Read an Excerpt
Margaret Powell's Cookery Book
LEARNING TO COOK
Lots of girls nowadays by the time that they get married know a great deal about cooking, because their mothers have let them learn it at home. Today people have got more money and can experiment, but when I was a girl money was so tight and food was so precious that my mother couldn't possibly let me practise at cooking. I used to peel the vegetables and do other odd jobs for her, but that was all. I'd get upset about it because I would have loved to make pastries and cakes. I was always anxious to learn. I knew that other mothers let their daughters cook and I thought Mum was being unkind. When you're young you don't really understand about the shortage of money.
So it was that when I went into domestic service as a kitchen maid at the age of fifteen, I knew nothing about cooking at all. This surprised the cook. She was a Scot, and she told me that up there no mother would dream of bringing up a daughter without instructing her in the rudiments of cooking from a very early age, but she was quite kindly. 'Well, gal,' she said when I joined her, 'you're going to have to begin at the beginning. It may be no bad thing at that. At least you'll learn to do things my way. Just keep your eyes and ears open and do as I do or as I tell you.'
The first thing I learnt was the utensils that she used and what she used them for: the knives, saucepans and the different kinds of basins and casseroles, the dishes and pie-dishes.
For instance, with pans: for sauces, and especially a sauce that had to be left on the heat, you choose one with a heavy base because sauces, by their very nature, can burn easily.
The size of a dish shouldn't be a matter of speculation. You must choose, for instance, a casserole dish that is large enough to contain all the ingredients that you are going to use, and it's important when you are making a soufflé to ensure that the dish is going to be high enough when the soufflé rises.
One of the first things I did in a practical way was to learn how to prepare vegetables. At home we were very rough and ready. I would take as little of the peel off the potatoes as possible because we needed to economize. I didn't bother about making them look perfectly round in shape or removing every piece of peel, and we cooked all the cabbage, including the stalk, to make it go as far as possible, but in this kitchen none of the outside leaves was used and every leaf was pulled from the stalk. The same with spinach: when my mother cooked spinach she would wash it once and then put the whole lot in. I didn't know that you had to pull off the stalk, wash what was left three or four times at least, and cook it in the smallest amount of water.
Again, at home I'd only seen potatoes done three ways: roasted, boiled or mashed. I was astonished when I found the variety of methods there were of preparing them.
Asparagus I'd seen in shops but I'd never handled it. I didn't know that you had to scrape the bottom off each stick, put it into water with a dash of lemon to keep the bottom of the stalks white and then put another dash of lemon juice in the water when you cooked it.
There were (apart from asparagus) vegetables which wereunknown to me. Things like artichokes: the Jerusalem ones were the foulest possible things to peel, and the other kind, the globe artichokes. I could never understand why they were both called artichokes, because two more dissimilar vegetables I'd never seen, and when I discovered the small amount that people ate of globe artichokes, I just felt they were a waste of money, but I still had to find out how to prepare them. When the cook asked me whether I knew how to cook vegetables and I said, 'I have a rough idea,' I didn't realize how truthful I was being.
The elementary rules I learned about cooking were that many vegetables are enhanced by adding butter or cream, and that they can be ruined by bad cooking just as easily as any of the more expensive dishes. When she felt I'd learnt the rudiments of preparing and cooking vegetables, the cook showed me how to prepare birds for the table. In this particular place we used to have game sent down from Scotland: grouse, partridge and pheasant. All of which was, of course, new to me. The only bird we had at home was a chicken for Christmas.
Of course, I didn't know game had to be hung, unplucked and undrawn, with a hook through the head on a rail in the passage. Sometimes the birds hung there so long that I'd come down and find the heads on the hook and the bodies on the floor. Then the cook would say that they were ready. Plucking them had to be done with great care, because if you pulled the feathers the wrong way you broke the skin. I watched the cook do the first one. I've never seen anyone pluck a bird as quickly as she could. The feathers simply flew. Then I had to learn to gut them, pull the insides out. It was a horrible job, but I had to know how to do it, and finally how to singe them by holding them over the fire.
