Madeira Mondays: Making an 18th century sailor’s breakfast

Have you ever heard of something called ‘burgoo’?

Nowadays the word ‘burgoo’ refers to a hearty, spicy stew, typically served in the American South with cornbread or muffins. However, in the 18th century, ‘burgoo’ referred to a type of oatmeal porridge eaten by British sailors!

I first learned about ‘burgoo’ in this video I stumbled across from one of my favorite YouTube channels: Townsends. For those who don’t know, this is a brilliant (and weirdly relaxing!) educational channel featuring a re-enactor Jon Townsend who cooks 18th century recipes. You might remember Townsends if you read my post about making ‘Flip’ from earlier this year!

One of the things that I love most about the channel  is how excited Townsend and his team get about 18th century primary sources. He frequently reads from letters and diaries of the time, and uses them as a little glimpse into the culinary past. In this video – ‘Sailor Rations in the 18th Century – Burgoo’, he reads aloud from Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens. Spavens reflects on sailor’s rations (most of which consisted of beer, bread, beef…no fresh veggies and fruits, of course! No wonder they got scurvy from lack of Vitamin C!). Anyways, Spavens writes:

On Wednesdays we get burgoo boiled for breakfast and a pint of peas to make soup for dinner. On Mondays, no peas but burgoo for dinner.

So what was burgoo exactly? It’s majorly simple. It’s ground oatmeal boiled in water. Sometimes you got salted beef fat to go with it, or you might get molasses. Molasses, or black treacle (for British readers!) is a dark, sweet, viscous goo (seems like I’m using the word ‘goo’ a lot in this post!) which comes from refining sugarcane. On a ship, they’d be making it in giant vats, as Townsend explains. In his making of burgoo, he uses a ratio of 3:1 oatmeal to water.

After we watched this video, my partner (who eats porridge most days for breakfast) wanted to try his hand at making a ‘burgoo’, so we made it for breakfast, using the same simple method that Townsend did – adding hot water to oats. We put some molasses in too. Here’s the result, it’s not beautiful – but oatmeal isn’t a very photogenic food!

Homemade ‘burgoo’!

It was, predictably, a little bland.

We even added nutmeg (which Townsend suggests that officers might have had…but I’m a bit more wary of that. I don’t think that officers would have necessarily been eating burgoo at all, they might have had something nicer! And, even if they did have burgoo, they probably wouldn’t be grating nutmeg on it, unless they were a huge nutmeg lover and brought their own personal nutmeg stash with them to sea. Which, I guess, is possible. Nutmeg is delicious.) But even with nutmeg, it was bland.

In the end, I did a very un-period appropriate thing and cut up some banana to add to it, which sailor’s would definitely not have had! But I wanted to have a nice breakfast and the banana definitely was a game changer.

So that’s it! Burgoo is simple and warming and cheap (then and now). And it was fun to spice up breakfast with a bit of an 18th century inspired experiment. (We don’t really leave the house much these days, so gotta get those moments of entertainment where you can!)

What do you think of burgoo? Have you heard the word before? Does it seem like something you’d enjoy? Also, what breakfasts have you been enjoying recently in general? Granola with raisins and almonds is my go-to, but we’re going to try burgoo another time soon, possibly with more spices added to it!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Royal Charlotte – Indiaman’ by Robert Dodd, created between 1764-1785, and accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: A cheap and delicious 18th century recipe

I love potatoes. Mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes, baked potatoes, potato chips…they’re all great.

Today I wanted to share with you a super simple recipe for potato pancakes from the 18th century which I discovered on the brilliant YouTube channel Townsendswhere they recreate 18th century recipes. As the host John Townsend says in his introduction to this recipe:

Potatoes were an important part of the diet of the 18th century in Great Britain and in North America. They were important especially for the poorer sort of folks who didn’t have those expensive foods available. 

The recipe Townsend uses is originally from 1732 and, as he mentions in the video, it was a recipe you might use if you were eating a lot of potatoes and wanted to vary up how you cooked them. Or if you had old potatoes lying around. Or if wheat was too expensive. Apparently this recipe shows up in lots of different cookbooks of the time (he quotes from Primitive Cookery from 1767, which was a recipe book filled with inexpensive recipes).

