“Pickled, potted, brewed or dried,” Grace Firth reminds us in the first chapter Stillroom Cookery, “foods were given wondrous flavors within the wall of ancient stillrooms; additionally, the act of preserving foods gave a family roots. Fermenting foods established an allegiance with the earth and gave people faith in tomorrow.” (Firth 3)
If that sounds like it was written in Boulder, Brooklyn, Charleston or Portland (Maine, Oregon; it matters not) a couple of hours ago, Stillroom Cookery is a special source that appeared all the way back in 1977. It is very much an artifact of its time. A lot of what people associate with the 1960s in terms of alienation, experimentation, exuberance and counterculture actually occurred in the 70s, and the ethos of Stillroom Cookery is more Whole Earth Catalog than Whole Foods Market. Firth was a friend of Euell Gibbons, and that explains a lot. She always headed back to the earth, not outbound on the L train to Bedford Avenue.
With her reference to ‘faith in tomorrow,’ Firth was not echoing a manifesto for the planet, not yet. Instead, for her extended family and their ancestors, the storage of preserved food had ensured survival through the barren months of winter. Despite the hardship she liked the life. As an adult Firth continued to forage for food and relished “a robust drink to the health of the earth” with, a wonderful and then outlaw touch, homebrewed beer.
She and Gibbons shared a certain sensibility but Firth lived the more adventurous life. While she was growing up, things were blowing up. She can, she recounts, “attest that an inner life was present in my own family’s cellar in Missouri. Once when our cat had kittens on a barrel head, the cask blew, and foam, fur, kittens and fizz flooded the place as the mother cat flew into a purple rage.”
From the age of ten she lived with her grandfather and grandmother, who was as enthusiastic about her stillroom as Firth would become about hers. “I came from a long line of fermenters,” she recalls; her grandfather “could brew beer from a corn cob and an aunt not only made cheese but also ‘put by’ shelves of bottled beverages and firkins of wine, wide-mouthed crocks of potted meats; and stalactites of her sack meat and sausages swung from the rafters.” (Firth 8, 3, 4)
After graduating from USC in 1945, Firth lit out for the frontier of Alaska where she taught at a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, hiked, hunted and flew her iconic Piper Cub to the glaciers where she skied. Eight years later she met the love of her life. They moved to the Piedmont, where they built a cabin on “45 acres of woods and rocks,” tended a garden, foraged, made cheese, brewed beer, vinted wine and raised three children.
In 1966, they bought a second plot, on the Chesapeake. She joined the Potomac Foragers (of course she did), whom a bemused reporter at The Washington Post considered a “find-your-food-in-the-woods crowd… a strange mix of little old ladies in work shoes, sturdy young women in hiking boots and adoptive woodsmen who survive in the city to earn their weekends in the forest.”
Incongruously enough, the countercultural Firth found favor among the cultural cognoscenti of Washington, DC. She became a regular guest on a television talk show circuit that extended from DC to Baltimore and Oprah Winfrey. The food editor at the Post found the appearances of Firth “deliciously different.” (Sullivan)
Firth likes to look back. “The stillroom in an early American home,” she contends, “was a woman’s secret stage, a sheltered bower where she could feel free to cohabit with friendly fungi and create enticing cheeses, breads, beers, pickles, sausages and schnapps.” (Firth 3) Feminists of a more recent stripe may emphasize the laborious drudgery of keeping a family fed instead, but the point Firth makes about the appeal of fermenting and fermented foods is sound.
She is industrious, even indefatigable. “Curing meat,” she insists, “is as simple as rubbing a roast with salt, allowing it to stand for a specific number of days, washing and hanging the meat to dry and smoking the cured product before wrapping and storing.” If we substitute the word ‘complex’ for ‘simple,’ Firth has provided a good general description of the process. In practice, as she continues, things are a bit more involved even than that. “Stopping the action at the proper time and stabilizing your product at the peak of its transformation is the key to success in all stillroom cookery, for fermentation is an ongoing process.”
Ahead of her time.
The preservation of food in fact requires considerable skill: “A fermenting product continues to change until acid, ammonia or rot sets in.” Firth describes the pitfalls in almost anthropomorphic terms: “Unchecked, wine turns sour, pickles disintegrate, dough becomes catatonic, cheeses hide behind beards, frustrated meats get ulcers and mushrooms weep.” (Firth 10)
It should be no surprise that Firth failed to find much of an audience. In her good natured way she asked too much of her readers at a time when foragers and fermenters were freaks of the fringe, not cutting edge urban hipsters.
If she failed to make many converts, Firth struck a prescient tone four decades ago.
“Authorities indicate that energy restraints and the maximum utilization of available land will limit the production of uneconomical grain fed animals, and a lower per person consumption of meat will result…. Emphasis on vegetables and grains is a complete turnabout from today’s reliance on meat…. Mimicking stillroom techniques of using meat as a flavoring agent for garden-produced soups and stews, meat may be used in the near future predominantly as an adjunct to vegetables and grain-based meals.” (Firth 11)
Her misgivings about meat are not ideological but rather visionary. She liked to work with pork, nose to tail in the manner of Fergus Henderson; chickens “and their eggs, she thought, reigned “as benevolent monarchs of the table. Eggs and chicken, stuffed, baked or deviled, have supported stillroom cooks through lean days and sumptuous spreads.” (Firth 11)
Firth liked nothing more than making, curing and eating sausage, but also worried ahead of her time about the sustainability of global agriculture. She seems to have been a savant, an advocate without a strident side.
Firth dedicated Stillroom Cookery to her kids,
“that young people will understand
old ways as they reach for tomorrow.”
That also might have served, had she chosen, as her epitaph.
Stillroom Cookery apparently was printed only once. Good used copies of a most useful book are available for a pittance. Many of its, like deviled chicken or eggs and especially others incorporating beer, bear a distinct British cast. We have posted our versions of several in the practical.
Grace Firth, Still Room Cookery: The Art of Preserving Foods Naturally, with Recipes, menus and Metric Menus (Mclean VA 1977)
Patricia Sullivan, “Grace V. Firth Dies: Natural Food Expert,” The Washington Post (7 August 2004)