After this I was initiated into the rites of preparing fish. Often the fish were delivered to the door in a bucket alive, so I had to kill the poor things first. I didn't know where the vulnerable partof the fish was, but after one flapped up just as I was cutting its head off and scratched my nose, I became very wary of them. I used to get the heavy iron poker from the kitchen range and hit them about the head with it. I don't suggest that you do this today. Anyway, fish don't come like that any more. Cook showed me how to prepare fish: how to cut off the fins without cutting into the body, how to remove the head and clean the inside, how to get the black skin off without breaking the flesh and how to fillet. My first efforts weren't always successful, but I learned by trial and error, and when I made errors, that particular fish was given to the servants to eat.
The main thing is to have the right kind of knife. Any old knife won't do, and, like all knives, the one used should be kept very sharp. We had a man round every month to do ours.
Then I had to start preparing the meals for the other servants. The cook showed me how to prepare and cook beef that wasn't of the best quality, because naturally we servants didn't have rump or fillet steak. She used to soak it in vinegar and water: the quantity was about one gill of vinegar to one quart of water. It would soak for three or four hours, and this made it tender. Then it was cut up and placed in the dish and water added, barely covering the meat. It was put in the slowest part of the oven and left for an hour and a half before being covered with pastry. She showed me how to flavour it with herbs, rubbing them between the hands until they were fine powder. They weren't powdered in advance because that way they seemed to lose their flavour.
Most that I learned, though, came from taking the cook's advice to keep my eyes and ears open. As my mother and grandmother told me, very few cooks would explain to a kitchen maid how they made particular dishes. Not because it was a big secret, but with seven or eight people to cook for upstairs, they couldn't be bothered, and no doubt they thought that, as they'd had tolearn as they went along, you'd have to do the same. Mind you, I chose my moments, and those moments were generally when the cook had to sit down to do a particular job. She would tell me then.
I remember once when she was making a sponge with just eggs, sugar and flour - no butter. I said, 'Why do you have to sit and beat that for twenty minutes with just a wire whisk?' She explained to me that it was to get as much air as possible into the mixture; that it was the air that made it rise. I'd thought it was just to mix the eggs with the sugar. But if it was an intricate dish I couldn't get anything out of her. So I used to watch. Fortunately, I was blessed with a very good memory, and when I got to my bedroom at night I used to jot down the things I'd seen her do. I didn't always know the proportions, but I learned these later by trial and error.
By the time I left my first place I had a whole notebook filled with dishes. The under-housemaid who I shared a room with used to say, 'I can't see why you bother, you don't get paid any extra, sitting up half the night writing things out.' But when you're an under-housemaid the jobs are just routine; except for the basic things, cooking isn't.
Another thing that helped me was that in one place where I was a cook they used to give a lot of dinner parties with certain special dishes, and the madam would engage a chef to come in and cook these in my kitchen. After we'd served 'them' upstairs, the chef, the butler, myself and the head parlour maid would have our meal afterwards. The drinks would be brought out and the chef would begin to get mellow. Then I'd start to butter him up, flatter him and give him all the old flannel. I'd say that never in my life had I seen such a marvellous dish, and how I would love to be able to make it, but of course it was beyond the powers of poor little me. He would say, 'Oh, it's not as hard as all that.' ThenI'd ask him how he got a certain texture, and gradually, bit by bit, by the end of the evening I'd have got the recipe out of him.
Another thing I learned as I moved around was that cooks have different methods of doing things. In my first place, for instance, we never had such a thing as a tammy cloth, so that in my second place as kitchen maid, when cook said to me she was making a clear soup, get the tammy cloth out, I didn't know what she meant. 'Huh, fine sort of cook you must have had back at your last place,' she said. It appeared that a tammy cloth was a large piece of fine woollen material, and if you were making either clear soup or a purée, you emptied the mixture into it with a person at each end, and they then twisted the cloth in opposite directions so that the soup or purée would ooze out through it. I must say I thought a hair sieve was just as good. But I later used this bit of knowledge to impress my employer. When I took my first place as a cook, I said to the lady of the house who wanted a clear soup, 'Do you like it put through a hair sieve or a tammy cloth, madam?' I don't think she'd heard of either, but I could see I'd risen in her estimation.
Never, I found, should you say to a cook, 'Oh, but I've seen it done another way.' Nothing riled a cook more, because it sounded as though you were insinuating that it was done better than the way she did it. Husbands often make the same mistake. When I first got married, my husband would sometimes say that he would like a dish that his mother used to make. For instance, a roly-poly pudding with treacle. When I made a treacle pudding I put the treacle at the bottom of the basin and the mixture over it so that when I turned it out the treacle had been cooked with it, but no, he wanted it the way his mother made it, which was a roly-poly in a cloth and the treacle dolloped on afterwards. Easier, yes, but infuriating to a wife who's been a cook, and, of course, if you say anything it looks as if you are criticizing your mother-in-law.