Like everyone else, I’ve been in quarantine and thought now would be the perfect time to give this super affordable and tasty looking recipe a go!

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that I love making 18th century food and drink, partly for book research and partly because it’s fun! Sometimes that turns out really well, like the time I made syllabub. Sometimes, the results are less appetizing, like the time I made ‘Flip’!

These potato pancakes were a moderate success (I’ll tell you more on that below), but, for now, let’s get into how I made these. This is my version of the recipe, inspired by the 18th century recipe I mentioned above and from Townsend’s video. Enjoy!

Potato Pancakes from 1732

Ingredients:

  • Some potatoes (it really depends on how many cakes you want to make. We used three medium sized potatoes)
  • Salt
  • Milk (about 1/4 cup)
  • Butter

And that’s it. If you think it sounds like we’re making mashed potatoes, you’re pretty much right!

How to make them

Step 1: Peel the potatoes and cut into bite-sized pieces.

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Step 2: Boil the potato pieces for about 15 minutes or until they’re tender. Then drain and let them cool.

Step 3: Mash them!

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Step 4: Add a big pinch of salt and a splash of milk (maybe like 1/4 cup or a teeny bit more, depending on how many potatoes you have). NB Don’t put too much milk here. You want the potatoes to retain a doughy consistency and if you add too much milk, they’re gonna be too runny).

Step 5: Add butter to a hot pan (like you’d do for typical pancakes)

Step 6: Flatten the potatoes into little pancakes.

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Step 7: Then put them into the pan. Flip them like pancakes after a minute or two on each side. They should be golden brown.

And that’s it! Serve hot.

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As you can see, they turned out pretty well in the end! They were a bit like hash browns, only more compact. We ate them with mustard, which wasn’t especially period appropriate for a poorer sort of 18th century person’s diet, but it was delicious. You could of course have them with ketchup. Or any sort of dipping sauce. I really wanted to try eating them with apple sauce and I realized that was because they reminded me a bit of latkes which I always ate with apple sauce at a friend’s for Hanukkah.

So the trickiest thing about cooking this, we found, was trying to keep the potatoes together when they were frying in the pan. Now, I grew up in the USA and I’ve had some experience flipping good ol’ American style breakfast pancakes, so I didn’t have as much trouble with this. But if you’re not as used to flipping pancakes, it might take some practice. I’d say: don’t flip too soon. And it’s a process of trial and error (our first few were definitely the messiest).

The real problem is that they don’t have flour to keep them all stuck together and make a heartier dough. But that was ‘authentic’ to the recipe, which was eaten by folks who would have made cakes like these if flour wasn’t something that they could afford. This is not like the sweet, rich and decadent syllabub recipe I made. This is hearty, simple food that will fill you up.

For me, these pancakes were, overall, pretty good. But my partner seemed to really enjoy them. So they’re worth trying out one afternoon if you fancy it and definitely let me know if you do!

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Inside a Georgian Drawing Room

The novel Jane Eyre begins with young Jane sitting in the ‘drawing room’ of her aunt’s house. When I first read Jane Eyre as a kid, I remember pausing on that phrase – ‘drawing room’ – and wondering what exactly it meant. I gathered from context that a drawing room was some sort of living room, but why was it called a ‘drawing’ room? Was it a room where you went to draw stuff? I genuinely had no idea.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase before and been similarly confused – fear not! For today’s Madeira Mondays, we’re going inside a recreated 18th century drawing room, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about what these rooms were for, what sort of things you might find in them, and, yes, why the heck they are called drawing rooms in the first place! (Hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with drawing pictures!)

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A middle-class drawing room in London in 1841, painted by James Holland. Accessed via Wikipedia.

