Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Handbook For Badasstic Country Ladies

Last weekend I discovered a new consignment store in downtown Napa with a fabulous collection of historic toys, sports memorabilia, and random old books.  The deceptively generic-sounding Napa Valley Buy & Sell is on First Street between Coombs and Randolph, and offers hours of entertainment to those willing to paw through the wares--particularly the books about food and sexuality.  These two departments were spectacularly well developed, making it clear that someone in charge over there has a penchant for the fun stuff. 

I scored two remarkable treasures on my first visit, for the princely sum of $4.32 total (including tax). The first was a 1961 hardcover edition of The Escoffier Cook Book, but the second was an even more exciting relic from another time and place: the 1888 edition of Maison Rustique des Dames, by Madame Millet-Robinet. This copy is in amazing shape considering its age, and came with a bonus prize inside: two carefully pressed four leaf clovers hidden within its 636 onion-skin pages.

Since this 1888 version was the 13th edition, I'm guessing the book was wildly popular back in the day.  A quick perusal of the table of contents for this two-volume hardcover reveals why.  (Note: this book is written in 1888 French, so forgive any inaccuracies in my 21st Century translations)

Part One discusses basic household maintenance, covering such essentials as how to hire your maids; how to put your kids to work on the farm; managing household expenses; bread baking; window washing; the care and cleaning of furs; preserving meats (including a subsection entitled "Method of killing and preparing the pig"); preserving vegetables; stocking the wine cellar; and an entire chapter dedicated to colognes and perfumes.  Bien sûr.  These ladies may have been in the country, but it seems that didn't stop them from living pret-ty darn well... the wines suggested by the author include such domaines as Romanée Conti and Lafite, for example.

Part Two is a Manual of Cookery, outlining different types of service style, basic knife techniques, and a wealth of presentation and garnish ideas.  Distinct chapters on hors d'oeuvres, meat, game, fish, vegetables, purées (presumably so popular that they deserve their own chapter), fried dishes (same), doughs, desserts, pastries, and an authoritative "List of foods that may be served for lunch" provide invaluable guidance to the country hostess with the mostess.

 Part Three, incredibly, includes a medical encyclopedia and covers topics ranging from what to include in the medicine cabinet, all the way to formal pronouncements of death. 

Engraving 116: "Goat in harness"

Part Four delves into all the various types of gardens one might desire, and Part Five gets down and dirty on the Farm... articulating the essentials of farm buildings, staffing, and proper feeding of the staff (which the book stresses at length), as well as the care and feeding of an array of different breeds of chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, pigeons, rabits, cattle, dairy animals, sheep, pigs, goats, and bees.  There's even a chapter on how to drive a horse-drawn carriage and tend your horse while traveling long distances in all manner of weather conditions. Tip: always light a lantern on your carriage right after sunset, or risk a fine of 15 francs if the police catch you.

The  book is full of priceless advice like this.  I'm thinking I need to translate and share the choicest passages and recipes on this blog to celebrate the pearls of wisdom Madame Millet-Robinet had to share with badasstic country ladies over 120 years ago.  Who knows how much of it might still be invaluable to modern "ladies" in rural communities like the Napa Valley?

Choosing where to begin, though, is gonna be tough... maybe "Management of a Dinner Party," where all the rules of engagement and feasting are made clear? Or perhaps "Enraged or Venimous Animal Bites And Insect Stings," sure to be a thrilling read full of terrifying medical advice....

Regardless of where I begin, this quirky little tome contains an embarassment of riches, and I cannot wait to taste them.

1 comment:

  1. wonderful find! I love the variety of "antique" and consignment shops in Napa and I'll have to check this one out too! Can't wait to hear more of your translation!