“I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world!” ~ Jo March
Are you excited about the Little Women movie opening on Christmas Day?
To get us in the mood for all things Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Marmee and Laurie, I’m sharing two poems from the novel and a recipe from the new Little Women Cookbook by Wini Moranville (Harvard Common Press, 2019).
I think most of us can remember when we first read Louisa May Alcott’s classic — I was nine, staying with two older girl cousins downtown for about a week during the summer. We spent most of our time playing “school,” and during one of our “classes,” I began reading Little Women.
Since I wasn’t able to finish before it was time to return home, my cousin Judy let me take her copy with me (it was an abridged edition published by Whitman in 1955). I can’t remember if it was a loan or a gift, but I do remember her telling me how much she loved the book and that I should definitely read it.
Fast forward to 6th grade, when we acted out the opening scene in English class. “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” was my Jo March ‘stage debut,’ marking the first time I would read the entire novel. Like so many others, generation after generation, I was hooked for life.
I so wanted to belong to the March family, to experience that deep bond of sisterhood. I had a huge crush on Laurie, and loved Mr. Laurence because just like Beth, I loved music and playing the piano. Of course I identified with Jo, because she was a writer, only wishing I could be as feisty and forthright. And wasn’t Marmee the best mother anyone could ever ask for? As the child of a working mother, I envied children whose moms had the time and patience to listen to all their concerns.
Just like The Secret Garden made me fall in love with England, Little Women made me long to visit New England — the gorgeous autumn colors and beautiful winter vistas! the rich history and Colonial architecture! the lobstah rolls, fish chowdah, maple syrup, brown bread, baked beans, boiled dinners, Indian pudding, Yankee pot roast . . . *drools* . . . “licks chops”. . . oh wait, where was I?
With the new movie coming, I decided to reread the book, since it had been about a decade since I last gave it my full attention. When I scanned my bookshelves, I found Judy’s copy alongside my Little, Brown edition. Didn’t realize I still had it! It’s probably the only book that survived my childhood. My mother gave away my entire Golden Books collection (still grieving), and though I read voraciously, I didn’t own many novels — mostly everything came from the library.
One of the things I especially enjoyed this time around was taking a closer look at the poems Alcott included in the story. There was the elegaic “My Beth” of course, as well as the incantations in Jo’s play featuring Hagar, Roderigo, and Zara. In a letter Jo sent to Marmee, she included “a silly little thing” for her to pass on to Father about helping Hannah with the wash, the delightful “A Song from the Suds.” And who can forget that splendid Christmas when Jo and Laurie made a snow-maiden, complete with a crown of holly, a basket of fruit and flowers, and a carol, “The Jungfrau to Beth,” to cheer up the convalescent?
But the two poems I like most contain Jo’s descriptions of all four sisters. As one appears near the beginning of the story, and the other, near the end, they nicely frame the entire narrative, providing a contrast between youthful optimism and reflective melancholy.
“Anniversary Ode” is Jo’s contribution to The Pickwick Portfolio, the weekly newspaper of their secret society, The Pickwick Club. The P.C., indicative of the March sisters’ love of Dickens, met at 7 p.m. every Saturday up in the garret. They each assumed the persona of a major character:
Meg, as the eldest, was Samuel Pickwick, Jo, being of literary turn, Augustus Snodgrass, Beth, because she was round and rosy, Tracy Tupman, and Amy, who was always trying to do what she couldn’t, was Nathaniel Winkle.
Donning a pair of spectacles without any glass, “Mr. Pickwick” rapped upon the table and read aloud:
“The Pickwick Portfolio”
May 20, 18 —
Again we meet to celebrate
With badge and solemn rite,
Our fifty-second anniversary,
In Pickwick Hall, tonight.
We all are here to perfect health,
None gone from our small band:
Again we see each well-known face,
And press each friendly hand.
Our Pickwick, always at his post,
With reverence we greet,
As, spectacles on nose, he reads
Our well-filled weekly sheet.
Although he suffers from a cold,
We joy to hear him speak,
For words of wisdom from him fall,
In spite of croak and squeak.
Old six-foot Snodgrass looms on high,
With elephantine grace,
And beams upon the company,
With brown and jovial face.
Poetic fire lights up his eye,
He struggles ‘gainst his lot.
Behold ambition on his brow,
And on his nose, a blot.
Next our peaceful Tupman comes,
So rosy, plump, and sweet,
Who chokes with laughter at the puns,
And tumbles off his seat.
Prim little Winkle too is here,
With every hair in place,
A model of propriety,
Though he hates to wash his face.
The year is gone, we still unite
To joke and laugh and read,
And treat the path of literature
That doth to glory lead.
