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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 68: Fire

After her lively account of the Partay trip, Bishop jumped right into her next subject in the 23 September 1960 letter: bread. In a previous letter, Bishop had announced to her aunt that she had “been going in for bread-making” and had found that she was, to her surprise, pretty good at it. She reiterated that she had thought bread “was much harder to make” than it turned out to be, and she boasted, “now I make oatmeal bread, raisin bread, wheat germ (wonderful for toast) etc etc.”

She had also mentioned that she asked Lota to build her an outdoor oven for the task, because it would help conserve the bottled gas they had to use for the regular oven. With this letter, Bishop was able to report much progress in this matter. She wrote, “We are starting our outdoor oven.” She even drew a little picture in the margin for Grace, to accompany her description: “bricks and mortar — ours is right on a flat rock that happens to be near the kitchen, so it doesn’t need any floor, even — just waist-high.” They could “buy the oven door” already made.
Much to Bishop’s delight, a friend had loaned her “an old copy of the famous ‘Mrs Beeton’s’ cookbook,” and she found “that in 1897 she said that an oven exactly like the one we’re building make the best bread of all.”
Bishop explained further, “You put in a stack of wood, let it burn up, then scrape the ashes out with a hoe, and put the bread in.” All of this was, delightfully, “very primitive,” a condition Bishop approved of immensely.

If they needed to be to conserve the bottled gas, on the other hand “we have plenty of wood around,” and even better “a man to do the cleaning out!” Finally, when completed, the oven would be “white-washed” and Bishop proudly declared it would look “very quaint indeed.”

If fire in the oven wasn’t enough, Bishop then tells Grace, “This is what they call the ‘month of fires’ here because it is always so dry.” As a result there were “so many brush fires — I dread it.” This dangerous season had “so far” not taken any of Lota’s trees, but Bishop noted that the fires had come “awfully close and every night we can count five or six fires burning on the mountains around us.” Dreadful indeed! The other concern for Bishop during this was her asthma “from all the dust and smoke.”

Bishop again sent this letter on the same day she wrote it because, as she told her aunt, “today’s the big marketing day.” Their provisions had been depleted because “last Sunday we had five people here, and five more came unexpectedly for tea,” so she had “a list a mile long” to replenish.

Ever keen to write about food, Bishop told Grace that this large gathering of company were served “a big beef and kidney pie” with “stewed tomatoes (we had too many to use up!)” and for dessert “caramalized pears.” In case Grace did not know this particular delicacy, Bishop sent her an “easy to make” recipe: “cut them up in eighths and put them in a very hot oven” (though perhaps not the beehive version) “with a lot of sugar on top, and a little butter.” After “about fifteen minutes,” when “they are beginning to burn and get caramel-y, then you throw on a cup of cream — or you can skip that.” Simple indeed, but Bishop noted that “everyone thinks they are something fearfully difficult to do.”

Bishop began to wind down at this point, asking, as usual, “how is the leg? — and how is the diet, etc.?” This prompted Bishop to note that “Lota has been gaining a bit and I am very severe with her.” Bread, beef and kidney pie, caramalized pears — no wonder she was having trouble getting “into her city clothes.” Bishop assured her dieting aunt that she enforced “only a salad for lunch, and beef and vegetables for dinner, plus an orange or two” for their regimen, except, of course, when company came! Scribbled in the margin, “(& 1 piece of toast for breakfast)” – hard to do with multiple kinds of bread coming out of that new oven!

The final quick paragraph asked, as always, “Please let me hear from you.” Bishop also told her aunt, “I’m sending some cards to Ruth Hill.” Ruth Hill was one of Gertrude Bulmer Bishop’s best friends, who appears in “In the Village”: “Miss Ruth Hill gives me a Moirs chocolate out of the glass case. She talks to me: ‘How is she [Bishop’s mother]? We’ve always been friends. We played together from the time we were babies. We sat together in school. Right from primer class on. After she went away, she always wrote to me — even after she got sic the first time’.” (The Collected Prose 265–66)

Even though she was well over a decade away from Nova Scotia, Bishop not only stayed in touch with her family, but even her mother’s closest friend.

Bishop quickly noted, “I have another poem about to appear in the New Yorker”: “Song for the Rainy Season.” “It’s about the house here where I live — I think you’ll like it.” Admonishing her aunt to “take care of yourself,” she closed as always, “With much love.”

Only a few weeks passed before Bishop wrote another even longer letter to her aunt. The next post takes up her October news.

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