Friday, May 08, 2009

The perks of the kitchen.

A modern cook or chef would probably be singularly unimpressed with being offered offered the bones, meat trimmings and rendered fat produced in the kitchen as part of his or her wage, but it once upon a time this was a traditional right of the position. We think we are clever and noble now when we put our bottles and cans in the correct bins for recycling, but in previous times absolutely nothing was wasted and everything (right down to the ashes from the fireplaces) could be onsold to top up the wages. In a large household, the the footman or butler was allowed the candle stubs, the dairy maid the poultry feathers, and the nurse the cast-off clothing of the children, for example. One man’s waste was another man’s raw materials - fat and ashes were sold to soap-makers, feathers to mattress-makers, and candle stubs to tallow-chandlers and so on.

The cook’s traditional perks, and the kitchen practices that it encouraged are nicely summarised in An Encyclop√¶dia of Domestic Economy ...( Thomas Webster, William Parkes 1855)

“The perquisites of servants are, in many cases, so many encroachments on the property of their employers, who tacitly allow them, while they, in principle, condemn them. Perquisites are among the circumstances which tend to corrupt the morals of household servants, and as such their continuance is most objectionable. At the same time it would be difficult to eradicate the evil, which is, by prescription, become almost a domestic law. Why it has so corrupting an influence among a household it is not difficult to perceive. It places the interests of servants in opposition to those of master. What is gain to the one is often loss to the other; and in taking only a shortsighted view of his interest, a servant's integrity is not always proof against the temptation of immediate gain. The barrier between honesty and dishonesty being once broken, who can say how often it will be passed !
Perquisites of cooks consist chiefly in dripping, commonly called " kitchen stuff." This perquisite is very generally allowed, probably from the very general difficulty of keeping any check upon the cook’s use of it if it were not allowed. Every temptation to purloin should should be in all houses as much avoided as possible; but in this particular instance it is scarcely possible to avoid it. If the perquisite be forbidden, no one can tell if the cook will not furtively secure it to herself. If it be allowed her, and other temptation assails her; that of obtaining as much of it as she can by practices mean and despicable. A cook who grasps at making much of her dripping often over-roasts joints of meat, by which the fat is melted into the dripping pan. She neither protects the fat from the fire by covering it with paper, nor basts the surface of the meat to keep it moist and rich. She trims from all joints all external fat, to add to her hoards; she used for frying and for common pastry expensive materials, when she has at hand which would answer as well, and would more honestly employ the melted fat which is obtained in roasting meat.”

There were other ways too that the cook could increase the value of the perk – such as “surreptitous stabbings so that the juice may run away more freely”, as well as some rather more sneaky and sinister tricks. Butter could not only be used when dripping would serve as well (such as in pastry for savoury pies), but could be surreptitiously added to the dripping pan when no-one was looking – and worse, even candle stubs could be buried in there (presumably when the footman was not looking.)

It sounds like a really good roast had to avoid a number of points of sabotage before it reached the master’s table. What then of Yorkshire Pudding? The dish requires the generous use of dripping. Originally it was cooked underneath the roast (which was on a spit close to the fire) and collected the drippings from the meat - these becoming an integral and tasty part of the meal, and thus lost to the cook. In households with sneaky, greedy cooks, I wonder if it was served less commonly? Here it is, by its original name:

A Dripping Pudding.
Make a good Batter as for Pancakes, put it in a hot Toss-pan over the Fire with a Bit of Butter to fry the Bottom a little, then put the Pan and Batter under a Shoulder of Mutton instead of a Dripping-pan, keeping frequently making it by the Handle and it will be light and savoury, and fit to take up when your Mutton is enough, and turn it in a Dish, and serve it hot.

From: The whole duty of a woman, or, An infallible guide to the fair sex: containing rules, directions, and observations, for their conduct and behavior through all ages and circumstances of life, as virgins, wives, or widows: with ... rules and receipts in every kind of cookery ... 1737

Quotation for the Day.

The qualities of an exceptional cook are akin to those of a successful tightrope walker: an abiding passion for the task, courage to go out on a limb and an impeccable sense of balance.
Bryan Miller


Claudia said...

I just found your site and enjoyed the bit of kitchen history. That "dipping" custom is today often the bane of restaurants. One of my favorite places here was forced to close partly due to theft of expensive wines, and foods.

Victoria said...

What a fascinating glimpse you've given us into the sometimes sneaky workings of the 'downstairs' staff.

My mother, a Yorkshirewoman, would always cook the Yorkshire pudding in the same roasting pan as the beef. Since then I've never eaten a Yorkshire pudding that was quite as tasty as hers.

Thank you for such an interesting blog. I've included it in my list of favourites. Hope you don't mind.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Claudia - I am delighted that you found the sit and are enjoying it. I never thought about the impact of theft of food etc on the viability of modern restaurants - I wonder how it can be controlled?
Victoria - I was born in Yorkshire, so I love stories about Yorkshire pudding - my mum did the same. It never tastes as good any other way.
Of course I dont mind that you have listed the blog in your favourites - I am delighted!