Monday, 25 June 2012

Why Menu Making Matters

Regular readers will know that I'm a keen collector of antique and vintage cook books and homemaking manuals. Many of the books I have date from the first part of the twentieth century and are part and parcel of an urban homemaking revival which was a result of both the cultural devastation of the first world war, a servant shortage for the middle classes and perhaps two generations of lost knowledge. I could expand on each of these points ad nauseum, but yet again I'm pressed for time and I wouldn't want to bore you, however there a subtle and important differences between the homemaking manuals of the 1880s and the homemaking manuals of the 1920s and 1930s and these give the enthusiast real insight into the way in which these two generations of women ran their home. And, perhaps more importantly, the expectations they had of their home lives.

For one thing, this was a time in which many people lived in modern homes for the first time. Many middling or average sort of people now had electric light, gas ovens, indoor bathrooms. It would have been unthinkable in the 1880s for a clerk or a foreman at a factory, or a capenter to live in such a way - there was more disposable income (in the 1920s at least) but, more importantly, a sense that homes needed to be fit for heros, their children needed light and clean houses, gardens and so on. There was a real sense that the state of the homes of Britain directly refleted the moral, physical and spiritual health of their occupants. Making these homes was seen as important work and part and parcel of rebuilding the country after the devastation of war. Many manuals, women's magazines and even the Good Housekeeping Institute sprung up at this time. The manuals and magazines were affordable and practical and their aim was to show women the way forward - that way forward was a professional and intelligent attitude to many aspects of homemaking.

There were two key aspects to any homemaking manual dating from the 1920s to the mid 1950s. The first was money management, the second was menu planning and cooking and these are effectively two sides of the same coin. If you look at the second scan, you'll see that the breakdown of income into family budget has a significant amount given to food - sometimes as much as a third of a family's income was spent on food. This is why every homemaking manual, whether it was aimed firmly at the middling sort (Elizabeth Craig) or at more middle class homemakers (Beeton), would include detailed seasonal menu plans - some of which would be graded in terms of cost. This is also why many old manuals have whole chapters dedicated to using left overs - and those of you who read the domestic novels coming out of Persephone at the moment will recognise the "rissole" and "cold mutton" as the kind of warmed over meal the man of the house always complained about. Left overs were a matter of nutritional and financial necessity to the majority of families because "Waste Not Want Not" was not a puritanical motto but a fact of life. Food was expensive and few families could afford to eat what they wanted and when they wanted it. Therefore set meal times and set meals were a ritual which not just brought the family togetherness that we modern folk often wax nostalgic about, but were also a financial necessity. Fussy eaters were deplored for a reason, all of the family ate the same thing at the same time. Eat your crusts, they'll make your hair curl.

Why do I think we can learn from these old manuals? Well, if you're under the financial cosh at the moment, and let's face it, if you're a homemaker a life of frugality is what you've signed up for, then surely it is important to squeeze every bit of value out of family meal times. Planning your meals, taking into account what you have in your cupboard, seeing what's cheap and seasonal, making sure everyone gets their fair share of veg, protein and carbs should be one of the most important jobs of the week. We live in a country where many of our youngsters are both obese and malnourished and where many (including plenty that I've just finished teaching) had nothing but their free school meal and a bowl of cereal to eat in any given day - school holidays means rumbling tummies. As a homemaker, and one whose income relies heavily on a seasonal home business, I want to see how truly old fashioned menu making can save me money. So over the next few weeks I'm going to share my menus with you and cost them out for you. Basically, as a test to see if I do the same as my 1920s counterpart, to see how much money I can save and to share any knowledge I have with any younger struggling mums out there. Now, I know that most of my readers are my age or older, and I bet that plenty of you have great money saving tips, recipes and so on. I often feel that if I'm finding things hard, then how must a young mother in her twenties be feeling. If you fancy sharing any knowledge on menu making or frugal cooking you have, I can link to posts or direct any reader to the comments on my blog.

My hunch is that detailed menu making is a way in which we can learn from the past to ensure a better future for our families and ourselves. Now, let's see how I get on!

Until anon!


Jenny said...

can't wait to see your menus old girl.

Pom Pom said...

Thank you for a thought provoking post. I've always made menus. I achieve more success at shopping when I have a good menu.
Making a home IS the most noble task. I like your blog.