Housekeeping and the way to live well and be well

Another excerpt from The Good Housekeeper, Or the Way to Live Well, and to be Well While We Live: Containing Directions for Choosing and Preparing Food, in Regard to Health, Economy, and Taste…
Sarah Josepha Buell Hale
Weeks, Jordan and Company, 1839
(previously posted one here)

One of the first duties of woman in domestic life is to understand the quality of provisions and the preparation of wholesome food. The powers of the mind, as well as those of the body, are greatly dependent on what we eat and drink. The stomach must be in health, or the brain cannot act with its utmost vigor and clearness, nor can there be strength of muscle to perform the purposes of the will. But further, woman to be qualified for the duty which Nature has assigned her, that of promoting the health, happiness and improvement of her species, must understand the natural laws of the human constitution, and the causes which often render the efforts she makes to please the appetite of those she loves, the greatest injury which could be inflicted upon them.

Often has the affectionate wife caused her husband a sleepless night and severe distress, which, had an enemy inflicted she would scarcely have for-given—because she has prepared for him food which did not agree with his constitution or habits. And many a tender mother has, by pampering and inciting the appetites of her young sons, laid the foundation of their future course of selfishness and profligacy.

If the true principles of preparing food were understood these errors would not be committed, for the housekeeper would then feel that the best food was that which best nourished and kept the whole system in healthy action ; and that such food would be best relished, because whenever the health is injured the appetite is impaired or vitiated. She would no longer allow those kinds of food, which reason and experience show are bad for the constitution, to appear at her table.

Among those kinds of food which the good housekeeper should scrupulously banish from her table, is that of hot leavened bread. From what I have seen and from the nature of this almost indigestible food, when taken in large quantities, I believe it more often lays the foundation of diseases of the stomach, than any other kind of nourishment, used among us. Hot bread is eaten, morning and evening, at many of our city boarding houses ; and at establishments connected with the places of education for the young. And there it is that that incipient disease, which terminates in dyspepsia, (an indefinable word implying almost every sort of distress and anguish to which the human frame is subject) is contracted.

The want of sufficient exercise, or too strict attention to business or study may, and no doubt does, have much influence in predisposing to this disease. But it is the hot bread, lying undigested, and of course hard and heavy in the stomach, which prostrates the system and thus makes the mental fatigue injurious. When much bodily exertion is used, in the open air, hot bread, as well as all other kinds of heavy food, is comparatively harmless. Hard laboring people in the country, seldom suffer from indigestion. Still there are cases of disease, and the good housekeeper even in the country, should beware of placing this food before her family.

If you are out of bread, it is much better, both as regards economy and health, to bake an indian cake by the fire, or make batter cakes, or even a short cake, if you do not put in too much butter, than to cut a hot loaf from the oven. Unleavened bread when eaten warm, is more easily digested than leavened ; or if, in the former, you use pearlash or salteratus, it is still healthier. Yet the best bread for constant use, is light, leavened bread, from one to five or six days old. This may be toasted if you like variety. But do not, as you value the health and happiness of those who sit at your table, place before them hot leavened bread or biscuit.

(The idea that hot bread, especially hot yeast bread, caused dyspepsia (indigestion and various other ills put down to indigestion) was quite common, and began, it seems, with the work of Dr. William Beaumont, who experimented on St. Martin, the man with a bullet hole to his stomach which Dr. B. used as a window and performed various experiments to observe the workings of the stomach. He claimed that hot bread was never digested. )

Another kind of food, which ought to be banished from modern tables is meat pies. It seems strange that this kind of barbarous cookery should hold its place, since the introduction of so many excellent vegetables to eat with animal food ; and since such substantial diet is not now required as was needed when nearly all labor had to be performed by the physical strength of man. The Black Knight and Friar Tuck could take an enormous meal of venison, pastry washed down with wine without any danger of injury, for their exercises in the open air, and the weight of armor which the knight bore, required this concentrated and stimulating food to sustain their strength ; but now when the modes of life have so far abated the muscular power of men, that it takes the united strength of five to lift a knight in armor into his saddle, would the same kind and quantity of food be beneficial ?

Some may think that if this food were still as commonly eaten, men would now have more strength—but it would not be so, unless they used as much and as violent exercise in the open air as was then the custom. It is only the food that is digested which gives strength and really nourishes the system ; when the mode of life is sedentary and con-fined, the powers of digestion are soon weakened, and we must adapt our diet to this condition of our nature.

I have therefore entirely omitted receipts for meat pies ; and though sometimes those who labor very hard may eat them without much danger, yet it would be more safe, as well as saving, to dress the meat by itself, and use vegetables and bread with it, rather than make it into a high seasoned pie, with rich crust, a dish commonly eaten without vegetables.

Another improvement in this dietetic system of cookery is the entire exclusion of distilled spirits. I have not permitted the name of rum or brandy to sully a receipt in this book—There is no need of these as condiments ; and though men may not be willing to relinquish their legal right to the use of such liquors, yet I cannot believe, any man will regret their banishment from the cook’s department. No father who deserves the name can wish to have his children taught to love the taste of rum and brandy from having it mixed with their food. If woman will decidedly and entirely banish ardent spirits from the household arrangements, and they can do this if they choose, the progress of true temperance habits would soon either make temperance laws unnecessary, or cause them to be respected and obeyed.

But the art of selecting and preparing food, or seeing that this is done by others, constitutes only a part of the good housekeeper’s duty. She ought to understand the character and capacity of each member of her family, know how to assign advantageously the different kinds of work to her help, to calculate expenses, provide for exigencies, and remedy as far as possible all the mistakes and accidents which occur in her housekeeping. ”

That last line is really one of life’s most important skills- the to know to remedy as far as possible all the mistakes and accidents which occur in your housekeeping, in life, will take one far.

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  1. Frances
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Have you ever tried hot bread? I don’t bake it so never had the chance. I seem to remember Alcott holding forth on the subject in one of her short tales for children, and recommending Graham bread, which I take to be wholegrain.

    • Headmistress
      Posted May 18, 2018 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

      I’ve eaten hot bread a lot- I used to bake all our own bread, and I loved hot bread. But yes, loads and loads of people in the 19th century railed against the folly of hot bread and claimed it caused dyspepsia, which from what I can tell is a blanket term for indigestion and any other digestive woes, but I’m not sure.
      Maybe the hot part, because it is so tasty, encouraged over-eating, and thus digestive issues??

      Graham bread is whole grain, but in Alcott’s day (and sometimes ours) Graham flour is also not sifted, and the grind is slightly coarser, so it has more fiber.

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