Kentucky housewife's prose cooks up picture of mid-19th century daily life

April 21, 1991|By Anne Tyler


Lettice Bryan; introduced

by Bill Neal.

University of South Carolina.

456 pages. $19.95.

"Never make your husband blush to own that you are his wifebut by your industry, frugality, and neatness, make him proud, and happy to know that he is in possession of a companion who is a complete model of loveliness and true elegance."

These are the words of Mrs. Lettice Bryan, who in 1839 compiled a cookbook so helpful in its tone and so distinctively written that the reader of today just knows, somehow, that the author herself exemplified loveliness and true elegance. "The Kentucky Housewife" contains a whopping 1,300 recipes; it must have been a blessing for any young bride faced with the mysteries of the open fireplace and the wood-burning stove.

Although the book is Southern in its use of ingredients like "ochra," as she calls it, and pokeweed greens and relishes, most of the dishes are plain old American: fried and roasted meats, soups, boiled vegetables. Accompaniments are generally suggested; for as Bill Neal says in his introduction, Mrs. Bryan gives us an unusually complete picture of the Southern meal entire. And she seems surprisingly modern in her

embellishments -- her garnishes of tiny asparagus bundles, her imaginative use of spices, her extemporaneous --es of lemon juice or Madeira.

From any old-fashioned cookbook, of course, we hope mainly to find out more about the daily life of the period. We learn from "The Kentucky Housewife" that Southerners of the mid-19th century routinely dined on redbirds, beef cheeks and whortleberry pudding. Their breakfast might include leftover fish, fried eggplant and cucumber slices in vinegar -- leading one to wonder if our ancestors' stomachs were not a good deal hardier than our own.

And none of this came easy. We are talking of the days when women (for it was never men, heaven knows) ground their own spices and roasted their own coffee beans, scraped their own rennet, beheaded their own pigs, and concocted their own food colorings from the bloom of garden saffron or the juice of bruised green wheat. Cake-baking took a full two days, and no wonder, what with having to pound the almonds one by one in a marble mortar and work the butter to proper firmness with a wooden "spaddle." Granted, women often had servants (the preface mentions slaves, even), but you sense that Mrs. Bryan would have been right alongside them, overseeing operations if not actually rolling up her sleeves and pitching in.

For it is Mrs. Bryan who interests us, finally, even more than her times. Who was this woman? Bill Neal says he's been able to find out nothing -- not even records of her birth and death. Certainly she seems to have been well educated. She admits at one point to consulting the British encyclopedia for a recipe, and she displays a comfortable familiarity with the subjunctive case. More important, though, is her astonishingly elastic prose style. She instructs the cook to boil mutton "to rags," to shun lobsters that move "slowly and flabbily" and mackerel that feels "like it might be half filled with wind." On nearly every page, some phrase leaps out whose verve would be the envy of any present-day food writer: overstewed oysters are "insipid and corrugated," and pea-fowl are "admired more for their gay, plumagerous appearance than for diet."

We may not know when Mrs. Bryan came into this world or when she left it, but we have the clearest sense imaginable of her great zest and her capacity for physical enjoyment -- and for taking joy, as well, in the pleasure of those who sat down to her meals. Frequently she proposes thoughtful little extras that will add to the diners' happiness (a cruet of vinegar for those who like their soup "acidulated," extra gravy because potpie eaters love gravy). "Just try to learn what your company is fondest of, and have their favorites" is the way she sums it up. Brillat-Savarin himself could not have put it better.

Ms. Tyler's 12th novel, "Saint Maybe," will be published in September.

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