Monday, 13 October 2014

Cake Special: GBBO and The Lady Baltimore


A special cake entry to mark the climax of the Great British Bake Off – a competitive TV programme that ended last week, with more people watching the final in the UK than watched the soccer World Cup Final. And, it ended perfectly with the lovely Nancy winning, to loud cheers in sitting-rooms all over the land. The programme is in its fifth season, having crept up from a small band of viewers on a lesser channel, to primetime joy and newspaper front pages (the notorious baked Alaska/bingate incident).

This is not the place for a detailed look at the programme (I’m here to look at obscure American novels of the turn of the century) but if you enjoyed Bake Off then I have a top tip for you. A short time ago I went to Simon’s always-excellent Stuck in a book blog, intending to stay for a minute while I checked out a reference. But it turned out that among his very good book reviews, he has been doing weekly roundups about the Bake Off, which are hilariously funny, absolutely spot on, and completely unmissable. I was there for hours. Anyone who enjoyed GBBO should go and look immediately.

Now, back to the book.

The Lady Baltimore by Owen Wister

published 1906




The shutting of a front door across the street almost directly behind me attracted my attention because of its being the first sound that had happened in noiseless, empty High Walk since I had been strolling there; and I turned from the parapet to see that I was no longer the solitary person in the street. Two ladies, one tall and one diminutive, both in black and with long black veils which they had put back from their faces, were evidently coming from a visit. As the tall one bowed to me I recognized Mrs. Gregory St. Michael, and took off my hat.


observations: If you heard there was a light American romantic comedy of manners called The Lady Baltimore, you might make some assumptions: that it was set in Baltimore, and/or that Lady Baltimore was a key player. You couldn’t be more wrong – this book is set in post-Civil-War Charleston (disguised as Kings Port) and The Lady Baltimore is a cake:

I returned to the table and she brought me the cake, and I had my first felicitous meeting with Lady Baltimore. Oh, my goodness! Did you ever taste it? It's all soft, and it's in layers, and it has nuts—but I can't write any more about it; my mouth waters too much. Delighted surprise caused me once more to speak aloud, and with my mouth full. "But, dear me, this IS delicious!"




This piece of description crops up wherever the history of the cake is mentioned in the real world - it is a real cake, see above - and I would normally try to avoid it for that reason, but it is just about the only point in the book where the writer says anything about the cake, other than that sometimes the one on sale in the teashop is stale. It seems odd to call your book after a cake, and not say much about it, but there you go. 

The plot is: a young man comes into the teashop to order a wedding cake. This is odd, apparently – men don’t order the wedding cake. This shows there is something wrong with the fiancée, who should be organizing it herself. So there is then a farrago of fortune-hunting, fast girls, a much nicer girl who makes the Lady Baltimore cakes with her own two hands, a boarding house, and people saying ‘the [wedding] cake is not baked yet, we shall see’. There is a very extraordinary climax on a sailboat outing, where one woman (cigarette between her lips, so we know what she’s like) jumps in the river – I had to read this whole section twice because I really didn’t understand what was going on. The bad fiancee is described, wonderfully, as a steel wasp. There is the occasional joke, eg this one about a sick person:
"I should so like to soothe him, if I could," the poetess murmured. "If he were well enough to hear my convention ode—"

"He is not nearly well enough," said Juno.
Unfortunately, just as you are going along with this, thinking that it’s not surprising the book hasn’t really survived – it is very much a look at manners and morals, set maybe around 20 years before it was written - but it’s a bit of a hoot in its long-winded way, we get onto the subject of the aftermath of the war, and the position of coloured people, and the feelings of the defeated South. And there, I’m afraid, the book must completely lose all modern readers with its most discomforting and nasty views on such matters. It’s a pity, because the book does have its moments, and the concept and much of the detail are interesting.

Owen Wister is best known for The Virginian, his 1902 Western novel which was one of the originals of the genre. (In the UK in the 1960s the American TV series based – vaguely – on the book was part of Friday evenings for years and years.) Wister was very successful in his day, and was a great friend of Theodore Roosevelt’s. 

Perhaps the contestants on Bake Off next year might make a Lady Baltimore....

25 comments:

  1. Overall I like the show, but have to say I'm not a fan of Hollywood or the dark-haired unfunny presenter. We were rooting for Nancy and raised the roof when it was announced that she won.
    I doubt this is a book for me TBH.

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    1. Yes, equal excitement here that the right person won, very glad to hear that the Col family is on the right page! For a moment there I thought you meant it was too Hollywoodish, too glitzy and American...

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  2. Moira - This definitely sounds a bit of a mixed bag. The plot has solid points to it, and a look back, so to speak, at manners and mores can be fun. Oh, and that cake looks fabulous :-). But the rest.....no, not so sure about that...

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    1. This is one of those cases where I'm saying 'l read this book so you don't have to' - I can't in all conscience recommend it. And now you know all the best bits from reading my post...

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  3. Phoebe Atwood Taylor has a novel in her Leonidas Witherall series of farcical mysteries, "File for Record" (1943), in which a Lady Baltimore cake plays a prominent role. But Taylor also doesn't say much about what such a cake actually IS. (But it is definitely difficult to make because of wartime rationing.) I have yet to taste one!