So that's how I learned cooking. Watching, and by trial and error: what you would call the hard way. Just as at that time a farmer's boy learned to be a farm labourer. There was no method about it. You picked it up as you went along. Today, of course, practically every girl is taught at school, and if she shows any real interest, she knows a lot by the time she leaves. If she wants to take it up professionally, there are many ways she can go about it.
She can do it the way I did, by going into domestic service, and domestic service today has a great deal to offer. I know this because I've been back into it recently. Things have changed and changed fast. In my young days I was press-ganged into it by my mother saying it was quite different from when she was a girl; but that was a fallacy. It hadn't altered. The money was better, but as regards the amount of work, the inferiority feeling, the distinctions between 'them' and 'us' and the scarcity of time off, there was no difference at all. But now you've only got to read the advertisements to see that domestic service is a very different proposition.
You see: 'Kitchen maid wanted, £7 per week, own room, television, liberal outings.' Well, you can't say that you're going into 'service' as you were in my day. I'm sure there wouldn't be that difference in the social status between 'them' and you. You would be treated like a person in your own right, allowed to run your life, and there would be far more opportunities to learn how to cook. As well as learning by doing, you could go to evening classes. Again, you wouldn't have the hard work of grating, mincing, or beating by hand. You wouldn't be cooking on the kitchen range, lugging in coals from morning till night, washing up with soda or soft soap and ruining your hands. You'd have rubber gloves to work in or barrier creams, you'd have gas or electric stoves, electric mixers, liquidizers, and you'd be sure to have thesethings because today they go with servants, and servants go with money and well-run houses.
If you don't want to go into domestic service, then you can attend a technical college. You can have a complete course and learn every branch of cooking, or if you want to specialize in a particular subject, you can do so. For instance, if you want to be a pastry cook or to know how to make cakes and decorate them, you need only study that and it's possible to earn your living by specializing; and of course there are examinations to pass, and then you've got qualifications. Qualifications today in any job are what references were in my day. You can't really get anywhere without them.
Not that I particularly wanted to get anywhere. I just wanted to find myself a husband and to get out of service. You didn't have to have a reference for that.
I think if I had been to a technical college and qualified I wouldn't have gone into service. I'd have gone into a hotel, as a vegetable cook to start with, and then worked my way up to being an assistant chef. I know you don't often hear of women chefs. Men have done their best to keep us out and they've succeeded, largely by bad language, temperamental behaviour (rudeness) and heavy drinking, if what I hear is true; but the quality of their work leaves much to be desired, and they seem to have lost the capacity for taking pains which women still have. So I can see another bastion of masculine superiority falling to us soon.
As I have said, my ambition in life was to find myself a husband and, as a result of the slaughter in the First World War, they weren't easy to come by. I knew the cliché that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, but first I had to find the man, and having found one, I wasn't given the opportunity of catering for his stomach. Coffee and cake in the kitchen for a tradesman was all I dared chance, but even if I'd been able to offer him whatthey were getting upstairs, I don't think it would have made the slightest difference because the working-class man's stomach couldn't appreciate that kind of food.
Today there are more opportunities for seduction through feeding. Opportunity to travel has titillated men's appetites. So if you have marital ambitions as I had, you're on to a good thing. There again, marriage and family need not be the end of your career. You can advertise yourself as willing to go out and cook dinners at night. There are a number of people who love to give dinner parties but don't want the chore of doing the cooking. They want to play the hostess and they don't want to be dashing in and out of the kitchen. There's good money in this, and I think it's an ideal way of adding to the family income.
I've told you something about the way I learned to cook. It was a hard way but it wasn't a bad way. Still, it is one that nobody today has to endure because the facilities now for learning to cook are such that no one now getting married has an excuse for saying, 'I don't know how to boil an egg.' I believe that the ability to cook is as important as the roof over your head, the clothes you wear and the entertainments that you expect.
I would say that money spent on food, if you're prepared to take the trouble to choose and cook it well, is never money wasted. If your purse doesn't allow you to buy the expensive food, then find out how to cook the cheaper, because, with a little know-how, a little money can go a very long way.
Copyright © 1970 by Margaret Powell and Leigh Crutchley.