As a bit of background: before the Covid-19 shut-downs, I was volunteering weekly at The Georgian House in Edinburgh, sometimes even in costume (more on this in my posts about 18th century Christmas celebrations)! The Georgian House is a beautiful, restored 18th century town home: recreated to look as it did in 1800, when the Lamont family lived there, and it’s filled with furniture, art, and objects from the period. I cannot recommend enough a visit, once everything is open and running again, if you’re ever in town and at all interested in this time period (or simply want to learn more about how people of the past lived their daily lives!).

So let’s step into the Lamont’s drawing room at The Georgian House and learn about what this room was for!

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The drawing room at The Georgian House

Firstly, what is a ‘drawing room’?

Historically, a drawing room was a room in a large private house where visitors could be entertained. In the case of The Georgian House, the drawing room is the largest room in the home (30 ft x 18 ft and 14 ft high) and definitely the grandest – it was a formal entertaining space, furnished grandly to impress the guests of the Lamont family. The family would have spent the most money on furnishing this room in particular.

(For context about the family, John Lamont was a wealthy landowner. The square where The Georgian House is located, Charlotte Square, was home, in the Georgian period, to wealthy families but they were not necessarily all from the aristocracy. Some were prosperous lawyers, bankers, merchants etc.)

Why is it called a drawing room?

The name ‘drawing room’ comes from the word ‘withdrawing’. After a formal dinner, the ladies would all withdraw from the dining table to the drawing room upstairs, to socialize. The gentlemen would stay at the table and continue to drink (heavily), before rejoining the ladies later in the evening.

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Yours truly (in costume) gazing out the window of the drawing room at The Georgian House. (Ignore the not very period appropriate cars parked outside the window!)

What sort of activities would happen in the drawing room?

This space was more for evening activities, such as balls or larger gatherings, but the lady of the house might have used the room during the day, if she had some friends over for tea.

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Me (right) in costume as Georgina Lamont (the family’s oldest daughter), next to fellow volunteers portraying John Lamont and a visiting guest, in the drawing room during our ‘Meet the Lamonts’ event last December. (BTW the Christmas tree, while lovely, was not Georgian and didn’t come into popular use until the Victorian period!)

At a party, the chairs would have all been pushed to the walls, to make space for dancing. When the ladies were rejoined by the men, there might have been card playing, or chess. In addition to dancing! Someone also might want to sing. Playing an instrument was an important social accomplishment of the time for the upper classes, and men and women might get up and sing a song or two. It’s my understanding that it didn’t matter so much how well you sang – this was more an opportunity for young people of marriageable age (and their families) to get a good long look at each other! But this was also a time when you had to really make your own fun (and, often, your own music!) so playing the piano could provide entertainment as well.

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Portrait of Anastasia Robinson, circa 1727, via Wikimedia

There is so much more to say about the ornate drawing room at The Georgian House, and so many objects there to delve into, but I’ll save that for another time. I had hoped to do a series of posts where I look at different rooms in a Georgian household – parlor, dining room, kitchen etc., using The Georgian House as an example. But unfortunately I don’t have all the pictures I wanted, to be able to show you all that I’d like, so we’ll have to wait until the house has opened back up again and I can get in there and take some more photos! I promise it’ll be worth the wait.

If you’re looking for more reading in the meantime, check out The Georgian House’s blog which featured another fellow volunteer (and mega talented costumer!), Emma Harvey, talking about 18th century women’s fashions.

(PS today’s Featured Image is by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier the Elder, ‘The Family of the Duke of Penthièvre (“The Cup of Chocolate”)’, circa 1768, accessed via Wikipedia)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Washington Miniseries Review (Episode 1)

‘You could argue that the British empire slowly built the man who would destroy them from the inside out.’ – Alexis Coe in Washington

This month The History Channel released a new miniseries about the life of America’s first President: George Washington. It was titled, quite simply: WASHINGTON. To be honest, I went into this series with low expectations. The History Channel screens some pretty questionable and often hilarious content (see: Ancient Aliens). Growing up, whenever I turned on this channel there was always some show about conspiracy theories involving the Illuminati or the Freemasons. So I was fairly shocked to discover that this miniseries was pretty darn good!

Thus far I’ve only seen Episode 1 (‘Loyal Subject’) which follows Washington’s early life and military career, but here are some thoughts about the pros and cons of the show – which may help you decide if you want to give it a watch too.

