Friday, July 22, 2016

Cooking in the Klondike

Last week I wrote about “food for bookworms.” Well, this week the food is real, not virtual. What could be better than a novel with recipes, especially mouthwatering pastries and pies? I can feel my waistline expanding just from reading about the gingerbread, fritters, and corn pudding that form the background to Eliza Waite, subject of my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I chose to interview Ashley E. Sweeney about her debut novel because I liked the idea of a woman resourceful enough to live alone on an island in the Pacific Northwest, then travel north to Alaska in the heyday of the Klondike gold rush. It’s a great story, and the author tells it well.

But I also love to cook. I once translated a medieval Russian guide to household management that has become a staple on the reenactment circuit, and I own more cookbooks than any reasonable person could hope to work her way through in a lifetime. I have to stash the less-used ones in the basement and the garage because the kitchen shelves are groaning under the weight. So I must admit the news that the book contained nineteenth-century recipes caught my attention as well.

And what recipes they are—checked and adjusted for twenty-first-century kitchens by a dedicated team whom the author thanks by name, they retain the original phrasing but, unlike many older recipes, include measurements that a contemporary cook can understand. The recipe file in the back focuses on savories, including various soups, omelets and fried potatoes, Welsh rarebit and Egg (that is, French) Toast.

In the book, Eliza often has to substitute. Eggs have become a scarce commodity since she had to eat her chickens, and only trips to the mainland in a rowboat keep her in flour, sugar, and saleratus (baking powder). But Eliza adjusts—and survives.

In Alaska, she opens a bakery, and here the recipes really come into their own. (What, you thought she would chase after gold? Not our Eliza—she’s not so foolish. Besides, in Skagway, not far from Juneau, gold flakes drift down from the sky. No need to climb a sheer cliff twenty times with supplies and trek to the goldfields across miles of ice and snow.) Pecan tarts and apple pie and a sort of nineteenth-century trail mix that Eliza dubs miner’s snickerdoodles keep her busy from dawn to dusk. So whip up a batch of cinnamon buns or glazed doughnuts and settle in. You can listen to the interview at the same time.

If you’re looking for me, you’ll find me in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.


Cypress Island, September 1896: a tragedy has left a young widow, mourning her child, living alone in a cabin on this isolated spot near Bellingham Bay in the very new state of Washington. Once a month or so, Eliza Waite rows two hours each way to the general store on the mainland for supplies. Otherwise, she supports herself through hard work: chopping wood, maintaining a vegetable garden, fishing, cooking, doing laundry. Each day has a chore, and they repeat endlessly until a second crisis and a lucky find send Eliza northward on a boat to Alaska, where the Klondike gold rush is at its height. There the strands of her past interweave in ways she could not have anticipated.

In Eliza Waite (She Writes Press, 2016), Ashley E. Sweeney creates a tough, resilient, likable heroine whose compelling story will draw you in and make you pull for her success. And if all this effort makes you hungry, have no fear: the book is filled with Eliza’s recipes, and a plate of gingerbread or miner’s snickerdoodles is never far away.

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