This Just In! What “The Night Before Christmas” Really Reveals About Santa

Screenshot 2015-12-20 00.58.41In elementary school they tried to make us all memorize Robert Frost — either “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” or (for our sins) “The Road Not Taken” — was it the same in your school? I gather that in Britain, “Adlestrop” is the equivalent. But in the United States, the poem people actually know best is “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a. “The Night Before Christmas.” It’s kind of nice that they try to enforce certain kinds of literature, but people keep on loving what they love. All together now:

’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house
Not a………..

You got it, right?

But even though people can repeat whole swathes of the poem, we have imposed so much of modern Christmas on the text that it’s easy to miss the surprising information it reveals about the St. Nicholas of nineteenth-century America — the St. Nicholas envisioned by the poem. I’m just going to state this outright:

St. Nicholas — Santa Claus, as we usually call him today — is miniature. By this I mean that he is tiny. Let me repeat that: St. Nicholas is miniature. He’s not human-sized. He’s diminutive; he’s eensy-weensy. This is so freaky to get one’s head around that I am going to repeat it: ST. NICHOLAS IS A TINY MINIATURE BEING.

Let’s look at the poem:

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick…
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow…
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf

Screenshot 2015-12-20 00.56.11

Nineteenth-century painting of St. Nicholas and the tiny reindeer — note his size in comparison to the chimney.

This small size explains how St. Nick is able to get up and down through the chimney. More importantly, this illustrates a perennial trend in the human interpretation of supernatural or magical beings. When they live apart from humans, like the Olympian gods or the Old Norse gods, these beings tend to be larger than life. Trolls, giants, and huge monsters like Grendel, who eats men for dinner after tucking them inside his glove — all these supersized beings live out in the wilderness. But when the magical beings move closer to human habitations, they tend to become miniaturized. Thus we get British pixies, fairies, sprites, brownies, and hobgoblins, German kobolds, Swedish tomtes, and a host of other folk, some good and helpful, some mischievous, some malevolent, but all smaller than humans. They tend to live in farmyards and around human dwellings. They interact with humans, helping the good and punishing the bad. The householders leave gifts for them such as bowls of milk. They frequent our dwelling places, but they’re rarely glimpsed. You can even see the themes of smallness and domesticity operating in the case of hobbits:

“I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves….There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.” (The Hobbit, chapter 1)

St. Nicholas was understood as miniature throughout most of the nineteenth century, as illustrations make clear. Obviously this required him to be miniaturized, as he began as a third-century bishop of Myra, and bishops are generally human-sized. He was magical before he was miniature: he became known as a present-giver in a miracle in which three unwed daughters had no dowry, and hence were going to be doomed to a life of sordid money-earning, if you catch my drift.  But St. Nicholas passed by their window and slipped gold into stockings which were hung before the fire to dry. It wasn’t so much a matter of rewarding good behavior as preventing the bad, which a stocking full of gold did very effectively.

A digression on stockings and mantels: I never quite understood why the stockings were hanging on the mantel until I lived in Britain, where dryers are rarer than they are in the U.S., and I tried to dry socks in a damp climate — when you live in a house without central heating, the only way to get stockings dry is to hang them by the fire. Those penurious daughters merely hated damp feet. They weren’t hanging their stockings on the mantel, though, since fireplaces in side walls, the kind of fireplace with a mantel, weren’t invented until the late Middle Ages. The three girls would have lived in a house with a central hearth, in the middle of the floor, with a hole in the ceiling above it. However did they hang their stockings up? History does not relate. And could supernatural beings descend carefully through that central smokehole in the roof, or would they just plummet into the house? This must be why St. Nicholas just decided to throw the money in through the window.

A late medieval fireplace and mantel, of the type unknown at the time of the real St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra.

A late medieval fireplace and mantel, sans stockings, of the type unknown at the time of the real St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra.

But anyway, in the development of the legend of St. Nicholas, Clement Clarke Moore’s poem was a turning point. When Moore first published “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in the Troy, New York Sentinel, in 1823, St. Nicholas was known primarily as a legendary figure whom the Dutch had imported; indeed, the first Dutch ship to travel to the New World, the Goede Vrouw, in 1621, had St. Nicholas as its figurehead.

In 1806 Washington Irving described the legends of St. Nick as they appeared among the Dutch in New Amsterdam (later to be renamed New York):

“…in the sylvan days of New Amsterdam, the good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the tree tops or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites. Whereas, in these degenerate days of iron and brass he never shows us the light of his countenance nor ever visits us, save one night in the year; when he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of the patriarchs, confining his presents merely to the children in token of the degeneracy of the parents.”

A tiny St. Nicholas by Thomas Nast.

A tiny St. Nicholas by Thomas Nast.

From this description it’s not clear what St. Nicholas is riding, but in a later description Irving mentions that he has a wagon (spelled waggon). Irving concocts a vision of the founding of New Amsterdam, dreamed by a character named Olaffe Van Kortlandt:

“And the sage Olaffe dreamed a dream – and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees in that self same waggon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children; and he came and descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And the shrewd Van Kortlandt knew him by his broad hat, his long pipe, and the resemblance which he bore to the bow of the Goede Vrouw. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked, the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air, and spread like a cloud over head. And the sage Olaffe bethought him, and he hastened and climbed up to the top of one of the tallest trees, and saw that the smoke spread over a great extent of country – and as he considered it more attentively, he fancied that the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvellous forms, where in dim obscurity he saw shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all which lasted but a moment and then faded away, until the whole rolled off, and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then mounting his waggon, he returned over the tree tops and disappeared.

