Monday, February 29, 2016


cookery books and bookish cooks

Leap year day.  I put it to good use by getting my act together.  Although, truthfully, I engage in this activity on most Mondays, not just once every four years. Mondays are for clearing the decks and and making hopeful lists.  I tidy up, do the regular household chores (woodstove-related and otherwise), balance the checkbooks, and clean my studio in the hope that doing so will create enough open space for the arrival of some new projects.  I also catch up in my diary, and copy quotations into it from whatever I've just finished reading.  Which, to follow up from my last post, has been Louise Andrews Kent books.  I've written before about her, many times.  I will not let that deter me from discussing her yet again.  But, her fictional character Mrs. Appleyard says it best:

"She admits that repetitiousness is a fault and she tries to get over it, although after a study of the situation she has come to the conclusion that it is difficult to have all conversation brand-new and that one factor in any friendship is the ability to listen to it as if it were."  (Mrs. Appleyard's Year p.14)

So, please do forgive me for repeating myself!  Louise Andrews Kent began her literary life as a novelist and author of young adult adventure books, and wrote a newspaper column as "Theresa Tempest"; she also worked as a recipe tester and became a home cook.  Her cookery books make up most of her later literary output.  To me, she feels like a bridge between Fannie Farmer and Julia Child.  Akin to M.F.K. Fisher, but a New England version - an American Mrs. Miniver - bookish, adventuresome, observant, wry.  After writing the first Mrs. Appleyard novel, Mrs. Appleyard's Year (Houghton Mifflin 1941), she extended the character, her alter-ego, into a full-length cookery book, Mrs. Appleyard's Kitchen (1942).  She says in its introduction:

"...I still think there's room for the smaller, more personal book, for the kind that is based on one person's experience, rather than the encyclopaedia of cooking that has all the wisdom of the ages in it.  The smaller ones are fun to read, too, even if you never cook out of them."  (p.viii)

And they are fun to read!  I've read both of these, many times over, along with her others, The Summer Kitchen (1957) and The Winter Kitchen (1962), and her wonderful autobiography Mrs. Appleyard and I, published in 1968, the year before she died at the age of 83. I hope I'll read them all again, in years to come.  They are just that kind of books and she creates in them a character you come to know and love and will always remember.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that one of the new-to-me Louise Andrews Kent books I recently ordered contains cameo appearances by Mrs. Appleyard.  The novel is Country Mouse (1945) and it is very much a World War II home front novel, about an arts institute in rural Vermont, run by two marginal society women, on an old farm belonging to a young heroine.  There is a large cast of characters, including a dashing pilot and various other war heroes, a country ingenue, an ice queen, a few scoundrels, some artists and musicians, several children who notice more than they should, and Mrs. Appleyard, who oversees what needs overseeing from a mile away, and ends up marrying off everyone of age by the end of the book.  She's a busybody, and a fairy godmother, and the grandparent we all dream of, rolled into one.  She shows her colors early on: 

"It is never safe to ask Mrs. Appleyard anything unless you wish to know the answer and act on it."  (p.22)

She isn't always made of sugarplums, though, that is a large part of her charm:

"Mrs. Appleyard must be forgiven for speaking with a kind of cosy vindictiveness."  (p.23)

Food is important, throughout this book.  The arts institute has a French cook, and the characters eat supremely well (despite their ration-books) and work every day in the farm's victory garden.  Mrs. Appleyard provides occasional words of guidance:

" she herself has often remarked, almost anyone can get up a good meal with lobster and champagne.  The test comes when you bake a potato..."  (p.24)

The novel is romantic and predictable, and I didn't care.  I loved it for all of that.  It's all about women and the war, and what it takes to cheerfully do one's part on the home front.  It makes me think of my grandparents and their wartime experiences - I had one grandfather with the U.S. Navy, in the Mediterranean, and another grandfather in China, working as a doctor during the war years, since that's where the government sent him because he was a conscientious objector.  In both cases, their wives - my grandmothers - were at home, with very young children.  I feel closer to them, having read this book.  (I feel very close to one of them in particular, since she wrote her name in what is now my copy of Mrs. Appleyard's Year.  I also have her copy of M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, which I thought I had sold by mistake many years ago - I'm a bookseller, it happens - but found again, safe here at home, to my great delight.)

