Sunday, January 12, 2014

"Why perpetual and unappetising procession of small rock cakes?"



Relentless domesticity


Yes, why? The question is taken from one of my very favorite novels, E. M. Delafield's Diary of a Provinical Lady (1931, reprinted by Academy Chicago, 1998.)

Back when I wrote short book reviews for a local newspaper, the Times of Northwest Indiana, this is what I had to say about it:

The Diary opens on a quiet November morning in an English village around 1930. The lady -- whose name we never learn -- is chronicling her attempts to "plant the indoor bulbs" despite interruptions from children, servants, and the officious local peeress, Lady Boxe, who is always ready to drop by with unsolicited advice.

For the next year, we follow the Provincial Lady through her small adventures: running her household, volunteering at the Women's Institute, visiting elderly shut-ins, coping with endless financial difficulties, and helping to bring young lovers together just before suffering a serious bout of measles. All the while she attempts to (as it were) keep her cultural head above water. She enters writing contests sponsored by the county newspaper (and is annoyed at sharing Second Prize). She tries to read the latest books. She goes to London with a younger and admittedly better-looking girlfriend, fully intending to see the famed Italian art exhibition, until her Christmas shopping duties interfere.

The novel closes simply. November has come round again. The lady and her husband have returned from a dismal party at "Lady B.'s." She stays up late writing her diary even as Robert sensibly asks "'Why don't I get into bed?' "

The enchantment of the Diary is its calm, intelligent, almost-loving and just slightly acidic depiction of ordinary life among deeply ordinary people. Some of the Provincial Lady's English references are difficult for the 21st-century American reader to follow. Her husband's occupation is mysterious, for one thing. He is Lady Boxe's "agent," which appears to put them both in a position of some subservience to the grande dame, and yet they are summoned to her country-house parties and seem to have a responsibility for taking the lead in the village's social and fund-raising affairs as well. A hint of the tension is conveyed early on when the heroine writes, "have absolutely decided that if Lady B. should introduce us to distinguished literary friends, or anyone else, as Our Agent, and Our Agent's wife, I shall at once leave the house."

The Provincial Lady's family and financial worries will also strike the modern reader as odd. She considers herself worked to death, yet employs a cook, two housemaids, and a French governess for the children. She pawns family jewelry and sells off old clothes to bring in cash, but sends her son to boarding school and manages to take a trip with friends to the south of France -- albeit, in the off season. " 'But why not go at the right time of year?' " Lady B. scolds.

Nevertheless, the almost relentless domesticity of this country gentlewoman's life, and her droll, engrossed, and un-self-pitying coping with it, ring true -- even nearly eighty years on -- for every reader who has ever complained about the daily grind. Practically everyone and everything in her world takes precedence over her own time and her own "little" plans; this is a part of being human, particularly a part of being a wife and mother, but her reaction to it is what makes this charming anonymous, in fact, a great Lady.
Even further back, I had a professor who re-read Pride and Prejudice, and other favorite novels, every year. The Diary of a Provincial Lady may not quite merit that attention, but when I do think of it and reopen it, it's usually in the gray days of November and December, which is when the story commences. The rock-cake quote specifically occurred to me now, eighty-one years on, because I am planning a tea this afternoon in honor of my daughter's birthday. The milestone has, so far, gone rather unremarked as it fell among Thanksgiving plans and a session, endured by the honoree herself, at the oral surgeon's office. All four wisdom teeth at once.

She wants a tea for her birthday. Delightful, but what does one serve? This will be afternoon tea, not "high tea" which is nothing but a normal 6 p.m. dinner with tea as the beverage instead of wine or beer. I grew up on these "high" teas and never knew it. Perhaps it was a habit handed down unthinkingly from English and Irish ancestors surnamed Smith, Swan, and Foy.

Anyway for hints on service, we turn to this properly English source, our Provincial Lady of the Unappetising Rock Cakes. (She has a wonderful gift for capitalizing Meaningful Things.) Her menu for tea is worth relating in its full context. Here, on "April 2nd," her young neighbor Barbara has come to confide those love troubles.

"...Can she, on the other hand, give up dear Crosbie, who has never loved a girl before, and says that he never will again? No, she cannot. 

"Barbara weeps. I kiss her. Howard Fitzsimmons [the manservant] selects this moment to walk in with the tea, at which I sit down again in confusion and begin to talk about the Vicarage daffodils ....

"Atmosphere ruined, and destruction completed by my own necessary enquiries as to Barbara's wishes in the matter of milk, sugar, bread-and-butter, and so on. (Mem.: must speak to Cook about sending in minute segment of sponge-cake, remains of one which, to my certain recollection, made its first appearance more than ten days ago. Also, why perpetual and unappetising procession of small rock cakes?"   
So: bread and butter then, and small rock cakes, though we can hope they need not be as unappetising as all that. Judging by the recipe to hand from the British & Irish food guide writing at About.com, "rock" cakes are little more than cookies studded with dried fruit; any drop cookie -- cookie batter dropped from a spoon onto a baking sheet, aren't we clever -- will have a rounded and rock-like appearance. For the sake of authenticity, however, here is the recipe, from About.com's Elaine Lemm.

**************

Rock cakes 
  • 8 oz/ 225g self raising flour
  • 1 tsp double action baking powder (US) or 1 tsp baking powder (UK)
  • 4 oz/110g soft butter or margarine
  • 2 oz/ 55g granulated sugar
  • 4 0z/ 110g mixed dried fruit
  • 2 oz/ 55g currants
  • 1 medium egg
  • 1 - 3 tbsp milk
  • Demerara sugar for sprinkling
  • Oil for greasing
  • NOTE: Some reviewers of this recipe have suggested adding 1 tsp mixed spice**

Preparation:

  • Heat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6
  • Sieve the flour and baking powder into a large baking bowl, add the softened butter or margarine, and lightly rub together with fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  • Add the sugar and the dried fruit and mix so all ingredients are well incorporated.
  • Add the egg and 1 tbsp of the milk and mix to create a stiff dough. If the mixture is still dry add milk a tbsp at a time until required consistency.
  • Lightly grease two baking sheets.
  • Using a tablespoon divide the mixture into 12 mounds evenly spaced on the 2 baking sheets. Sprinkle with the demerara sugar.
  • Bake in the preheated oven for 15 mins or until golden brown and well risen.
** Some reviewers have suggested adding a tsp of mixed spice. I like the addition but it really is optional. Try both and see which you like. If you cant find mixed spice outside of the UK am told pumpkin pie mix is a good substitute. Enjoy.

******************

Now, a tiny word of warning. If, after you make and enjoy tea with rock cakes, your life eerily follows the pattern of the Provincial Lady's, you will next get a "curious and  unpleasant form of chill" which will  turn into measles. But have hope. You will survive of course, and upon recovery -- helped along by the hiring of "expensive hospital nurse" -- you will be given "champagne, grapes, and Valentine's Meat Juice." It sounds most comforting, though the identity of this last product is a bit of research we shall have to put off to another day.  

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