“And Van Kortlandt awoke from his sleep greatly instructed, and he aroused his companions, and related to them his dream; and interpreted it, that it was the will of St Nicholas that they should settle down and build the city here: and that the smoke of the pipe was a type how vast should be the extent of the city; inasmuch as the volumes of its smoke should spread over a wide extent of country.”

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

This origin-story of New Amsterdam faded from legend, but the phrase “laying his finger beside his nose” has seized the attention of scholars, who are naturally reminded of the lines from “The Night Before Christmas”:

…He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose…

Notice, though, that whereas Irving’s St. Nicholas seems to be using that finger to glower at Van Kortlandt about founding a city, Moore’s St. Nicholas is using some kind of magical rising-up-the-chimney nose-finger device. Irving’s St. Nicholas is the imposing, adult, mythological St. Nicholas; Moore’s St. Nicholas is the child-oriented, magical, miniature St. Nicholas.   Where the Romans had their household gods, the lares and penates; where the British had pixies and the Swedes had tomtes, the Americans had St. Nicholas. Like the other supernatural beings, his ultimate home was in the unreachable wilderness; but like the little household sprites, he’s also a domestic character, coming all the way into the home — no longer throwing things in through the window or down the chimney, no more intimidating than a “pedlar just opening his pack.”

Yep, tiny.

Yep, tiny.

So how did St. Nicholas — or Santa Claus, as he had come to be known — get big again? It seems to have happened in the early years of the twentieth century, which is just when memories of the sprites and pixies and all the little folk were fading.   Brownies were popular in the 1920s (and had a baked good named after them!), but then they too faded from memory. And adults were impersonating Santa, and adults were adult-sized. So we not only lost the idea of Santa as a miniature being, but we lost the idea of all miniature beings as our domestic companions. Santa is the only one of that great legion of miniature domestic beings to have survived modern America, almost as if he really did come across the Atlantic as the figurehead of the Goede Vrouw. And even if we’ve forgotten how small he’s suposed to be, we still leave him milk, just as we used to do for so many other little folk, as a token of our thanks.

The forces of commerce try to coopt the human-sized Santa's snack.

The forces of commerce try to coopt the twentieth-century, human-sized Santa’s snack.


Here is the original version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” partially transcribed from a manuscript written out by Clement Clarke Moore in 1862. This preserves the original wording, which is often changed in modern printings, such as “…ere he drove out of sight” (where modern editions usually have “…as he drove…”) and “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And Mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon, on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of midday to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”


Scientific Cookery, with Flirts

Every era has its cooking fads. The late Victorian period seemed to emphasize “domestic economy” and making sure the servants didn’t waste things. The 1940s, when canned food became widely available, was the era of making things with canned ingredients. Screenshot 2015-09-25 12.06.40

But I have been browsing through Practical Cooking and Serving: A Complete Manual of How to Select, Prepare, and Serve Food, original copyright 1902, though my copy dates from 1922. It is the work of Janet McKenzie Hill, who, the title page proudly informs us, is the editor of the Boston Cooking School Magazine and author of Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing-Dish Dainties. It’s been so long since I had a chafing-dish dainty that I knew I needed to investigate further. Indeed, I believe I have never heard a single person use the term “chafing-dish” in conversation, but maybe I run in the wrong circles.

Practical Cooking is all about the science of eating. The science of 1902, or indeed of 1922, was in its infancy, so the science of eating is a lot of bluster and not a lot of reliable facts. But basically we are regaled with totals about the chemical components of each variety of food. I’ll get to some surprising “facts” about milk in a minute, but when we start with water, we are warned, “Water is a solvent as well as a carrier, and in this fact much danger lies.” True enough, actually, and as our author observes, “Who would willingly take the chances of a water-borne typhoid case, or the listless inertia of malaria poisoning, as the result of a summer’s outing.” (She does not use a question mark, so obvious is the answer.)

IMG_0561The entry on tea is very high-minded, starting out with a literary quotation:

“Indeed, Madam, your ladyship is very sparing of your tea. I protest, the last I took was no more than water bewitched.” — SWIFT

But then takes a scientific turn:


In 100 parts there are: water 8.0, albuminoids 17.5, theine 3.2, tannin 17.5 chlorophyl and resin 4.5, essential oil 0.4, minor extractives 8.6, cellulose, etc. 34.0, mineral matter 6.3.

From perusing this book I learned that the caffeine in tea is actually called theine, or used to be, which I guess is something one could drop into casual conversation, after the topic of chafing-dishes runs dry. But what about tea’s 34% content of “cellulose, etc.”? What the heck is the etc.? And what is the cook or tea-drinker supposed to do with all this information? “Lovely tea, Maisie.” “I think that must be the albuminoids, they’re particularly fine this year.” “Pass me the cellulose.” Hill never makes clear how all this scientific information is supposed to improve our understanding.

