Wednesday, 20 June 2018

A Fire in the Kitchen

Don't panic, it is the title of a book.   

A Fire in the Kitchen, subtitled:  The Autobiography of a Cook,  by Florence White.    Not a fast-paced, scintillating book, but definitely interesting -  I will be reading it through again, and I don't do that very often.     


Florence White

Florence White was born on 20th June 1863, which would make today her 155th birthday.   

When Florence was almost six years old, her mother died.    Before long, her father re-married, but the young woman was not kind to the little girl and she lived a sad and lonely childhood,  often confined to her bedroom, away from the family.  

One day someone was playing with a spinning top on the dining-room table, when a wire flew out of it, and hit her in the eye.    She was not taken for treatment and would have become totally blind, had it not been for her friend's mother, who insisted that Florence's father take her to see an eye specialist, he confirmed that the sight was gone in the injured eye and the other eye was badly infected and in danger of being lost.   He ordered drops to be put in and both eyes to be bandaged for six months, six months of blindness.


The friend, Ida, was to prove to be "the best friend a girl and woman ever had."     She was an artist and Florence often used to visit her in her studio, spending hours with her friend.    I have tried to find some of the paintings which Florence lists as being among her favourites, without success.  

I found this one  (thank you, artchive.com) and can't help but wonder whether the cook is based on Florence - the hairstyle is similar.




Florence had to work for a  living, she wasn't trained for anything, but she was intelligent and fairly well educated.  She got work as a journalist, a cook, housekeeper, social worker,  even writing books on dressmaking for Singer Sewing Machines, for which she was paid £50 down on delivery of the complete manuscript and then £50 on the publication of each edition of 20,000 books.  

Because the damaged eye had been left in her head, instead of being removed, she suffered from almost continual neuralgic headaches and pains at the back of her neck, her strength was sapped, her heart affected.

She spent some time in France, gave English lessons, studied French cooking, travelled and worked.    

However, her remaining eye was under a lot of strain, and she had debilitating heart problems, so  there were times when she was forced to rest in bed.  During these times she studied, did research, wrote articles, if she was well enough.    Then when her heart had recovered sufficiently, she would find another job, to earn her daily crust.

Throughout her life she was fascinated by food, especially the food of England.   She felt very strongly that it was wrong that French food was so highly regarded, while our own rich food heritage was neglected.   She believed they were both equally good in their different ways and wrote articles about cookery, collected recipes from people throughout the country and was responsible for founding the English Folk Cookery Association.


The aim of the association was to promote and preserve traditional English recipes and food.



Prolonged periods of poor health meant that things moved slowly.   Her lack of funds hindered her progress and she had to sell her library of old cookery books to a friend, who immediately loaned them back to her.   Florence continued slowly gathering information, recipes, and writing her books.



She finally managed to get her book "Good Things in England" published, then "Flowers as Food", as well as some publications  for the English Folk Association.    Then in 1938 her autobiography was published.

My copy was signed by Florence, dedicated to a Mrs Vallance.     When I first saw the writing, I was perplexed at the rambling lines and the way the ink kept running out, the writing faded.       Of course there is a very good reason, by the time she her autobiography was published, she was almost blind in her remaining eye, so she wouldn't have been able to see her own handwriting. 

There is much more to her story, but right now I am busy following an intriguing thread.  Florence mentioned that throughout her life as a writer and journalist, she often found that her original research and recipes had been 'lifted' and then presented by other people as their work.  

One small incident was when she presented a completely fresh family recipe to a newspaper (a previously unpublished one from an old family friend) in reducing the quantities, to make them more manageable, Florence made a mistake with one of the calculations.  When she saw it in the publication she tried to have it corrected, but it was not done.    A while later the same recipe, with the error, was published by another writer, presented as an original.

Her most famous publication was Good Things in England, a vast collection of old recipes, garnered from around the country, following many years of dedicated research, slowed by her poor health and lack of funds.    Before she managed to get it published, someone she had trusted, and with whom she had shared information, beat her to it and had their own version published.

There are lots of recipe books but not too many big collections of old English recipes...   I am digging and delving, trying to find out who it was.    Could it be May Byrons, Mildred Blakelock, or ...?    I need to investigate, browse my shelves, trawl through bibliographies.  I enjoy a good mystery, so I could be some time.






28 comments:

  1. What an interesting life and book! Thanks for sharing so much of it!

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    1. She led a very interesting life, what a woman!

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  2. A fascinating post, I will keep a weather eye out for the next instalment. There is nothing quite like a good mystery, and a real life one to boot.

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    1. Thank you, Pam. She bore most things very stoically and was very discreet, I will do my best though.

