 1622, in his request – to the king, I s’pose – that young women be sent to Newfoundland as potential spouses for the colony's bachelors.
In his letter Wynne asks those sent thither be, “Strong maids that [besides other work] can both brew and bake.”
‘For Maids Who Brew and Bake’ (Flanker Press) is no ordinary cookbook. P’raps I shouldn’t call it a cookbook at all for fear of having rocks hove at me.
While it does contain ‘rare and excellent recipes from 17th century Newfoundland’, it also contains drawings, anecdotes and snippets of history, even lists of commendable 17th century table manners that would do Granny proud.
For instance: “Don’t scratch your limb, after the fashion of a mole as you sit down.”
It isn’t made clear exactly which limb it is that shouldn’t be scratched. P’raps ‘limb’ is used figuratively – euphemistically? – to represent any unseemly body part that ought not be scratched in the vicinity of the table.
Author Sheilah Roberts intersperses the aforementioned anecdotes, snippets of history and instructive groaning-board behavior, with excerpts from letters and journals of some of the 17th century colonists, allowing – I’m happy to see – their ‘English’ to stand as penned.
I’m happy about that untouched language because as a scribbler I have a problem that has blunted my pencil since the winter we lived in the woods and Mammy home-schooled me my Grade 3 spelling.
I’m spelling challenged.
Consequently, I’m delighted to see some of the flexible spelling used by those ol’ b’ys of yore.
Just look: ‘boyling’ – as in, “I’m boyling the kettle to make a cup of tea”;
‘sallet oyl’ – as in, “Mr. Kraft makes tasty sallet oyl”;
‘strayne’ – as in, “Strayne off some pot liquor for making gravy.”
Back in 1600 – and whenever, as you might imagine, there was a dearth of commercial food colouring in Newfoundland. Inventive dairymaids – as in, ‘maids who bake and brew’, commonly used flower petals to brighten up pale and pasty pantry provender. Plain ol’ butter was sometimes coloured with mashed marigold petals.
Which reminds me ...
Shortly after the launch of ‘Sputnik I’, Mammy broke up house-keeping on Random Island, packed her bread pans – Mammy could bake and brew, sew and make flowers grow – and dragged her offspring to join Pappy in the wilds of northern Quebec, in Schefferville, an iron ore mining town.
Unlike back on ‘The Rock’ where margarine, golden yellow margarine, arrived in the kitchen in ‘Good Luck’ packages, in Schefferville margarine was sold in squeezable pouches shaped something like those in which navy beans are sold.
But in each pouch was a blister-pack bubble of food colouring. If you wanted yellow margarine – and expatriate Newfoundlanders surely did – you burst the bubble and squeezed the pouch until the food colouring was thoroughly mixed with the oleomargarine.
Forsooth, even a cookbook can stir (!) up scrumptious memories.
When I began reading this book, Missus was preparing to bake an experimental bread – Ezekiel Bread. The recipe, like some of the bread recipes in ‘For Maids Who Brew and Bake’, required assorted types of flour – wheat, rye, barley, millet.
Missus’ finished loaves, although skillfully baked, looked not unlike those loaves in an Our Heritage diorama.
It looked coarse. It was coarse. And heavy as a Stephen King novel.
But it was good for you.
To ensure there will be baked bread in my future, I have to relate an anecdote of my own, albeit inspired by the contents of ‘For Maids Who Brew and Bake’.
Not unlike Bob Dylan and Governor Wynne, there was a time in my life when I exhibited a similar spousal concern. I was uncertain about the kitchen capabilities of the maid I wooed and hoped to wed.
When the perfect, romantic moment presented itself I stooped before my sweetheart on bended knee, proffered up the requisite trinket box and spake.
“My maid,” said I in succinctly loving terms, “are you able to make homemade bread? If so, will you marry me?”
I speak the truth.
Thank you for reading. And, anyone whose breadbasket hungers, purchase a copy of ‘For Maids Who Brew and Bake’ for your honey.
Harold Walters is an avid reader living in Dunville, Placentia Bay. ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’