She does note that “The first brewers of tea sat down to eat the leaves with butter and salt.” Interesting if true! Not to mention, “Tea is for those who have passed the boundary line of youth, stimulants are not needed by the young, and are positively harmful to them.” Disregarding the comma splice in that sentence, from now on I think “having passed the boundary line of youth” will be my euphemism of choice.IMG_0562

But on, bravely, to the milk. Because who knew milk was so perilous? Even though it’s 87.3 parts water and .7 parts ash?  Let us pass by the observation that “Fundamentally, in structure, milk is an emulsion consisting of fine oil globules swimming in a colorless fluid.” Okay, brace yourselves:

“When milk is taken into the stomach, rennin, a digestive ferment found in the gastric juice, coagulates the albumen and casein, thus forming what is called curds. If cow’s milk be taken into the stomach, a glassful at a time, these curds will be large and not easily acted upon by the digestive fluids. To remedy this, milk should be ‘eaten’ — that is, swallowed a teaspoonful at a time, or it may be diluted with lime-water, though barley-water is preferable. (See page 599.) Lime-water by its alkalinity partly neutralizes the acid of the gastric juice, and thus weakened the curdling process goes on more slowly. But such interference with the natural process of digestion cannot be recommended. Eat the milk, or dilute it slowly with barley-water, or, in the case of adults, sip the milk slowly, eating between the sips bread or some other form of farinaceous food.”

Milk curdles in your stomach?   I can’t help but wonder if a little guessing went into this “science.”  And curds of milk are apparently indigestible?  So much for cottage cheese.  But it all can be solved by barley-water! Just the thing to accompany my farinaceous food! Let’s flip eagerly to page 599, as directed. This is the section of “Foods Possessing Curative Value for Special Diseases.” Sadly, she seems to think typhoid fever can be cured by broth. Anyway, barley water is not the work of a minute or two.  You have to boil it, throw the water away, and boil it again:


Put three teaspoonfuls of pearl barley over the fire in cold water; let heat to the boiling point and boil five minutes, then drain, rinse in cold water and add one quart of water; let come to the boiling point, then simmer until reduced to about three cups of liqid. Or cook one teaspoonful of barley flour, diluted with cold water to pour, in a pint of boiling water twenty minutes.

There would seem to be some contrast between all these recipes for jugged hare and the title "Practical Cooking and Serving"...

There would seem to be some contrast between all these recipes for jugged hare and the title “Practical Cooking and Serving”…

This is so much trouble to go to for no benefit whatsoever. I feel bad for the poor reader/cook trying to be “scientific.”

To be fair, a lot of the book is plain recipes without all this guff — in fact, hundreds upon hundreds of recipes, which in themselves provide a fascinating roster of changing tastes. Celery Sauce for Boiled Fowl. Okra Salad (includes green pepper and horseradish — I would pay not to eat this salad). Oyster Salad in Ice Bowl.   Chicken Legs as Cutlets with Olives.   Chicken Cream Forcemeat (involves a pound of chicken, 5 ounces of butter, 5 eggs and a pint of whipped cream). Chicken Custard for Consommé. Chicken Liver Balls. Cabbage (Strong Juiced) (“particularly good served au gratin”). Turnip Balls Poulette Sauce. Creamed Celery in Cheese Shell. Baltimore Samp with Cream Sauce. (Samp appears to be on the grits/hominy spectrum.) Hominy Balls. (Deep-fried. “Serve as a vegetable, or with maple syrup as a dessert; or add half a cup of more of grated cheese and serve as an entrée.”) Irish Moss Lemonade (!! — “Pick over one fourth cup of Irish moss and let stand half an hour or more in cold water…”). Clam and Chicken Frappé. Wait, history demands that I transcribe this recipe, which is found in the section called “Peptonized Milk” (yum! right?):


Wash and scrub two quarts of clams. Put in a saucepan with half a cup of cold water, cover closely and let steam until the shells are well opened. Remove the clams from the shells and strain all the liquor through a cheesecloth. To one cup and two thirds of the liquor add two and one half cups of highly seasoned chicken stock and salt if needed. Cool and freeze to a mush. Serve in cups with whipped cream.

Can you imagine? Can you even imagine?

Two of the illustrations from "Practical Cooking and Serving." Note how in the top photo you can see the individual tongues in the aspic?

Two of the illustrations from “Practical Cooking and Serving.” Note how in the top photo you can see the individual tongues in the aspic? Shudder.

Okay, let me get my nerve back.

More recipes. Grape Catsup. Banana Canteloupe Charlotte Russe.   Indian Suet Pudding.  Pineapple Omelet (this is a dessert).   Plunketts (sort of cakey things). Mushroom Meringues (this is also a dessert). Cracker Raisin Pudding. Chestnut Croquettes. Sweet Potato Pudding (includes significant amounts of cream, brandy, and rose-water, as well as one pound of sweet potatoes, “sifted” — how do you sift potatoes?) Peach and Rice Meringue (do these three things go together?)

Lots of aspic, lots of gelatine, lots of dishes where you add tomatoes to eggs.

You have to watch out for fruit, though: “Fruit is almost universally eaten with sugar, but the combination cannot be considered hygienic, being very liable to produce malfermentation in the alimentary tract.”

So there’s us told. I leave you with, I trust, a new respect for science, and for changing tastes, and also with a recipe for Aunt Sallie’s Flirts, to which the author has appended a rather deflating final sentence. But I’d like to try the flirts.

