16 March 2009

Food & Drink: Dear Dairy

By Anna C. Bowling

Dear Dairy...

No, that is not referring to the way I started my first diary entries in my misspelled youth. While writing my current release, ORPHANS IN THE STORM, I had my English characters in Dutch exile, renting a house that shared land with an old dairy farm. This reminded me of one inescapable fact of the historical writer's job: a working if rudimentary knowledge of how dairy products worked in centuries past. My characters are going to need milk, butter and cheese as well as meat and leather. If I'm writing historical, I need to know my way around a cow.

My first historical, MY OUTCAST HEART, set in colonial New York, included a recalcitrant bovine. ORPHANS IN THE STORM has the old dairy, and a secondary character who projects his dislike of exile onto the cows. (Don't worry, no animals were harmed in the writing of this novel.) In my current time travel manuscript, my sixteenth century Scottish hero comes from a family that raises, you guessed it, cattle. The hero of the historical I'm currently in the pre-writing stages of (Regency era, but still unusual) has done military service in India, where cows are sacred.

Thankfully, I have a primary research source close at hand. Young adult historical author M. P. Barker is a friend, critique partner, and former historical interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village. Her expertise saved me from several fictional dairy related blunders such as:

** A colonial character denting the milk bucket by giving it a good, solid kick. This wouldn't work, as the bucket would be wood. Knock it over, sure, but dent? Nope.

** Characters who have apparently mastered either time or transdimensional travel in order to separate the cream from the milk at a physically impossible rate.

** A character approaching the cow from such a direction and grasping the udders in such a way that she would be more likely to get a kick in the head than the morning's milk. Having one's heroine bleed out in chapter two does not make for a compelling romance.

My husband, a food service professional, has always maintained that it's important to respect the animals we get our food from (or plants, for the non-carnivores), and the importance of the cow to the daily lives of my characters, no matter their class or status, has certainly reminded me of that. Even so, I do have notes for a turn of the century story where the hero finds work in the Chicago stockyards. Maybe I'm not ready to get that close a view of the food chain just yet.

Photo by Neil Hoskins.