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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 43: More recipes

A good chunk of Bishop’s letter of 19 July 1959 is taken up with food. After addressing a number of miscellaneous matters in the first paragraph, Bishop launches right into a detailed description of how to make “the Orange Spread” — “the” suggests that it is a subject they had discussed before (none of the surviving letters to date mention it, but clearly Bishop had promised her aunt the recipe).

Under Bishop’s hand, even the most mundane of subjects come off sounding like one of her poems. The long paragraph detailing all the tasks required to make the spread reads like a prose poem. I cannot quote it in full, but you will get the idea from some of the phrases.

The spread required what Bishop called a “liquidizer” — the British word for blender. For Bishop, the preferred appliance as “a good Waring mixer.” Musician and band leader Fred Waring is the name associated with the first modern electric blender, offered to overworked housewives in the 1930s.
Even as late as 1959, it was Bishop’s brand of choice, a small appliance for the serious cook.
She instructed Grace to choose “1 big orange (the softer the skin the better).” Bishop preferred “navel oranges.” This fruit had to be “cut up with all the skin, juice, etc.,” and, along with a lemon or lime, put in the liquidizer with water and sugar. Then “grind and grind and grind.” One thinks of “something, something, something.” Though the recipe instructed it all went in at once, Bishop wrote that she found it better to add the “1 pint of water and the 3 cups of sugar” gradually. Bishop said she had to remove “some tough pieces” because their “mixer isn’t too good” (clearly not a Waring!). The other issue for this process was that the electric current at the house at Samambaia was not as great as in Rio, “the current is stronger there!” Bishop and electricity could be a whole study in itself.

She assured Grace that “IDEALLY SPEAKING,” if all the elements were there (good fruit, good blender, good current) it would work “very well.” When the pulp was “very fine,” Bishop instructed Grace to “put it in a shallow pan and simmer until it jellies,” which should take “45 minutes or so.”

Remember, with a manual typewriter, the only way to offer emphasis was either all caps or underline. Bishop usually opted for the latter (in the above instance, she just needed to nudge Grace about the degree of cooking). All caps is a serious call to attention. Interesting she offers it regarding an aspiration, not an instruction.

At this point, Bishop interjects some alternatives: “half a grapefruit … and a cup more of sugar”; or a real twist, “about half a cup of chopped crystallized ginger.” Bishop knew Grace would not be surprised by this last option, as Bishop reminded her, “I have a passion for it — of course.” When Bishop tried the latter, she cooked the ginger first because it was “not good — tough.”

Bishop alerted Grace that these limited number of ingredients “strange to say … make quite a lot.” She said that she would make more the next time they went to Rio where the current was stronger and where she had “a big electric frying-pan, a wonderful gadget for jelly-making, I find, because it’s easy to control the heat, and very shallow.”
Mãe Benta
The next disquisition was a solid paragraph about desserts. Bishop regularly reminded Grace about the Brazilian sweet tooth, which gave her an opportunity to do a fair bit of baking. She and the cook exchanged lessons on respective north and south desserts. In this instance, Bishop reports, “I am learning to make my favorite Brazilian cake.” This dessert was a “cup-cake-like thing called Mãe Benta (Holy Mother, I suppose!).” Bishop noted the Brazilian penchant for giving their desserts religious names, “I imagine because they were all originally  made in the convents by nuns.” One example was “Angel’s Kiss” and then one Bishop surely knew would make Grace laugh: “and Nun’s (excuse me, but it’s true) Little Fart.” Clearly, nuns have a sense of humour.

Bishop describes the latter as “awfully good” (Bishop’s use of the word awe and all its variations is another study in itself, one I write about in Lifting Yesterday): “just cream-puff batter, fried in deep fat, in tiny balls, and sprinkled with cinammon [sic] and sugar.”
As for the Holy Mother cake, Bishop told Grace they are “made with rice-flour, eggs, and coconut cream,” the latter derived from “grating the nut and then squeezing the pulp.”

To complete the trio, Bishop described Angel’s Hair as “thin bright yellow threads, just egg yolks and sugar.” Such a decadent treat was, Bishop writes, made for Lota’s grandmother’s birthday every year, using “50 dozen eggs”! Bishop didn’t try to learn to make this confection because it was “very complicated.”

Earlier, Bishop sent Grace a couple of tiny British cookbooks about baking. She concludes this baking lesson by saying she wished she could send her aunt “some of the wonderful little books about the various sweets,” but as they were in Portuguese, her own accounts would have to do.

The other reference to food in this long letter comes later when she notes that their strawberries were ripe, “although it is ‘winter’ this is the time for them” (the intensely hot Brazilian summers were too much for such berries). She knew that the strawberries would be at their height in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, “the birds are getting them faster than” than they could pick them. The plan was “to make a kind of scare-crow — only they are not crows — just about everything else.”

Then, as an afterthought, Bishop scribbles a P.S. at the bottom of the first page: “I’m delighted to hear about the maple syrup & I’m trying to think of someway of getting it here!” Figuring out how to get this flavour to Brazil was an ongoing topic between aunt and niece. Bishop said she hoped that “someone we know will be coming by boat.” This subject gets picked up again in future letters.

The next post provides updates about health and family matters.

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