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    1. Oh thanks Noah, great suggestion - I was looking to read another one by Phoebe Atwood Taylor, and it sounds like I've found my title. I don't think the cake looks all that delicious, tbh.

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  4. Ooh I like the sound of the cake (I just looked it up!) Vanilla sponges with meringue frosting, and a cream/candied fruit/nut filling sounds similar-ish in flavour to the italian dessert Zuccotto which I've made a few times. I might just have to give it a whirl at some point! Would be a good one adorned with your candelabra!

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    1. Hey, you should make it and do a blogpost, and we can do a kind of joint blog on cake and book! (Lucy has a lovely cakes, babies and crafts blog here: http://www.mrsbishopsbakesandbanter.co.uk/) We should definitely co-operate, and maybe find other books and cakes...

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  5. Coincidentally, this popped up in my reader today: http://recipereminiscing.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/lord-baltimore-cake-lord-baltimore-kake/ I wonder how Lord differs from Lady B?

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    1. That's intriguing, isn't it - it is a lot more pink than a Lady Baltimore Cake, you'd think it would be the other way round. I think this sounds like a case for your food/books blog Vicki.

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    2. Hot News Vicki and Tracy! The Lord Baltimore Cake was designed to use up the leftover egg yolks, see my comment below.

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  6. Interesting book, interesting cake. I will forgo both of them. Actually I thought the cake looked good in the photo above, but the more I read about it... too many flavors.

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    1. I'm not sure it sounds very delicious, your 'too many flavours' is a good description. I don't like the sound of that frosting, and one recipe that I saw used 12 egg whites in cake and frosting (no yolks): well that's not practical for real people is it....?

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    2. Hot News Tracy and Vicki! The Lord Baltimore cake was designed to use up the leftover egg yolks, see the comment above....

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    3. I often reject recipes that have only egg whites for the very reason you mention. I don't like cakes much but will eat sheet cakes for the rich frosting. My mother used to make the most delicious fudge icing for cake (really just like fudge) which I loved.

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    4. I actually keep a list of recipes that are big on either whites or yolks, so if I really want to do an opposite recipe I've got an idea on how to use up the leftovers. (Does that make sense?) But also - if it's not actually a meringue, I can be quite tempted to use a whole egg rather than 2 yolks or 2 whites. Or just reduce the number of eggs in the recipe. And I can't say there've ever been any disasters because of that.

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    5. Same for me. If it doesn't require the whites only, I just use whole eggs. I love eggs. And I don't look at too many dessert recipes anymore anyway.

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  7. Must admit, I was actually slightly disappointed that she did win, though clearly deserved to on the day, just because it always seems a shame to see people fail at the last hurdle - if the score had been cumulative, the outcome would have had to be different. Not read the book Moira - sounds interesting (is he the same author who wrote that Western classic, THE VIRGINIAN?)

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    1. Was it Richard you were supporting Sergio? I did like all 3 finalists - in previous years I have been something of a 'anyone but X' in the final. Basing it solely on the day is slightly odd, I agree, but they make the rules.
      Yes, he wrote the Virginian, which I have never read, but as I say above, the TV series was always on in our house on Friday evenings!

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    2. Sorry for missing out the Virginian reference in your last paragraph, I skipped it for fear of spoilers! I needn't have worried - and yes, Richard seemed like such an unlikely champion that I was rooting for him and after geting star baker five times it seemed like he deserved it really - but all three deserved to be there and if it weren't for twitter, this would still be probably the 'nicest' contest on TV where there are no real losers - love all the hugging at the end of each episode (I am such a softie) - it's really not about the winning, right?

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    3. I was happier Nancy won TBH. Yes Richard was good, but it all seemed a bit too precise, a bit too perfect all the way through. Louis seemed to want it too much. Nancy just seemed more relaxed about the whole thing and didn't seem too obsessive about it all. She seemed to be the most "natural" cook, not measuring everything to the nth degree - for that reason I was glad she won.

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    4. Sergio: yes, exactly, it is so unlike all other competitive reality shows, I like the way it really is about the baking. I think there is a bit of social balancing in the original selection, but once they all start it is left to run properly, entirely on merit. And yes, they are all nice to each other and end up friends!

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    5. Col: I thought that Nancy had the right temperament, or lack of temperament - the two men seemed quite nervy and were easily put off. She just kept on her own track, very steady. Plus she was very funny, I liked her throwaway comment. Also, Nancy is my daughter's middle name. So I was a natural for Team Nancy...

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  8. If you want to be intrigued and nauseated by southern attitudes try A Girl's Life in Virginia Before the War http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/burwell/burwell.html (happy, smiling, willing - you guessed it). But if you want sharp observation, wit and tragedy, try the works of Florence King (Confessions of a Failed Souther Lady etc). People wear clothes, too!

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    1. Ooh Florence King, haven't read her for years, love Confessions. Time to see if it's on the bookshelf and get it out. And thanks for other reco (if that's the word!) too.

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