Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Household Hints, Part 1.

I am particularly fond of the sort of household manual that is not afraid to meet the challenge of assisting the housewife to cope with the myriad demands that the role requires. Sadly, no-one seems to publish these any more, and I am left to fend for myself in the matter of removing stains from silk gowns, making blacking for the stove, and concocting remedies for the green sickness. The Victorian housewife was luckier, for the publishing industry went wild for these books at the time, and she had a vast choice of such books to make her life easier, her servants better behaved, and her husband happier.

Methinks that there may still be much to learn from these books, in spite of their advice being nearly two hundred years old. To test the theory, I went first to Household Hints to Young Housewives, published in London in 1852. I chose this one because of the author’s name - or rather, her pseudonym – ‘Mary Careful.’ The name itself positively breathes reassurance, doesn’t it? It is just the thing that a new bride needs. The fact that the author chose a pseudonym is interesting in itself too. It is difficult to imagine, living in an age when celebrity rules as it seems to do today, that anyone wanting to publish a cookery book – or any book for that matter – would choose anonymity.

Mary Careful, in her lengthy preface, mentions her seventy-five years, her arthritis and her eight sons as if these in themselves give her some authenticity – and perhaps they do. She advises the newly-wedded wives to whom the book is addressed that ‘the helm of a vessel fully freighted with affection, wealth, and happiness is placed in your hand to guide – one false step may cast you on a rock of sorrow.’ The advice in her book will ‘place young housekeepers at once within the magic ring of wedded happiness’ by assisting them with ‘the trifles which make up the sum of human bliss.’ Now, I say without fear of correction, that those sentiments are not to be found in any current books on cookery or marriage, or life, - seafaring for that matter.

Mrs Careful gives some sample menus and this one caught my eye for its odd fragment of food etiquette advice below the menu proper.


Soles – Melted Butter
Minced Beef, with Potatoe Wall.
Bread and Butter Pudding.

It is not etiquette to serve up potatoes with fish. If you fancy them, a distinct order must be given.
Believe me, faithfully yours
Martha Careful.

I have never come across this piece of advice before, and this demonstrates to me the need for a return of the general household manual. I might have been saved from the culinary faux pas of serving potatoes with fish, had I had the benefit of such a manual on my kitchen bookshelves in my formative cooking years.

Perhaps it was part of the longstanding prejudice (and its accompanying misinformation) about potatoes that persisted into the early nineteenth century? Another book of the time,
Cottage comforts, with hints for promoting them, gleaned from experience: enlivened with authentic anecdotes, by Esther Copley (London, 1830), has this to say:

Potatoes should not be boiled in the liquor of which soup is made; they render it unwholesome. If you choose to have potatoes with your soup, let them be boiled in another vessel.

Another regular bad habit of mine exposed – actually cooking potatoes in the soup.

A second, minor point: I am equally intrigued by Mrs Careful’s placing of the spinach on her menu after the pudding.

Here is her recipe for the pudding, which is a rather nice version of this English staple.

Bread and Butter Pudding.
Cut very thin bread and butter; grate on it lemon peel, almond and nutmeg; place it in layers in a dish, strewing a few well washed currants or marmalade between each piece; till the dish up with custard a quarter of an hour before baking; a quart dish will require three quarters of an hour. The pudding may be turned out on a flat dish, and powdered with white sugar.
Custard for this, or any baked pudding, is made as follows:—Beat three eggs with whites, well sweeten and flavour it, then stir it into pint of new milk. An extra egg will increase the richness when required, and varied flavourings can be used—lemon, almond, noyeau, ratafia, cinnamon, coriander, orange, nutmeg, &c.

Bread and butter pudding flavoured with coriander – now that’s an idea!

Quotation for the Day.

It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.
Douglas Adams.


Les said...

I don't think I've ever eaten fish and potatoes during the same meal. Maybe it's because the colors are so similar that it's better to choose a brighter vegetable?

The sauerkraut is finished but I was disappointed the the caraway batch. I had hoped the flavor of the caraway would diffuse through the liquid but it was limited to the seeds. However the flavor was great. It would probably work best to add the caraway to kraut that has already fermented and let it sit for a few hours instead of at the beginning. I've got to get ready to make another batch if I go through the whole gallon the way I went through the first quart. Maybe I'll throw in some apples, they leave a nice fruity note to the flavor.

The Old Foodie said...

Don't fish and chips count?
I would have thought too that the caraway flavor would have permeated the whole thing. We live and learn, don't we? Or do we live to learn?

SometimesKate said...

One wonders what Mary and Martha would have thought of codfish balls, which were made with salt codfish, and at the very -least- an equal amount of mashed potatoes, often considerably more. Or fish chowder, in which the potatoes themselves provide the thickening.

@Les - Did you try cracking some of the caraway seeds before you mixed them in with the kraut?

Fay said...

I made a goulash soup recently and used a new recipe from Jane Lawson's Snowflakes and Schnapps. It said to toast and grind the caraway before adding to the soup. Made a much more mellow flavour and even Husband who is not desperately keen on caraway said it was noice.
Perhaps toasting the caraway seeds before adding them to sauerkraut might intensify the flavour, like roasting spices for Indian cooking.

Anonymous said...

As much as I admire Douglas Adams, I believe in the matter of potatoes that he is utterly incorrect.

I think the thing is contrast in colour and texture, so roast potatoes, or chips (French fries) are "ettiquette."

How wonderful to get off the Beeton path!

Lawrence in Northeastern Ohio, United States.

Marcheline said...

Oh yeah... fish and chips - yum! To hell with the old wive's tales, anyway!

I thought my cousin in England was daft when he got all excited about the "pudding" he made, which turned out to be a bowl lined with white bread, filled up with raspberry jam, and then turned upside down on a plate. I was sort of horrified, but this post just proves they've been doing that sort of thing for a very long time over there. Ugh!

Simcha said...

Some people live but never learn, İ do live to learn and I have learnt many things even while not searching.

Those old manuals are great and hold alot of secrets we really need. For example I have bought stove blackening a couple of times but I would rather like to know how to make it myself. Are the new green guides or self sufficent mags the new Mary carefuls?

Les said...

Wow, thanks for the suggestions on the caraway. Grinding would probably help if added at the end. My thought was that whatever diffused from the seeds during the fermentation was probably destroyed in the process.

I hadn't thought of fish and chips being from Texas. Any deep fried combination is great!

Anonymous said...

I don't know; those old books have great hints sometimes!
I am originally from Zimbabwe and my parents still live there. In the times of rolling black out and intermittent power supplies many families went back to using wood-fired stoves. My Mum hauled out her great-grandmother's copy of household hints which included such useful tips as how to tell how hot your oven is using breadcrumbs (the time it takes for them to toast).
Unusual times yes, but those old books are lovely!

Pipedreams said...

"It is not etiquette to serve up potatoes with fish. If you fancy them, a distinct order must be given."

This intrigued me. As a French person, I am used to boiled potatoes with fish, trout in particular. Not only used to it, but I love it! Interesting tidbit. I wonder whether it's purely British etiquette or if it was the correct way to compose a menu everywhere at that time (and how it came to change).

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Pipedreams. I am baffled too by the instruction. It seems to be a common Victorian era injunction. I have no idea why! I love the combination myself.