What did you have for dinner?
Artist Felicity Ford has created Hearing Catherine, a series of sound installations in the Museum for the exhibition The Other Dickens: Discovering Catherine. She and her guests will be performing an evening of songs and stories in celebration of Catherine at the Museum this Wednesday.
By Felicity Ford
Friends © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission
I love the subtleties of everyday sounds, and how each of us could write a sort of autobiography in sound: the scratch of your keys going into your door; the voices of your family members or those folks with whom you live; the daily textures of radio or the music you play in your home; the noises made by various appliances; the birds who sing where you live; the sounds of your bicycle, car or commute… these and other everyday sounds tell a story of who and where we are in history.
The same could be said of the food we eat each day. Lately I’ve found myself reflecting on this passage by Lillian Nayder on the topic of Catherine Dickens’s book of menus, What Shall We Have For Dinner?:
In her study of kitchen writings, Janet Theophano describes recipe collections as autobiographies and importance sources of women’s history, “a written legacy of [women’s] art and their lives.” … Catherine’s volume helps us understand the experiences she valued and the ways in which she defined herself … She draws on her time abroad when she explains how puddings are prepared “in many parts of the continent, as well as throughout Switzerland,” while her recipes for Scotch broth, Scotch minced collop, and Kalecannon, like her measures in Scotch pints as well as English quarts, identify her country of birth and make use of its standards and culture. (Lillian Nayder, The Other Dickens, Cornell UP, 2010.)
What can we discover about Catherine through her food? And what can we discover of her voice and the sounds of her world from her writing?
Catherine wrote her book under the pen name of Lady Maria Clutterbuck in the early 1850s. It features bills of fare (menu suggestions) for two to twenty persons, followed by more detailed instructions on preparing some items. The actor Rachel Moffatt is the voice of Catherine Dickens in all the sound pieces I produced for Hearing Catherine. To represent Catherine’s book in sound, I recorded Rachel reading aloud the bills of fare and instructions for several of the recipes. We focused on lending Rachel’s reading an air of pride and confidence, in response to another fantastic line in Nayder’s biography of Catherine:
[What Shall We Have For Dinner?] not only suggests her competence as a hostess and domestic manager; it also allows us to hear her voice in an assertive and self-confident timbre, as she explains the dos and don’ts of kitchen practice.
Rachel Moffat © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission
To give context to Catherine’s words, I stayed in a Victorian cottage with a working range and recreated several of her recipes authentically, using nineteenth century kitchen tools and equipment.
Victorian range © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission
I recorded the sonic textures of stoking hot coals, pouring coals from a scuttle, opening and closing the sturdy iron range, boiling water in a copper kettle, and all the sounds involved in making and preparing Cauliflower with Parmesan, Eve’s Pudding and Scotch Broth. Many of the sounds are the same – for instance the sounds of chopping – but others are very different; particularly the sounds and process of temperature regulation!
Getting the fire hot on a range produces a lot of banging sounds from pulling back grates opening and closing flues, and jabbing at hot coals with an iron poker. It also means being well prepared so that once everything is hot, you can capitalise on the warmth while it lasts.
Victorian Range 2 © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission
In my contemporary kitchen, I just turn the gas dial up or down and listen for a louder or quieter purr, and can switch it on and off according to how ready I am with ingredients and dishes.
To Boil a Cauliflower with parmesan, Gas Cooker & Victorian Range © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission
I love this idea that, like our everyday sounds, the food that we regularly enjoy tells a story about who we are and where we live, in history.
This Wednesday, for our Evening of Songs and Stories, I’m bringing my friends to perform at the Charles Dickens Museum, including Rachel Moffatt. Together we’ll reflect on Catherine Dickens’s life and, in particular, on her friendships with mischievous and talented women. There’ll be accordion music and punk records. There’ll be opportunities to hear, read and invent your own bills of fare with Rachel. We’ll also be asking about what your recent meals say about you. In short, we’ll be asking What Did You Have For Dinner? and having some fun on the way.
Felicity Ford is an artist working principally with sounds and textiles. She is especially interested in women’s lives and history, and her work mainly investigates domestic themes and materials. Completing her PhD on The Domestic Soundscape in 2011, she has since worked on projects for organisations that include the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, The Wellcome Library, TATE Modern and The Museum of Oxford.
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