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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 27 – Friends, Neighbours, & Strange Folks

Christmas continued into 1957 for Elizabeth and Lota. In the 10 January letter, Bishop tells Aunt Grace that “a crate just came this afternoon from a woman we know in São Paulo.” This friend was a wealthy coffee plantation owner, who had wanted Bishop “to translate her life story she’d written!” Bishop managed to bow out, perhaps because she “found another American here to do it for her.” By way of a thank you, however, this woman “sent me a huge sack — like a potato bag” (something Grace would be very familiar with) “full of coffee beans,” “about 20 pounds.” Bizarrely, Bishop declares that they had “no mill … to grind it,” so they would “have to buy one tomorrow.” Remember, this letter was written from Rio. Presumably, they had such a device at the house in Samambaia. Bishop declared that the coffee was “marvellous … like nothing you’ve ever tasted.”

Bishop then tells Grace about Lota’s friend Alfred, “who visits us quite often,” and was there “for a stay.” Bishop described him as “a writer, more or less,” “separated from his wife” and living alone. He was “in terrible shape, poor dear,” not eating right, “etc., etc.” He liked coffee, so visited “just about every hour on the hour” with his thermos. To make him even stranger, Bishop scribbled in the margin, “He’s rich, but unhappy — a graduate of Princeton, so speaks English — perfect English, too.” Even with “a daughter of 22, & a son of 16,” he was very lonely. Bishop also had “to give him an injection every day.” For what, she does not say.

Another neighbour, this one in the country, offered much more delight. He owned land “next to Lota’s” in Samambaia and raised orchids. Bishop described his green houses, filled with “thousands of pots … each green house … a little further along and a little bigger, just like a school for orchids — until you get to the top class, when they’re in bloom.” He showed his orchids at “a big flower show” that was held annually in a hotel in Pétropolis, “and he usually gets some blue ribbons.” The most spectacular of his orchids, Bishop reported, “was just like a waterfall — an enormous pot, the plant about three feet high, with 12 cascades of small white orchids … each spray about 18 inches long — pure white with a tiny yellow spot.” As soon as Lota saw it, she went back to the house to get Bishop. “I’ve never seen such a gorgeous plant, really,” Bishop declared. Bishop noted that their neighbour had “been offered about $200 for it.” Having such a neighbour had its benefits. For one thing, “any time we feel like it we can go through his orchid houses.” And “at Christmas his truck came up with four beautiful gloxinias all in bloom” and “four big begonias.” Clearly, he grew more than orchids.

The orchid man came up in the letter because Grace had written something about a very showy flower called “Bird of Paradise,” which Bishop thought could also be found in Brazil, the flower that “looks like a cockatoo’s crest?” This comment then launched Bishop into the orchids.
Having exhausted quite a few topics in this inaugural letter of 1957, Bishop makes a few passing comments about a couple of strange subjects:

“‘The Ten Commandments’ sounds awful.” Clearly, Grace had seen this Cecil B. DeMille epic, but that didn’t stop Bishop from “enclosing a review of it by a funny friend of mine in the U.S.” It would be interesting to know who this was. Perhaps a review in The New Yorker?
"I just heard that [Anthony] Eden’s resigned,” though she wasn’t sure “whether he did it himself or was forced to,” because she had not seen the papers. “Poor England … But I think the U.S. handled that very badly, too, and that [John Foster] Dulles is a damned fool.”
(Anthony Eden)
 (John Foster Dulles)
She concluded her letter, with her love and a little scribble, “I hope to see you in 1957.” Which indeed happened. The next post will address a gap in their correspondence and the first letter that followed it.

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.

Monday, October 3, 2016

EBSNS fund-raiser to create an Elizabeth Bishop Exhibit in Great Village, N.S.

In 2014 the St. James Church Preservation Society provided the EBSNS with a temporary space in the sanctuary of the church to set up an exhibit about Elizabeth Bishop. The EBSNS put together an ad hoc display, which was seen by the many visitors to the café and attendees of various events, including the Elizabeth Bishop Arts Festival in August 2015.
When the Preservation Society took over full responsibility for the church, the EBSNS would receive a new location to set up a proper permanent exhibit/gallery space. That new location was offered in August 2016: at the front and on the east side of the sanctuary. The Great Village Historical Society has a permanent Marine Museum exhibit on the west side of the sanctuary. The Preservation Society will also set up an exhibit about the history of St. James Church.
(The area in the sanctuary of St. James Church where
the EB exhibit/gallery will be located. Photo by Laurie Gunn.)
This project has two components: 1. an exhibit called “Elizabeth Bishop’s Beginnings,” which will complement the panels about Bishop that are displayed on the pergola near Wilson’s Gas Stop; and 2. a gallery called “Echoes of Elizabeth Bishop,” where art created by Nova Scotia artists, inspired by Bishop, will be shown.

The Elizabeth Bishop Exhibit/Gallery Patron fund-raiser:

The EBSNS will invest its own funds, time and expertise in the exhibit. The society is also applying for a grant from Nova Scotia Arts. However, the cost of this project is such that the society needs to raise additional funds. All funds will go directly to upgrading the space and creating the exhibit.

The EBSNS seeks donations from members and anyone interested in supporting this permanent public place honouring Elizabeth Bishop and her connections to Great Village and Nova Scotia, and showcasing contemporary Nova Scotia artists.

If you would like to be an Exhibit Patron, there are two levels of support: $100 (Gold Sponsors) and $50 (Silver Sponsors).

Two ways to donate:

1. Click the Donate button on the EBSNS website: http://elizabethbishopns.org/events-projects/
2. Send a cheque, payable to the EBSNS, to P.O. Box 138, Great Village, N.S., B0M 1L0

Please indicate your donation is for the permanent exhibit.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
The EBSNS is grateful for your support.

The society will unveil the space at its AGM
on Saturday, 17 June 2017,
with guest speaker Nova Scotia writer Alexander MacLeod. 

Watch for updates on the EBSNS Facebook page.