Long may our paper prosper well,
Our club unbroken be,
And coming years their blessings pour
On the useful, gay ‘P.C.’.
~ A. Snodgrass
With its sparkling wit and playful spirit, this lighthearted poem is sheer delight. We sense how much fun the girls have together as they immerse themselves in a rainy day diversion.
By contrast, “In the Garret” reveals a more mature and somewhat regretful Jo. The poem had appeared in a newspaper, and she would later learn that Professor Bhaer had seen it by chance, recognized her writing, and then carried it around in his pocket for awhile. He pondered his love for her, wondering if they had a future together.
I read that, and I think to myself, She has a sorrow, she is lonely, she would find comfort in true love. I haf a heart full, full for her.
When they finally meet again, Jo tells Mr. Bhaer she considers it “very bad poetry.” Still, Mr. Bhaer had treasured her poem; it had compelled him to go to her.
IN THE GARRET
Four little chests all in a row,
Dim with dust, and worn by time,
All fashioned and filled, long ago,
By children now in their prime.
Four little keys hung side by side,
With faded ribbons, brave and gay
When fastened there, with childish pride,
Long ago, on a rainy day.
Four little names, one on each lid,
Carved out by a boyish hand,
And underneath there lieth hid
Histories of the happy band
Once playing here, and pausing oft
To hear the sweet refrain,
That came and went on the roof aloft,
In the falling summer rain.
‘Meg’ on the first lid, smooth and fair.
I look in with loving eyes,
For folded here, with well-known care,
A goodly gathering lies,
The record of a peaceful life —
Gifts to gentle child and girl,
A bridal gown, lines to a wife,
A tiny shoe, a baby curl.
No toys in this first chest remain,
For all are carried away,
In their old age, to join again
In another small Meg’s play.
Ah, happy mother! Well I know
You hear, like a sweet refrain,
Lullabies ever soft and low
In the falling summer rain.
‘Jo’ on the next lid, scratched and worn,
And within a motley store
Of headless dolls, of schoolbooks torn,
Birds and beasts that speak no more,
Spoils brought home from the fairy ground
Only trod by youthful feet,
Dreams of a future never found,
Memories of a post still sweet,
Half-writ poems, stories wild,
April letters, warm and cold,
Diaries of a wilful child,
Hints of a woman in a lonely home,
Hearing, like a sad refrain —
‘Be worthy, love, and love will come,’
In the falling summer rain.
My Beth! the dust is always swept
From the lid that bears your name,
As if by loving eyes that wept,
By careful hands that often came,
Death canonized for us one saint,
Ever less human than divine,
And still we lay, with tender plaint
Relics in this household shrine —
The silver bell, so seldom rung,
The little cap which last she wore,
The fair, dead Catherine that hung
By angels borne above her door.
The songs she sang, without lament,
In her prison-house of pain,
Forever are they sweetly blent
With the falling summer rain.
Upon the last lid’s polished field —
Legend now both fair and true
A gallant knight bears on his shield,
‘Amy’ in letters gold and blue.
Within lie snoods that bound her hair,
Slippers that have danced their last,
Faded flowers laid by with care,
Fans whose airy toils are past,
Gay valentines, all ardent flames,
Trifles that have borne their part
In girlish hopes and fears and shames,
The record of a maiden heart
Now learning fairer, truer spells,
Hearing, like a blithe refrain,
The silver sound of bridal bells
In the falling summer rain.
Four little chests all in a row,
Dim with dust, and worn by time,
Four women, taught by weal and woe
To love and labor in their prime.
Four sisters, parted for an hour,
None lost, only one gone before,
Made by love’s immortal power,
Nearest and dearest evermore.
Oh, when these hidden stores of ours
Lie open to the Father’s sight,
May they be rich in golden hours,
Deeds that show fairer for the light,
Lives whose brave music long shall ring,
Like a spirit-stirring strain,
Souls that shall gladly soar and sing
In the long sunshine after rain.
Don’t you love the repetition of “in the falling summer rain”? So lyrical and nostalgic!
How beautifully Jo describes her sisters here, and how hard she is on herself. “Dreams of a future never found” and “a woman in a lonely home.” Thankfully there’s a happy ending after all.
As we consider the journey we’ve taken with the March sisters in the novel — their joys and sorrows, their failures and triumphs — we recognize parts of ourselves in each of them, appreciating Alcott’s enduring portrayal of family and domestic life, as well as her moral lessons and feminist views.
☕️ JO’S GINGERBREAD 🎁
Some of the most memorable chapters in Little Women revolve around food: the March sisters taking their Christmas breakfast to a poor family, Amy’s pickled limes, Meg’s currant jelly, Hannah’s daily turnovers, the disastrous breakfast the girls make for Marmee, the glorious apple picking family picnic at the end of the book.
