Deborah Yaffe

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Pass the potatoes

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 26 2015 02:00PM

For last year’s Thanksgiving Day blog, I amused myself by searching out Austen references to turkey. (As it happens, there are two – one in Mansfield Park, which I wrote about, and one in Emma, which I missed, but which a commenter pointed out.)


This year, I figured I’d try for another feast-day food theme. Surely Austen must have mentioned the pumpkin at least once?


No.


Squash in general, then?


No.


The cranberry, perhaps?


Alas, but no.


Thankfully, however, the lowly potato does indeed make one appearance. And once again it’s in Mansfield Park, clearly the foodiest of Austen’s novels. Herewith, from chapter 6, as the Grants and the Crawfords dine with the Bertrams:



(Mrs. Norris): “ . . . It was only the spring twelvemonth before Mr. Norris’s death that we put in the apricot against the stable wall, which is now grown such a noble tree, and getting to such perfection, sir," addressing herself then to Dr. Grant.


“The tree thrives well, beyond a doubt, madam,” replied Dr. Grant. “The soil is good; and I never pass it without regretting that the fruit should be so little worth the trouble of gathering.”


“Sir, it is a Moor Park, we bought it as a Moor Park, and it cost us—that is, it was a present from Sir Thomas, but I saw the bill—and I know it cost seven shillings, and was charged as a Moor Park.”


“You were imposed on, ma’am,” replied Dr. Grant: “these potatoes have as much the flavour of a Moor Park apricot as the fruit from that tree. It is an insipid fruit at the best; but a good apricot is eatable, which none from my garden are.”


“The truth is, ma’am,” said Mrs. Grant, pretending to whisper across the table to Mrs. Norris, “that Dr. Grant hardly knows what the natural taste of our apricot is: he is scarcely ever indulged with one, for it is so valuable a fruit; with a little assistance, and ours is such a remarkably large, fair sort, that what with early tarts and preserves, my cook contrives to get them all.”


Mrs. Norris, who had begun to redden, was appeased.



I will admit that the potato plays only a secondary role in this scene, but it’s an apt passage for Thanksgiving Day nonetheless. Who among us will not need the diplomatic skills of a Mrs. Grant at least once tonight, when we gather our fractious relatives around the holiday table? As you pass the potatoes and placate the peevish, think of Jane Austen.


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