June 25 ...
Our old friend Parson Woodford and his niece Nancy dined – as they often did - with the local squire, Mr. Custance and his family on this day in 1783.
“Nancy and myself dined and spent part of the afternoon at Weston House with Mr. and Mrs. Custance……whilst we were at Dinner Mrs. Custance was obliged to go from Table about 4 o’clock labour Pains coming on fast upon her. We went home soon after dinner on the Occasion – as we came in the Coach. We had for Dinner some Beans and Bacon, a Chine of Mutton rosted, Giblett Pye, Hashed Goose, a Rabbit rosted and some young Peas, - Tarts, Pudding and Jellies…..Mrs. Custance….was brought to bed of a fine girl about 7 o’clock and as well as could be expected.”
Childbirth being a very frequent event in most households of the time, it was obviously not thought necessary for guests to quit the table immediately when the hostess was forced into a hasty retreat - her ‘groaning time’ upon her. No doubt the good parson, who enjoyed his food, did not let it affect his appetite for the remainder of his dinner.
Childbirth was of course much more hazardous in those days, which probably accounts for the longer celebrations when it all went well. ‘Groaning time’ was indeed the very apt name for for the ‘lying in’ time, and many special foods were prepared for the occasion. A special ‘groaning beer’ (or ‘groaning ale’, ‘groaning malt’, ‘groaning drink’) – an extra strong beverage – was prepared to sustain the poor father during the ordeal, and to give to the visitors and ‘gossips’ after it was all over. ‘Gossips’ used to be the name for the women who were present at the birth, and the name meant something like ‘God’s witnesses’ – in the sense that they were spiritual sponsors or godparents of the child (sorry for the linguistic aside, but I couldn’t resist such a great word – think on it next time you accuse someone of gossiping.)
Anyway, the visitors and attendants might also be offered groaning cake, groaning pie, groaning bread or groaning cheese, depending on local tradition. In some areas a groaning cake would be offered to the groaning woman (as if she would be interested!), after it was cut into the exact number of slices as the number of those present, for luck. In other areas every caller to the house after the birth had to partake of a slice of the cake, again ‘for luck’ – there still being a long risky time before mother and child could be deemed safe. Another variation of tradition was that when the woman was going to be ‘churched’ after the birth (to be ceremonially ‘cleansed’ and welcomed back to the flock) she carried a piece of the groaning cake to give to the first person that she met along the way.
There was no single, significant recipe for these cakes and breads and pies – it was the occasion that gave the name. I therefore give you a recipe from the wonderfully named The New Book of Cookery; or, Every Woman a perfect Cook, by Mrs. Eliz. Price, (1785), which would be quite suitable, and could be prepared well in advance of the expected time. Perhaps a fine gift for your next friend so blessed?
A good Plumb Cake.
To a pound and a half of fine flour add a pound of currants, half a pound of raisins stoned and chopped small, ten or twelve eggs (but only half the whites) a pound of butter worked to a cream, a gill of white wine or brandy, a pound of sugar, a little orange flower water, some candied citron, orange, and lemon, a few sweet almonds pounded, a little beaten mace, nutmeg, and cinnamon; when you have beat it all together about an hour, put [it] in the hoop, and send to the oven; it will take two hours baking.
A Hearty Crab Supper.
Quotation for the Day.
Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first. Ernestine Ulmer