Not that kind of flirts.

Not that kind of flirts.


1 egg   Flour   1/4 teaspoon of salt

Break an egg into a cup, add the salt and quickly stir in flour with a spoon until no more can be easily added. Turn on to a floured board and add flour until the mixture is of a consistency to be rolled out. Divide the dough into three pieces and roll each thinner, if possible, than paper; cut into squares or strips and fry an instant in hot fat.  They should be a very delicate brown. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve at once. Two people, one to dry and one to sprinkle with sugar, are needed to prepare this dish, as everything depends upon quick work. If a larger number of “flirts” be required than is provided in the recipe, do not double the recipe, mix again. Use but one egg at a time. This in reality is noodle paste.

Definitely not that kind.

Definitely not that kind. Noodle paste, I tell you, noodle paste!

Bounteous Time: Three Descriptions and a Word from the Devil

Trees — bigger and longer-lived than we are.

Trees — bigger and longer-lived than we are.

Conveying the immense stretches of time in which we find ourselves — how to do it?  Writers often use the natural world and the landscape, which outlast humans to an awe-inspiring and unsettling degree.  I’m going to start this little meditation on time with a quotation from the private memoir of my cousin Hope Lull, who was describing the trees on our property in the town of Hope.  Most of the trees were planted around 1880 by my great-great-grandfather, “Grandpa Holland” (Francis Raymond Holland, 1820-1894).  Hope writes:

“’Grandpa’ Holland planted a ginkgo opposite the south door of the kitchen. After it had grown to fair size it died. Later a shoot appeared from the root. Now a flourishing tree stands in the original location, but it is not the ginkgo that he planted.”

This is the ginkgo that sprang up from the stump of the previous tree.  It is large enough that a person could easily stand under the branch.

This is the ginkgo that sprang up from the stump of the previous tree. It is larger than this picture shows —  a person could easily stand under the branch on the right.

So everything looks the same — a gingko in the same location — but it is not the same. This called to mind the passage from Dickens’ Child’s History of England, about the ancient Briton Caractacus, captured and taken to Rome:

“His noble air, and dignified endurance of distress, so touched the Roman people who thronged the streets to see him, that he and his family were restored to freedom. No one knows whether his great heart broke, and he died in Rome, or whether he ever returned to his own dear country. English oaks have grown up from acorns, and withered away, when they were hundreds of years old — and other oaks have sprung up in their places, and died too, very aged — since the rest of the history of the brave Caractacus was forgotten.”

Even when I was ten years old, I was struck by the image of the trees that have grown and died since the fate of Caractacus was forgotten, and I remembered it all the way until now, when I went to look it up without having read it again.  But then Dickens’ description of time and forgetting brought to mind the passage of great loss and melancholy from Tolkien — loss and melancholy being his speciality:

“They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again….”

LOTR Vol. I book I ch. 7

The mound of Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey in Wales.

The mound of Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey in Wales.

So to this sobering and mournful assemblage of quotations on the expanse of time I add one from the mouth of the devil, as conveyed in Mann’s Doctor Faustus, where he is trying to convince a hapless innocent that debts will not come due for a long, long time:

“There is time enough, plenteous, bounteous time, so much that you can’t see to the end of it, and so much excitement coming first — you will have plenty to do besides taking heed to the end, or even noticing the moment when it might be time to take heed to the end.”                                       — Doctor Faustus

“So much excitement coming first”!  But the end — the end lasts a long, long time.


Of Time and the Muffin

The honourable gentleman made a speech which drew tears from the eyes of the ladies, and awakened the liveliest emotions in every individual present. He had visited the houses of the poor in the various districts of London, and had found them destitute of the slightest vestige of a muffin…                         — Nicholas Nickleby

Some people campaign against the misuse of the word hopefully; some people feel strongly that leggings are not pants; some people advocate for world harmony. I personally am on the warpath about muffins.
Remember when muffins were bread instead of cake?*
This abstruse historical fact came to mind after I had expensively renovated a fireplace and then discovered the historical toasting forks in the pantry of my old family house. Toasting muffins! All the old muffin memories came flooding back. Remember when you put butter on muffins? Putting butter on a modern muffin would be like putting butter on cake. Actually it wouldn’t be like putting butter on cake; it would be putting butter on cake.
Muffins are the canary in the coal mine of modern American food practices. The canary is now the size of a chicken and imparts a sweet flavor. That is to say, over the past sixty years food in the United States has gotten enormously larger and sweeter.
I remember when “giant” muffins were first invented. They came into stores in the early 1980s, along with “giant” (now known as “regular size”) cookies six inches in diameter. The giant muffins were extravagant, outsized, comical. Look how much muffin! A whole meal of muffin!


Gargantuan commercial muffin, extra sugary

Gargantuan commercial muffin, extra sugary

Then, of course, they became normal. They were also sweeter than traditional muffins: much like gargantuan cupcakes with no frosting.
Since then they’ve grown even larger. Many muffins you buy in American coffee shops and supermarkets have a top as large as a dinner plate. In many instances they’ve also acquiring icing. The evolution to a cake variant is coming to its culmination.
But back to primordial muffins. Finding the toasting forks, I remembered the muffins of yore, those small, modest, only hintingly sweet muffins, and I determined to make some. The way to find an old-fashioned muffin recipe is to consult an old cookbook, in my case the 1946 Joy of Cooking, which was given to my mother as a wedding present.
In the 1946 Joy of Cooking, the regular muffin recipe calls for 2 cups of cake flour or 1 3/4 cups of bread flour, and 1/4 cup sugar, and makes 24 muffins.

