Anyone with an interest in 19th century art has studied American artist James McNeill Whistler’s iconic portrait of his mother, which now hangs in the Louvre. We’ve also heard Mr. Bean, the British comic character, call Mrs. Whistler in her portrait “a hideous old bat who looked like she’d had a cactus lodged up her backside.” Hard as it may be to believe from this description, Mrs. Whistler did like to cook. Glasgow University holds the original, handwritten notebook of her favorite recipes. When a professor I worked with at University of Massachusetts Boston gave me Mrs. Whistler’s Cookbook, edited by Margaret MacDonald (1979), I couldn’t resist this taste of the 19th century.
Anna McNeill Whistler, James’ mother, followed her son to London during the American Civil War, running the Southern blockade in 1863. She posed for her portrait because the model “Jemie,” as she called him, planned to use never showed up. The painting was used as collateral for loans, and came close to being seized by creditors, but it did eventually make it to the Louvre.
Mrs. Whistler, a widow by the time she moved to London, often had to cook in straitened circumstances. Her recipes reflected times of soupe maigre (translation: thin soup) to more robust pudding recipes. This cider cake is extremely dense but good dipped in tea – very British, indeed.
Mrs. Whistler’s Cider Cake (1860s)
Makes 1 loaf
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup sugar
1 1/3 cups raisins
1 1/4 cups cider, dry white wine or half wine and half apple juice
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a loaf pan.
- Sift the flour into a bowl with the baking powder and grated nutmeg. Mix in the sugar and raisins. Make a well in the center.
- Pour in the cider and mix everything to a smooth dough.
- Press the dough into the loaf pan. Bake for approximately 1 hour, until golden on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Immediately turn onto wire rack to cool. Serve with or without butter.
I enjoyed learning about her. Sometimes I enjoy just reading through older cookbooks with no intention of making anything. Many times you find some interesting tidbits scattered through the recipe. I put together two family cookbooks with photos and memories. Many have pushed me yo publish them, but unless your known, it’s quite a process.
I agree, it’s often fun to read the old cookbooks simply to learn what people made in the past and how they made it. Some recipes, such as those cooked in an open hearth, would be hard to try now. Thanks for visiting.