I could not “think out” a dinner my husband could eat without a cookery book, nor could I apportion out the righteous need of rations to each individual member of my household without having some indisputable precedent to go by, and this latter I found in Mrs. Beeton’s admirable ‘Book of Household Management.’ Or so says Mrs. Pender Cudlip, writing in the 1880s magazine, The Modern Housewife.
In other words, if she didn’t have a cookbook she was up a creek when it came to meal planning.
Hi! Kit Morgan here. As folks are doing a lot more cooking nowadays, I thought it would be fun to take a look back and see how things were done in the late 1800s.
If you happen to be a woman married to a man of means and could afford a cook, your culinary knowledge gained by reading and observing other people’s dinner tables came in handy when you had to discuss with your cook the meals of the day. This ceremony was done usually fifteen minutes after breakfast in either your morning room or library or whichever room you happen to be and summoned the cook to you. If your cook happened to be less experienced or new, this was your chance to comment on the previous day’s meals, give your advice on upcoming meals and otherwise impress your new employee with your culinary prowess. Even you couldn’t boil water. A lot of women read cookbooks back then. We’re not talking women the likes of Downton Abbey. Lady Grantham was married to an earl, remember. Our lady of means might be married to a prominent businessman or banker. At any rate, she aimed to know her stuff and one of those things was cooking, even though she wasn’t the one doing it.
In fact, many mistresses of their domains who couldn’t boil an egg to save their life, were very good at teaching their cooks what to do. They knew the correct food to have, the sauces that went with them, and how everything should taste. It wasn’t until after WW1 and the subsequent shortage of servants that they had to put their money where their mouths were and actually start cooking themselves. If they were really lucky, their daughters would have had a few cooking lessons at school.
In houses of far lesser means where there was no meeting with a cook, (namely, because there wasn’t one) the mistress of her humble abode went to the kitchen after breakfast in the dining room and got to work. She had to look in the larder and check what cold meat and pastry was uneaten, and, based on her meal planning, order what was needed to complete her meals for the next few days. She just had to make sure she got her foodstuffs back to the house in time to receive morning visitors. She might not have a cook but by golly, she had the manners of the day and adhered to them. She might even have a maid!
In smaller houses that did have a cook, the mistress came down to the kitchen to see her. The cook, therefore, had to make sure that the kitchen was spotless, with a white cloth placed at the end of the table and a slate or a menu book and pencil placed on the cloth. if you were a kitchenmaid, you were banished from the kitchen during these meetings.
A cook’s morning work int he kitchen consisted of making pastries, jellies, creams, or the more fancy dishes. After dishing up the dining room luncheon, she had the afternoon to herself. That is if there was no large dinner party to prepare for. Her busiest time was about five minutes to nine in the evening when she was dishing up dinner. This was always a tense atmosphere, trying to get everything just so, and it was worse if there were guests. Everything had to be organized and act as a finely oiled machine. Heaven forbid she burn something!
And to think we’re ecstatic when we get to order a pizza!
Have you done a lot of cooking over the last month? Not much has changed for me and my routine, but I know for quite a few, they are cooking more than ever. I’ll pick a random comment to receive a free e-copy of Dear Mr. White, one of the finest cooks in my story world!