1946 Joy of Cooking

1946 Joy of Cooking

The blueberry muffin recipe in the same book increases that to 1/3 cup sugar, and makes 36 muffins.
I will pause, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, while you absorb these facts. 1/4 to 1/3 cup of sugar.
So I go straying around the internet looking at modern muffin recipes.
The “Best Ever Muffins” recipe at — a recipe for plain muffins — calls for 2 cups of flour and 3/4 cup sugar, and makes 12 muffins. Note that the proportion of sugar in each muffin has tripled, and the amount per serving has increased by six.
I’m wondering precisely why we have these debates about why Americans are so heavy. The truth is in blinking neon lights. By their muffins ye shall know them.
And the muffins are the little bitty muffin size of yesteryore, the cupcake size — not even the coffeeshop Brobdingnagian size.  That’s a lot of sugar for a bitty muffin.
So I turn to the locus classicus of muffin making. The recipe from the new Best Loved and Brand-New Joy of Cooking calls for 2 cups flour and 2/3 cup sugar.  Again, three times as much sugar.
So I made the 1946 blueberry muffins and they were dandy, and mmm so good hot and buttered.   But the recipe didn’t make 24 muffins. I could only get 16 out of it, because my sense of normal muffin size has been warped. So even the muffins that I think are very small are 50% bigger than the original muffins. Original muffins — let”s call them heritage muffins — should be two inches in diameter and about an inch high. Those are muffins the size that nature intended. Modern muffins are like titanosaur muffins, striding the earth with a footprint the size of a small nation.

A herd of heritage muffins

A herd of heritage muffins

On the page across from the 1946 muffin recipe is the muffin recipe that really put me to shame. CRUMB MUFFINS. “Acceptable muffins that help to utilize stale bread.” It would be amusing to make these and officially title them “Acceptable Muffins.” But the whole tradition of making Acceptable Muffins out of stale bread crumbs has died away with the end of World War II, rationing, and shortages. And note: the Crumb Muffins have no sugar at all!   They are wholly a bread item! But they are no more. The end of a long evolutionary line, vanished. A muffin dead end, like their cousins, Sour Milk Muffins, the next in the book, a whole necropolis of extinct baked goods.
But right now there are little old-fashioned blueberry muffins in my kitchen. So here’s to old-fashioned small and bready things. May they never perish from the earth.
(Stay tuned for recipes and brutal interrogation.)

*Let’s be clear about the terminology here. The United States and Britain are two countries divided by muffins. Right now the things I’m complaining about are the cupcake-shaped things made in North America. The other constituent of the catgeory of “muffin” is what Americans call the English muffin, which is approximately analogous to what the English call crumpets. English muffins and crumpets don’t taste the same, and you don’t split a crumpet, but my guess is that if you home-made English muffins and crumpets they would be very similar, much closer than their industrial versions. Both English muffins and crumpets have stayed on the bread side of the bread/cake divide, although I say this with the proviso that all American breads are so sweet that English people make faces and say “Can’t I get some bread in this country?”
What Americans call muffins were first introduced to England in the 1990s, under the terminology “cake muffins,” which gives you a historical snapshot of the situation right there.

(In case muffin mass exinction has gotten you down, here is a cheering clip of the interrogation of the Gingerbread Man about the doings of the Muffin Man, from Shrek):

Here are the 1946 recipes — little time capsules:

About 24 two inch muffins

Sift before measuring:
2 cups cake flour or 1 3/4 cup bread flour
Resift with:
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons tartrate or phosphate baking powder or 2 teaspoons combination type
[“combination type” is the modern “double-acting” baking powder, now the norm]
Beat in a separate bowl:
2 eggs
Combine and add:
2 tablespoons melted butter
3/4 cup milk
Stir the liquid quickly into the dry ingredients, taking only 15 or 20 seconds in which to do it. Make no attempt to stir or beat out the lumps. Ignore them. Unnecessary handling of the batter results in tough muffins. Pour the batter at once into greased tins or paper baking cups. Fill them about 1/3 full. Bake the muffins from 15 to 20 minutes in a hot oven 425 degrees. Remove them at once from the tins. To reheat them, place in a paper bag and close the bag and place it in a hot oven 425 degrees for about 5 minutes.

About 36 two inch muffins
Follow the preceeding rule for Muffins.
Use in all:
1/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons melted butter
Fold into the batter:
1 cup blueberries, slightly floured, or 1 cup canned, well-drained blueberries, slightly floured
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind or orange rind (optional)


12 two inch muffins
Acceptable muffins that help to utilize stale bread.
Soak for 10 minutes:
1 cup dry bread crumbs
1/3 cup raisins (optional)
3/4 cup milk
Sift before measuring:
1/2 cup bread flour
2 teaspoons tartrate or phosphate baking powder or 1 1/2 teaspoons combination type
[“combination type” is the modern “double-acting” baking powder, now the norm]
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon butter
Beat it with:
1 egg.
Add the sifted ingredients to the dry bread crumbs. Add the egg mixture and stir the batter with a few swift strokes until the ingredients are blended. Partly fill greased muffin tins. Bake the muffins in a hot oven 425 degrees for 20 minutes.

