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A Gypsy Feast

Anne-Marie Ford    -    5 March 2017

This story concludes the edited version of material written by an unknown American in 1912, and records a meeting with a Gypsy family of Stanleys camped close to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1886. The bookplate reads “Ex Libris R.A. Scott Macfie, presented by the Gypsy Lore Society” and the full article can be found in the Liverpool University Special Collections, reference SMGC3/4, B.4.8.

On a later occasion Mrs. Patience gave me a formal invitation to come to supper two days after, the author tells us, and adds that she had promised him that he should have “a regular Romany habben - a Gypsy feast.”  

When I reached there near dusk I found the tent cleared up, he remembers, the infant Sybarina sent off in Bessie’s charge to the other tent, and Richard and Patience decked out in fine attire. All the children were sternly ordered away when they came skirmishing about, and even old Thomas remained a little aloof, not feeling well enough to join in the eating.  

As they sat before the tent, with a tablecloth laid out before them, Richard began to arrange a pile of blankets for the narrator to sit on, but Patience forbade him, “he’s got to be a real Romany chal tonight and sit on the ground with us, cross-legged, like the tailors.”

And so began the feast, for feast it seems to have been, the narrator’s enthusiasm evident in his descriptions, “we had a very nice breast of lamb, a piece of corned beef, excellent tea, some watercresses and butter and some bread baked in a kettle.”  

For dessert Mrs. Patience produced in a pan “a real Gypsy cake, what we call a Roman manricli, and I made this on purpose for you, because I know you like the real Romany things and I don’t believe you ever tasted a cake like this.  Maybe you will remember as long as you live that you came out to the tents of our people and ate the manricli.  It’s very rich and made with suet, instead of lard or butter.”

A pound or so was then put on my plate which was a dark-looking mixture full of raisins, very sweet and spicy and, to my mind, it was exceedingly good.

In the course of conversation after this feast, when the participants had retired to the tent, I asked Mrs. Patience if it was true that the Gypsies in some parts of England put a kind of dark wash on their babies to colour them.  “Now, you must not believe all those things about the Romanies, no more than that they have kings and queens,” she answered.  She went to explain that when the babies are born “we wash them in cold water once a day, summer and winter.”

“I got little Dickey in cold weather, and they had to break the ice to get the water to wash him.  We think it makes their flesh hard and healthy, and makes them tough like.  We wash them in cold water every day till they are a year old, never in warm.  Now I hear that the Gorgios always wash theirs in warm water and we believe it makes them soft.”

The writer remembers that they talked on under the tent till the fire in front had burned down to a mass of embers, and the children had crept silently in and were lying curled up asleep on all sides of us.  Presently, Bessie appeared, bringing Sybarina, who insisted upon being fed, and with the babe against her bosom, and her face brought into view by an occasional flickering of the dying fire, Mrs. Patience made as pretty and as touching a picture as one might see in a long day’s journey. Then, he adds, I left them.

He expresses his affection for this family, remarking that he would feel it a loss when his friends moved on, but that he could see that the desire of wandering was beginning to take hold of them once more.

Reflecting that these wanderers were, to him, as to many others, of great interest, owing to their intense personalities, indifference to the political and social world about them, and their ability to maintain ancient cultural values and beliefs, he says of them that he believes they are naturally kind, courteous and hospitable, and these traits come to the surface once they are assured of the real kindness and interest they have awakened in others.

The story concludes with humour, as well as touching sincerity, as the narrator of the tale reflects that he dare say Richard might be very glad to sell me one of his collection of spavined and foundered horses at a good price, but that he should expect both him and his family to go to a great deal of trouble to do me a kindness should occasion require.

Fourteen years beyond the narrative, Richard and Patience are recorded in the census for Brooklyn, New York, where Richard claims birth in England in 1851, having emigrated, he said, in 1858, and married in about 1869; he is described as a horse dealer and with the couple are a son, Charles, aged 25, and their daughter, Sybarina, aged 14.

Ten years later, in 1910, the family are in the same location, Richard is still plying the trade of a horse dealer, Patience is now recorded quite openly as a palmist and Charles, like his father, is a horse dealer. Also with them in this census is little Dorothy Dugro, their granddaughter. She is the child of Sybarina, for their daughter, the baby Patience was nursing at the time of the story in 1886, had died tragically young the previous year.

Copyright © 2017 Anne-Marie Ford