Book review: Treat yourself to these delicious Little Women cookbooks

First, a disclaimer: I am no cook. And my diet regimen does not permit a lot of these foods (unfortunately). However, as someone who loves to eat, I did find the recipes in both of these books to be very tempting; I was quite hungry by the time I finished going through them.

For devotees of Little Women, our cups runneth over. While we wait impatiently for the release of the much-anticipated movie adaptation directed by Greta Gerwig, there is plenty to enjoy with the publication of not one, but two Little Women cookbooks.

Food is often mentioned in Little Women, beginning with the girls giving away their Christmas breakfast only to be rewarded later by a sumptuous dinner donated by Mr. Laurence. We have the sisters’ failed attempt to cook Marmee breakfast, Jo’s hilarious dinner party debacle, Amy’s luncheon for the friends who failed to show up, and the modest chicken dinner held in honor of Mr. March’s homecoming. Amy gets into a pickle with her limes while Meg cannot get her currant jelly to jell. Beth surprises us with her capable food shopping and Jo offers comfort to an ailing Laurie with Meg’s blanc-mange.

These two cookbooks offer plenty of culinary delights, some which could have been eaten by the March sisters.

The Little Women Cookbook: Tempting Recipes from the March Sisters and Their Friends and Family by Wini Moranville

Food, wine, and travel writer Wini Moranville brings her years of experience and appreciation of heirloom recipes into the production of a delightful book of comfort food dishes, all inspired by Little Women. The premise lies in how she perceived the usage of food in the story, writing, “When food is shared among the March family and their friends and neighbors, it’s often a way of showing care and affection.” She describes Hannah’s making of hot turnovers for the girls each morning so that they could keep their hands warm while walking to work or school. When Beth becomes ill, “Meg cheerfully blackened and burned her white hands cooking delicate messes for ‘the dear.’”

Food is also used to teach lessons: “Assuming that a cook’s job is easy-peasy, the girls try to make their mother breakfast. When the tea is bitter, the omelette scorched, and the biscuits ruined, they come to learn, as Hannah says, ‘Housekeeping ain’t no joke.’” In another example, she writes, “Meg and her husband, John have a ferocious argument after Meg’s jelly-making disaster– yet in later years, they would deem the jelly as ‘the sweetest jelly ever made,’ because the clash help them grow closer.”

Moranville also describes the role of food in parties and social situations, citing Sally Moffatt’s grand affair where Meg and Laurie share “bonbons and mottoes,” and “Camp Laurence,” where the attendees feast on a fine picnic. Some social situations do not turn out so well as with Amy and her pickled limes. Moranville hails another picnic with the whole family in the final chapter as the crowning joy of the book.

Now, thanks to Moranville’s The Little Women Cookbook, we readers can make and experience these foods for ourselves. Moranville includes 50 recipes, many of which are inspired by episodes in the book. Other recipes are altered or enhanced to make them more palatable, a prime example being her pickled lime sugar cookies in lieu of the original which Moranville admits, was not very tasty (when I read the ingredients, I could see why!).

The cookbook is divided into four chapters: Hannah’s breakfasts, gatherings with family and friends, March family dinners and suppers, and sweet treats, desserts, and drinks.

The dishes included do not contain a lot of ingredients that are difficult to procure, and as a non-cook I believe I could be successful in making them. Moranville thoroughly researched the recipes and adapted them to modern ingredients and methods. One of the first cookbooks that she consulted was mentioned in Little Women by Meg who kept referring to a “Mrs. Cornelius” —  that book is known as The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, originally published in 1846.

A sturdy hardcover book, The Little Women Cookbook‘s design is colorful and pleasing with good-quality matte finish pages. The cover contains four drawings of the sisters with a shiny finish that sets them off from the rest of the matte cover. Many of the recipes are illustrated with color photographs. Each recipe includes the setting from Little Women for the particular dish along with some historical facts.

The Little Women Cookbook: Tempting Recipes from the March Sisters and Their Friends and Family by Wini Moranville is published by Harvard Common Press, a division of Quarto Publishing Group.You can visit her website at www.chezbonnefemme.com/announcing-the-little-women-cookbook

The Little Women Cookbook: Novel Takes on Classic Recipes from Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Friends by Jenne Bergstrom and Mika Osada (release date October 29, 2019)

Authors Bergstrom and Osada describe themselves as librarians by day who spend their free time making food and beverages from their favorite stories. They write, “Recreating fictitious dishes is an immersive, 4D experience of our most beloved books. Especially in Little Women, where the novel centers on domestic life, the menus the characters choose and enjoy give us hints and insights about their personalities and priorities, and help us better understand them.”

Posing the question of  “What exactly would the March sisters have eaten?”, they respond with their cookbook “after perusing hundreds of 19th-century recipes (or receipts, as they call them back then).”

This Little Women cookbook takes a deep dive into the history of Victorian cuisine, particularly during and after the Civil War, the time and setting for Little Women. The introduction contains a short summary of favorite foods enjoyed by the Puritans (baked or stewed meat, boiled vegetables, and pie), the use of certain condiments to season food, and the growing availability of international foods which were becoming common at 19th century middle class tables.

Bergstrom and Osada cite food trends during the 1800’s that would not be popular today (Amy’s pickled limes come to mind). They also discovered that recipes in 19th-century cookbooks do not contain the details featured in today’s recipes — it was assumed that cooks would have the prior knowledge necessary to prepare the dishes. Thus it makes perfect sense that Meg and Jo struggled so as they learned to cook. Like Moranville, Bergstrom and Osada turned to Mrs. Cornelius’ The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, declaring “the recipes in this volume were always the tastiest and most reliable!”

There are chapters dedicated to each main character:

  • Meg’s contains the omelette that she made for Marmee and her “Remarkable Plummy Wedding Cake” along with her infamous currant jelly.
  • Jo’s chapter includes molasses candy, the gingerbread which was her specialty, and her dinner debacle.
  • Beth’s chapter features her “History of a Squash” recipe plus foods she would have consumed as an invalid. 
  • Amy’s contains her pickled limes recipe plus the menu she prepared for her luncheon with her artistic friends (who missed out on a treat).
  • Laurie’s chapter includes Meg’s blanc-mange and peach pickles for the P. O.
  • In the March family chapter we are treated to the Christmas breakfast given to the Hummels, followed by the sumptuous dinner supplied by Mr. Laurence.

Each chapter begins with a description of the featured character and many quotes from Little Women.

As a non-cook, I would find these recipes challenging as this is a book for the more serious and accomplished cook.

This Little Women Cookbook is also beautifully laid out,  printed on glossy paper and sprinkled with a generous assortment of the illustrations of Frank T. Merrill. My only quibble is that I wish there had been more photographs of the food.

The Little Women Cookbook: Novel Takes on Classic Recipes from Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Friends by Jenne Bergstrom and Miko Osada is published by Ulysses Press. You can visit their literary food blog of the authors at www.36eggs.com.

I recommend purchasing both cookbooks. Moranville’s volume contains easier recipes that are good for all levels of cooks (and even non-cooks like me). One can never have enough good comfort food. Bergstrom and Osada’s cookbook is more challenging, containing many useful historical tidbits useful for research purposes.

Both would enhance your cookbook library.

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