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Washington released by The History Channel last month (February 2020)

Okay, let’s focus on the positives first!

1 – They interview tons of big name historians, biographers and politicians

I was surprised to see lots of famous early American historians interviewed here (Annette Gordon-Reed! Joseph J. Ellis!), in addition to people like Bill Clinton and Colin Powell. The whole series is actually produced by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is fascinating to see all of these big name politicians and historians reflecting on Washington, and they bring so much knowledge, gravitas and, frankly, legitimacy to the whole thing. These people are the experts in their fields and I’m inherently curious about what they have to say. Well done, History Channel.

2 – Production value of reenactments

The interview clips are interspersed with short re-enactments of Washington’s life, featuring actors in period costume. So it’s almost like a little biopic film mixed with historical commentary. That could have been quite a cheesy format, but I think the balance works pretty well and keeps the whole thing quite engaging.

These reenactment scenes can get surprisingly violent (we see a Native American guy scalping someone and later there is a hanging), which is something to be aware of. The acting is passable, but I was overall impressed with the costumes and the scale of these reenactments. I can’t wait to see more of them actually!

3 – It doesn’t sugarcoat his life too much

The series isn’t overly reverential. It delves into how, early on in his career, Washington made a lot of mistakes. He makes tactical blunders, signs documents he doesn’t understand because they are in French (lol!), and misrepresents some of his military deeds in newspapers of the time. He’s human and this show is quick to point that out.

It also discusses how he was a slave owner. I especially liked the discussion of this from Erica Armstrong Dunbar of Rutgers University. She said: ‘I believe he knew that slavery was wrong but it was also crucial to his financial success.’ YES. I’m so glad they included this quote from Dunbar because there’s a big misconception that people back then didn’t think slavery was wrong, because their morals were just so different from our own. But honestly – lots of them did know it was cruel and wrong, it was just the economic system that they lived under at the time and they didn’t seen an alternative. That’s a crucial thing for modern audiences to comprehend and I like that the show addressed it.

4 – There’s a focus on his character/personality

I took some notes for this post while I was watching the show and I wrote down: ‘he was tall and women were into it’. I also wrote: ‘self-control but with fire crackling inside.’ The historians interviewed talk about contemporary accounts of Washington (who was really tall for the time, like 6’2”) and by all accounts had a very restrained but commanding presence. He was also apparently very disciplined with his men and very quietly ambitious. It was his feelings of being snubbed by the British army early in his career that, the series argues, sets him on the path to becoming a Revolutionary. So we really get to know the guy a bit through the series: his temperament, his personal goals etc.

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Washington at Verplanck’s Point by John Trumbull (1790)

Now, for the cons:

1 – Not a great introduction to the entire Revolutionary War

Because of the limited scope of the show, they have to gloss over a lot of stuff. So everything apart from Washington’s life feels really rushed. We hop from the Boston Massacre to Lexington and Concord, with very little explanation for what those things are or how they impacted the colonies. So this isn’t the best thing to watch for a general introduction to the revolutionary war.

2 – The actor who plays Washington

I’m sorry to say that Nicholas Rowe, the actor who plays Washington in the reenactments, doesn’t really exhibit some of the gravitas and personal magnetism that the historians are saying that the real Washington had. There’s a somewhat unintentionally funny bit where the interviewees are quoting from period accounts of how charming Washington was, how he had a fire behind his eyes etc., and it cuts to Rowe dancing with some ladies with just a mildly engaged look on his face. He isn’t really bringing that gravitas to the table.

This stuff wouldn’t usually bother me – after all, this is a documentary and not a feature film! These scenes are just to dramatize what the interviewees are talking about. BUT since they go on and on about how much unusual gravitas Washington had, I think most actors would fail to live up to that build-up. Most people don’t have that kind of quiet charisma – that was part of what made Washington special! But Rowe overall does an okay job and I’m curious to see how he does as the older Washington.

