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Mason, Laura 1957-

MASON, Laura 1957-

PERSONAL:

Born 1957.

ADDRESSES:

Agent—c/o Author Mail, Prospect Books, Allaleigh House, Blackawton, Totnes, Devon TQ9, 7Dl, England.

CAREER:

Author; historian of British food.

WRITINGS:

Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787-1799, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1996.

Sugar-Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets, Prospect Books (Totnes, Devon, England), 1998.

(Editor, with Catherine Brown) Traditional Foods of Britain, Prospect Books (Totnes, Devon, England), 1999.

Sweets and Sweet Shops, Shire Publications, 2000.

(Editor) Food and the Rites of Passage, Prospect Books (Totnes, Devon, England), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS:

Laura Mason is an author and historian with a special interest in British food. Except for her first published book on the songs of the eighteenth-century revolution in France, her books focus on things people eat. Mason researches her subjects both in libraries and by visiting old cities and towns, and tracks down modern-day samples of old recipes. Helen Simpson, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, found Mason's Sugar-Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets so sweetly filled with candy and other confectioneries that the critic thought it necessary to state, at the end of her review, that the author made no mention "of tooth decay from start to finish."

In her first book, Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787-1799, Mason describes Paris as a city that was filled with the sound of voices. Some of these voices were used to give political speeches, while others riled the masses, urging them to riot. Throughout these turbulent years, there could also be heard a lot of singing. "Mason's purpose in this lively book," wrote Robert M. Isher-wood in the Journal of Modern History, "is to treat songs as a means of interpreting Revolutionary culture, as well as to analyze how the Revolution changed singing." Everyone was singing, Mason contends, on all sides of the revolution: rival legislators, varied political groups, and the general French citizenry. As Isherwood explained, "The Revolution's unraveling …was the result in large part of its inability to generate a permanent song culture and polity."

There were three stages to the songs, Mason contends. In the earliest years of the revolution, there was a plentiful supply of songs devoted to political satire. During the second stage, the lyrics of songs became more poignant and more clearly revolutionary, containing what Michael E. McClellan, writing for Notes called "unambiguous political messages." It was in the second stage, after the collapse of the monarchy, that the song "Marsellaise" became popular. Songs became increasingly less political in the final, or third, stage, as the French people withdrew from their aggressive, stance. McClellan found that Mason's book offers "a remarkably clear picture of Paris in the 1790s." It is through the study of the lyrics of songs, Mason believes, that readers might best appreciate the confusion and the chaos of Paris during the years of the revolution, rather than reading details of that time and assuming that the French people acted as an organized unit. The variations in the songs expose the disparity between various factions in the population.

Sugar Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets focuses on the strong childhood memories of its author. According to Simpson in her review of the book, Mason grew up in a small town of only two thousand people, and yet she recalls that there were "seven shops selling sweets in the main street alone." The history of these sweets begins with Mason's brief reminiscence about her youth, then quickly broadens to include the history of confectioneries in Britain, a country Simpson described as one that "has been passionate about confectionery for centuries." One reason for this, besides a possible national sweet-tooth, is that the British used sweets to signify wealth. Another reason, as stated by Simpson, was that sweets "until recently, were thought to promote health." To satisfy this urge for candy and all things sweet, as E. S. Turner wrote in his London Review of Books appraisal, "the maritime powers fought over the slave islands of the Caribbean like dogs scrapping for bones."

Mason has also edited two books about food. The first is called the Traditional Foods of Britain and has been praised by the Times Literary Supplement's Lesley Chamberlain for providing "fascinating details about more than 400 original products." The book covers a selection of food products that include dairy, fruits and vegetables, fish and poultry, wild game and snails, and meat. Each food type is then broken down into variations. For example, in the section on cheese, under the letter B the list begins with Bath cheese, followed by Baydon Hill Cheese, and then Beenleigh Blue Cheese. The region of production is then provided, followed by a description of the item, the history behind it, and the technique used to make it. By the end of the book, a definition of British culture, as seen through the foods that its people eat, is gathered. As Chamberlain put it, the book offers "the chance for Britain to assert its own definitive gastronomic identity."

Mason also edited the book Food and the Rites of Passage, which contains six essays by noted historians who explore, as Sue Shephard noted in the Times Literary Supplement, "the source of many common traditions which are still part of celebrating the important milestones of life—births, christenings, weddings and burials all call for exuberant ritual and lavish feasts." Typical of the kinds of food found at ritualistic celebrations are cakes, which, at one time, were broken over a bride's head during her wedding. Funerals of the past often were observed with lavishly planned dinners, with the deceased, well before the actual death, of course, making most of the arrangements. Food served at funerals was often an extravagant display of wealth, proving to those who attended that the recently deceased had been very successful, even if the funeral left the survivors penniless.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Choice, June, 1997, review of Singing the French Revolution, p. 1723.

Journal of Modern History, September, 1999, review of Singing the French Revolution, p. 712.

London Review of Books, October 29, 1998, E. S. Turner, review of Sugar Plums and Sherbet, p. 30.

Notes, December, 1997, Michael E. McClellan, review of Singing the French Revolution, pp. 478-479.

Times Literary Supplement, April 4, 1997, Normal Hampson, review of Singing the French Revolution,, p. 28; July 24, 1998, Helen Simpson, review of Sugar Plums and Sherbet, p. 10; May 21, 1999, Lesley Chamberlain, review of Traditional Foods of Britain, p. 32; October 18, 2002, Sue Shephard, review of Food and the Rites of Passage, p. 35.*

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