Old household manuals are full of advice on how to manage (and discipline) the domestic servants. Life “below stairs” must have been very unpleasant if the Mistress had a nasty streak, or the Master a wandering eye or hand. Even in households where the servants were well treated and well fed – although never as well as their employers, as we saw last week – the days must have been long and hard.
Humans have an amazing capacity for subversion however, and no doubt badly-treated servants found creative ways to retaliate. There is a sense of slight anxiety to be read behind much of the advice given to the mistress in those manuals, as if it was a given that they would be cheated or let down by their servants at any opportunity.
There were worse ways a disgruntled servant could retaliate than simply by stealing a bit of tea or not getting the laundry white enough – and the great satirist Jonathan Swift named them in his essay “Directions To Servants” in 1745.
"If you are bringing up a Joint of meat in a Dish, and it falls out of your Hand, before you get into the Dining Room, with the Meat on the Ground, and the Sauce spilled, take up the Meat gently, wipe it with the Lap of your Coat, then put it again into the Dish, and serve it up; and when your Lady misses the Sauce, tell her, it is to be sent up in a Plate by itself. When you carry up a Dish of meat, dip your fingers in the Sauce, or lick it with your Tongue, to try whether it be good, and fit for your Master's Table..."
To the cook, he said "...you are not to wash your Hands till you have gone to the Necessary-house*, and spitted your Meat, trussed your Pullets, pickt your Sallad, nor indeed till after you have sent up the second Course; for your Hands will be ten times fouled with the many Things you are forced to handle; but when your Work is over, one Washing will serve for all..."
* i.e the bathroom, restroom, W.C.,toilet, lavatory, dunny, loo …..
It sounds like saucy dishes were the subversive servant’s delight. Here is a recipe for gravy from Anne Battams’ The lady’s assistant in the oeconomy of the table: a collection of scarce and valuable receipts,... (1759).
To make gravy sauce.
Take a piece of lean beef, cut it small in thin slices and put as much water as will something more than cover it, with a little old black pepper, and a little onion or shallot, and let it stew till you think the gravy is all out of the beef, then put in a little salt; when it is cold, put in a quarter part claret, a little butter and a little flour, and shake it up for use.
Tomorrow’s Story …
Quotation for the Day …
I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage. Erma Bombeck.