How to Be a Whaler’s Wife in 1908: Boil Everything, Wash the Clothes in Gin
Shirley Barrett Goes Deep into the Domestic Research
One of the pleasures of writing domestic fiction in an historical setting is the opportunity it presents to waste hours of precious writing time poring over ancient recipe books. I am a keen home cook and avid MasterChef viewer; my kitchen cupboards groan with cookbooks and fancy gadgets and obscure ingredients well past their use-by dates, so to hark back to a simpler time when you might reasonably offer your guests a boiled neck of mutton—perhaps enlivened with a dozen blanched oysters and two hard-boiled eggs—never fails to appeal to me.
In my book Rush Oh!, the fictional lead character, Mary Davidson, is charged with the task of cooking for a bunch of unappreciative whalers. Rather like myself, she is well-intentioned, but a tad too slapdash in her methods to be ever entirely successful. Unlike myself, with my fancy induction cooktop and whatnot, she is rustling up “slops” in a camp oven on an open fire. Times were tough in Eden, 1908, and provisions worrisomely low (with the exception of oysters, oddly enough, which were abundant and used for padding out stews, and rabbits, which were in plague proportions).
This was a time, of course, when all parts of the beast were used, and precious little went to waste. In Eden, New South Wales, where my story is set, even the rotting remains of the whale were put to good use, once its blubber and baleen had been removed for the production of whale oil and corsetry. Not that these remains were used for anything culinary, I’m happy to report (though God knows, the prospect of a fricasee of some description probably crossed their minds). Rather, these stinking remains were used as a cure for rheumatism. The patient would immerse himself up to the neck in the putrefying whale carcass for as long as he could bear it, the heat and oils generated from the fermentation process having apparently “a remarkable curative effect.” Perhaps you would prefer to stick with your fish oil tablets. Anyway, here are some gruesome recipes involving offal: sheeps’ tongues, ox kidneys and lambs heads, with some mutton and rabbits thrown in for good measure. I was interested to observe that the succinctly titled ‘Rabbits’ recipe requires a half wine glass of Worcestershire sauce—personally, I’d tip a bit more in. It will only go off in the cupboard.
The Davidsons kept chickens, of course, but in spite of Mary’s best efforts, they were sporadic layers at best. The discovery of two eggs in the coop prompts a rush of blood to the head: a cake could be attempted, and Mary bakes a Madeira cake, later sat upon by the family dog. Mary’s recipe is from her Presbyterian Women’s Missionary cookbook, which does not, regrettably, offer a single recipe on how best to cook missionaries. Rather it is a haphazardly assembled collection of frugal, unappealing recipes for things like giblet soup and stewed minced meat (its only seasoning? Worcestershire sauce) submitted by thrifty Presbyterian housewives. I was pleased to find this economical Madeira Cake recipe was supplied by a possible ancient relative of mine, a Mrs. Barrett. The interesting thing about Madeira cake is that it contains no Madeira. That is possibly the only interesting thing about Madeira cake—I’m not entirely sure it’s worth the effort, but up to you.
Hospitality must be extended to visitors, of course, no matter how depleted the pantry, and Mary and her sister Louisa are forced to hastily rustle up a batch of Rock Cakes for the traveling salesman when he comes a-calling. Personally, I think Miss Higgins has been a bit excessive with the eggs in this recipe below. My ever-thrifty namesake, Mrs. Barrett, submits another version elsewhere requiring only two eggs and ten minutes in a brisk oven. Nor does she bother with the candied lemon peel.
One of my favorite reference books of the era is entitled Everything A Lady Should Know, and supplies useful information on a range of topics from the care of invalids (“There is much more injury done by admitting visitors to invalids than is generally supposed”) to recipes for Hair Grease (you don’t want to know. It begins “Melt one half pound of lard…”). There is also, usefully for me, a comprehensive section on doing the laundry. Careful study of these pages leaves the impression that seemingly any household item at all, if close at hand, was gamely tried out as a laundry aid; there seems to be an attitude of experiment and improvisation notably lacking in the modern wash day. Silk stockings, for example, were washed in a mixture of bran and water. “Rinse thoroughly in a succession of clean waters,” the instructions conclude. Well, quite, unless you want bran stuck all over your tights. And how about Silk, To Wash, which requires a half-pint of gin, soft soap and two ounces of honey, well shaken. “The lady who furnishes this recipe says she has washed a green silk dress by it, and it looks as good as new.” Surely she must have drunk the other half-pint gin to have dreamed this concoction up in the first place? Helpfully for Mary, there is also a section on starching, as her fancy man John Beck has asked Mary to starch his good white shirt. “To every pint of starch add a piece of spermaceti candle the size of a chestnut.” Good luck with that, Mary. First you’ll need to get out there and catch yourself a Sperm whale.