Tag Archives: 19th century

In which we are reminded of the importance of specificity. And also the deliciousness of apples.

7 Oct

So the food I set out to dig some info up on today is a pretty difficult one to research: apple cider! You’re probably thinking, “Jules, what’s so difficult about that?” In response to which I might punch you! It turns out, there is a lot that’s difficult about that.

Not only is cider about as old as apples (the only question seems to be whether the Egyptians were making it; while they grew apples, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that they were making any kind of juice or beverage from them), but trying to figure out which particular cider any given source is talking about is pretty tricky, too. American cider, which is unsweetened, unclarified juice (cloudy and brown, as opposed to the clear yellow stuff sold as juice), is completely different from what we call hard cider and the rest of the world just calls cider, which is also clear and yellow but will get you drunk! This brings me to a very important Serious Historical Research Tip: always specify your terms. A lot of the sources out there are just throwing “cider” around without any modifiers whatsoever. Is that useful to the Serious Historical Expert? It is not. Not when you’re trying to find information on one particular kind, anyway.

As far as other early mentions, a couple of different sources mentioned that when the Romans reached Britain, the locals in Kent introduced them to some kind of apple-based drink. But the earliest records of cider-making in England are from after the Norman Conquest, although there were references from France early in the ninth century, from no less a source than Charlemagne. It also turns out that in the late nineteenth century, cider actually outstripped wine as the beverage of choice in Paris! In America, meanwhile, during the early years of the colonial period, apples were a lot quicker and easier to grow than grains, so cider was generally more prevalent than beer.

But this ended up being as much a chance to talk about the Serious Historical Research Process as delicious autumnal beverages. Here’s the thing: in a lot of the sources where I found this information, I ended up having to deduce for myself which kind of cider the author was referring to (usually hard). In the case of an article from a website dedicated to alcoholic beverages, this was kind of a no-brainer, but in other cases, I’d have to go on references contrasting cider with beer, remarking on the differences in “fermentation processes”, and mentioning that a general decline in popularity was followed by the blow of Prohibition. These are the kinds of context clues that the Serious Historical Expert needs to be on the lookout for, you see. And while it’s easy to write one source off, especially one found by the Grueling Research Method of googling for two minutes, the need to pay attention to context because no one would specify whether they were talking about hard or soft cider was a constant one–even a New York Times article confused me for awhile until its middle, where there were references to alcohol content. This timeline, further, has an interesting graph at the bottom. I had assumed (from the fact that the URL is a UK-based one, and it’s generally only Americans who refer to soft cider as merely “cider”, without any modifiers) that it was generally tracking hard cider, and if you’ll look at that graph, you’ll notice something else that corroborates that assumption: there’s a huge drop-off in US cider consumption right after 1919. Again, this is an important context clue–Prohibition went into effect shortly after, and that would’ve affected hard cider sales drastically.

Personally, for dinner tonight I’m going to make these pork chops braised in (soft) cider. I suspect they will go down in history for DELICIOUSNESS.

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In which I get ridiculously defensive of Mrs. Bennet, part 2.

11 Sep

So I will begin this post with a second anecdote, because who doesn’t love anecdotes. This past spring, the tubes were all abuzz with excitement over Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I was cautiously excited, until I found out that it was written by a man, and then the excitement level lowered a little, for reasons I had trouble articulating. Fortunately, my friend Judith managed to use words moar gooder than me on this subject, so rather than potentially drag this out for a whole other post I will instead just point you to hers. Anyhoo, the book was released, and I was curious, so I flipped through it at Barnes and Noble. In the back there was a “readers’ discussion guide”, and it was there that I hit the one that made me close the book, put it down, and never look back: “Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?”

Basically what this said to me was that the douche writing this had no understanding whatsoever of

  1. Early nineteenth-century England
  2. What life was like for women in early nineteenth-century England
  3. Austen

Here is the thing: what made Mrs. Bennet ridiculous was not that she wanted her daughters to all get married. What made her ridiculous was that she was overexciteable and overemotional for a woman of her age and station, and that she was bad at judging what it was appropriate to say in front of company and what was best left to the family. Wanting to marry off her daughters, and marry them off well, did not make her a bad mother for the time.

Here is the next thing: the Bennets are at the very bottom of the upper class. In Chapter Seven, it’s noted that Mrs. Bennet’s father “had been an attorney”, that her brother-in-law was a clerk for her father, “and succeeded him in the business”, and that her brother “settled in London in a respectable line of trade”—all fine lines of work, but all lines of work nonetheless, meaning she was middle-class and married up into the gentry. She wants her daughters to do at least as well as she did, first and foremost because the only way any of them are guaranteed security is if they married men with secure incomes. Remember Mr. Collins: because of the legal system in place, since the Bennets had no heirs (you’ll note I don’t say “male heirs”, because at the time, that would’ve been a redundancy, since only men could inherit) the Bennets’ estate would go to him when Mr. Bennet died. They would just have to depend on his not turning them out if they wanted to, you know, continue having a roof over their heads.

It sucks by our standards. It sucked by their standards, too, in a lot of people’s eyes; there’s a lot to suggest that Austen was one of these people herself. But it was a fact of life. Again, we get into “the past is another country” territory here. Reading Pride and Prejudice with the knowledge that good marriages were the only chance the Bennet girls had at stable, secure lives independent of their parents, I like to think that Mrs. Bennet becomes a little more sympathetic, her motives little more understandable. Make no mistake, she’s still there in part as a comic foil to Lizzie and Mr. Bennet, but the fact that she wants her daughters to marry well isn’t what establishes her thusly; how she deals with this fact, as I said earlier, is.