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All in all, I’d recommend the show so far! Definitely worth a watch if you’re interested in this time period, if only to see the all-star historians and biographers line-up. Also, at a time of such great political division in the USA, I do think it’s important to focus on our shared history, which is so unique.

Have you seen Washington? If so, I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts! I’m looking forward to Episodes 2 and 3.

PS Two pieces of poetry news!

Last week I was at StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, introducing and chairing some poetry events. I’ve been volunteering for this festival for almost 9 years (!) and for several years have served as their in-house Festival blogger. This year, I was mainly introducing events, but they asked me to do one blog post as well. You can read my post, ‘Moonlight and Mermaids’, here if you’re interested in learning about StAnza (the biggest poetry festival in the UK), which takes place every year in a little Scottish town by the sea. The post also features some discussion of late 18th century gothic women poets.

Also, I have a poem in the Scottish Writers Centre’s new chapbook ‘Island and Sea’, published last week. If you happen to be Scotland-based (I know that some ‘Madeira Mondays’ readers are!), the chapbook is launching tomorrow (March 10th) at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow. Several poets from the book will be reading on the night. I’m hoping to make it through to read. If that sounds like your cup of tea, here’s the event page!

(Today’s featured image is of, you guessed it, George Washington, by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772, accessed via the Wikimedia Commons. It is the earliest authenticated portrait of Washington.)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: A Forgotten 18th Century Drink

Last week, I received two very good pieces of news. One I cannot talk about publicly yet (ohhhh secret!) but the other I can happily announce is that I have a new poetry book coming out! My second poetry pamphlet will be published later this year with Scottish indie press, Stewed Rhubarb. They specialize in publishing spoken word poetry and as a spoken word poet myself, it was the perfect fit! The book has poems about early American history, about sex, about literature…basically, all the stuff I’m interested in! (Can you tell I’m excited?). I can’t wait to work with Stewed Rhubarb, and with my fabulous editor Katie Ailes, on this book and I’ll share lots more info. when we’re closer to publication day.

But I wanted to celebrate the publication news this week by making an 18th century drink. Since it was a chilly February day, I chose a warm drink called ‘Flip’. I’m not going to include the full recipe here because (spoiler alert) I found this drink pretty vile, BUT I will tell you what it is, how I made it, and here’s a link to an excellent video with step-by-step instructions of how you can make it too, if it seems like your sort of thing (It was definitely not mine!). Jas Townsend, the re-enactor who makes it in the video, seems to really enjoy his though so…maybe it just wasn’t for me?

So, what is ‘Flip’?

The 1890’s had the gimlet. The 1990’s had the Cosmo. In the 1690’s and even the 1790’s, it was the creamy flip that ruled the bar…

Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England by Corin Hirsch

Flip is a hot, frothy drink that is a blend of ale, rum, some sort of sweetener (molasses or sugar) and sometimes eggs and cream. It’s also usually spiced with nutmeg and/or ginger, and it was very popular in 18th century America. It popped up in American taverns in the 1690’s and was still popular during the Revolutionary War. Food writer Corin Hirsch, in the book quoted above, found one instance of a tavern in Holden, Massachusetts, who charged more during the Revolutionary War for their Flip than they did for a bed. A mug of ‘New England Flip’ was 9 Dollars, versus a bed in the common boarding room for women, 2 shillings! Either those sleeping arrangements were really bad, or their flip was really good, or both.

How do you make it?

I have to admit that making Flip was kind of fun because you are meant to pour the drink between two separate pitchers until it is blended. So I mixed an egg and some spices in one bowl, then heated up some ale separately, and then added them together in these two pitchers – pouring back and forth until it was creamy.

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The two pitchers I used to make my (pretty dreadful) ‘Flip’

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Pouring the mixture from one pitcher to another to mix it. (Even the flowers in this picture look sad. They probably don’t like Flip either!)

I was vaguely following along with the Townsend video linked above and also there’s a recipe for it in Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England. In any case, the resulting mixture was creamy-ish, but there were itty bitty chunks of cooked egg inside it, which I suppose I could have strained out. But I also did not like the smell of it: the hot, yeasty smell of the beer, mixed with the nutmeg and ginger, mixed with the egg.

