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This Weekend, Shake Your Fist at the Oscars and Make a Recipe in Honor of ‘Little Women’

published Feb 8, 2020
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Credit: Photo credit: Wilson Webb; © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

Grab your favorite thespian friends and dust off your writing journal, because it’s time for the Oscars! Little Women is up for “Best Picture,” and just like in its Civil War setting, men are in charge and making it all about them.   

Set in New England during the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women tells the story of the four March sisters — Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy — and follows their lives as they navigate the passage from childhood to womanhood. Academy-award nominated Director Greta Gerwig reimagined this American classic in her 2019 film, which is up for six different awards at this year’s Oscars including “Best Picture.”

Despite the film’s success in the box office and wholehearted support from die-hard Alcott fans, Greta Gerwig was left out of the race for Best Director. As effortlessly cool as Jo March and her sisters seemed in this latest adaptation of Little Women, the film did not direct itself. This snub is particularly egregious given the Academy’s long history with gender disparity coupled with the fact that 2020 marks the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

And while the majority of us hold no sway in the Oscar nomination process, Gerwig’s Little Women will always get my vote. So to support women, or rather the lack thereof, at this year’s Academy Awards, I’ve created an Oscar party menu featuring dishes that represent each female character in Little Woman. 

Credit: Photo credit: Wilson Webb; © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

What to Consider When Planning Your Little Women Menu

Alcott based Little Women on her own experiences growing up in nineteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts with her three sisters and used real-world food to imbue meaning to the characters and events in her book. Gerwig used this autobiographical inspiration to inform everything from the film’s location to the authentic food spreads created by New England food stylist, Christine Tobin.

Alcott was likely familiar with a variety of nineteenth-century cookbooks, including The Young Housekeeper’s Friend by Mrs. Mary Hooker Cornelius published in Boston in 1846. This book included recipes, tips and guides, as well as methods for economical grocery shopping for common household ingredients of the era including flour, salt, tea and coffee, many kinds of meat and fish, molasses, and sugar. In the movie, Meg references this cookbook during a “cooking mania” as she begins her life as a newlywed.

Credit: Photo credit: Wilson Webb; © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

It should also be noted that the March sisters loved sugar. While there are many ways to interpret Alcott’s emphasis on sugary foods — ranging from social anxieties about wartime to class-based consumption habits — sugar was an integral ingredient in most nineteenth-century pantries because it made food last. Sugar helped turn fresh fruits into jams and jellies, vegetables into shelf-stable preserves and pickles, and meat into a reliable source of nutrition during the long, cold months of winter. Sugar also served as a method of coping with the frustrations of life as a woman in the nineteenth-century. 

“I think anxiety is very interesting,” observed Amy, eating sugar pensively.

The girls couldn’t help laughing, and felt better for it, though Meg shook her head at the young lady who could find consolation in a sugar bowl.”

Sprinkled throughout the book and the film, sugar was an affordable luxury that kept the Marches’ pantry stocked and made their daily-struggles a little easier to swallow. And while sugar won’t make the lack of Oscar nominee diversity any less enraging, it might help the endless hours of men celebrating men seem a little less dull.

To give an extra nod to the generations of women’s labor gone unrecognized, I’ve included an authentic nineteenth-century recipe, just like Alcott would have used, with each contemporary version. You don’t have to churn butter or make bread from scratch if you don’t want to, but knowing all the hard work that made our modern ways of cooking so much easier helps us give credit where credit is due.

Extra points if you and your party guests divide the work and collaborate to make this menu together!

Your Unofficial Little Women Oscars Menu

Credit: Faith Durand

Meg March: Panna Cotta  

By far the most domestically skilled of the March sisters, Meg aims to perfect her culinary and household talents to help her family and later her husband and children. And like any savvy cook, Meg’s go-to dessert, a creamy wobbly blancmange, is a deceivingly simple showstopper. Traditionally made with sugar, milk or cream, and arrowroot (which works like cornstarch) and allowed to set in a special mold, blancmange is just a fancier version of panna cotta. Meg tops hers with “a garland of green leaves and scarlet flowers,” but you can dress yours up however you see fit.

