“After a few days spent almost entirely out of doors Mary wakened one morning knowing what it was to be hungry, and when she sat down to her breakfast she did not glance disdainfully at her porridge and push it away, but took up her spoon and began to eat it and went on eating it until her bowl was empty.”
The Secret Garden is first and foremost about the wonder and magic of making things come alive — the blossoming of an abandoned garden and two lonely, neglected children. But food is also magical and plays a crucial role in the story. As the flowers and plants grow, so do Mary’s and Colin’s appetites — and who can blame them, with pails of fresh milk, homemade cottage bread slathered with raspberry jam and marmalade, buttered crumpets, currant buns, hot oatcakes, muffins, dough-cakes, and the all-important bowl of warm porridge, sweetened with treacle or brown sugar.
My recent rereading of the novel yielded new insights about the self sufficiency of manor houses like Misselthwaite during Victorian times, and Burnett’s advocacy of homegrown and lovingly shared food as a key component in establishing physical and emotional health. We see Mary change from a sickly, sallow, ill-tempered waif, to a happy, engaged, more caring individual. Colin undergoes a dramatic transformation from a pessimistic, overprotected, bedridden tyrant to a budding evangelical Christian scientist. Purposeful activity centered around nature, lots of fresh air, exercise and companionship certainly contributed to healing, but so did unlimited access to a bounty of locally sourced nourishment.
You may remember that the first time Mary wandered outside, she met Ben Weatherstaff, who was working in one of the kitchen gardens. A place like Misselthwaite probably had at least three kitchen gardens (averaging between 1-1/2 to 5 acres each) and an orchard, which supported a large variety of fruit, vegetables, and herbs. The high brick garden walls kept out thieves and large animals, and helped keep the heat in. Some of the vines and fruit trees were trained to grow on the walls for maximum exposure to light and warmth, thereby increasing their yield.
Mrs. Loomis, the cook, consulted with the head gardener, Mr. Roach, about what to plant, and made sure the larder and pantries were stocked with all the ingredients necessary to feed the family, staff, and guests. She also supervised the cooking of breakfast, luncheon, tea, and dinner. It is likely the manor raised its own dairy cows and chickens, or ordered milk and poultry from local farmers.
By contrast, Dickon’s family, who lived in a small four-room cottage a few miles away, struggled with getting enough food on a daily basis. Susan Sowerby had fourteen mouths to feed; their mainstays included porridge, breads, the occasional bacon, and whatever Dickon grew in their small garden — practical, sturdy vegetables like potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbages and herbs that could stand up to the harsh Yorkshire weather and be easily stored for the winter. Not a crumb was ever wasted or taken for granted, so that’s why Martha was so shocked when Mary refused to eat her porridge her first morning at Misselthwaite (do you remember what she did end up eating?). Since they couldn’t afford the brick walls of manor houses, cottagers like the Sowerbys constructed stone walls to buffer the wind and guard against animals.
But whether the children feasted on Mrs. Loomis’s meals or Susan’s currant buns, they thrived — grew fatter, stronger, and more energetic, because the food was always made from fresh ingredients and shared among friends. The most delightful meals took place in the secret garden itself, on occasions when Dickon brought along a pail of fresh milk, and whatever baked goods his mother could spare that day. That she was willing to share what little food they had speaks highly of the generosity of country folk, and is in keeping with Burnett’s idealized vision of pastoral bliss in the face of poverty. In this story, those who had the least seemed happiest, while Colin and Mary, who came from privileged backgrounds, suffered from neglect. Though Mary probably could have had anything she asked for at the manor, I’m guessing she relished those warm currant buns wrapped in a clean blue and white napkin.
My memories of Yorkshire food are unequivocally positive. While in London, we mostly ate at ethnic restaurants — Japanese, Indian, Korean, and Italian, because English food, other than breakfast, was largely disappointing. But when we traveled up north, the food vastly improved. Was it the bracing country air, the farm fresh produce, the friendly people, or the romance of being in the culturally rich shire associated with the Brontës, James Herriot, Evelyn Waugh’s BridesheadRevisited, children’s author Arthur Ransome, or poets W.H. Auden and Ted Hughes?
Yorkshire fare is simple, hearty, and rich with flavor — comfort food designed to keep the body and spirits braced against a damp, harsh climate and adequately fueled for a hard day’s labor. You’ve probably heard of Yorkshire Pudding, which is like a popover cooked in meat drippings. Though many restaurants now bake individual puddings, served along with the Sunday roast and vegetables, traditionally Yorkshire Pudding is baked in large rectangular pans, sliced into squares, and then served with gravy before the rest of the meal.
