On Porridge

Anne here, and today I'm talking about porridge — or as many people call it, oatmeal. WilliamHemsleyPorridge

Technically the word 'porridge' can refer to any kind of grain cooked into a mush, but for anyone with even a drop of Scottish blood, porridge means only one thing — oatmeal porridge.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English writer and lexicographer, best known for ‘Dr. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary’ (1755) defined oats thus: "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." 

Oats:JohnsonJust a tad prejudiced, don't you think? Well, it was only a decade after the failed Scottish uprising against the English. And to Johnson's definition, someone not quite so anti-Scottish responded: "Ah yes, sir, but where will you find such horses, such people?"

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We Need to Talk – The Art of Conversation

Abbie 3I read last week that the art of conversation is dead. This is the era of the text and the tweet where we give and receive information in small doses. We communicate more but we talk less. Digital communication also lets you plan what you want to say whereas in real time we don’t know where a conversation is going to lead, and that makes us nervous.

Such claims are nothing new. Technology has often been blamed for having a detrimental effect on face-to-face communication. In 1889 a newspaper article suggested that telephones should not be allowed in private houses for fear of the damage they could do to “real” conversations. Way back in the 4th century BC Socrates was complaining that writing ideas down was not as good as talking about them one to one because the way to learn was through debate.

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A New Slant on Writing

Book-cover-pride-and-prejudiceIn the Matthew Macfadyen / Keira Knightley 2005 production of Pride and Prejudice, there's a scene where Mr. Darcy is writing a letter, despite Miss Bingley's determination he shall pay attention to her instead.  It reads, in part:

Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady either on his hand-writing, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in unison with her opinion of each.

"How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!"

He made no answer.

"You write uncommonly fast."

"You are mistaken. I write rather slowly."

"How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of the year! Letters of business too! How odious I should think them!"

"It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours."

In that scFashionable letter 2 writer troy ny merrian moore 1850eHenry wallis dr johnson at cave's the publisherne, we see Mr. Darcy writing his letter using a "writing slope''.  Go ahead.  Rent the film and see. 

This 'writing slope' is a wood box with an angled surface, elevated a couple inches above the desk or table, slanted and padded with felt or leather.  See the folks at the left using these.  The man in the wig is Samuel Johnson. 

Pole In the Library 1805This writing slope might be a heavy object, made for use in the comfort of the library or study.  It might stay at home, perfectly content, and never go adventuring.  Or the writing slant might lead a very exciting life indeed … 


Toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, the writing slope shrank in size, sprouted handles, and transformed itself into a sort of traveling desk.  Jefferson's desk wiki2 Lap_desk_interior_view wiki

It was now both a a writing surface and a sturdy wood box for transporting and storing the impedimenta.  Like the stay-at-home writing slopes, these traveling desks or 'lap desks' were angled to provide that optimal slanted writing experience. 

That writing desk on the far right, by the way, is said to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  

The lap desk was hinged in the middle and opened to reveal the felted or leather writing surface.  Underneath each half were compartments for storing writing paper and letters half completed.  Maybe there'd be a slim drawer at the end, especially in the early examples.  In any case, you'd have your ingenious cubbies to hold ink bottles and quill pens, sealing wax, silver sand, blotters, penwipes and so on.  Some of the most elaborate lap desks had sneaky little compartments lurking behind the drawers or opening with clever, secret levers and slides.

A man's penmanship is an unfailing index of his character, moral and mental, and a criterion by which to judge his peculiarities of taste and sentiments.
                 Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield

Portable writing desk c18
This sturdy, portable writing desk was the computer laptap of the Regency, encouraging literacy and correspondence on shipboard and battlefield, at any stray country inn or during the occasional stint in prison. 

From the name 'lap desk' you'd think you could use them in your lap.  But they folded in the middle, you see, so I feel a certain skepticism.  On the other hand, computer laptops aren't used in laps either, most generally, so it is a lesson not to be so literal.

Gd writing box 2

Seeing Mr. Darcy engage in writing on his writing slope sent me to hauling out a lap desk that belonged to my grandfather.  It's about a century old, I would think, and an inexpe nsive example of theLetter breed.  The felted writing surface is worn and torn.  Some of the wood's stained.  But it got a lot of use, writing letters home.    

Gd writing desk 11aThis one for instance, on the left.  I like to think it was written using that writing desk.

Looking at all this collection of images across the centuries, I spent a while considering why folks liked to write at a slant, did it for so long, and then just seemed to lose the desire.  Slanted writing surfaces seem to peter out in the Twentieth Century. 

In what was a flash of insight for me, but may be obvious to everybody else, I decided ink flows more easily if the downward stroke is laid across paper at a slant.  On flat paper the writing is more likely to pool and blot when the ink flows with unruly haste. 
When we gave up quill pens and fountain pens, we also gave up the leisurely application of pen to gracefully slanted paper.  

