Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Much of a muchness

I finished reading The Winter Kitchen (Houghton Mifflin 1962) by Louise Andrews Kent last night, I've been noodling through it for almost a week now, between reading other things. And it's been a great book for noodling through - it takes the reader on a kind of stately progress through each of the fall and winter months, incorporating fine food and recipes, holidays, friends, books, old-fashioned notions, and homeliness in the best sense of the word. Googling, I find there isn't even a wiki article about this author - perhaps because she wrote odd children's books and cookery books largely about women's domestic doings? And her output is ubiquitous on the shelves of used bookshops, for cheap? I don't know, but I do love her writing, she has just that combination of droll intelligence and dash and a hint of acerbity that I dearly love in an author. She wrote one of the books I loved best as a child - He Went With Marco Polo: a Story of Venice and Cathay (Houghton Mifflin 1935) - and I remember my mother having several of the Mrs. Appleyard books on the shelves at home. It's taken me all this time to get around to reading them myself.

The ending of The Winter Kitchen is terribly good. Kent's other self, Mrs. Appleyard, muses about the time-space continuum:

"She hopes that no one who reads this book will think she wants people to spend all their time in the kitchen. She wants you to have, literally, a good time. That means you will use time as you like instead of its using you. In cooking, as in life, time is the most important element, especially if you are the kind of cook who is reading The Wings of the Dove while the bread is rising..."

She elaborates, about living your life with best-ness. I quote at length because I loved it so much when I read it last night, and I find I still love it this morning:

"Mrs. Appleyard has her favorite books where she can reach them from her bed. Bostonians consider reading in bed rather dissipated. Mrs. Appleyard admits that she not only reads in bed; she also writes there. One of the books for which she often stretches out her hand is her grandmother's copy of Miss Parloa's Cook Book with her grandmother's handwriting on the extra pages in the back. Next to it is another favorite book called Teach Yourself Greek.

If someone else had taught her Greek about 1902, perhaps she would know more. However she has learned one or two sentences she likes. This one of Aristotle's is her favorite.

(She quotes in Greek, and my keyboard skills are not up to this task, apart from αρετη.)

The word αρετη has no real counterpart in English. It can mean different things in different situations. For instance, the αρετη of the soldier is courage, of a knife - sharpness, of a merchant - honesty, of a soufflé - lightness. It is a special excellence.

So Aristotle's sentence means to Mrs. Appleyard:

'Happiness is activity of the spirit used according to its special excellence in the complete life.'"

What a wonderful life motto. A muchness, a best-ness, αρετη. This in a book primarily about cookery, but, like all great books in any genre, actually about the condition of being human. And of living well, with cream and butter and oysters for special occasions. If I had the patience, I should have saved each chapter of this book, month by month, and read it the whole winter long. Obviously the only thing to do is re-read it next year.

Like so many of your posts, this one is driving me to ABE to look up and buy a copy of the book. You're right--the best books are not about any one thing, they are about many things, no matter what their primary theme may be.
Get "The Summer Kitchen" first, or "Mrs. Appleyard's Year," both of which are also written almanac-style, and precede "The Winter Kitchen" chronologically. They are all cookery books, but they read more like memoir (very lightly disguised as fiction) when you read between the recipes. Of course, I enjoy reading the recipes, too.

Your comment makes me think of M.F.K. Fisher - people say she was a great food writer, I say no, she was a great writer. Who happened to write about food.
I must read this book, and all of the Mrs. Appleyard books! As a housewife/bookseller, it sounds just perfect for me. I'm always looking for ways to get the most out of my life, whether it be family, food, and housekeeping or books. Thanks, as always, for summing it all up so well. You are the apex (sorry, can't type the Greek letters) of booksellers whose love for her work shows in every detail, Sarah!
Chris, thanks for the kind comment - thanks from me and my odd little bookshop here in near-rural Maine, where the truth is that on slow days I often feel like I'm operating at the bottom of the bookselling barrel. However, I like it here! I'm enjoying your blog - and I hope you do track down some Kent books to read. Homely pleasures...
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