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  3. What a life............She really battled through everything.
    I have the Persephone but no idea where I got it from and have to admit to not looking at it properly so will remedy that straight away.
    Thank you for sharing and making me wake up and read the books!

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    1. It makes you wonder what she would have achieved had she been blessed with better health, Sue. I immediately felt guilty for not having fully appreciated the effort which she had put into gathering all the recipes for 'Good Things'!

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  4. What an interesting lady Florence was but how sad she her upbringing was. I think you're right I think that is Florence in the painting.

    Mitzi

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    1. Considering how much time she spent in her friend's studio, it wouldn't surprise me, Mitzi. I like to think it was her, glad you agree!

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  5. What a sad life she seemed to have lead as a child but she was right in one thing French food is not that good, much prefer British

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    1. It did sound a bit joyless, Bill. Nothing wrong with well cooked English food, though it can be difficult to find it sometimes!

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  6. What a story of perseverance. I hope you let us know what you discover about who stole her research and published it as their own.

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    1. Fingers crossed that I manage to unravel a few threads, Marcia!

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  7. Elaine,

    Still another interesting post! Miss White was quite a woman of strength.

    Having visited England (mostly, but not every time, London) a number of times on business, I was struck by the paucity of restaurants serving English food. Probably I was being unfair, but I wondered if most inhabitants of the UK preferred other food.

    I searched for Miss White's book on addall.com and found copies are pretty dear. None listed were priced less than $100 (I am sorry, I have no idea what the exchange rate is these days). The half dozen copies addall lists seem to be scattered around the globe.

    All that notwithstanding, thank you, again, for an informative and interesting post!

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    1. I am glad you enjoyed it, Brett. Florence certainly packed a lot into her life, despite her health problems and lack of funds.

      I spent weeks searching the internet to find a copy of the book, at a price I could afford. Eventually I found this one listed on a charity website, for a fraction of any other copies I could find. It was a real bonus to find that she had signed it. I bought it, then allowed my husband to buy it off me, so that he could give it to me for my birthday. This meant that I couldn't get my hands on it for a while. It was worth the wait!

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  8. A fascinating and worthy mystery. You know, I doubt she considered her life so sad. How honorable to work back to her original research.

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    1. You are right, Joanne. She had absolutely no self pity and stated that she had had a wonderful life! The only thing she really mourned was the way some of her hard work and research was used by people she had thought trustworthy.

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  9. Fascinating...thorough enjoyed this post!! Very sad life but such an interesting woman. I admire her tenacity!

    keep well

    Amanda :-)

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    1. Hello Amanda, I'm really glad you enjoyed it. She did so much, especially when you consider her health problems. Quite a woman! Lovely to see you.

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  10. What a fascinating story! Such a determined woman!

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    1. Hello Margie, Very determined indeed. She spent a lot of money on postage, wrote lots of letters, often cutting back on food in order to be able to afford the research and travel.

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  11. What a wonderful life - such dedication and focus. A very interesting woman, indeed!

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    1. I knew it would be interesting, Susan, but I didn't realise just how hard she had battled her way through adversity and never having sufficient funds to do all that she felt was needed!

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  12. What a life!

    Today, if a child had such an upbringing, they would give up, blame the family (which is true), and go on welfare.

    But this brave woman, did not give up. She carried on with her life, as best she could. And not only that, she did so many things! She researched and wrote and published! And was good "enough," that her work was stolen, even. Which is horrible.

    An amazing woman!

    Oh what a wonderful mystery, to dig into!!!! Who stole???????????

    You keep yourself young, by all the mysteries you search out and find the "gist" of! :-)

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    1. She was certainly made of quite stern stuff, Luna. No self pity, no blame, just a lot of Victorian stoicism and getting on with things. People today could do with a dash more of that, perhaps!

      I really don't know who stole her research, but I will do my best to dig and delve, you know how much i enjoy a good excuse to trawl through my old books! I keep dashing around the place, doing a few jobs, or a bit of gardening, then i feel that I have earned the time to spend on my books. Madness!!

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  13. I had hoped you would write about Florence. So she was a contemporary of our beloved Beatrix Potter. I love that period. I am so inspired by these ladies.

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    1. I can't thank you enough for letting me know that she had written her autobiography!

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  14. Elaine, I haven't read much of anything in a good year,
    this is my first story back, and I love this because
    Florence was a fighter, and she didn't know how rich she
    truly is, thank you for sharing, much love back to you.
    Nancy

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    1. Hello Nancy, How are you doing? I'm glad you enjoyed it, she was quite a woman! I think she would be very happy, and surprised, to know that she is still read, her recipes are still in use, and her name is known. I hope life is treating you well. Love, Elaine

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Lovely to hear from you!