… the beauty and nobility, the august mission and destiny, of human handwriting.
                 George Bernard Shaw

I see artists working on a huge slanted surface.  Anybody here use a slant for writing or drawing?  For calligraphy?

A Flask of Regency Liquor

A la bonne bouteilleNo, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men: but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.
Samuel Johnson

Joanna here, talking about Regency tipples.  The hard-drinking Regency or Georgian gentleman is such a stock figure in Romance, it's worth stopping a minute to wonder what sort of liquor he was likely to be imbBeer brewingibing. 

There was ale and beer, of course, and their cousin, porter.  Ale and beer weren't precisely a gentleman's drink, but it's likely your hero lifted a mug of ale before the hunt and he may well have drunk beer with his breakfast, especially if he lived in the deep country. 

Beer and ale were drinks native to England, universal, and cheap.  The drink of the people, as it were.  Even small children drank a low-alcohol sort of beer called 'small beer' made from the second or third re-fermentation of the mash during brewing and containing just enough alcohol to preserve the drink.

Singleton_Ale-House_Door_1790By the Regency, the distinction between ale and beer lay not so much in the ingredients that made them up, as in the proportions.

Ale differs from beer in having fewer hops, which, giving less bitterness, leaves more of the soft smooth sweetness of the malt. It is usual, too, to brew it with pale malt, so that it is not so brown as beer. 
Scenes of British Wealth, Isaac Taylor, 1825.

Porterlater this was also called 'stout'was a style of strong, dark, well-aged beer dating back to the Eighteenth Century, much favored by the working class of London.  Thus 'porter', because porters drank it.  Not a stylish beverage.  If you're wondering what it was like; Guinness is stout.

Why so much beer drinking?  I read, here and there, the thought that folks drank beer or ale instead of water because the water was contaminated.  Beer is boiled during the fermentation process and afterwards the alcWomen drinking beer manetoholic content kills off pathogens.  In a land of contaminated water, beer is a lot safer to drink.  The argument is that historical people somehow sensed this. 

This has always struck me as applying twenty-first century attitudes back into historical times.  The modern popularity of beer or wineor coke for that matterisn't an indication folks don't trust the water. 

I think folks in Regency times made beer as a way of handily preserving grain; they drank beer because they liked the taste; and probably, like modern folks, they enjoyed getting a little tipsy.

. . .  sober maids are wooed in wine.
Samuel Johnson

Wine, not beer, was the gentlemanly table drink, being imported and expensive and therefore fancier.  Agricultural experimentation, starting in Roman times, had demonstrated the sad truth that England is not a wine-producing country.   I wonder if some of the ancient conflict between England and France boils down to a certain jealousy that France can make wine and England can't. 

It was to France the English had traditionally turned to fill up their glass.  The two decades of war between England and France made the enjoyment of French wines more problematic.  Our Regency gentleman, who would once have poured out Bordeaux, (which they were likely to call claret,) burgundy, hermitage, (from the Rhône region south of Lyon,) or a sparkling champagne, now maybe substituted Tokay, an old favorite from Hungary, or hock, which was a catchall term for German wines. 

Amontillado wikiBut he might also have turned to some new favorites the English had found among the wines of Spain, Portugal and the mid-Atlantic islandsthe wines called Madeira, Malaga, port, or sherry.  Sherry, which, just to liven things up, was also called sack or Canary. 

Next time you see a character in a book with sherry-colored eyes, that over on the left is probably what the author means.  That's a mid-range sherry.  Sherry runs all the way from clear to dark brown.   

These new favorites were fortified wines, most of them heavy and sweet.  They were made by mixing traditional varieties of light, generally sweet wines and then adding brandy at some specific point in the fermentation process.  This fixed the flavor and sugar content and brought the alcohol level up to 15% or 20%.  The high alcohol prevented spoilage during shipment.  These fortified wines were less temperamental in the keg and the robust alcohol level was a nice compromise between ordinary wine and harder liquors.

A fortified wine like port was likely to be passed around the table after a fine dinner when the ladies had withdrawn and the gentlemen could start telling dirty jokes.  Meanwhile the ladies, in the salon, were helping themselves to a ladylike glass of 30-proof sherry and engaging in their own risqué conversations. 

Zwiebelflasche Sherry bottleI don't want to zip right past wine without saying that the size of the ordinary historical wine bottle may have been determined by the amount of air in a glassblower's lungs.  Georgian and earlier wine bottles had a long-necked, onion-bodied shape, which made them a bit less likely to get knocked over.  Wine bottles assumed the bullet shape we're so familiar with today when transportation improved in the Eighteenth century.

Early wine was shipped in kegs.  The householder or tavern owner tapped the keg and poured it into the nearest pitcher or bottle.  In the Eighteenth Century, better roads led individual wine growers to bottle their own wine.  The long, cylindrical bottle with a tight cork could be stacked and stored on its side and shipped economically.