A Fine and Private Place

When you buy fake tombstones at a Hallowe’en store, they always look the same, don’t they?   Old-timey slabs standing crooked, with R.I.P. written on them.   Halloween stonesThis was the form of many eighteenth-century gravestones, and in England the convention continued into later centuries.  In the U.S., though, the nineteenth century saw a profusion of gravestone inventiveness, in almost psychedelic abundance.

Of all these, I think tree-stump gravestones were maybe the most startling.

In saying this, they have a lot to compete with. A nineteenth-century gravestone might consist of a life-size statue of a departed one, like the one of Mary Ellis McGinnis in Edinburgh, Indiana (from the eerily fascinating blog Gravely Speaking).

Mary Ellis McGinnis, Rest Haven Cemetery, Edinburgh, Indiana

Mary Ella McGinnis (1869-1875), Rest Haven Cemetery, Edinburgh, Indiana

There were also square monuments, towering monuments, pillared monuments, bronze monuments, flat monuments, and of course the notorious weeping angels.

Tree-stump gravestones were poignantly fashionable for perhaps fifty years.  They were used for people who had died young — the symbolism was that of a tree cut down in its prime.  They originated in the second half of the nineteenth century, most concentrated in the American Midwest.  They were carved of stone or, in later years, made of concrete.  Sears and Wards offered catalogues of gravestones, and so tree-stump gravestones became so popular that you can could buy them by mail order.

       From 1890 to 1900, insurance policies from the Woodmen of the World (a fraternal benefit society) provided a free tree-stump gravestone, and from 1900 to 1920, a $100 rider assured one. (This latter information is from the addictive blog A Grave Interest.)

This first impressive example (over at the right) that got me looking out for tree-stump gravestones was one I came across at the cemetery in Newbern, Indiana — the grave of Olive L. Newsom, who died in 1891 at the age of 34 years, 10 months, and one day.  Olive L. Newsom, Newbern Cemetery, Newbern, IndianaThe trunk is tall and a basket of posies hangs over one limb.  The inscription is carved directly onto a bare space on the trunk. It rhymes but the carver was clearly worried about space, so he didn’t align the lines with the rhymes:
Olive’s gravestone is a particularly beautiful example, with ferns, winding vines and even toadstools over at the side.

In other examples the inscription is on a scroll hung from a branch:

East Hesperia Cemetery, East Hesperia, Michigan

East Hesperia Cemetery, East Hesperia, Michigan

Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana. The signal lantern suggests that the deceased was a railway signalman.

Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana. The signal lantern on the left branch suggests that E. L. Welsh was a railway signalman.

Sometimes the inscription is on a slab leaning against the trunk, as you can just about see on the grave of “Our Little Zoe”:

Zoe Guliher, Linwood Park Cemetery, Boone, Iowa

“Our Little Zoe.”  Zoe Guliher, Linwood Park Cemetery, Boone, Iowa

Sometimes the scroll is mysteriously blank —

Beulah Land Cemetery, Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania

Beulah Land Cemetery, Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania

Some, like the signalman’s tombstone above, denote particulars about the life of the person.  The tree-stump gravestone of Nathan Fahler (1845-1887), below, has so many symbols that it’s almost like a totem pole.  At the top is the Union cap that signified that Fahler had served in the Civil War.  The three chainlinks below the hat signal that the deceased was a member of the Order of Odd Fellows.  The next sign down is a symbol of the Masons.

Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana

Nathan Fahler, Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana.

You also get two tree trunks together:

Newaygo Cemetery, Newaygo, Michigan.

Newaygo Cemetery, Newaygo, Michigan.

Or as here:

Adjoining tree trunks, in a location I stupidly forgot to write down.

Adjoining tree trunks, in a location I stupidly forgot to write down.

One more:

Belvidere Cemetery, Belvidere, Illinois

Belvidere Cemetery, Belvidere, Illinois.

Some were not tree trunks but truly stumps:

Highland Cemetery, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Highland Cemetery, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Others combined the tree-stump theme with the cross:

St. Andrew Catholic Cemetery, Tipton, Missouri.

St. Andrew Catholic Cemetery, Tipton, Missouri.

Byrne family gravestone — sure wish I remembered where it is.

Byrne family gravestone — sure wish I remembered where it is.

Others took the theme in different directions:

Greenbush Cemetery, Lafayette, Indiana.

Greenbush Cemetery, Lafayette, Indiana, as described in Gravely Speaking

The most spectacular is unquestionably the elaborate monument to Henry Smith and his wife Ella Ann Smith Brackett, in the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis:

Henry died first, and on the stone a male hand holds the chain that pulls the female hand up toward heaven.

Henry died first, and on the stone a male hand holds the chain that pulls the female hand up toward heaven.

You could buy several kinds in the Sears Catalogue of Sepulchral Monuments, which you can browse through at It even includes suggested poems and epitaphs!

"Come see the softer side of Sears"?

“Come see the softer side of Sears”?

They also offered the rustic tree-stump crosses:

I can't help but note that Sears' current advertising slogan is "Life. Well Spent."  Really, it is.

