By Paul Theerman, Associate Director
Part of the Margaret Barclay Wilson collection of cookbooks and cookery, Cakes and Ale at Woodbine: From Twelfth Night to New Year’s Day is a pseudonymously published light novel of mid-century Fordham, New York. Ostensibly the work of “Barry Gray,” the book was written by Robert Barry Coffin (1826–1886), one of the “Bohemians” of antebellum New York.[i] He was a critic for, and eventually editor of, the Home Journal, later renamed Town and Country, which continues in publication to this day. This book was first published in 1868; the Library’s edition is from 1883.
The “cakes and ale” of the title is not culinary, but purely literary. On the title page is this quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (Act 2, Scene 3).
Sir Toby Belch uttered the line “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” the epigram for the novel. This is an image of Lionel Brough in a 1901 production.
“Cakes and ale” are not only mentioned in Twelfth Night, they are parts of Twelfth-Night celebrations: the merriment on the day of (or day before, depending on how one count) the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas. Coffin is therefore having fun with the title, “From Twelfth Night to New Year’s Day,” as it means from January 6 all around to January 1: a romp through the year, touching on all the major holidays in turn. Each day is an occasion for indulging in cakes and ale, “the good things of this life” (p. 13): Epiphany, the first day of spring, a birthday, Easter, the fourth of July, “summer,” Christmas and a Christmas wedding, and then New Year’s.
Set at the author’s purported cottage, Woodbine, in Fordham, New York, domestic scenes alternate with long fanciful stories, much of which contrast city and country life, to the decided benefit of the latter! Toward the end of the book, the narrator has an imagined (perhaps alcohol-induced) encounter with Santa Claus, who says he prefers the large expansive chimneys of the country to the narrow ones of the city, and thought that the new city fashion of Christmas trees might put him out of a job:
“When the city folks first began to talk about Christmas trees, and introduced them into their nurseries, it nearly broke my heart; for I feared that my occupation . . . was gone” [p. 225.]
The virtues of the country always win out, in grand matters of love, and more prosaic ones of cakes and ale.
May you have a great holiday season, and may you get all the cakes and ale you want!
Another literary retreat, left, the Edgar Allan Poe house in Fordham, New York, where the author lived from 1846 to 1849, some 20 years before the recounted events in Cakes and Ale, also set in Fordham, a village only recently connected to the city by rail. Right, a view of the Poe cottage in its rural setting.
[i] “Gray, Barry (1826–1886) [Robert Barry Coffin],” in “The Vault at Pfaff’s: An Archive of Art and Literature by the Bohemians of Antebellum New York,” https://pfaffs.web.lehigh.edu/node/54192, accessed December 22, 2016.
- Lionel Brough as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, accessed December 22, 2016.
- Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, Fordham, New York, image from 2007, accessed December 22, 2016.
- Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, Fordham, New York, engraving, accessed December 22, 2016.