November 25, 2010

Guest post: Miss Leslie and stewed pumpkin

Take a quart of stewed pumpkin. Put it into a sieve, and press and strain it as dry as possible. Then set it away to get cold. Beat eight eggs very light, and stir them gradually into the pumpkin, a little at a time, in turn with a quart of rich cream and a pound of sugar. Mix together a quarter of an ounce of powdered mace, two powdered nutmegs, and a table-spoonful of ground ginger, and stir them into the other ingredients. When all is mixed, stir the whole very hard. Cover the bottom of your pie-dishes with a thin paste, and fill them nearly to the top with the mixture. Cut out narrow strips of paste with your jagging-iron, and lay them across the tops of your pies. Bake them from an hour to an hour and a quarter. Send them to table cool. They are best the day they are baked.

This pumpkin pie recipe, appropriate for Thanksgiving, comes from Eliza Leslie (known as Miss Leslie), who was born earlier this month in 1787. Her Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats was one of the earliest American cookbooks, published anonymously in 1828. She also wrote etiquette books, juvenile literature, and was an editor of, and contributor to, literary annuals. The variety of Miss Leslie's literary interests to some extent reflects the diverse subject matter of lady’s magazines, publishing didactic and sentimental stories side by side with work departments, recipes, and the like.

Miss Leslie also edited a famous Philadelphia gift book, The Gift, a Christmas and New Year Present. Eight volumes of the annual were issued from 1833 to 1845; contributors included Edgar A. Poe, Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Lydia Sigourney, and others. Illustrations were done by Thomas Sully and Eliza’s brother, Charles R. Leslie. The quality of The Gift was, indeed, exceptional; to compare, Miss Leslie’s other project, The Violet: A Christmas and New Year’s Gift, or Birth-day Present was purely commercial and generally tasteless.

Among Miss Leslie’s own contributions to The Gift is a lovely tale called "The Ghost Book" (The Gift for 1839). A boy with a telling name "Caleb" goes looking for a huckleberry pudding or pumpkin pie recipe in the kitchen loft; instead, he discovers a mysterious hand-written book. Caleb shows the book to his friends, and the boys recognize the hand-writing of their school master Orrin Loomis who left their village some time ago. They go to a ruinous and deserted stable in the neighborhood and read the book aloud.

     "If Master Loomis has put a moral at the fore part," – said Stacey, – "just pass it over, and get on at once with the story."
     "You needn’t tell me that;" – replied Harman, – "but the beginning of this book seems to be tore out, for the first leaf has the figure of five on its corner – and if much of the story is missing, it will be pretty hard to make sense of the rest."
     "And how we can but try," – observed Caleb Rowan – "half a loaf’s better than no bread."

However reading a book without a moral can be dangerous, as Miss Leslie's story shows. Loomis narrates how he was haunted by a mysterious ghost from the closet while living in the family of one of the boys, David Gleason. Then Loomis moved to the house of another boy, Stacey Brooks; his last house was that of Caleb Rowan. Finally the schoolmaster describes that one evening he went to the same old stable to read a book and suddenly "was startled by a strange and unearthly sound that seemed to proceed from a dark corner” behind him. Affrighted by his voice, Harman Brooks interrupts reading at the words “the horrors of my story are coming on." The same moment the boys hear three knocks at the door; they scream falling on each other… and hear the voice of Orrin Loomis, their master.

Loomis was visiting the village on the way to one of the western colleges where he got a job and, passing the stable, was struck by the voice of Harman Brooks "reading something which he soon recognised as the rough copy of a tale, in writing which he had amused some of his leisure hours, intending it for one of the periodicals of the day." He convinced the boys that "the whole narrative of what they called the ghost-book was an entire fiction." The boys were "relieved and delighted" to hear that. We may assume that the reader holding an exquisite and elegant annual in her hands felt "relieved and delighted" too. By the end of the story, she came to realize how much more enjoyable it is to read the gift book than the ghost-book, especially the one with the moral missing!

*Alexandra Urakova is a Senior Researcher at the Gorky Institute of World Literature and Associate Professor of English at the Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia. She is the author of The Poetics of Body in the Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (Moscow, 2009). On gift books see her essay "'The Purloined Letter' in the Gift Book: Reading Poe in a Contemporary Context" in Nineteenth-Century Literature, 64.3 (2009): 323–346.

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