Thursday, 17 January 2013

Bill Bryson Writes the History of his House

Can you imagine any subject more boring than writing the history of your own house? Well that’s because you haven’t read his “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” Black Swan, 2011. I had heard about his prolific pen (17 books on obscure sounding subjects like language history, popularization of science, and his unceasing world travels.) If you’re skeptical, go to your local library and read 5 pages (27-32) on how the architect/utopian Joseph Paxton organized the creation of London’s Crystal Palace for the world’s first industrial world’s fair. 
And then turn back to page 17, when he starts to examine his “new” house (actually an old abandoned rectory) with the just retired archaeologist of Norfolk County, England. Bill asks his informant why their church has “sunken” three feet. The answer is the surroundings have “risen” three feet! About 250 people inhabit this small parish (there were 1000 such before the Black Death cut it back to a mere 659!) That’s still more than all the parishes in modern England. An average of 250 people comes out to 1000 adult deaths a century plus a few thousand more who don’t live to maturity, and you’re talking about 20,000 burials over the centuries the church has existed. 

The archie explains to our stunned Iowan that during his tenure locals have discovered 27,000 old finds in the earth around the parish! Bill is, suddenly in an historical mood: He will “dig” historical details out of every room in the rectory: the hall (entry),the kitchen, the scullery and lander, the fusebox, the drawing room, the dining room, the cellar, the passage, the study, the garden, the plum room, the stairs, the bedroom, the bathroom, the nursery, the attic! In each genre he finds fascinating details of changes in living. His gift for language spices the story with how the changing “things” are referred to. I’m going to arouse your appetite by describing how this history worked out in the kitchen!

The main problem facing the kitchen was keeping the accessible food from going rotten. Bryson introduces the kitchen chapter with an anecdote. In the summer of 1662, Samuel Pepys, 29, a rising young naval officer invited his commander to his London home for dinner. Alas when his plate of sturgeon was laid before him, it had “many little worms creeping” in it! And folks not only had to worry about such rotten food, but dangerous maneuvers to keep it from looking rotten! Food adulterers ran rampant! Sugar and others expensive ingredients were often “stretched” with gypsum, plaster of Paris, sand, dust and other forms of “daft”, as such additives were called. Tallow and lard bulked out expensive butter. A tea drinker might unwittingly swallow powdered sheep dung or sawdust. 

One closely inspected shipment of tea turned out to be only half tea, the rest was sand and dirt. Sulphuric acid gave vinegar an extra sharpness! Conmen added chalk to milk and turpentine to gin. You could make vegetables look greener with arsenite of copper and jellies glisten.”There was hardly any foodstuff, it seems, that couldn’t be improved or made more economical to the retailer through a little deceptive manipulation.” (p.107.) Tobias Smollett reported that cherries could be made to looked fresher by being rolled around in another mouth!

Bread was especially corruptible. Smollett charged that London bread was a poisonous compound of chalk, alum, and bone-ashes, "insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution.” And bread was central to the English diet through the nineteenth century. Up to 80 percent of household income was spent on food, and up to 80 percent of that on bread. It was so important that severe laws punished the miscreants. For a time, transportation to Australia was considered as punishment. 

Not all of this pollution was planned. A parliamentary investigation of bakeries in 1826 found them “filled with cob webs, weighed down with flour dust that had accumulated on them, and hanging in strips ready to drop into any passing pot or tray. Insects and vermin scurried along walls and countertops.” (p. 110.) Filthy bread was not the only problem! Smollett describes how milk was carried in open pails in London into which “plopped spittle, snot and tobacco-quids from foot passengers, overflowing from mud carts, spatterings from coach wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys.” (p.111.)

Infected and rotten meat was a special problem. Animals driven from afar arrived tired and sick, many covered with sores. Smithfield, London’s principal meat market had a word for such damaged food, cag-mag, translated as “cheap crap”. What was needed was some technique that would keep foods safe and fresh for longer than Nature allowed. A Frenchman named Francois Appert had a fresh idea in the late eighteenth century: seal food in glass jars and then heat them slowly. Alas, his jars sometimes leaked air. Since you couldn’t depend on his jars, the concept flopped. 
The next breakthrough was ice! Huge slabs of ice from a lake outside Boston. Thus in the summer of 1844, the Wenham Lake Company hired premises on the Strand in London. Queen Victoria and Prince signed on! The huge blocks were so big patrons got off on reading a local newspaper through the ice! Wenham ice was talked about more than used. When a ship arrived in London with 300 tons of ice, they didn’t know what to do with it for so long that it melted away! In the 1850’s Norway saw an opportunity and took it. Gradually the ice industry built an infrastructure: Chicago was ideally placed to support refrigerated railways cars transporting all kinds of food great distances.

The next breakthrough was the Mason jar, with a screw on metal cap, designed in 1859 by an an American named John Landis Mason. At first the caps were wrought iron, too heavy to handle. Next came canning, invented by a Brit named Bryan Donkin between 1810 and 1820. But transformation of agriculture made interchanging food over all the world. Kansas wheat, Argentinian beef, and New Zealand lamb. The McCormick reaper industrialized farming. A table was set for all the developed countries. The world invaded our kitchens. That is an example of how one room in his house responded to modernization. The remaining rooms are equally fascinating. 

Bryson is one of the contemporary world’s greatest storytellers. Look him up in the Wikipedia to see how became a unique global teacher.

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