“But, Jo, what is this?”
Friedrich Bhaer was frankly astonished. The table was set with a snowy cloth and the china plates gleamed, but the platter of Konigsberger Klopse, a bowl of glistening boiled potatoes, their jackets split, another of ruddy stewed beetroot, and the smaller dish of Kartoffelpuffer with rosy applesauce by its side, all these were a revelation. Jo had never served a meal like this before; dinners mostly ran to boiled beef or mutton, braised chicken, and there had never yet been a dumpling at Plumfield. He had not said a word—he had not married her for her cookery but there were times when he thought of Berlin, the lights in the shops and the streets, and the festive suppers with family or friends from university. There were tastes Americans seemed not to care for that he missed, caraway in a stew, the ephemeral spice of cardamon that meant Christmas and glad tidings, carols in the snow. He loved America, Plumfield, his wife with her beautiful grey eyes, but he could not deny that the fragrance rising from every dish and plate spoke to him of home and comfort and contentment. He looked at Jo and saw she was pleased and ready to explain. Her cheeks were pink and she had not shaken loose even one braid from her netted hair.
“It’s your supper, the supper you deserve for once. You never complain, but I know you must miss better dinners than what I usually dish up. I’ve been racking my brain, because there’s not much I can prepare other than what you’ve already had and that’s paltry enough,” she said with a sniff at the end to underscore her assessment of her culinary skills.
“No, Liebchen, thou art a fine cook,” he replied.
“Stuff and nonsense, Fritz! You know that isn’t so, just as I do. But I had rather a brainstorm. It occurred to me, we don’t expect the children to know how to figure or read or for the older ones, to complete a proof or recite their Greek or Latin perfectly—we have a school to teach them. So I thought, perhaps if I had lessons, I could learn to make you what you missed from home,” Jo announced proudly.
“Who is thy teacher then, my Jo?” Friedrich asked. He couldn’t help but smile, how devoted she was, how clever, how determined!
“Oh, Mrs. Hummel. The younger Mrs. Hummel, though that means nothing to you. The Hummels were… our neighbors, I guess you might say, when I was a girl. Marmee brought them food and clothes, oh, all the time. They had scarlet fever when I was fifteen, that’s where Beth got sick, but it was never their fault, they were the kindest people,” Jo said. He still heard the sorrow in her voice when she spoke of her sister but he also heard how she could bear it.
“And this Mrs. Hummel, she is teaching thee cookery?” he repeated.
“Yes, we’ve worked out a barter of sorts. I thought you would not even notice another little student in the primary class and she was so eager to get her Ernst lessons of his own… it seemed a fair trade. Teaching little Ernst his letters and arithmetic will not challenge us so greatly, and if I only try to make simpler food… I think I might succeed. I would so like to make you the pflaumenkuchen Polly Foster made for me, even if it’s not exactly from Berlin, I think you would like it and we do have so many plum trees to harvest. I hope you do not mind this…arrangement I’ve made with Mrs. Hummel, but I will tell her no if you prefer,” Jo replied. She looked a little abashed, as if she realized perhaps she might have asked first, but she moved gracefully to serve him as she spoke.
“However could I mind? For thou hast solved the problem so neatly, though I do not require an endless series of meals all to remind me of Berlin. There are many American dishes that satisfy,” he said merrily. Would she grasp his meaning? She was such a new bride, his Jo, and so much more charming as a wife than he could have ever imagined possessing, if anyone could be said to possess Josephine March.
“Fritz! You will make me blush and then where will we be? You had best eat your dinner and settle in for a nap afterwards, it is rather rich with the cream and capers,” Jo said. Her color was high and her eyes were bright.
“Thou dost not care for it though, I think… or not very much?” he said. She could not hide how she wrinkled her nose when she said “capers” nor as the savory aroma drifted up from the pools of sauce.
“I can’t say I find it very appealing, but please don’t let that put you off. I think it is prepared properly, though, Lena Hummel tasted it and she said it was right,” she replied. She stood next to him still, having just set the platter down and she had such a worry on her fair face now.
He could not resist, caught her round the waist with his hand and pulled her the short distance onto his lap. She gave a little cry of surprise and happiness and he was so glad they had decided Saturday night the children would eat early and be put to bed before they had their meal alone. He felt her round bottom through her heavy skirts snug against him and thought how her voice would change if he let his hand move from her waist across her buttoned bodice or even up to caress her breast. She had exceeded his expectations in the marriage-bed since their wedding night and her ardent nature had helped him discover he was more than a homely philosopher.
“There are other appetites, Liebchen. Perhaps it is only that thou hunger for something else,” he said. She flushed red as Rabbie Burns’s rose, speechless for once, and he squeezed her waist. How dear she was, clever and funny and lovable! Even more than the fine dinner she had made him, he anticipated enjoying dessert; there was nothing sweeter than her bare skin and every time he kissed her mouth, he tasted caramel and butterscotch, toffee and honey and marchpane.