I can’t help but note that Sears’ current advertising slogan is “Life. Well Spent.” Really, it is.

These monuments are all fascinating, but no question that some of them are just heartbreaking:

Beech Grove Cemetery, Bedford, Indiana.

Beech Grove Cemetery, Bedford, Indiana.  From this blog.  Hard to look at this, it’s so sad.

The trend had largely disappeared by the 1930s, but a few later ones appear.  The most recent one I’ve found is from a Jewish cemetery in New England:

United Jewish Center Cemetery, Brookfield Center, Connecticut

“So lovely, so very loving, so very much loved.”  United Jewish Center Cemetery, Brookfield Center, Connecticut.

No question it is melancholy looking at  many of these.  To quote Somerset Maugham: “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.”  Gravestones, though, are a different matter.

For more:

Susanne S. Ridlen, Tree Stump Tombstones: A Field Guide to Rustic Funerary Art in Indiana (Kokomo, Indiana, 1999)

Warren Roberts, “Investigating the Tree-stump Tombstone in Indiana,” in American Material Culture and Folklife: A Prologue and Dialogue, ed. Simon J.Bronner. (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1992)

“Cemetery Fascination” on Pinterest — Scrabble boards, armchairs, Snoopy doghouses, cradles, faithful dogs…

And the Association of Gravestone Studies does fascinating work.

Dennis Severs’ House: “You Either Get It Or You Don’t”

History leaves so much out.  It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like.                                                                   — J. G. Farrell

Sometimes they live in eras and decades that regularized humanity has abandoned … they have come to have a cavalier way with time.  What is wrong with that?  If regular people are finished with those days and times, why may not others use them?
— R. A. Lafferty

             In Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again, an artist named Simon (Si) Morley takes Screen shot 2013-07-12 at 01.54.43part in a secret expensive government project to send a person back in time.  The idea is that it might just be possible to slip between ages by replicating all aspects of the past.   So to get back to a certain point in the 1880s, Si is sent to stay in a room in the Dakota building in New York, furnished for the period, with a view from the window that shows nothing from the modern age.  He wears nineteenth-century clothes, reads nineteenth-century books, and when he opens his door in the morning, the experimenters have left the newspaper for that day in 1882 on his mat.  Then one day Si opens his door — and walks out into the nineteenth century.

Dennis Severs' house, 18 Folgate Street, London

Dennis Severs’ house, 18 Folgate Street, London

           For some people this sounds like a tedious and gimmicky literary device.  For me it always sounded like the utmost heaven.  As a kid I experimented with the idea: could I make a dinner using only dishes from the nineteenth century?  (We had a lot of old dishes, which is why I started with dishes.)  Could I furnish a room using only furnishings from the nineteenth century?  What about a house?  This has led to a certain large-scale experiment along these lines in Indiana, but that’s another story.

The idea that surrounding yourself with things from another period leads to time-slip is really just a concrete expression of what happens when we read books from the past.  But the trouble with books is that they’re not three-dimensional.  You enter the world of the past, but that world stays inside your mind.

This is where Dennis Severs’ house comes in.

Dennis Severs was a Californian who left the land of palm trees and bright tan landscapes and came to London in the late 1960s.*  After giving up on studying law and driving a horse-drawn carriage, in 1979 he bought a derelict eighteenth-century house in Spitalfields, the most poverty-stricken area of historic London.  He already knew that he wanted to slip backward in time.  So he renovated the house slowly and in keeping with the age.  He washed the floors with tea, he acquired the right furniture, he toasted bread on the fire.  When I first heard of him in the early ’80s, the house was only partly renovated and he had just started showing people round.   As you might guess, I jumped at the chance to visit.  You walked through the down-at-heel streets with old burger wrappers blowing around your ankles, past badly kept-up eighteenth-century houses with bare bulbs at their doors, until you came to 18 Folgate Street.  There in the cellar window you could see the flickering light of a candle.  When I saw the candlelight, I began to get that tingling at the back of the neck that Si Morley must have had when he opened the door in the Dakota that one morning.

In those early days, Dennis Severs had obviously memorized a script, and as he took visitors from room to room he went nervously through his script until someone sidetracked him with a question, when he had to start up again several paragraphs back.  But he answered spontaneously when a woman pestered him for bibliography.  “But what books did you read?” she said.  “You have to read books to know how things work.”  He was spluttering with dismay.  “I don’t read books,” he said.  “I live it.”

The past -- so ridiculously enticing

The past — so ridiculously enticing

I’m sure he did read books, but I’m also sure he lived it.  He would talk, for instance, about men’s coats that had elaborate embroidery on the inside — what use could it possibly be for coats to be embroidered on the inside?  He’d take a seat on an chair with rolled arms and, still talking, calmly fold the bottom of his coat back over the arms, displaying the embroidery on the inside of the coat.   The chair was designed for the coat; the coat was designed for the chair.  There’s a reason reading about it isn’t as powerful as seeing it.

The chair with the rolled arms

The chair with the rolled arms

The drawing room had a table before the fire— a feature modern design has lost, and which I personally aspire to.  Severs talked about how people would play cards at the table, and a little scrap of fur would be hung under the table.  As the people played, fleas would jump off the people and onto the tempting scrap of fur.  At the end of the evening the host would throw the scrap into the fire.  A flea-catcher — ingenious!  And under the table at 18 Folgate Street there hung a scrap of fur.  As far as I’m aware, real fleas were not supplied, but you never know.

