Friday, February 28, 2014

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

Our February book for the Kitchen Reader book club was Below Stairs by Margaret Powell. It's a memoir set in the 1920s about a young English woman who enters domestic service as a kitchen maid and eventually becomes a cook. This book is said to be the one that inspired Downton Abbey. The book centres on two main aspects of Powell's life: the hardship and the kitchen.

For the purposes of our book club, my focus was on the food. But the hardship of Powell's life (and the lives of others in domestic service in England at the same time) is undeniable. This book, and the others Powell went on to write, expose the terrible conditions in which many had to work. A rare few servants lived comfortable lives. The Downton Abbey portrayal of servants is not nearly as harsh as was common, it seems. Powell describes situations in which very little regard or respect was given to her and the other staff. I was very humbled to read some of it.


Keeping that in mind, let us turn to the kitchen. Powell lived in Hove (near Brighton). She entered domestic service when she was a teenager. She had previously been cooking for her family while her mother worked. She secures a post as a kitchen maid, the lowest of the low in the staff. Her first job was in a large house in Adelaide Crescent, which is the grand street pictured above. Her first task was to set out the table of implements that the cook would need in order to prepare a meal. The under-housemaid (the second lowest of the staff, and close in age to Powell) helped her. Powell was shocked to discover that she underestimated the tools that would be required.
There were knives of all kinds, all shapes and sizes, big long carving knives, small knives for paring fruit, pallet knives, bent knives for scraping out basins with, and then metal spoons, not the ordinary type--they were like a kind of aluminium-coloured spoon--huge ones, about six of them. The largest ones had the measures on them, from ounces right up to dessert-spoonfuls. She put out two sieves, a hair sieve and a wire sieve, and a flour sifter, and an egg whisk…. Then there were two kinds of graters, one fine one for nutmegs, and one do to the breadcrumbs on; there was a big chopping board, three of four kinds of basins, paprika pepper and cayenne pepper, ordinary salt, pepper, and vinegar. Half the table was covered with these things. All these implements had to be laid out twice a day; for lunch, although the lunch was only three courses, and for dinner again at night, when there were five or six.
Powell describes some of the dishes that were served (and that she eventually learned to cook). The food that was eaten upstairs was much more complex than any food she ate. Some examples: chicken in aspic jelly, pheasant, jugged hare (made with a jug of wine), sliced roast beef stuffed with olives and rolled, and perfectly clear consommé. Meanwhile the servants ate herring, stews, or rice puddings.

Part of the kitchen maid's job was also washing the dishes. It sounded horrific to me. I was humbled again, thinking that my complaints about housework pale in comparison to the mess she had to clean.
[The mistress of the house] did a lot of entertaining: two or three times a week there would be a dinner party for at least twelve people, sometimes more, and with all the courses, there was never any time to wash up in between. As soon as one course had gone up you were rushing around getting the plates ready and dishing up the other, so that by the end of the dinner I’d be surrounded by everything under the sun; saucepans and plates and dishes, not the silver because the parlourmaids had to do all the silver and the glasses, but I had everything else to wash up. The things would all be piles up in the sink and on the draining board, and on the floor in the dark dank old scullery.
The part of the book that interested me the most was when Powell took the step to become a cook. She hadn't had much training, despite spending years in a kitchen. The last cook she worked under asked her how she would be able to cook all the dishes that were requested. She answered that if she didn't know she would get out a book. "‘Meg,’ she’d say, ‘you can’t cook from a book, you learn from practical experience.’" Later, Powell proved them both right. She taught herself lots of recipes from books. But she also conceded that "it was quite true what Mrs Bowchard had said, that there was more to it than following the books, more to it even than experience; you had to have a kind of instinct about it, and I didn’t seem to have much instinct at that time.”

I wrote recently about cooking by instinct, spurred on by this book. On balance, I think there is a lot to be learned from books and other cooks, and also a lot that can be gained by developing your cooking instinct. I have certainly learned a lot from reading books--hence my love for The Kitchen Reader book club! But day-to-day cooking helps us all gain instinct for making good food.

Next month our Kitchen Reader book is The Mere Mortal’s Guide to Fine Dining: From Salad Forks to Sommeliers, How to Eat and Drink in Style Without Fear of Faux Pas by Colleen Rush. And here's a list of all our upcoming books. New members are always welcome.

Have you read anything lately that unexpectedly brought out your emotions?

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