But I think where I really went wrong is that in the 18th century Flip was heated up a second time (after you’d mixed the drink) by plunging a hot fire poker into the middle of it. The poker heated it (of course), but also added burnt flavors. I would imagine this might work better than what I did, which was put the whole thing back on the stovetop briefly, once I’d mixed it all together, just to get it warm again. By not using an actual fire poker, you lose some of that fire flavor, which was probably part of what made the drink special.

What did it taste like?

Not nice, you guys.

Even though I drank it from a fantastic Bernie Sanders ‘Feel the Bern’ mug, that was not enough to save this drink from tasting really, really bad to me.

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For one thing, it was pretty sweet. I tasted the sugar definitely and also rum has its own sweetness…all of that together made for a thick, HEAVY, brownish drink that actually turned my stomach.

Looking back on it, I’m not really sure why I picked Flip in the first place, other than the fact that it looked fun to pour the drink between the two pitchers. I’m not a beer drinker, and I don’t love rum, so I’m not sure why I thought I would enjoy those two things heated up and mixed together with an egg. I would still try it again if someone else made it who knew what they were doing, but I think this experiment was probably doomed from the outset!

Nevertheless, I am glad that I tried it, because now I will know what it is if I ever run across it in a historical source. And my stomach will turn at the memory of making this forgotten concoction from the 18th century. Which I will not be resurrecting again any time soon!

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips & Rattle-Skulls to Switchel and Spruce Beer by Corin Hirsch

‘Popular Drink Fallen into Obscurity- ‘Flip’ from the 1820s’ on Townsends YouTube Channel

For an 18th century drink that I definitely did enjoy, check out my recipe for whipped syllabub!

(Today’s Featured Image is an 18th century oil painting, ‘Young Couple in a Rural Tavern’, by Giacomo Francesco Cipper)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Yearly Wrap-Up

Three months ago, I started a series of blog posts all about early American history and historical fiction. I am currently researching and writing a novel set during the American Revolution and, as fiction writers out there will know, writing can be a bit of a lonely and solitary process. You spend a lot of time in your own brain and sometimes it’s nice to reach out and chat to actual people with similar interests! During the research process, you also stumble across all sorts of interesting historical tidbits that don’t really have a place in the book, but are fun to share and discuss!

So that is why I started this blog series. To connect with people who might also be interested in, for instance, the history of Christmas in America or how to make a whipped syllabub. Or people who love historical books and novels as much as I do and want to swap recommendations! I started it to meet those who already had an interest in 18th century America, but also to talk with people who just simply love learning and are curious to explore the past with me.

So thanks to everyone who has read any of these blog posts! I plan on continuing this series into the new year, so any recommendations would be most welcome. You can see a wrap-up below of the posts that I’ve done thus far, but if there’s a particular topic you’re curious about, do let me know! Would you like to see more recipes for early American food and drinks? More book and film reviews? I wrote part of my PhD on the musical Hamilton, so I’d be happy to talk about that! Or perhaps more about my experience as a re-enactor in Edinburgh? Anything to do with early American history or historical fiction, I’d be up for discussing.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading ‘Madeira Mondays’ thus far and have a wonderful start to 2020! x

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Me in costume at The Georgian House in Edinburgh. Photo by Melissa Stirling Reid.

Madeira Mondays 2019

Film and TV Reviews

The John Adams Miniseries Part I (This post goes into the reasons why I think you should watch HBO’s miniseries John Adams, based on the life of America’s 2nd president and his role in the American Revolution!)

The John Adams Miniseries Part II

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Photo from John Adams, featuring Laura Linney as Abigail Adams and Paul Giamatti as John Adams

The Witch Film Review (In this Halloween-themed post, I analyze the atmospheric horror film The Witch, which is about isolation, superstition and fear in colonial New England!)

The Patriot Film Review Part I (I discuss the good things in Roland Emmerich’s melodramatic but fun film about the Revolution in South Carolina.)