Though Jo has many talents, cooking is not one of them. Remember when she made dinner for Laurie? Full of confidence, she envisioned an impressive repast complete with corned beef, potatoes, lobster, lettuce salad, and blanc-mange with strawberries for dessert. Alas, she burned the bread, overcooked the asparagus, produced a lumpy blanc-mange, and served acid strawberries coated in salt instead of sugar with cream that had gone sour.
Meg had tried to warn her beforehand:
Don’t try too many messes, Jo, for you can’t make anything but gingerbread and molasses candy fit to eat.
So gingerbread it is, to go with Jo’s fine poems. As Wini Moranville states in her headnote:
Scores of recipes for ‘soft gingerbread’ and ‘hard gingerbread’ — which we’d call gingerbread cake and gingerbread cookies today — appear in cookbooks from Louisa May Alcott’s time. Many cakes call for the same flavorings as this recipe, including lemon, which adds a nice, bright zip amidst the deeply flavored spices and molasses.
Must say the lemon glaze does set this recipe apart, and having made many different gingerbread recipes, I’d call this one of the best — so moist and flavorful (it calls for an entire jar of molasses). It smells so good baking — one is dreamily transported to the March family kitchen in the 19th century with the aroma of cinnamon, cloves and ginger wafting about.
This is a recipe Jo would be proud to share, and thank goodness, it’s easy and fail-proof (just don’t overbake it). Plan on making this before or after you’ve seen the new movie. Goes nicely with a cup of Harney & Sons Little Women Orchard House Blend (green tea with apple pieces, honey, and cornflower). Seriously yummy. 🙂
- 3 cups (375g) all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 2 teaspoons (3.6g) ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon (4.6g) baking soda
- 1 teaspoon (4.6g) baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1-1/3 cups (300g) packed dark brown sugar
- 1-1/4 cups (300 ml) mild-flavored molasses
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons [112g]) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1-1/3 cups (315 ml) boiling water
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup (120g) confectioners’ sugar
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) fresh lemon juice
- whipped cream, for serving
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease a 13 x 9-inch (33 x 23 cm) cake pan.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, cloves, and salt. Make a well in the center of the mixture.
- In another large bowl, combine the brown sugar, molasses and butter. Add the boiling water; whisk until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth. Whisk in the eggs. Add to the flour mixture. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed just until combined and smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
- Bake until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Place the pan on a wire rack to let the gingerbread cool slightly.
- While the gingerbread bakes, in a small bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice to make a drizzling consistency. Drizzle over the warm gingerbread. Serve warm with whipped cream.
~ from The Little Women Cookbook: Tempting Recipes from the March Sisters and Their Friends and Family by Wini Moranville (Harvard Common Press, 2019), as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.
Mr Cornelius thinks Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without any gingerbread. And he also wanted me to mention that Meg, the sister who liked to cook, was determined as a young bride to try every recipe in The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, written by Mary Hooker Cornelius (1859). No wonder he likes to eat so much — it’s part of his lineage! (Mrs. Cornelius’s cookbook was one of the sources Ms. Moranville consulted when compiling The Little Women Cookbook.)
THE LITTLE WOMEN COOKBOOK: Tempting Recipes from the March Sisters and Their Friends and Family
written by Wini Moranville, with inspiring quotations by Louisa May Alcott
published by Harvard Common Press, October 2019
Literary Cookbook, 112 pp.
LOUISA MAY ALCOTT’S LITTLE WOMEN: A Paper Doll Collectible
designed by Eileen Rudisill Miller
published by Dover Publications, October 2019
Paper Dolls for ages 10+, 32 pp.
♥️ Check out my review of A Little Women Christmas by Heather Vogel Frederick and Bagram Ibatoulline, that includes a recipe for Muffins from The Louisa May Alcott Cookbook.
🎄HAPPY HOLIDAYS! 🎄
Thank you for reading (and noshing) with us this past year. We hope you have a joyful, delicious, and inspiring holiday season with loved ones, keeping in mind that the best gifts are intangible. Be generous with your patience, kindness, compassion, encouragement, and good cheer.
Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men.
HAPPY BLUE NEW YEAR!
See you in late January!
. . . and when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning.
~ Little Women, Chapter 2
The lovely and talented Buffy Silverman is hosting the Roundup at her blog this week. Be sure to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere. Enjoy!
This post is also being linked to Beth Fish Reads Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on your best aprons and bibs, and come join the fun!
*Illustrations in this post by Frank T. Merrill, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Little, Brown, 1880).
**Copyright © 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.