Chapter 2: A Victorian House in the Thirties

Kitchen range. Photo taken at Hereford Museum ...

Kitchen range. Photo taken at Hereford Museum and Art Gallery, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In spite of the shortage of money and the period, we had a rich and varied diet. This was managed by my mother without the aid of a refrigerator.  Food was stored in what we called “The safe”.  This was sited under the stairs off the passage from the front to the back of the house.  The door had two window frames at the top half which were covered by fly-wire.  It was a pretty hopeless place to store food and this was mainly overcome by shopping daily and eating that food on the same day.  Cooking was done on a gas stove in the scullery. Our dining room was called the Kitchen because when the house was built in the early 1880s, there was a Kitchener in the room.  The Kitchener consisted of a small enclosed firebox with an oven to its left and with hot-plates on top.  All the cooking would have been done on, and in, this device.

All food preparation would have had to be done on the dining table.  The room was the kitchen of the house. A contemporary advertisement described the Kitchener as: –

“the most ready means of performing in the best manner, either separately or at the same time, all the operations of cooking with only one fire, and that an open one, which may be of any size to suit the kitchen of the smallest cottage, or the largest mansion or hotel…. its arrangement is so simple, in every department of the culinary process, that servants cannot easily disorder or mismanage it.”

How quaint. Sometime during the early twentieth century, a gas stove would have been installed in the scullery.  It was here that joints of meat were roasted and any remaining meat on the bone would have been stored.

On one occasion, this produced a disastrous result when my mother forgot that there was still some meat in the oven.  When the tray was pulled out, it was found that flies had discovered it as well and their squirming offspring were devouring the meat. It was quite common for people to buy a large joint of meat.

In our family it was often an aitchbone of beef.  This comes from the top of the rump and was good for roasting.  We would have our fill of roast beef which would then leave enough for cold meat or minced meat with which to make a shepherd’s pie.

Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd’s Pie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a recipe:


450 grams of peeled potatoes, 450 grams of cooked and minced meat, usually beef, 75 grams butter, one onion finely chopped, 275 ml. stock, seasoning, 25 grams of cornflour and 150 ml of milk.

Cut the potatoes into four and boil them until tender drain and set aside.

Fry the onion and mix it with the minced meat.  Season the meat and add some stock to moisten the meat. Place the meat into a baking tray, spread it out to make an even thickness.  Set aside while a skin forms on the meat.

Mash the potatoes with the butter and enough milk to produce a creamy texture.

Spread the potato mash on top of the meat.  Do this carefully so as to avoid the meat mixing with the potato. Make the layer of potato about five centimetres deep. Make indentations into the potato with a fork, place some butter on top of the potato and bake in the oven (180 degrees Celsius) for thirty minutes until the potato has browned.

The gas oven in the Scullery now made it the effective kitchen. All my mother had, on which to prepare food, was a table 3 foot long and eighteen inches wide, plus a Butler sink, with cold running water.

My mother would never have claimed to be a great cook, but she would have been as good as most of her contemporaries.  She must have taken great satisfaction in seeing an array of empty plates after each meal. She provided us with meals with only salt and pepper to spice up the food, usually after it was cooked. There would have been nutmeg in the house, but that was for puddings.

Green vegetables were boiled to a pulp, probably with no goodness left in them and little taste.  We ate it all the same.  It is not surprising because recipes of my mother’s youth said that cabbage should be boiled for forty-five minutes.  This, of course, destroyed any trace of vitamin C.  On top of that, cooks were advised to add Bicarbonate of Soda to preserve the colour and it was only the boiling for forty-five minutes that removed the colour in the first place. In 1906, here is what was said about boiled cabbage:

“Wash the cabbage well in cold water, trim off any faded leaves and cut a cross in the stalk, soak them a few minutes in salt and water to draw out any insects, then drain well and place them in a saucepan full of water and containing a tiny piece of soda and a little salt; boil quickly, with the lid off the saucepan, till quite tender, then drain thoroughly, place on a strainer on a hot dish, and cut into squares.  A young cabbage will take about twenty minutes to boil, a large winter one or a Savoy, from half to three quarters of an hour”.

While learning her basic cooking sometime before her marriage in 1906, she would have read an instruction such as the following:

Roasting or Baking Meat

1.     See that there is a large, clear, hot fire before preparing the meat.

2.     Wipe the meat with a damp cloth, but do not wash it, as the water would draw out some of the goodness.  In hot weather, if the meat is not quite fresh, it may be washed in vinegar and water, and then carefully wiped.

3.     If there is a great deal of fat, as in saddle of mutton, or sirloin of beef, some of it should be removed.  It can then be clarified, and used for frying, or for plain pastry and cakes.

English: Sunday pork roast dinner served with ...

English: Sunday pork roast dinner served with roast potato, parsnip and carrot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4.     For beef and mutton allow 15 minutes to each pound of meat and 15 minutes over.  For pork, veal and lamb allow 20 minutes to the pound and 20 minutes over.  For larger solid pieces of meat allow five extra minutes for each pound, and five minutes extra cover.

5.     Place the joint close to the fire, or in a very hot oven, for five minutes to close the porers of the meat and keep in the goodness.  At the end of that time the meat should be drawn further from the fire, or the heat of the oven lowered slightly, so that the meat may cook through without burning.  For the last ten minutes the meat should be placed close to the fire, or in a very hot part of the oven, so that it may get brown and crisp.  When baked in the oven, a double baking tin should always be used, and some water placed in the outer tin, to keep the dripping from burning, and to make the heat of the oven slightly moist.  The meat should be raised above the dripping, by being placed on the grid, or it will become sodden underneath.

6.     The joint must be frequently basted with its own dripping.  With lean joints, it is necessary to place some dripping in the pan before  the meat begins to cook.

7.     If the joint is roasted, the jack must be kept wound up, so that the joint cooks all over; and if baked, it must be turned to that both sides are browned.

8.     When the meat is cooked, lift it on to a hot dish, pour off the dripping from the dripping-pan, keeping back as many of the brown particles as possible, and add water or stock, made without the vegetables;  place the pan over the fire and boil well, scraping the pan all the time, ass a little salt and a very little pepper, and strain round the meat.  The quantity of stock or water depends on the number of persons – about one point for eight people. N.B – Gravy should never be poured over the meat, it would make is sodden.

So, they were still cooking on a spit over open fires in 1906, as well as making an easy job as difficult as possible.

Next Chapter: Chapter 3: Mother’s Cooking

© Terence Gallacher 2014.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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