In conclusion, I think the main problem with Mrs. Bennet is that she is not a character who aged well as times have changed and women’s options have increased. No longer is marriage the primary goal for most young women, if it’s even a goal, period; women from rich families can inherit and stay rich; women who aren’t going to have inheritances to make them rich have plenty of options besides getting married or being passed from relative to relative for support. It can be hard, therefore, to understand why this is so important to her.

(Also, I kind of think Mr. Bennet is a bit of a dick, and I like the 2005 version for drawing a direct line between his benevolent neglect and Lydia’s behavior, as well as Mrs. Bennet’s dramatics and Lydia’s behavior, but I think I have lectured you guys enough for now. But one day, when you least suspect it, you will look at this blog and BOOM.)

In which I get ridiculously defensive of Mrs. Bennet, part 1.

10 Sep

Sorry about the break in posting, there; I was out of town for a family thing. Actually the place we were at has some historical significance of its own, but first there is this special two-part thing I have been working on for some time. You read that right: two-part. OH YES, MY FRIENDS, I REALLY DO HAVE THAT MUCH TO SAY ON MRS. BENNET.

So a few years ago I had this classmate, and we got together for lunch, and eventually the topic turned to Austen, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that two young ladies, in possession of large girl-geek-boners for the Regency and for books, must eventually discuss their feelings on Pride and Prejudice. We disagreed over the merits of the 2005 film, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew McFayden (I enjoyed it, she hated it). I mentioned that one of the things I liked about it was that it showed a certain amount of real affection between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, and how I thought it was unfair of a lot of interpretations to portray Mrs. Bennet as not caring about her family or her husband, and she said something that made my blood run cold.

“Well,” she said, “I think that Mrs. Bennet loved Mr. Bennet as much as she was able.”

As much as she was able.

AS MUCH AS SHE WAS ABLE.

AS MUCH AS SHE WAS ABLE.

Because clearly, you know, if a lady (or a person in general, but I suspect a lot of the dislike for Mrs. Bennet is based on some of her more traditionally “feminine” characteristics) isn’t intellectual, she’s not capable of actual emotion, amirite? Like, ugh, I am the first to lament the rampant anti-intellectualism in my culture, but I am not the most intellectual person out there, either. I’m fairly intelligent, I think, but—put it this way, a friend of mine categorizes most characters in genre things as being either Thinkers or Smashers, and if I were a superhero, I would definitely be a Smasher. And like Mrs. Bennet, I sometimes enjoy stupid traditionally-girly things like dresses and daydreaming about big fancy weddings and gossiping. Sometimes I don’t like those things, but sometimes I do! And I am pretty horrified by the implication that caring about frivolous things automatically nullifies any thoughts or feelings I might have.

I mean, I am all about not prescribing gender roles, so I certainly don’t think the only things that women should care about are dresses and weddings and gossip, or that all women should care about those things. But the fact that these things are considered bad and/or stupid because they are considered feminine, and thus that anyone who cares about those things is a bad and/or stupid person (because they are liking things that are considered feminine), is awful.

This is why, for all my issues with Joss Whedon and gender, Buffy Summers was so significant. Where there had been a run of action heroines like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, who kicked ass but where completely un-“girly”, where there had been a world of Final Girls with gender-ambiguous names who only saved themselves by turning the killers’ weapon against him and thus getting symbolic phalluses of their own, suddenly you had a young woman who liked shoe shopping, and was a cheerleader, and could take you down if you fucked with her.

Part Two, where I talk about the Serious Historical Business that makes me defensive of Mrs. Bennet, to follow in a couple of days, since I’m going to be in New Hampshire for the weekend on family stuff. MULTI-PART POSTS, SO THRILLING.

In which the more things change, the more they stay the same.

26 Aug

From The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, emphasis mine:

TO BITCH. To yield, or give up an attempt through fear. To stand bitch; to make tea, or do the honours of the tea-table, performing a female part: bitch there standing for woman, species for genius.

In the previous entry, the word “bitch” is “the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman”. This also ties into why I resisted watching Supernatural for so long, and why I still feel guilty for liking it as much as I do. Guess what, using “bitch” as an insult to a dude is a misogynistic slur, because the insult is not just in saying that they’re weak/fearful/whiny, it’s in saying that he’s weak/fearful/whiny like a woman.

Not like a dog, as I’m sure plenty of people will try to disingenuously argue. If the insult were just in comparing the person/behavior to a dog, we’d tell people to stop acting like dogs. “Bitch” refers specifically to female dogs, and thus genders the behavior/person being insulted as female.

SO STOP FUCKING DOING IT.

Link: Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy

20 Aug

AMAZING TOOL REPORT, which I found by googling something I figured wouldn’t return any useful results, and then I found EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED. Oh, Internet, I love you so much. Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy 1718-1820, an incredible database. From the introduction:

In 1984, a professor at Rutgers University stumbled upon a trove of historic data in a courthouse in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Over the next 15 years, Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a noted New Orleans writer and historian, painstakingly uncovered the background of 100,000 slaves who were brought to Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries making fortunes for their owners.

Poring through documents from all over Louisiana, as well as archives in France, Spain and Texas, Dr. Hall designed and created a database into which she recorded and calculated the information she obtained from these documents about African slave names, genders, ages, occupations, illnesses, family relationships, ethnicity, places of origin, prices paid by slave owners, and slaves’ testimony and emancipations. In March 2000, the Louisiana State University Press published published Dr. Hall’s databases on a CD-ROM.

Internet. Historians. Why so amazing. This is a stunningly useful tool, not only for the depth and breadth of information (French and Spanish slave records, the site explains, were generally much more detailed than English) but also because it’s completely intuitive to use.