When our Regency gentleman wasn't drinking wine, what were the other choices?  There was a formidable array of distilled liquors for him; brandy, arrack, whiskey, gin, cognac, rum, and cordials of every sort.  Exotic drinksAbsinthe-ducros-fils-110kb could be brought back from odd corners of the Continent; kirshwasser, distilled from cherries in Switzerland and Germany; vermouth, from Italy; maybe a bottle of Green Chartreuse liqueur brought out of France and hoarded from before the Revolution. Absinthe, the green liqueur containing wormwood, was being made in France, preparing for a long career as the decadent man's drink of choice. 

Considering a few of these 

Geneva was the period name for what we'd call gin.  It was probably not passed around the table after dinner by your average Regency gentleman, gin being notoriously the beverage of the depraved lower class.  The nickname, 'blue ruin', seems applicable.

The poet, also, is disguised, and seems, if we may use his own mixed phraseology, to have "drunk deep" of blue ruin, instead of the "Pierian spring."
Monthly Review, Ralph Griffiths

Arrack.  This was strong liquor imported from India and the East Indies, made from any of a number of 220px-Cocos_nucifera_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-187grains, such as rice, along with sugar and the juice of the coconut tree.  It was regularly imported into England from the Eighteenth Century onward.  It seems to have been drunk, in England, mainly as an ingredient in punch.

Not to keep thee longer in suspense ; last night, it seems, the infamous woman got so heartily intoxicated with her beloved liquor, arrack punch, at the expense of Colonel Salter, that, mistaking her way, she fell down a pair of stairs, and broke her leg:
Clarissa, Samuel Richardson

Was arrack punch a wee bit vulgar?  Our sporting gentlemen probably preferred a rum punch when he met friends at the inn after a long day's ride.

Brandy.  Gessa y ariasAh.  Now here is the quintessential liquor for our Regency gentleman.  This is what lurks in the decanter he hands round the table after dinner.  This is the tot served to male guests in the library.  When in doubt, the hero pours brandy.

Brandy is distilled from wine.  Eau-de-vie is most properly the distilled liquor made from other fruits or grains, but in this period they were often called brandies as well.   

So you could have a 'brandy' made by fermenting peaches.  Or you could have a brandy made from grape wine that was later infused with the flavor of peaches.  These fruit-infused brandies were made by soaking crushed fruits like cherries, apricots or blackcurrents in brandy.  There are numerous recipes for this.

To make Cherry Brandy. Take six pounds of cherries, half red and half black.  Mash or squeeze them to pieces with your hands, and put to them three gallons of brandy, letting them stand steeping twenty-four hours; then put the mashed cherries and liquor, a little at a time, into a canvass bag, and press it as long as any juice will run; sweeten it to your taste; put it into a vessel fit for it; let it stand a month, and bottle it out. Put a lump of loaf sugar into every bottle.
The Frugal Housewife, Susannah Carter, 1800

Our gentleman will almost certainly serve French brandy, though it seems a bit vulgar to mention the origin.  A gentleman will take that for granted.  His brandy may, in fact, come from Cognac, a region so famous for brandy that the liquor is simply called Cognac. 

He has delivered himself over to strong libations of pure cognac, and is daily plunged in intoxication and stupor
Patrick Kennedy

Gilray punch_cures
Rum.  Our fashionable gentleman, unless he's spent his youth at sea, is unlikely to drink rum straight up, but if he's a sporting gentleman, he will most probably drink rum punch.

It is made with rum, brandy, lemon, hot water, and sugar.  . . .  Put in as much sugar as the water will dissolve. If you brew, say, a quart of punch, let it contain the juice and the rind of one lemon. The juice, I say; not the pulp. The rind also; not all the peel; none of the white pith: only the yellow outside pared off thin . . .  Mix your hot water, sugar, and lemon. Let the water be boiling hot—fresh from the kettle on the fire.  . . .  put a wrapper consisting of a folded napkin over the mouth of your jug, and lay a thick octavo or some other equivalent body, over the mouth of that vessel, and let it stand for five minutes. Then add the liquors.

Whiskey.  Gaelic usquebaugh, from the Latin 'aqua vitae' or 'water of life', became 'whiskey' in English.  It's a distilled malted grain liquor.  Scotch whisky shares with French brandy the distinction of being an illegally smuggled import in England during the Regency.  Would our gentleman have served it? 

Well … if he were Scots or had spent time in Scotland, very possibly.  Or our gentleman might simply like to add the fillip of illegality to his after dinner relaxation.

Meissenier louvre C19 cropWhen I think of my historical gentleman, at ease, talking with a friend at the table, I think of him with a glass of good simple wine set at his elbow. Black Hawk

What about you?  When you settle down to talk to your friends, what drink do you like to sip, and why?


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