MARTHA SEZ: ‘I found a recipe for suet pudding, with no mention of suet in the ingredient list’

I have often borrowed from my great-grandmother’s book, “The Successful Housekeeper,” published in 1886, when writing this column. It occurs to me now that the chapters I chose — elaborate instructions for hostessing a garden party or preparing for a camping expedition, accompanied by servants — gave readers a lopsided, even downright false, view of 19th century middle-class daily life. It seems only fair to balance that amusingly frivolous description of a garden party or proper lady’s wilderness attire with information taken from other chapters of the same book. The lives of women like my great-grandmother, Nellie Richardson Clizbe, were not all tutti frutti in the moonlight.

The book has numerous pieces of yellowed paper stuck between its pages. Some are recipes clipped from the newspaper, with tantalizingly abbreviated scraps of news stories on the other side, such as directions for making oatmeal cookies, with the partial headlines “Domestic Service Unpopular says Florence Kelley, Because … Girls So Often … sulted” and “Detroit Jews To Plan for Soldiers’ Relief” on the back.

Others are notes and recipes jotted down in pencil on whatever paper was available. Even after deciphering Nellie’s hurried handwriting, abbreviations and sometimes unorthodox spelling, I have to look up unfamiliar words and terms, like whiting for polishing silver (calcium carbonate), slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and unslaked lime (calcium oxide). I also suspect that certain directions and ingredients are left out of recipes. Nellie didn’t bother to write them down, apparently taking it for granted that she, or any other reader, would know. She couldn’t have anticipated me.

Here is a recipe for applesauce cake:

1 cp applesauce

1 cp sugar

1 3/4 cp flour

1 teaspoon soda in applesauce

(The word salt, apparently erased)


Spices to taste

And there you have it.

I found a recipe for suet pudding, with no mention of suet in the ingredient list.

Varieties of pickle and tomato sauce recipes abound, both in Nellie’s writing and in the book itself. Pickles and cake must have been especially popular at the time. I gather from the bread recipes that women had to culture their own yeast. There are instructions for buying, butchering, preparing, carving and preserving meats, including wild game, as well as seafood, including oysters, and poultry, including pigeons.

Advice on every aspect of daily life goes far beyond cooking; the housekeeper was required to know how to do just about everything. The chapter on furniture explains not only how to clean it, but even “how to make an ottoman.”

Another chapter tells how to destroy bed bugs, moths and other pests, with chemicals ranging from alum to copperas (iron sulfate), cobalt and quicksilver. “Arsenic, spread on bread and butter, and placed round rat and mouse holes, will soon put a stop to their ravages,” the author says, warning, “Great care is necessary in using the above poisons, where there are any children, as they are apt to eat anything that comes in their way, and these poisons will prove as fatal to them as to the vermin (excepting the pepper).”

More sound advice: “Dishes should always be rinsed in clear, hot water after having been washed in soap suds. Nothing is more unpleasant at the table than to notice a certain stickiness that the soap is likely to leave. It is necessary also from a sanitary point of view; the caustic alkali is corrosive and unwholesome, and the grease is often impure.” (As a soapmaker, I know this refers to the lye and animal fat used as soap ingredients.) “Do not set apart one day on which to clean your silver or scour your tinware; there is danger of it not being done at all.”

Laundry is boiled, and sugar of lead (lead acetate) used to make fabrics colorfast.

Make fire kindlers using tar, resin, sawdust and charcoal. “When cold, break up into lumps the size of a hickory nut, and you have, at small expense, kindling material enough for a household for a year.”

Black a stove, remove stains, dye fabrics, line stair carpets, make soap and salve, preserve eggs in a barrel for winter use, prepare cough mixture with paregoric, cure the opium habit, remove warts, prevent hydrophobia (rabies), treat victims of cholera and smallpox and resuscitate “the supposed drowned,” as well as “restore from stroke of lightning.”

Successful housekeeping entailed a lot of hard work. No wonder the chapters are interspersed with such fanciful subjects as garden parties, raising canaries, camping attire and folding napkins.

Have a good week.

(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the News for more than 20 years.)