Get the recipe: Panna Cotta

Credit: Faith Durand

Amy March: Crisp & Spicy Pickled Grapes 

Young, capricious, and often loathed by fans of the book, Amy routinely whines about food and selfishly takes more than her share. Gerwig’s Little Women gave us a new perspective on the youngest March sister (portrayed by Florence Pugh), digging into the nuances of Amy’s character as she navigates a world that wasn’t built for ambitious women. In the book, Amy barters pickled limes — a common sweet-and-sour treat sold at Civil War-era candy shops — for popularity at her school. Channel this cool-girl vibe with a modern twist by swapping limes for crowd-pleasing crisp and spicy pickled grapes.  

Get the recipe: Crisp & Spicy Pickled Grapes

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Jo March: Sour Cream and Berries Brûlée 

In all her wisdom and capability, Jo is a horrible cook. While everyone likes to say they can relate to the most outspoken, hot-tempered, and radical March sister, many of us might find her most appealing simply because she struggles with basic parts of adulting, especially in the kitchen. After preparing a simple, but lovely dessert of strawberries and cream, Jo watches her dinner guests pucker with each bite until they confess that the dish is full of salt instead of sugar and that the thick cream was sour, too. In honor of Jo (and let’s be honest, many of our own) failed culinary attempts, serve this sour and burnt on purpose sour cream and berries brûlée and your guests will nominate you to make it each year. 

Get the recipe: Sour Cream and Berries Brûlée

Beth March: Red Wine, Spiced Apple & Bourbon Cocktail 

Back in the nineteenth-century, people used wine and other liquors as pseudo-scientific health tonics. While the Alcott family and the Marches likely followed social and moral trends of temperance — the abstinence from alcohol — the rules were often bent for the sick, such as Beth March. In the tradition of restorative drinks (like apple tea and cherry wine), this modern combination of red wine, spiced apple and bourbon cocktail will warm and invigorate your guests (who are all hopefully in perfect health). Pour one out for Beth. 

Get the recipe: Red Wine, Spiced Apple & Bourbon Cocktail

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Marmee March: Slow Cooker Irish Coffee

Dear, sweet Marmee deserves all the coffee in the world, but in the March household coffee “was a treat.” Popular and well-known across the United States, coffee was still a relatively expensive commodity during the mid-nineteenth-century, especially during wartime. Historic cookbooks provided copious details on how to buy, store, prepare, and serve the drink. So in the March tradition, turn coffee into a special treat with a batch of slow cooker Irish coffee

Get the recipe: Slow Cooker Irish Coffee

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Bonus: More (Unexpected) Desserts!

Just when your guests think the spread can’t be any more delightful, surprise your guests with a few more unexpected treats just like Mr. Lawrence did after the March sisters (begrudgingly) donated their Christmas breakfast to their nearby neighbors in need. After making a batch of perfectly pink vegan strawberry swirl ice cream  (or try this old fashioned version) pile scoops of it into a fancy dish and surround it with smaller artfully adorned platters of “distracting French bonbons” such as these easy, make-ahead chocolate truffles. 

The March Sisters: Crispy Turnovers with Apple, Bacon, and Caramelized Onions

Hannah’s freshly baked turnovers were “an institution” in the March household and the sisters called them “muffs.” A combination of cold New England mornings and a lack of adequate winter accessories made hot turnovers — stuffed with fruit, meat, or seasonal vegetables — the perfect edible hand-warmer. After the Best Picture award is announced (*cough Little Women cough*) and the broadcast ends, send your guests home with crispy turnovers with apple, bacon, and caramelized onions to keep their hands and bellies warm. 

Get the recipe: Crispy Turnovers with Apple, Bacon, and Caramelized Onions

As your guests marvel at your cleverly spread table they might exclaim, “Is it fairies? Santa Claus? No!  It’s old Aunt March?!” You can kindly remind them who did the work and who deserves the award for best directed dinner party.