Monday, February 25, 2008

The Upper Crust.

February 25 ...

Some weeks I am acutely aware of the lack of servants in my household. You know the sort of weeks I mean. The lack really hits home when I come across detailed job descriptions for the ‘divers servants’ that one might have had scampering around one’s household in previous times.

I wont start with the lack of a lady’s maid or chamber maid in my household, this being a food-oriented blog and all, but I will say that it is completely without kitchen staff of any description. Not only no cook, undercook, or baker, but no jack-boy (to keep the roasting spit turning evenly), no panterer (hence the disorderly, even if plenteous pantry), and not one single scullery maid. My dinner guests have no footman to help them alight from their vehicles or divest them of their brollies when they arrive, nor do they receive the services of the ewerer (who, in a better serviced household, would supply them with hand-washing water at tableside). The sad litany of absent servants includes a steward, several ushers and a skilled carver of every manner of bird and beast. To mention only a few.

Because of this dearth of good help, I myself am forced to function both as cook and sewer (not a needlewoman but “an attendant at a meal who superintended the arrangement of the table, the seating of the guests, and the tasting and serving of the dishes”), despite being the wrong gender entirely. It is not all bad however, as technically I do have a butler - in the old-fashioned sense of the word as “one who has charge of the wine-cellar and dispenses the wine cellar”. The Old Foodie Spouse fulfils this role admirably and with enthusiasm, although is resistant at times to my attempts to include regular rubbish removal as part of his job description.

Imagine my frustration when I discovered recently another servant missing from my household (will it never end?) – one of whose existence I was entirely ignorant until a recent quest on another issue took me into the depths of the Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum, published by ‘John Kersey, Philobibl.’ in 1715. I do not have an anaetta. That is, I lack a servant whose specific role it is to gather up the Scraps after Dinner. Mr. Kersey’s book is of words that were already obsolete, or at least rare, by his time, so I suppose that at least three centuries of households have struggled along since then without such help, so I should not complain.

Scraps do have to be gathered up however, and no household scraps have received more attention than bread. It is not suprising - given that bread is the staff of life nutritionally and symbolically - that wasting it has been considered shocking – almost an immoral act – throughout most of history. (Wonder Bread and the like does not count).

The anaetta is a bit of a mystery – I can find no other reference to the job, so please, if you have any information on the whereabouts or whatabouts, do tell. I am sure however that the scrap-gatherer stayed close to the bread-chipper (another defunct occupation). This person had a special “chypynnge knife” which he used to chip off the very hard crust from the bread – a result of the fiercely hot wood-fired bakers’ ovens of the time. The bottom crust was particularly dense and hard from direct contact with the oven floor, so naturally the upper crust was most desirable - so desirable in fact that it was offered first to the most worthy. A carving manual published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1513 (Boke of Keruinge) specifically indicated that the person charged with the highly important job of cutting the bread “pare ye lofe rounde about; then cut the ouer-cruste to your souerayne (sovereign) …”

Long after the disappearance of the bread-chipper and scrap-gatherer, bread was not to be wasted and crumbs were still to be gathered up. The great Victorian pastime of charitable cookery for the poor provided a great way to use up these “rich mans superfluities”, and a little book called The English cookery book, receipts collected by a committee of ladies (1859) gave some useful ideas.

Crumb Pudding.
Serve all the crumbs left upon the cloth during the week, add to these any waste pieces of bread. Put them in a basin with two ounces of treacle mixed up with them. Soak them in enough water to make them swell. Then tie them in a cloth in the usual way, and boil half an hour. Hundreds of poor children would be glad of such a pudding.

A Sopped Toast.
A very good meal may be thus easily made: Cut a very thick upper crust of bread, and put it in the pot where salt beef is boiling and nearly ready; it will attract some of the fat, and, swelled out, will be no unpalatable dish to those who rarely taste meat.

Today, it is hard to imagine even the most frugal housewife saving the table-cloth crumbs, and in medieval times the upper crust of bread would, as we have seen, not be given to the poor. It is often assumed that the tradition described by Wynkyn de Worde of the upper crust being the right of the king or sovereign led to the use of “upper crust” to describe the servant-owning class, but in fact the phrase did not come into use in that way until the nineteenth century – and probably referred to the upper crust of a pie. But that’s another story.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Succulent Esculents.

Quotation for the Day …

Deliberation, n. The act of examining one's bread to determine which side it is buttered on. Ambrose Bierce


Lidian said...

What fun to read your post (as always) - yes, the lack of servants is a constant irritant 'round here too. One of my Victorian household guides instructs the lady of the house to start the fire going at six, which seems like a rough start to the day.

I am a great fan of "Bitter" Bierce!

I have moved house over to Wordpress,

And by the way, it is still Sunday here, how funny to think you are having your Monday!

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Lidian - I already spotted your changeover: you are in my feedreader now, so I dont miss a thing. I could do with a scullery maid right now ....