by Miriam Garcia
Do you know this painting?
Photography by courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Its formal name is Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother, but it is commonly known as Whistler’s Mother. Its creator, American artist James McNeill Whistler, happens to be one of my (many) favorite painters. In August 1995, while on vacation in London, I stumbled upon a little book with this painting grazing its front cover. It was Whistler’s mother’s cookbook, with the recipes collected by Anna McNeill Whistler (1804-1881) through the years. The recipes are recreated and annotated for the modern cook, but included the endearing original writing of Mrs. Whistler, with all its own spelling and punctuation errors. Go figure, a book that coupled two of my most serious addictions, cooking and painting. I had to buy it.
Whistler’s mother’s recipes were among a collection of books and letters that were bequeathed by Whistler’s sister-in-law to the University of Glasgow after his death. Whistler lived in Europe most of his working life. Mrs. Whistler led quite a remarkable life herself for a 19th-century housewife; she went from the United States, via Russia and sudden widowhood at a young age, to London with her son, where she recorded in her diaries visits to the Whistler household from such artists as Algernon Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The book’s fascinating account of the Whistler household in America, Russia and Britain offers a unique and delightful glimpse into 19th-century family life and cooking. The recipes are simple and transmit the flavors and aromas of good home cooking.
As a token of that age and to bring to the pressed 21st century some 19th century calm and simplicity, I have chosen to replicate a recipe of her apple pudding, called Marlborough pudding.
Apple Marlborough Pudding
1 sheet of store-bought or homemade puff pastry or shortcrust
5 medium-sized cooking apples
1 lemon, juice and peel
200g (1 cup) sugar
5 medium eggs
200ml (4/5 cup) whipping cream
50ml (1/5 cup) whole milk
Click here for metric recipe converter
- Preheat the oven to 180°C if convection type, to 160°C if radiation.
- Prepare the pudding base: butter and flour a 30-cm (12inch) pie mold. Roll the crust, transfer to the mold and press to set. Trim the excess off the edges. Bake the crust blind for 10-15 minutes. Then take out of the oven and let cool a bit. Lower the oven temperature 20°C.
- Prepare the filling. Peel and core the apples, sprinkle them with lemon juice to prevent them from browning. Put them in a bowl, cover and microwave them 3-4 minutes, until tender.
- Transfer the apples to a food processor, add the rest of the ingredients: lemon juice and peel, sugar, cream, milk and eggs. Process to the desired “chunkiness”.
- Pour the mixture on the pie crust (this amount yields a large pie and a small cup of filling left) to the brim, then bake 1 hour. Watch it during the last stages to prevent it from excessive browning; lower the temperature if needed. After that baking time, take the pudding out and let cool completely.
I personally loved this Marlborough pudding. I love any dessert with apple though (well, except roast apples). It is lemony, creamy, light and only slightly crunchy. And as rustic and homely as I expected. Accompany it with a strong tea and open a snuff box for you to feel exactly like Whistler. And the next time you see this painting I’m sure you will remember that this lady baked delicious pies for her family.
“Whistler’s mother and the West Coast”, BBC website
Whistler’s Mother Cook Book, Margaret McDonald
The Scottish Roots site says:
This unconventional portrait of a grey-garbed matron, commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother,” patiently sitting for her artistic son became an American icon and an emblem of motherhood. The subject of the painting, Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler, was born in North Carolina in 1804 to a middle class family of Scots descent.
Anna led a remarkable life for a 19th-century housewife; moving from the United States, via Tsarist Russia and sudden widowhood at a young age, to London with her son “Jemsie,” where she recorded in her diaries visits to the Whistler household from such literary and artistic luminaries as Algernon Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A traditional woman with a strong sense of morality, Anna Whistler upheld the conventional family values of the time, turning a blind eye to her artistic son’s bohemian amorous involvements in favour of encouraging his genius.
Widowed in 1849, she wore mourning for the rest of her life.
The book’s fascinating account of the Whistler household in America, Russia and Britain offers a rare and delightful glimpse into 19th-century family life and cooking. The recipes are simple and transmit the flavors and aromas of good home cooking.