Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Mrs Cooper Smith Kept a Good House...and more meals for a fiver

The linen sheets should be kept separate from the cotton sheets, the small bed from the large bed sheets, and so forth, and every article should be plainly marked with the name of the set of which is a member, and the date of purchase, thus: "A. E. Brown. 12. 1902." Taken from How to Keep House by Mrs C. S. Peel.

Mrs Cooper Smith knew this of course. She may even have had Mrs C. S. Peel's book as a wedding present from her mother. She was well trained, she was efficient, she kept a formal and somewhat wealthy household, she was a fine needlewoman and she was a member of the Leicester Protestant Debating Society. How do I know so much about Mrs Cooper Smith? I know this because I have just bought a substantial chunk of her linen cupboard. Wednesdays are always busy for me. On Tuesday I bid at a local auction and often come home with mixed lots - generally china, often silver plate, but sometimes, if I'm lucky, linen. I come home and unwrap my treasures and sort the wheat form the chaff. I clean and clean and clean again and then I put them on eBay and all of this unwrapping and cleaning  and photographing keeps the proverbial wolf from our door. This time, however, I hit the linen motherload. I bid on a box of linen and came home with reams of damask and lace, all neatly labelled with name and date, just as Mrs Peel advises. One of the reasons I love my business is that it fulfils my need to be an incorrigible nosey parker. I have this insight into the minutiae of people's lives just by looking at their stuff. And what strikes me most about their lives is the formality. Damask at every meal, different spoons for strawberries, a separate breakfast dish for bacon, heavily laced hand towels, silver (plate!) tea services and fine bone china. All of my stuff speaks of a time when home, for the middle classes at least, was sumptuous and ritualised - and that entertainment was home-based. My home, however, looks far from formal and sumptuous, in fact it looks a lot like Steptoe's yard and Widow Twanky's place of business. Oh, the glamour of the antiques trade.

Next up, a family meal for a fiver. Although I am sure that Mrs Cooper Smith would have approved of my thrift, she may not have approved of the fact that we ate our meal whilst watching Murray vs Ferrer.

This recipe stretches £3.50 worth of butcher's shin of beef with the generous help of yet more Co-op marked down mushrooms. See ingredients and method below.
Shin of beef 1 lb (£3.50)
Mushrooms (49p)
Shallots (pack cost 49p I used approx. 5p worth)
Carrots ( as above).
Celery (as above).
Thyme (growing in the garden).
Garlic (10p)
Sour Cream (£1.10)
Homemade bread (30p)
Total cost for a family of four (generous portions) £5.64
Method: chop, brown, add stock/wine/water, simmer for an age, add tub of cream. Eat while dreaming of Wimbledon glory for our very own Murray.

Now, I don't know how many of you got around to reading Zillah's blog on austerity bread. If not, here's an extract.
So although it might seem a little counter-intuitive to say that high-quality, artisan bread is austerity bread, I have found this to be the case.  When every penny of the food budget needs to be counted, every mouthful that money pays for must do its work.
Zillah is, of course, quite right. When you have a limited amount to spend on food, you mustn't waste in feeding the nippers nought but empty calories. And, to be honest with you, you'd be amazed at how many of our young people survive on cornflakes and coke. I still feel pretty desperate about some of the kids I used to teach - but that's another story. Anyway, my round about point is this. Homemade bread, artisan bread, is a lovely as Zillah says, it is one of life's great pleasures and you don't have to be rich to enjoy it. My beef stew would cost you a tenner each in a gastropub, a fool like me can whip up scones in minutes which are a lot lighter and tastier than the £1.80 for six Tesco variety, with a little time and skill you could have a linen cupboard to rival the Cooper Smiths of this world and when Murray wins Wimbledon you can celebrate by eating home grown strawberries...Life is good and rich and healthy and textured when you can bake and cook and sew and grow. Over the past decades we have lost our sense of practicality, confidence in doing things for ourselves, with our own two hands, and the understanding that life, truly is, what we make it. Idle consumption is a waste of time and money. I've come to the conclusion that I'm better off poor and truly rich.
Here endeth the lesson.
Anon, goode huswives.


Sue said...

'Life is good and rich and healthy and textured when you can bake and cook and sew and grow.' I'm going to print that out and frame it.

Left-Handed Housewife said...

Amen, sister! I like the phrase "healthy and textured" very much. I find the more we make and do, the happier we are.

Keep preaching it.


Lucy said...

so glad that you're blogging again!

Pom Pom said...

I so enjoyed this post. You've given me a new crave for vintage linens.

Zillah said...

I inherited a tall-boy drawer full of my grandmother's (and great-grandmothers') linens. Many are beautiful, and make me think of the women who made the amazing lace and embroidery. Many are mysterious, in shapes you cannot imagine how they would be useful! My main problem is what to do with them. My taste in linen is very plain, and these are very ornamented indeed. Ideas gratefully received!

Glad you liked austerity bread.

Like sunshine in the home said...

Ah heavy bed linen. I would love to own. It's the ironing that's the killer. Is there a trick to ironing heavy cotton sheets? All mine are 'easy iron' poly-cotton mix and are just not the same as cotton bedding.