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

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 57: The cook saga

The next major topic in Bishop’s letter of 25 March 1960 was an update on the cook situation. When Bishop came to live with Lota, she joined a household that had a number of servants. It was not the first time, however, that Bishop interacted with domestic help. Her most famous housekeeper was Hannah Almyda, who helped Bishop and Louise Crane when they lived in Key West, Florida, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Bishop was so fond of and devoted to Hannah, that she tried to write a poem for her, “Hannah A.,” which remained unfinished:
… who cared for, much too long,
the one ungainly young
who couldn’t learn his song
or one stupid mate
whose only active thought
— to flap his wings, & fight —
kept quarrelling half the night
for rotting meat … (Edgar Allan Poe, 53)

Bishop’s conceit in this abandoned poem turned Hannah into a sacrificing swan. The “ungainly young” and “stupid mate” must have been the son and husband indicated in the 1940 census for Key West.

Interesting to note that Hannah died just a few months before Bishop, at the ripe old age of 86 (almost as old as Grace when she died in 1977). One wonders if Bishop knew.

In Lota’s household, the “help” generally consisted of a cook and a gardener. Over the years, these positions were sometimes filled by a married couple and, as a result, a number of babies were born to the cooks, one of whom, in the 1950s, was named after Bishop. The exact reason why they had lost their most recent cook, as mentioned in Bishop’s previous letter, is not clear. But the new one came in for a detailed account.

This new cook was a “country girl,” who was “so primitive, poor dear,” by which Bishop meant inexperienced and in need of a lot of training (one perhaps thinks of her use of this word in relation to Gregorio Valdes, the artist she and Louise Crane supported in Key West). Perhaps it was not so much that the cook was chosen as was her husband, who “is an excellent worker — and they’re neat and quiet.” So, another package deal. Apparently, it was mainly Bishop’s task to teach the young woman (generally speaking, Bishop’s purview was the kitchen, Lota’s was the house and yard) how to prepare the food they preferred (though the previous one also taught Bishop how to make Brazilian food.

Bishop felt this cook-in-training had potential, but, as she told Grace, “she knows nothing at all and what’s more she thinks everything we do is funny.” Bishop offered an example: “I was stuffing some green peppers with various leftovers, to show her how, and she was absolutely convulsed by that — and called the husband, ‘Albertinho’, to come to see what the crazy American was doing.”

Even if food preparation/instruction was left to Bishop, Lota also put her oar into the mix regarding household chores: “…when Lota tells her not to stack the plates, to take them from the table two at a time, she giggles some more and says innocently ‘But that would take all night!’ — and of course her logic is perfectly good and we’re just fearfully fussy and conventional.”

Bishop admitted to her aunt that “by paying a little more” they could get a better cook from Rio. The problem with doing that, however, was this person “would be lonely in the country and want to go to town all the time, etc.” So, they had opted to take on the “hard work” of training this young woman, who certainly had the capacity to see the humour in the domestic, something Bishop should have appreciated, since much of her own work highlights the vagaries, foibles and ironies of this realm.

It appears that the training was moderately successful, because the rest of the letters for this year do not have any more teaching tales to relate, though it is clear that Bishop remained the kitchen supervisor, perhaps because the lessons continued for some time.

The final subject of this letter introduces another member of Bishop’s maternal family, Mary Bulmer Ross’s daughter Elizabeth Ross Naudin, who Bishop met for the first time when she and her family took up residence in Rio later in the year.

Update: In Post 56, I mentioned a book Grace had sent Elizabeth, some sort of local history of Colchester County written by someone named Crowe. Ever faithful and all-knowing John Barnstead checked the holdings of Nova Scotia bookseller John W. Doull and came up with a possible candidate: Edwin M. Crowe’s The Town of Stewiacke. Although it was done for Canada’s centenary in 1967, it appears from the listing that parts of this work perhaps circulated separately in the late1950s and early 1960s. The new archivist at the Colchester Historeum, Ashley Sutherland (I wonder if she is any relation to Phyllis Sutherland’s husband Ernest), got back to me that she is investigating if the museum has any books like this one from that time. If she can solve the mystery, I’ll post another update.

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