The Patriot Film Review Part II (I talk about the things which do not work in The Patriot! I have some issues with this movie…)

Book Reviews

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes Book Review (For this post, I revisited a childhood favorite book about a teenage spy in Revolutionary Boston! This book really withstood the test of time.)

Mistress by Chet’la Sebree (An analysis of a beautiful new poetry collection published this year and inspired by the life of Jefferson’s enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings. The collection was written by Chet’la Sebree, who was a Visiting Fellow the same year as me at Thomas Jefferson’s home: Monticello. This collection is perfect if you want to learn about this mysterious and fascinating woman from American history.)

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Recipes

Syllabub Recipe (Delicious recipe for a colonial era drink, basically like an alcoholic frappuccino!)

History

Christmas in a Georgian Townhouse (All about my experiences as a re-enactor in Scotland and how the Georgians celebrated Christmas.)

Christmas in Colonial America (A very brief history of how Christmas was celebrated in the colonies. Want to learn about the origins of Santa Claus? Or how many of our modern Christmas traditions came to be? This post is for you!)

Visits to Historic Sites or Events

A Visit to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, USA (My trip to the recently opened museum of the American Revolution and recommendations of what to see there if you visit!)

Trinity HistoryCon in Dublin, Ireland (A re-cap of an academic conference at Trinity College Dublin on the intersections of history and pop culture. I presented there on representations of John Adams in pop media!)

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Display of recreated 18th century objects you might find in a colonial shop, at The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia

Thanks for reading and see you next year! x

PS Why is it called ‘Madeira Mondays’?

Madeira is a fortified wine from Portugal and it was hugely popular with the American colonists. George Washington in particular really loved it, but it was also enjoyed by Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. AND it was the wine drunk by the Continental Congress to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Cheers!

 

Madeira Mondays: Christmas in a Georgian Townhouse

For the last few months, I have been volunteering at The Georgian House. Situated in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town, The Georgian House is a restored late 18th century townhouse, once owned by John Lamont (the 18th chief of the Clan Lamont). Today it is a show house, designed to show what life was like for those above and below stairs in 18th century Edinburgh. Each room is full of Georgian furniture, rugs, knickknacks and art, giving you the genuine feeling of stepping back in time.

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Step on into the drawing room at The Georgian House!

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The Dining Room

I have loved volunteering there and will do a longer post next year on what to expect from a visit to The Georgian House (and why you should definitely pop in to say hello if you’re ever in Edinburgh!), but I wanted to tell you about this month in particular because we’ve been doing some pretty cool stuff this Christmas! For one thing, I have been dressing up, along with some of the other volunteers, as members of the Lamont family for our event ‘Meet the Lamonts’. Visitors could interact with us (we’re in character the entire time!) and learn about life for the Lamont family and their servants. I was dressed as Georgina, the 2nd daughter of John Lamont, but we also had people portraying the butler, our housekeeper, the cook, and more.

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Me (as Georgina Lamont) looking out our window at Charlotte Square, which would have been under construction during the Georgian period

The house was also decorated for Christmas and part of our job was to discuss with the visitors how a family like the Lamonts would have celebrated Christmas in Georgian Edinburgh.

So how would the Georgians celebrate Christmas?

For the rest of this post, I’ll talk a bit about Christmas festivities in 18th century Edinburgh and then next week, we’ll look at how it was celebrated over in the American colonies. Let’s explore!

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The staircase at The Georgian House, decorated for Christmas

Firstly, when is Christmas?

For the Georgians, Christmas was not two days (Christmas eve and day) but in fact an entire season. Christmas was a month long celebration that involved parties, dances, meals etc. It ran from December 6th (St Nicholas Day) until January 6th (Twelfth Night). Our modern shortened Christmas came into being when employers needed their workers to work throughout the festive period (remember how angry Scrooge gets when his employee, Bob Cratchit, wants the day off for Christmas?) So it was a festive, party-filled period for socializing and family get-togethers, which readers of Jane Austen novels might be familiar with, as the characters are always visiting friends and family (and celebrating!) during this time of year.

How was it different from modern Christmas celebrations?