What else is Yorkshire known for? Cured ham, Wensleydale cheese, and a raft of baked goods (one needs extra energy roaming those heathland moors for the likes of Heathcliff).
There’s parkin, an oatmeal ginger cake sweetened with treacle,
fat rascals, small cakes similar to scones containing dried fruit,
stottie cakes, a kind of flat bread used for sandwiches,
Wilfra apple cake, which is made with Wensleydale cheese,
singin’hinny, a lard-based pastry that whistles when it bakes, due to its high fat content,
and Yorkshire curd tarts (made with rosewater).
Then there’s the famous Yorkshire oatcake, also known as havercake. Along with bread and currant buns, oatcakes were a staple in the Sowerby home, cooked in large quantities on a bakestone suspended by a hook over the fire. Some were enjoyed hot and buttered, while others were left to cool and crisp, propped up on wooden blocks or hung near the ceiling of the cottage so they could be eaten later. At one point in the story, Dickon suggests that Mary visit the cottage to have some “o’ Mother’s hot oat cake, an’ butter an’ a glass o’ milk.” Mmmmm!
Of course I had to try making some of my own. I love pancakes in general, but never made any using oat flour. The recipe from Inside the Secret Garden calls for a blend of whole wheat flour and finely ground oatmeal and yeast! It was easy to make, though you need to plan ahead, since the batter has to rise for about an hour before cooking on a griddle. Of course, the bears ate them with marmalade, raspberry jam, and maple syrup. Oatcakes can also be rolled and stuffed with savory fillings like cubed ham or cheese. I do like this recipe and will definitely make it again.
MOTHER’S HOT OATCAKE
(makes 6 oatcakes)
Cornelius tries one out with butter and marmalade.
1 cup milk
1 cup water
1 oz. fresh yeast (or 2-1/4 tsp. active dry yeast and 1 tsp. sugar)
1-1/2 cups finely ground oatmeal
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. shortening (for greasing the griddle)
1. In a saucepan, mix the milk and water. Set the saucepan over low heat until the mixture is lukewarm to the touch, or 110 ° F if you are using a cooking thermometer.
2. Pour the warmed mixture into a large mixing bowl. Crumble the fresh yeast into the warm milk and water and stir it until it is dissolved. If you are using dry yeast, stir it and the sugar into the warm liquid and set it aside in a warm place for about five minutes, or until the mixture begins to thicken and bubble, before proceeding.
3. Stir the oatmeal, flour, and salt into the milk and yeast mixture. Add more water, if necessary, to make a batter. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or plastic wrap and set it aside in a warm place for about an hour.
4. Lightly grease a griddle or large skillet and place it over medium heat.
5. Stir the oatcake batter and spoon about 2/3 cup of it into the hot pan, spreading it slightly to make a thin oval cake in the middle of the pan.
6. Cook the oatcake for just a few minutes, until it is set but not browned on the bottom. Turn the oatcake and cook it briefly on the other side.
7. Serve the oatcake hot, letting each person break off a piece for herself. Spread the oatcake with butter and jam or marmalade, if desired. Dry any leftover loaves on a wire rack, store them covered, and eat them later, plain or with cheese.
Hmmm, would raspberry jam be better?
I think fresh raspberries and whipped cream is probably best!
♥ Needless to say, when I made this, there were no “leftover” oatcakes to dry. I found these light, fluffy and flavorful — better than pancakes made with all purpose flour. And it was exciting watching the batter bubble up! I can see how much Mary would be comforted and satisfied eating these in the Sowerby cottage, cheered on by a tribe of boisterous children. I am now anxious to make some parkin and fat rascals, since I’ve already tasted Yorkshire Pudding and curd tarts.
Interesting that The Secret Garden was written during a time when many poverty-stricken children, who were forced to move to industrial towns for work, lacked proper nourishment, sometimes even fresh drinking water. Burnett created an ideal world where children, rich and poor, had access to fresh food. This story celebrates the wonders that can happen when it is generously and joyously shared.
The Secret Garden Cookbook by Amy Cotler, illustrations by Prudence See (HarperCollins, 1999). Recipes for Yorkshire Breakfasts, A Manor Lunch, An English Tea, The Kitchen Garden, Dickon’s Cottage Food, A Taste of India, and Garden Picnics. Also contains juicy tidbits about Victorian cuisine and excerpts from the novel.
Recipes for Yorkshire Pudding, Wilfra Apple Cake, Fat Rascals, and Ginger Parkin can be found online here. Recipe for Singin’hinny is here.
Thanks for reading, and have a Yorkshire Secret Garden kind of day!
The Secret Garden (Part One): Another Peek Inside can be found here.