This week's Anne of Green Gables Read-a-long continues with Andrea McKenzie's interesting take on "Chapter XXI: A New Departure in Flavourings."
Chapter XXI: A New Departure in Flavourings
by Andrea McKenzie
Of all the scrapes that Anne Shirley got herself into, surely the episode of the liniment cake is the most hilarious, the best-known - and the most poignant. Montgomery mixes complex undercurrents into this most delicious of chapters, deftly weighing false sentiment against genuine emotion, folding in critiques of conventions and religion, spicing it with wit, and (ironically) concocting a recipe for a minister’s wife to succeed in a rural community. But the centrepiece of this comedic feast is surely that laden tea table with its tempting array of delicacies.
“The time has come for us to part,” intones teacher Teddy Phillips near the beginning, and his flowery words send every girl in the school - including Anne, who rightly despises him - into floods of tears. Anne doesn’t cry because she’s sorry he’s leaving - no, she cries because “all the others did” at his “beautiful ... speech.” Anne revels in feeling “so dreadfully sad,” but not so much that she can’t notice the new minister and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Allan. Even as the insincere Mr. Phillips is ushered out of the story, the sincere and genuine Mrs. Allan is ushered in, another “kindred spirit” for Anne to love.
But ministers and their wives must meet high standards to succeed in Avonlea. “Sound doctrine in the man and good housekeeping in the woman make an ideal combination for a minister’s family,” preaches Mrs. Lynde from her community pulpit, firmly delineating traditional gender roles while sermonizing on dignity. Anne, like a small disciple, seems to echo Mrs. Lynde’s sentiments, but ultimately sees that the measure of a minister is the sincerity of his belief: Mr. Allan “prayed as if he meant it,” instead of as if he was “in the habit of it.”
Yet the ideals for wives are higher still. Mrs. Allan would certainly need to be economical to keep open house for parishioners on that $750 salary. She must also not dress “too fashionably” (that would be “worldly,”), but not so badly that it would reflect on the congregation. She can be “pretty,” but not “regally lovely” (that would set a “bad example”), and she must be an “influence for good.” But her worth as a “kindred spirit” is really only tested when it comes to the ordeal of the tea table.
Montgomery once wrote that having a minister in the family was a “feather in the cap” for Islanders. A minister would be one of the most highly educated people in the community and would wield great influence. She also wrote that in PEI, “it is safer to commit murder than to be caught without three kinds of cake when company comes for tea.” For women, housekeeping is the measure of creativity and hospitality; even Marilla succumbs to the amiable wish “not to be eclipsed by any of the Avonlea housekeepers” when entertaining the new minister and his wife to tea.
No wonder, then, that Marilla and Anne spend two entire days preparing for that all-important occasion - with the requisite three kinds of cake. What hospitality radiates from that tea table! And how lovingly Montgomery, through Anne, describes it:
We’re going to have jellied chicken and cold tongue. We’re to have two kinds of jelly, red and yellow, and whipped cream and lemon pie, and cherry pie, and three kinds of cookies, and fruit-cake, and Marilla’s famous yellow plum preserves that she keeps especially for ministers, and pound cake and layer cake, and biscuits as aforesaid; and new bread and old both.
Montgomery’s love of colour garnishes the table beautifully: we can imagine the bright red of the jelly and the cherry pie against the yellow of the second jelly, the lemon pie, and the “famous yellow plum preserves,” with Anne’s layer cake blending these two colours in its golden layers and “ruby jelly” filling. The dark fruitcake and the lighter hues of chicken, tongue, biscuits, and bread serve as counterpoints to the brighter colours. The rosebud tea set graces the table, spread with the finest of linens, decorated with Anne’s roses and ferns. Two kinds of artistry grace this table, a feast for both palate and eye.
How carefully Montgomery leads up to the hilarious climax. In the previous chapter, Anne’s imagination led her into trouble in the kitchen. (As Marilla sardonically comments, “Most people when they put a pie in the oven to warm up for dinner take it out and eat it when it gets hot instead of leaving it to be burned to a crisp. But that doesn’t seem to be your way.”) Anne’s desire to please Mrs. Allan, though, helps to discipline her imagination for long enough to mix and bake her cake without mishap. No wonder Anne is relieved when she finally takes it out of the oven, “as light and feathery as golden foam.” No wonder she is “flushed with delight” and imagines Mrs. Allan “possibly asking for [a second] piece.”
The tea party “went merry as a marriage bell.” Although Mrs. Allan has eaten a “bewildering variety” of the delicacies, she takes a piece of Anne’s cake when told that Anne made it “on purpose” for her. The minister’s wife then shows her true mettle: although “a most peculiar expression crossed her face ... she steadily ate away” at her slice of cake. We know something is wrong, but what!?
It tastes, alas, “simply horrible.” But how can that be, given Anne’s care? It isn’t her fault - it was Marilla who filled that vanilla bottle with anodyne liniment. And that - oh, that - is what Anne has used to flavour the cake. The unexpected incongruity of the “golden” cake and its appalling taste sparks laugh-out-loud hilarity.
But Anne’s predicament is also poignant, because who among us has not tried to do or create something for a loved one, only to have it go wrong? Anne’s “anguish” and her tears are very real. At first, her concern is about being laughed at, but she then admits to Mrs. Allan that “I wanted to have that cake so nice for you.” Mrs. Allan’s “laughing eyes” show that she realizes the humor of the situation, but she is “genuinely disturbed” by “Anne’s “tragic face.” Unlike the good people of Avonlea, who judge girls, women, and ministers’ wives by their cooking, Mrs. Allan instead comforts Anne by appreciating her “kindness and thoughtfulness just as much as if [the cake] had turned out.”
Noticeably, it is Mrs. Allan, not Mr. Allan, who undergoes the ordeal of the surpassingly beautiful cake that tastes so horrific that it is only fit for the “pigs,” and it is Mrs. Allan who makes Anne “[enjoy] the evening.” Mr. Allan may receive the salary, but Mrs. Allan shares fully the responsibility of ministering to the community. She is indeed a kindred spirit worthy of Anne’s admiration and friendship.
In the end, we laugh and sigh simultaneously. After all, who among us hasn’t wished, as Anne does, that there is “a limit to the mistakes one person can make”?
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Benjamin Lefebvre for identifying L.M. Montgomery’s words from “I Dwell among My Own People.” (L.M. Montgomery Reader, Volume 1: A Life in Print, 182-84.)
Andrea McKenzie is an associate professor at York University. She discovered Anne of Green Gables in her village library when she was the same age as the orphaned Anne, and Montgomery has travelled with her ever since. Andrea co-edited L.M. Montgomery and War with Jane Ledwell, and Rilla of Ingleside with Benjamin Lefebvre.