"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, November 1, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- The art of the home-made

Elizabeth Bishop had an abiding interest in the domestic arts. The one she practiced most regularly throughout her life was cooking. During her years in Brazil, she was often in the kitchen with the cook, teaching her North American dishes, learning Brazilian dishes, creating and serving meals to many visitors and guests.

Her letters to her Aunt Grace Bulmer Bowers are peppered with stories of meals and often accompanied by recipes. Here is one, 19 June 1959:

“To make the Orange Spread, in the liquidizer – take 1 big orange (the softer the skin the better, the best seems to be navel oranges) – 1 lemon or lime – and cut up with all the skin, juice, etc., But with seeds. Put in the machine with 1 pint of water and 3 cups of sugar, and grind and grind and grind. (I found it was better not to put all the water and sugar at the same time, but that’s what the recipe says – also our mixer isn’t too good so I had to take out some tough pieces – but IDEALLY SPEAKING, with soft-skinned oranges, a good Waring mixer or liquid-izer, and stronger electricity than we have here – it works well) – When it is very fine, put it in a shallow pan and simmer until it jellies –45 minutes or so. You can do the same thing using half a grapefruit as well, and a cup more sugar, and that also turns out very well. Best of all, though, was one batch I made using the orange [insert: lemon] and about half a cup of chopped crystallized ginger, put in the machine as well. The ginger here is not good – tough – so I cooked it first – but with good ginger you wouldn’t have to. I have a passion for it – of course – Strange to say, it seems to make quite a lot for the quantities used – I’m going to make some more when we go to Rio – the current is stronger there! Also, there I have a big electric frying-pan, a wonderful gadget for jelly-making, I find, because it’s easy to control the heat, and very shallow –

I am learning to make my favorite Brazilian cake – a little cup-cake-like thing called Mae Benta (Holy Mother, I suppose! – Lots of sweets here have religious names, including Angel’s Kiss and Nun’s (excuse me, but it’s true) Little Fart – I imagine because they were all originally made in the convents by the nuns.) The last one, the Nuns’ L.F. is awfully good – just cream-puff batter, fried in deep fat in tiny balls, and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Holy Mothers are made with rice-flour, eggs, and coconut cream – made by grating the nut and then squeezing the pulp. – I wish you could read Portuguese so I could send you some of the wonderful little books about the various sweets – Oh, the Angel’s Hair – thin bright yellow threads, just egg yolks and sugar – when Lota was a child they were always made for her grandmother’s birthday and they would take 50 dozen eggs. Very complicated to make, though…” (Vassar College Special Collections)

On more than one occasion she gave cookbooks as gifts. Two can be found in the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University (one about jams and jellies and one about cookies). Her best known occasional poem is probably “Lines Written in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” which was given to Frank Bidart in 1971. Well, as “One Art” says, “It’s evident / the art” of cooking was a passion for her.

Of course, her first introduction to this art was in her grandmothers’ kitchen in Great Village. If one does a survey of her published work, references to her grandmothers’ food, to her childhood experience of food in Great Village generally, can be found liberally scattered throughout poems and stories.

The turn of the twentieth century heralded the wide-spread emergence of the “catalogue” – in Canada it was the T. Eaton Company that became synonymous with this kind of retail activity, which soon came to dominate shopping practices. As well, during the 1910s, when Bishop lived in Great Village, the community had several general and specialty retail stores where mass-manufactured items could be purchased. Yet, even with all this retail choice accumulating, many people still relied greatly, especially in rural Nova Scotia, on the home-made. The term “store-bought” was coming into the lexicon as Bishop herself remembered in “Memories of Uncle Neddy”: “Often, around time for ‘tea,’ Billy or one of the girls could be seen running across to the store, and a few minutes later running back with a loaf of bread or something in a paper bag. My grandmother was furious: ‘Store bread! Store bread! Nothing but store bread!’” Clearly, in the Bulmer family home, “home-made” remained the norm and Bishop was immersed in all the activities this domestic reality entailed.

Besides all the food encounters and memories, Bishop was also exposed to many other domestic arts of the non-organic and, principally, fabric kind, those connected with the crafts that supplied the household with useful items – arts such as rug hooking, quilting, knitting, tatting, embroidery, millinery and tailoring. (Bishop’s grandmother also made soap; her grandfather, a tanner, currier and shoemaker, more or less made all the tools and equipment needed around the house, along with the blacksmith whose shop was next door; her uncle was a tinsmith and made all sorts of pots, pans, etc. – one of his cookie cutters is in the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University).

Next to cooking, it was the domestic fabric arts that followed Bishop through her life. One of her most poignant memories, immortalized in “In the Village,” has the child abscond with one of her mother’s “little ivory embroidery tools” and bury it under the bleeding heart in the garden, where it is lost forever. Bishop’s mother, Gertrude, was known as a fine seamstress and had created beautiful linens for her trousseau – not unusual, most young women started their trousseaus as soon as they learned to sew. Some of Gertrude’s linens are also part of the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University. All the Bulmer daughters decorated their own hats, though the village had a highly accomplished milliner named Eleanor Spencer. Bishop has vivid memories of the clothes her grandmother and aunts made for her. As an adult, Bishop was known to wear beautifully tailored clothes, conservative but stylish.

Most of the things made by women in rural Nova Scotia in the early decades of the twentieth century were meant to be utilitarian, practical objects for every day use. Yet, there was also a great pride in the design and execution of all these objects, meaning that there was a keen aesthetic component; they were creative endeavours, works of art. Bishop absorbed this link, between usefulness and decoration, between practicality and aesthetics. A couple of quotations will illustrate her understanding of this link:

In a letter to Fani Blough, 5 September 1929: “The other day I got for myself out of the attic a patchwork quilt, one that my great-grandmother [Mary Elizabeth Black Hutchinson Gourley] made. It’s the Sunflower Pattern – big orange wheels on a white ground, and so many thousands of little while stitches that it pains one to look at it. I’d love to hang it on the wall of my room at school – a spur to conscientiousness, you know – but then I’m afraid it might make it rather like a padded cell. Well, I shall huddle under it in January and bless my great-grandmother. It should look well placed artistically near a bowl of calendulas.” (One Art, Letters, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994, p. 5)

One of Mary Elizabeth Black Hutchinson Gourley's hand-made quilts (Acadia University Archives)

In a letter to Marianne Moore, 28 September 1942: “I wish I’d known, years ago, that you liked hooked rugs. I could have got you all you wanted, beautiful ones, so easily. My grandmother’s house and my aunt’s house, in Great Village, were covered with them, of course, and all the women there hooked. I used to be able to do it myself. I went to several hooking parties with my grandmother, and one quilting party. I like the formal designs, with scrolls and Maple Leaves, etc., don’t you? In the Primer Class there we used to have to sing ‘O Maple Leaf, Our Emblem Dear’ every morning, as well as ‘Rule Britannia’.” (One Art, Letters, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994, p. 111)

Ultimately, Bishop carried all this “home-made-ness” into her art, where there is a constant “dazzling dialectic” between what is beautiful and what is useful – these are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in Bishop, they come together. She locates the beautiful in the every day and the every day is often the springboard for the creation of beautiful art. Bishop defined “domestic art” in both simple and complex ways – and most certainly, looking at her poems, like looking at her great-grandmother’s quilt, is a spur to conscientiousness for all poets and artists – her words are like those tiny stitches, awe-inspiring.

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