This is a transcription of The Regency Cook & Two New Books — 31 March 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a novel infused with Mozart’s music.
David: An easy-to-use dessert cookbook.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this on the show before. I’ve played the piano since I was five years old. By the time I was in junior high, I was the accompanist for the chorus, and in high school, I got my ass handed to me by an arrangement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor.
Melissa: So I was very excited to learn about a new novel called The Girl with Twenty Fingers by Kate Mueser. When the story opens, a young woman named Sarah is on stage in New York, and she completely bombs an important performance of a Mozart concerto. Three years later, she is not a famed concert pianist. Instead, she’s living in Munich and working as a food magazine editor. But one day, she meets an elderly widower with a special grand piano. The two start to play Mozart’s duets together. Soon, Sarah is immersed in her new friend’s war-time experiences and discovers a musical secret in her own family.
Melissa: I’ve only just started reading this book, and I’m hooked. Sarah is an endearing, relatable heroine, and Munich is a character in the story. There’s music — so much music — and food and parks and coffee and friendship. Plus, I find it impossible to resist a story about second chances.
Melissa: The author Kate Mueser has a degree in piano performance and has, in fact, played a Mozart concerto with orchestra. So she knows her characters and setting from the inside. She admits that Mozart is not her favorite composer — so scandalous! — but that he is perfect for this story because he embodies the impossible pursuit of perfection, which is a theme in the novel.
Melissa: She made a handful of charming videos about her book, and she’s a good talker. It turns out she’s also a good writer. I’m thoroughly enjoying this book so far, and I’m invested in seeing what happens to the heroine Sarah. It’s also inspiring me to play the piano during my work breaks.
Melissa: This would be a great book to pair with Prague Sonata by Bradford Morrow, which I recommended in our Prague episode.
Melissa: This book is The Girl with Twenty Fingers by Kate Mueser.
David: I really like Kelly Link. She’s an author who’s done a lot of short stories. You might have heard of her books Magic for Beginners, or Pretty Monsters, or Stranger Things Happen. They are all collections of short stories. Her stories tend to take place in some world that is like ours, might even be ours, but has fantastic and weird elements about it.
David: She has a new collection out. It’s called ‘White Cat, Black Dog.’ It continues the tradition of stories that sound like fables but take place in airports and graduate schools. The have titles like ‘The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear,’ and ‘The White Cat’s Divorce.’ But are written with a very modern sensibility.
David: I am not alone in enjoying Kelly Link. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer. She won a MacArthur Genius Grant. She also is a co-owner of a small bookstore in Massachusetts called Book Moon.
David: If you’re listening to this on release day, Kelly Link will be there tomorrow, celebrating her new book.
David: If you’re inclined to enjoy magic with your mundane, a little creepy supernatural in your laundromat, you might enjoy this. It’s ‘White Cat, Black Dog,’ and it’s out now.
David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
Melissa: If you love Jane Austen’s novels and have a sweet spot for the gowns on Bridgerton, you just might be a Regency fan.
Melissa: The Regency period was from 1811 to 1820. That makes is a sort of subset of the Georgian era that started about 100 years earlier and was defined by four kings named George, including George III who was in power during the American Revolution. He was also known for being a big mad. He, in fact, deemed too made to rule, so his son George IV was appointed to act in his place. As Regent. And that’s where we get the Regency era of Austen novels and empire waists, afternoon tea and picnics.
Melissa: Which brings me to a gentleman named Paul Couchman. He’s also known as the Regency Cook. In 2014, he volunteered to help restore the Regency Town House. That’s a Georgian estate in Brighton, England, that’s now a museum. He was helping to rebuild the house and became fascinated by the kitchen. One Christmas he used the historic kitchen to bake 100 traditional mince pies, and now he uses the recipes from an 1830 cookbook to teach home cooks how to make dishes that were popular in the Regency era.
Melissa: He said that he tries to be as authentic as possible while also making the recipes manageable for home cooks. This is a quote from him: ‘Some of the ingredients we now know to be poisonous, such as arsenic, which was useful for food colouring, so of course I’ve taken those out.’ Apart from that, he follows the recipes as closely as possible.
Melissa: His blog includes recipes for delicious things, including lots of puddings. It’s important to remember that in the UK, a pudding is more like a cake and not, like, a chocolate pudding cup that gets packed in you lunch box. So he’s got recipes and interesting stories for ginger pudding, pickled peaches, lime sponge pie, and rout cakes. Those are tiny, sweet, rich cakes made for evening parties called routs. To my modern eyes, they look like soft, cakey cookies. There are also essays that describe a day in the life of a Regency house — spoiler and tips for how to cook from a historical recipe.
Melissa: He also teaches online cooking classes, sometimes teaming up with a social historian, too. The classes look like so much fun! In just the next few months he’s got sessions coming up for Hot Cross Buns, a Jane Austen picnic, summer tea, and just in time for Charles’ upcoming coronation, a class that will took at the Coronation food of George IV. Paul told me he’s going to attempt to recreate some of the dishes fit for a king.
Melissa: I get his newsletter on Fridays, and it’s a delight. I should also mention that he made a video tour of the Regency kitchen that is really fascinating.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more about the Regency Cook and the books we discussed.
David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.
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