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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 26 – Jam

Bishop’s 10 January 1957 letter dwelt on food more than any other that she had written so far (at least of those letters that survive). After telling Grace about Lota’s preference for crêpe suzettes, Bishop wrote that over the Christmas holiday she “made some Dundee cakes — that white fruit-cake — and thought of Gammie [her maternal grandmother] — remember how much she liked it?”
This traditional Scottish cake, a kind of signature for the country, is in the midst of proprietary aspirations by the Scottish government. Heaven forbid someone attempts to claim this confection for another nation! Gammie (Elizabeth Bulmer) was a Maritimer born and very English, but the Yorkshire Bulmer ancestors were close enough to Scotland to have, perhaps, acquired the taste for it. Or, perhaps the general culture of Nova Scotia imprinted this preference on Bishop’s grandmother.
A good portion of this long letter was devoted to jam. One of Bishop’s delights in living in the house at Samambaia was being able to cook again, to learn how to make Brazilian dishes and teach the cook Maria how to make North American dishes. Brazilians have a sweet tooth, and no less so Lota, so Bishop’s eagerness to make jam was welcomed by all in the household. The main jam under consideration in this letter was apricot and coconut. It is a question whether Grace, in 1957, could get access to this produce; but since she was in the US working, perhaps it was easier to do so (easier than in Nova Scotia!).

Here is Bishop’s summary of her “DRIED APRICOT & COCONUT” jam recipe:
 “Crack the nut, collect the milk, peel off the brown rind (it handles more easily if immersed for a moment in hot water) and put the white flesh twice through the grinder. [I grate it.] Cut up a half pound of apricots and soak them, with the coconut and its milk, in a quart of water overnight. Next day simmer very gently for about an hour, until tender, and weigh. Add weight for weight of sugar and the juice of one lemon and cook fast but watchfully (keep stirring) until setting.” She noted that you could also use “dried coconut but it isn’t as good.”

Bishop had described the process of making this jam in even greater detail earlier in the letter, clearly wanting to make sure Grace knew all the tricks: “It should be soupy, but not liquid, if you know what I mean!”; “or two limes”; “warm sugar”; two coconuts and a pound of apricots yielded “6 pints,” but her “pots aren’t any known standard size.” She acknowledged that while “jam with coconut is delicious,” it was likely “hard on false-teeth wearers!” While she was “not quite one yet,” she worried that she might soon be “if I don’t get to that dentist.”

In addition to the apricot and coconut jam, Bishop also sent recipes for apricot and almond jam, which she said was “better than the above, but apricots are too expensive to make it often”; lime and pineapple jam; and, finally, rhubarb and orange jam. The apricot and almond jam was quite involved but Bishop assured Grace it was “a real delicacy, if you want to be very fancy!” The lime and pinapple was “excellent” but it required a long cooking time for the limes. The rhubarb and orange was “easy and good.”

As an afterthought, Bishop noted that there was “a wonderful way to make strawberry jam by cooking it in the sun — do you know it?” She doesn’t elaborate, saying only, “I never can get enough strawberries here, but I’ve made it,” and when Grace got back to Nova Scotia, Bishop promised to “send the recipe” to her.

To reinforce all this instruction about preserves, Bishop also promised to send Grace “a copy of the little English book of jams & jellies.” And she actually did send this book: Jams, Jellies and Preserves: How to Make Them, by Ethelind Fearon, published in 1956 in London by Herbert Jenkins. Bishop also sent Ambrose Heath’s Biscuits and American Cookies: How to Make Them (1953). Grace kept both of these tiny volumes for the rest of her life and they are now at AcadiaUniversity Archives.
If jam was not enough, Bishop also provided a little treatise on pickles, which “are dreadful here,” she observed. She told Grace that “occasionally” she made “watermelon rind pickle, and pepper relish (that’s so easy I can get Maria to do most of the work!).” Bishop’s relish had a reputation. She gave “a pot to our friend Oscar at Christmas” because “he loves pickles.” He liked it so much that “he asked Lota if she thought I’d mind giving his cook the recipe, or if it was a secret!” Because it was difficult to get some of the ingredients, Bishop was limited in the kind of pickles she could make, but told Grace that “an American friend is coming to visit in February — and I am asking her to bring us tumeric and ginger and celery seed.”

The next post will wind up 1957’s inaugural letter.

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