I then turned to my other new Louise Andrews Kent novel, Paul Revere Square (1939).  Written before Mrs. Appleyard, but containing someone that could be her prototype.  She is a minor character in another novel simply chock full of people, but she makes an appearance early on, in an advertisement in the local newspaper (p.9):

"Would you like a LISTENER?  I will listen to your troubles, the story of your golf match, the bright sayings of your little ones.  Tell me what you think of the Administration.  I never answer back.  A slight extra charge for looking at motion pictures of your trip abroad.  The Help A Bit Shop.  Bulfinch 7770."

Another managing, helpful, good-humored, sympathetic busybody.  She was a welcome presence in this more-than-slightly-unbelievable tale about a young and beautiful heiress being wooed for her unexpected inheritance by several of her ne'er-do-well Beacon Hill cousins.  Another tidy book with everyone marrying the right people and all the loose ends tied in bows, albeit a few quite strangely.  Altogether predictable but again, I didn't much care.  It was a pleasure to be carried along and read something smooth, for enjoyment's sake.

Speaking of which, I took some of Mrs. Appleyard's advice myself, after reading pages and pages of her cookery-with-comments, over the last two weeks.  Last Monday - not a leap year day, just a regular old Monday - Ryan had to work late and so I was on my own, supper-wise.  I had just read her description of making Hollandaise sauce.  Which I myself have never made, despite the fact that it is one of my favorite things to order in a restaurant, for breakfast, in the form of Eggs Benedict - a worthy vehicle for Hollandaise.  Since one of my favorite things to cook at home is a variation of something we call breakfast-for-dinner, I read her description twice, with care.  And thought, I could do that.  And then I did.  I made a beautiful Hollandaise, in an improvised double boiler, out of egg yolks, lemon juice, and butter, and put it over Anadama toast and eggs and a slice of fried ham, and a big heap of steamed spinach.  It was heavenly.  And I felt so capable!  Thank you, Mrs. Appleyard - I mean, Louise Andrews Kent - for everything.

For dessert, I ordered two more of her books, online again (ho-hum... I'd rather find them in a bookshop...), and am eagerly awaiting their arrival.  One I've only read once before - I borrowed it from a local library some years back, against my better judgment.  I managed to return it before incurring fines.  For me, unusual.  Anyway, the copy I just bought is SIGNED and was less than ten dollars!  I am beyond thrilled!  The other looks like an odd little book, again inexpensive, and I have never read it before.  More soon.  I've gone on long enough.  Although, with the remains of this extra day on my hands, I suppose I could continue...      

Please do continue! Love reading your blog so very much. I've added Louise Andrews Kent to my to-be-reads on and also updated the author entry for A Country Mouse. Just a little piece of setting the world to rights. ;) and you helped me do it! Your comment on getting a signed copy (which always thrills me!) reminds me that I just picked up a copy of The New England Butt'ry Shelf Cookbook: Receipts for Very Special Occasions. I purchased this mostly because of Tasha Tudor being the artist & based on a friend's recommendation. Lo & behold, the author (Mary Mason Campbell) signed it.... to me and Rosy! (Not really. Rosy wasn't born until 2008 and the signature was done in 1990s, but still..... ) Pretty amazing coincidence. Loved getting signed books.
Thank you for reading, Kim, for lo these many years! Always good to hear from you! I've bought and sold several copies of "Butt'ry Shelf" - it's such a charmer... but I've never seen a signed copy. Lucky you, that is a great find. I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my signed L.A. Kent book - another Mrs. Appleyard story - there are relatively few copies for sale around cyberspace, so to find an inexpensive signed one was a dream. (
I'm up in New Hampshire for a few day of spring break- only a few snowflakes today- and paid a visit to the local used book store. Among the New England authors section, I found Louise Andrews Kent and bought Country Mouse. All thanks to your recommendation, of course. I also found a 1st edition copy of T.H.White's The Elephant and the Kangaroo. This has been on my list since reading about his writing it in Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography of him. I'm looking forward to reading both of these and have placed them high in the TBR pile.
Dan, great to hear from you - I hope you enjoy "Country Mouse" - "Mrs. Appleyard's Year" is the first in the series, and my very favorite, as I'm sure I've mentioned, but I do love them all.

Speaking of T.H. White - have you read "H is for Hawk" by Helen Macdonald (much ado about White therein)? I just finished it this week. What an extraordinary book. It deserves all the awards it has won. Longer review than that to follow, in the near future.
Sarah, I've not seen "H is for Hawk"; another to add to the list! I look forward to your review.
Soon, soon! So much to think about, in this incredible book. I've just taken notes out of it and am attempting to formulate some thoughts. T.H. White appears throughout, although the book isn't about him, as such.
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