A lot of the Christmas traditions that we associate with the holiday today did not come into practice until the Victorian period. The Christmas tree, for example, was not widely practiced outside of Germany until Victorian times, when Prince Albert famously introduced the tradition into English society. Christmas cards as well did not really come in until the Victorian period. We didn’t have Santa Claus as we know him yet either (more on that next week).

They did however sing Christmas carols. Elite young ladies and gentlemen would often be taught to play an instrument, and the family could gather round and sing. ‘Joy to the World’ was already around, as was ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. (I wonder if people got as sick of hearing these same tunes as I do of modern Christmas songs…)

People of all social classes could decorate their homes for Christmas because decorations were often natural elements brought in from the outside. People brought in evergreens (holly, mistletoe, ivy etc.) and festooned the house with them. Greenery was a symbol of the promise that life would return in spring (if that sounds vaguely pagan, then you’re right! The idea comes from pagan traditions.).

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The mantle in the parlor decorated for Christmas

One tradition practiced by many in this period was the Yule Candle. It was a big white candle lit by the head of the household at sunset on Christmas Eve and then allowed to burn throughout the night. It was believed to be bad luck if it burned out before Christmas morning. In Scotland, the Yule candle was not to be purchased, but given as a gift to the family and typically sat on the dining table where Christmas Eve dinner was eaten. And speaking of which…

What did they eat?

Obviously this would vary widely depending on region and social class. For a wealthy family like the Lamonts, vension might have been the meat of choice. Other typical Christmas foods were cheeses, soups, and minced pies (which were made with real mince in them! And similar spices to our modern mince pies: cloves, mace etc.). A popular drink was a Wassail bowl, similar to a mulled wine: cooked with spices and sweetened wine or brandy, served in a large bowl garnished with apples. I’ll talk a bit more about Christmas food next week, in my post about Christmas in the American colonies.

So that is a bit about Christmas festivities in Georgian times! I hope that it was informative and if you want to pay a visit to The Georgian House, I believe it will be decorated until January 5th. Be sure to check opening times on The National Trust’s Website before you go! Alas, I will not be there dressed up (our ‘Meet the Lamonts’ reenactment events are finished for the year), but there will be helpful volunteer guides in each room and it would be fun and Christmas-y nonetheless. A lot of the information from this blog post I learned from a very informative little booklet The Georgian House has made this year about Georgian Christmas traditions, including recipes, which you can pick up there for a small donation if you’re curious! I have also included some further reading below if you want to learn more about Christmas in Georgian Britain. Next week, we’re sailing across the Atlantic to British America!

Thanks very much for reading. I hope you’re having a great holiday season. Cheers!

PS

If you’re still looking for Christmas gifts, might I suggest giving the gift of poetry? I have a new poetry pamphlet coming out next year (!) and my publisher, the wonderful Edinburgh-based Stewed Rhubarb, is offering a subscription service called marvelously The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb. Members of the ‘fellowship’ get each of Stewed Rhubarb’s new poetry pamphlets mailed out to them as they are published next year. That’s four, new Scottish poetry books (mine included!) which will arrive in the mail to you throughout 2020. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

This subscription service is a new initiative to support Scottish poetry and writers like me, and if we don’t get enough subscribers, we won’t be able to go forward with the project. So if you have a literature lover in your life, or if you are one yourself, it would be lovely if you joined us! Support the arts in Scotland and get four great books out of the deal. You can find all the details here. Thanks!

Further Christmas reading:

Blogs:

‘Christmas 1819’ from All Things Georgian blog

‘Christmas in Jane Austen’s Time’ from Regina Jeffers’ blog

18th century podcast Episode 25: Christmas

Books:

Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders

The Keeping of Christmas: 1760-1840, published by Fairfax House in York, England, text and design by Peter Brown (I got this little book as part of Fairfax’s house exhibition ‘The Keeping of Christmas’ and it’s very useful. Can’t seem to find it online, but here’s the link to Fairfax House)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (Okay so it’s not Georgian, but I believe that everyone should read this. It’s entertaining, compassionate and timely. I re-read it every year)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!