I recently finished reading a fantastic, fascinating book, and, if you couldn’t tell by the title of this post, I think everyone should rush out and buy it. Or borrow it from the library, like I did. It’s called “At Home” by Bill Bryson.
I first learned about the book last Christmas – my father was given a copy as a present, and I thumbed through a few pages of it, and was hooked. I got back to Los Angeles and looked it up at the library, but all 27 copies in the Los Angeles Public Library system were checked out. I added my name to the ‘hold’ list, but there were over 100 people in line ahead of me – and, soon, I forgot all about it. Six months passed, and, a few weeks ago, I got an email saying that a copy was waiting for me at my local branch! I went the next day and picked it up. It’s a long book – 452 pages – but I could barely put it down.
The book is subtitled “A Short History of Private Life,” and the book is exactly that. Each chapter is named after a room in Bryson’s own home – built in 1851 – and covers the history of that room and the sorts of things that go on in them. Chapter 15, The Bedroom, for example, not only covers the inventors and history of things like mattresses and pillows, but also how people living in various eras thought and dealt with two big issues long associated with beds: sex and death. The end result is a captivating read that’s full of information about so many different things. There’s stories about the history of common household objects, from appliances to mousetraps to wallpaper, and they’re told alongside stories about the often eccentric people who created them. Bryson’s research is thorough, and he can tell a story like no one else can, and I never thought any of it was dry or boring.
I thought I’d share a few passages from the chapter that most pertains to this blog: Chapter 4, The Kitchen. I didn’t know any of this stuff, and I’m barely scratching the surface of the information this chapter contains, let alone the book as a whole.
Did you know that for a long time, cookbooks didn’t actually contain any measurements?
“Until almost the middle of the [nineteenth] century instructions in cookbooks were always wonderfully imprecise, calling merely for ‘some flour’ or ‘enough milk.’ What changed all that was a revolutionary book by a shy, sweet-natured poet in Kent named Eliza Acton. Because Miss Acton’s poems weren’t selling, her publisher gently suggested she might try something more commercial, and in 1845, she produced Modern Cookery for Private Families. It was the first book to give exact measurements and cooking times, and it became the work on which all cookbooks since have been, almost always unwittingly, modeled.”
We think of lobster and caviar as delicacies now, but in Victorian times, it was quite the opposite:
“Lobsters bred in such abundance around Britian’s coastline that they were fed to prisoners and orphans and ground up for fertilizer; servants sought written agreements from their employers that they would not be served lobster more than twice a week. Americans enjoyed even greater abundance. New York Harbor alone held half the world’s oysters and yielded so much sturgeon that caviar was set out as a bar snack.”
This passage, about the fruits and vegetables available in the nineteenth century, really grabbed my attention, given my love for finding types of produce I’ve never tried before:
“Fruits and vegetables seemed almost infinite in number. Of apples alone there were, almost unbelievably, more than two thousand varieties to choose from… At Monticello in the early nineteenth century Thomas Jefferson grew 23 different types of peas and more than 250 kinds of fruits and vegetables. (Unusual for his day, Jefferson was practically a vegetarian and ate only small portions of meat as a kind of ‘condiment.’) As well as gooseberries, strawberries, plums, figs, and other produce well known to us today, Jefferson and his contemporaries also enjoyed tayberries, tansy, purslane, Japanese wine berries, damsons, medlars, seakale, screwpine, rounceval peas, skirrets (a kind of sweet root), cardoons (a thistle), scorzonera (a type of salsify), lovage, turnip-cabbage, and scores more that nowadays are encountered rarely or not at all.”
Lastly, I spend a good deal of time, and I suspect lots of you do as well, thinking about what I’m going to be eating, and making sure my food intake is balanced and varied. It’s never occurred to me that, for a vast majority of the time that humans have been on earth, we had no idea that what we ate could directly affect our health:
“Until well into the nineteenth century, the notion of a well-balanced diet had occurred to no one. All food was believed to contain a single vague but sustaining substance-’the universal aliment.’ A pound of beef had the same value for the body as a pound of apples or parsnips or anything else, and all that was required of a human was to make sure an ample amount was taken in. The idea that embedded within particular foods were vital elements that were central to one’s well-bring had not yet been thought of… So it was with bewildered Europeans who for a very long time died in often staggering numbers without knowing why.”
That paragraph actually came from the Dining Room chapter.
Just flipping through this book to write this post has me all riled up again about how much I enjoyed reading it. I don’t want to return it to the library – so maybe I’ll just have to buy my own copy for my shelf. You can get your own copy too: here’s the book’s Amazon page – in addition to hardcover, there are audiobook and Kindle versions available, and the paperback comes out in October.
Keep it up, David!