Severs invented a family who had lived at 18 Folgate Street, the Jervises, Huguenot weavers who had immigrated from France.  French weavers were abundant in Spitalfields, and the Jervises were a realistic invention.  As you moved higher in the house, which has five stories, the Jervises got more prosperous.  Mr. Jervis’s wig-powdering corner was in one room, where Dennis powdered his own wigs.  The idea was that the Jervises had left each room just before you entered.  When you walked in, the beds were mussed, the tea

The Jervises got up only moments before

The Jervises got up only moments before

was hot, the bread crusts were still on the plates.  And this was not just stage-management with fake props, because it was genuinely Dennis’s bed, Dennis’s tea, and Dennis’s crusts.  The house was genuinely lived in, halfway in the eighteenth century and halfway in the twentieth.

I went back to the house throughout the 1980s as renovations proceeded and Dennis Severs’ presentations become more assured (and less patient with visitors who demanded bibliography).  At a certain point he acquired a footman.  Pretty much every scrap of social history I know, I learned at Dennis Severs’ house.  (The rest of it I learned from the astoundingly well-informed guides at Mary Arden’s house outside Stratford.  Ask them someday about smocks or windows.)`

At Dennis Severs’ house, we would all go down to the servants’ sitting room — a dank, low room with an uneven brick floor and a small fireplace — and sit while Dennis Severs told us stories.  He mentioned that Spitalfields comes from St. Mary’s Hospital fields.  As the fire burned, he mentioned that such was the danger from fires in earlier eras that there were laws specifying the time they should be banked or put out: the couvre-feu (cover-fire), or curfew.

The servants' sitting room

The servants’ sitting room

This past winter I taught a course in London on the rich and their servants.  We read a lot of good stuff, including Margaret Powell’s spirited memoir of being a servant, Below Stairs.  (It was this book that inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.)  But one of the students told me that she never really got it about servants until she saw the servants’ sitting room in Dennis Severs’ house.

One of the joys of the house is that not everything is tidy.  Going into conventional historic house museums, you’d think everyone in the past lived waiting for House Beautiful to come round and take photos.  In Dennis Severs’ house, beds might be unmade and things jumbled on the bureaux.  The house smells like a house.  It is not antiseptic.  The light is real.  There are the clip-clops of horses outside the window.  Surely those are real too?  Is time beginning to slip?

Why did the Victorians like to fill their rooms with so much clutter?  Now I get it.

Why did the Victorians like to fill their rooms with so much clutter? Now I get it.

          The New York Times wrote about Dennis Severs’ house, “Historical accuracy was no more important to his presentation than it would be in a lowbrow historical novel.”  I wish I could get hold of this writer and shake him.  For one thing,  in terms of furnishings, renovation, and upkeep, it is accurate.  And in terms of experience, even more so.  As another maverick would say, “Facts do not illuminate. The Manhattan phone directory has four million entries which are factually correct, but as a book it doesn’t really illuminate you.”  Send the New York Times critic to me, and we’ll have a talk.

But the other joy about the house is its playfulness.  If you peer carefully at a shelf you’ll see a miniature tableau from a Beatrix Potter book.  There’s a drama going on about Mrs Jervis, and clues are here and there.  Mischievous invitations are found on mantels and bulletin boards.  Another room features a Hogarth painting of mayhem at a card party,

Card party mayhem

Card party mayhem

and when you look around the room, you realize it is the room in the painting, mayhem intact.  Up in the attic, where a Dickensian poverty has begun to reign, Marley’s chain hangs beside the door.   In one bedroom is an eighteenth-century engraving of a domestic scene.  The caption says “YOU ARE HERE-ISH.”
“I’m going to bombard your senses,” Dennis Severs said in an interview.  “I will get the 20th century out of your eyes, ears and everything.”  The Guardian said it was as if you are transported into a dream.  David Hockney described the house as one of the world’s greatest works of opera.

Dennis Severs said, “You either get it or you don’t.”

Dennis Severs died on December 27, 1999 — on the brink of the new century — at the age of 51, from cancer related to AIDS.   There was initially great worry about whether the house could continue as it was.  Finally it was saved, and visitors are still welcome, although there is no longer anyone to narrate the way through the house.  So the fur scraps, the embroidered coat, and the couvre-feu are no longer explained to visitors.  But the house is still used, so that when you enter the room and there is still tea in the tea cup, it is not staged tea — it really was someone’s tea. The house still shows that the Jervises were in the room only a moment before.  And now, in a very real sense, the house also shows that Dennis Severs was in the room only a moment before.  Christopher Wren’s epitaph might also apply to him: “If you seek his monument, look around you.”  He has slipped wholly into the past.  For the rest of us, 18 Folgate Street is still there for anyone who wants to try the door.Screen shot 2013-07-12 at 01.49.49

* His name is pronounced “Seevers,” not “Sehvers.”  No one believes me on this.  I know because I embarrassingly pronounced it the wrong way to the man himself.  Go ahead, ask one of the people who shows you around the house.  They’ll tell you: Seevers.

 The website for the Dennis Severs’ house, 18 Folgate Street, with visitor information:

 The Guardian obituary:

 The New York Times obituary: