Archive for the ‘homemaking’ Category

Why my Mum doesn’t cook…

January 22, 2017

It has always been a puzzle to me, how much my lovely, intelligent, adaptable & creative mother hates cooking… but I’m beginning to understand now. The other day, she casually mentioned that until she married my father, back in the immediate post-war years and aged just 21, she had never cooked or prepared a meal in her life. On the first morning of their married life, she woke up in a blind panic because she had no idea what to do about breakfast – not a clue. She had never even fried an egg.

I was somewhat amazed at this revelation; she grew up in a multi-generational household, as her mother died soon after she was born and her father was away on the North-West frontier most of the time, and re-married before too long. So she was raised mostly by her grandmother, who had grand ambitions for her; her grandfather was Chief Engineer at the local paper mill, and her aunt and uncle both had good clerical jobs, so by the standards of the time, they were solid middle-class citizens. Old photographs show a lovely dimpled child who was clearly everyone’s pet, and she went on to grammar school, where she excelled at music in particular. But sadly she failed the Matriculation, by just one point (in art, of all things) so dreams of university had to be shelved. She spent some time pursuing her musical talents, but by that time she had met my father, curate at a local church, and was sternly told that she could either sing OR marry. Luckily for us, she chose to marry…

But no-one ever taught her how to cook. It may well have been that my great-grandmother was living a little in the past, and thought that cooking should be something that cooks did. It’s certainly true that for most of my mother’s teenage years, rationing made ingredients hard to come by, and even harder to stretch, and as they lived in a town, they didn’t have access to the large & productive rural garden that my other set of grandparents had, or the time to work it; running a paper mill in wartime was a dawn-to-dusk, and sometimes beyond, commitment. My great-grandmother pooled the family’s rations to keep them all fed, but discouraged any “help” that might lead to wastage. Thus she failed to pass on the basic skills that would have kept my mother afloat when she suddenly had to feed two people, and sometimes entertain, too, on strict rations and a pretty low income.

However, she persevered; she tells tales of surreptitiously buying recipe magazines, despite not even knowing what half the ingredients were. And plunging into despair when the recipes started with sentences like, “First bone and roll the joint” or “Rub in the lard” – rub it into what, exactly? Your hands? The chopping board? How do you “bone” a joint? The bone doesn’t just pop out… To someone raised to be a blue-stocking, 1940s cookery books might as well have been written in a foreign language; they assumed a level of basic knowledge that she just didn’t have.

But then, rationing dwindled away; my parents spent some years abroad, and along came the “new” cooks – Elizabeth David, Prue Leith, Josceline Dimbleby and the like, who explained things much more clearly, with pictures, and cookery started to become more than just trying to get the most out of very basic ingredients. But just as everyone else was discovering that food could be fun, and “exotic” ingredients and recipes were becoming easily available, my father died, leaving her with just £11 in the bank, living in “tied” accommodation which she had to vacate very swiftly, and with two young children still at home. She found a job, and kept a roof over our heads, but buying & cooking food were just chores she could have done without at the end of every tiring day…

She has always done her best, in every way, and we are all immensely proud of her and grateful to her. But our childhood wouldn’t have been the same without the cries of, “But it doesn’t look like that in Delia!” or “No-one said you had to turn the oven on!” I’m glad that now she’s 90, she has the option of buying good, nutritious meals ready-made, to just heat up. But I’m also sad for her, that something should be a fundamental and creative skill became such a panic-inducing chore. And I think there’s a lesson to be learned; never assume that your kids just won’t need basic skills. Things like knowing how & what to buy and cook can turn a boring necessity into an interesting challenge; knowing to knit, crochet, sew or do basic maintenance on your car can save you lots of money as well as being very satisfying and even creative, and knowing how to swim, or tie an appropriate knot, or what or what NOT to pick in the wild, can save your life.

Life may not turn out the way you’ve planned in every detail, for you or for your loved ones…

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Wild-gathered comfrey fritters… surprisingly delicious and more-ish!

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Blow me down with a feather…

December 12, 2014

… as they used to say! It’s a looooong story, but for a long time I’ve been saving up for, and agitating for, a stove for the fireplace in the living room. We have lived for long enough with a small 1980s brick-arch fireplace, which wasn’t a terrible eyesore, but really didn’t quite gel with the room. It was a very small opening into quite a large chimney, so created a horrendously cold through-draft, and made a scary loud booming noise whenever the wind outside got up a bit. The energetic draft meant that fires “took” very easily & the flames shot off up the chimney, warming the atmosphere nicely & setting fire to the chimney pot more than once, but doing almost nothing for those of us shivering in the room below. It usually burnt out very quickly, thus necessitating frequent trips to buy wood in winter, even though our garden produces quite a lot.

So a stove seemed like a sensible investment. However it was not a straightforward installation, as the flue bends around a small, now bricked-in, fireplace in the room above, so the liner couldn’t be dropped straight down. And the opening had to be enlarged to something like its original dimensions, or maybe just a bit bigger, as I wanted to be able to pop a kettle and/or casserole dish on the top in case of power cuts, or even just to utilise “free” heat.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, it’s installed now. Mysteriously the room looks a whole lot bigger, and is quite a bit warmer even when it’s not lit, as the vicious draft has just died away now the chimney isn’t “open” all the time. But the first thing that happened was that our ex-feral feline friend took such a shine to the stove that she actually singed her tail, wanting to sit so close to it. A fire-guard or screen was called for…

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There seems to be some impediment…

 

We had a little folding-screen fireguard for the brick-arch open fire. It wasn’t big enough or stable enough to discourage a heat-seeking feline missile from getting into the new enlarged opening. So I started to research fireguards & fire screens… oh dear! However have I lived this long without a bejewelled fireguard?! You could spend an absolute fortune and some of them are utterly gorgeous. I really, really fell for a candle-holding gothic triptych, which would have done the winter job perfectly well & looked stunning with the candles lit in summer too…sadly, it just wasn’t quite wide enough. And nothing was quite the right height, or the right shape, or the right colour.

So I did what I always do in these tricky situations; I went down to the Tip and peered into the Metal skip. And there, bang on cue, were not one, but two candle screens… A bit of fishing with a long, strong hook and they were straight into my car ready for further duties. One, a brass one, is lovely but far too narrow, but the other, in black curly wire, was just about exactly the right height & width, and still had all its little glass candle holders intact, even after being thrown into the skip! They are both wall-hung panels, rather than fire screens, but it hasn’t been too hard to wire two of the folding panels from the old fireguard onto the sides so that it stand unsupported, fills the opening & is quite stable & pretty sturdy too. The brass one has gone for sale on my stall at Molly’s Den and should more than cover the price I paid for both of them.

Talk about serendipity; there’s something almost cosmic about the timing. I decide I really, really want a candle-screen, and lo & behold! A candle-screen that’s almost perfect for the job turns up, that very day. It’d be rude not to use it, wouldn’t it?

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Safety in spiral form…

 

More treasure – with an interesting twist.

June 15, 2014
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Warne’s Model Cookery and Housekeeping Book

The autoharp wasn’t the only treasure to come my way yesterday. This elderly cookery book, from 1895, also found its way into my bag. I rather like old cookery books, as much for the social history aspects as for the actual recipes: “The footman is required to make himself generally useful, though, of course, the number of men kept will diminish or increase his work…” I was surprised to find that it, too, is probably worth much more than I paid for it, but I’m not going to part with it until I’ve “mined” it for useful recipes, if ever! There are sections on preserving, pickling, cheesemaking and winemaking as well as everyday cookery, and although I will happily use modern aids and methods, old-fashioned methods have their place in my armoury too. Especially when the modern ones don’t actually work.

Whilst the pages are mostly in good condition and the cover is pretty clean & bright for its age, apart from a few fingermarks, the spine is very worn and only attached by a sliver at the back. And I was intrigued and entertained to find proof that our ancestors didn’t waste anything much:

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Recycling 1895-style!

The adverts are as much fun as the recipes:

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Fancy cooking on one of those?

But some of them would cause hilarity rather than improving sales, in this day & age…

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I hope Her (previous) Majesty enjoyed…

Off now to find out what some of the more arcane ingredients are in modern parlance, always supposing they are available – or indeed legal – today! Saleratus, anyone? Lambstones? Puff paste…?

It’s beginning to feel a lot like – a frugal Christmas!

December 18, 2013

Once again that certain date is racing up towards us and the bank account is groaning under the strain of buying for a big family. We don’t go over  the top with presents or food, and never have done, but the sheer quantities involved mean there will always be a distinct bulge in the budget at the end of December. And I’ve been sad to read people panicking online this week that they can’t afford to give their loved ones a “real” Christmas, which they seem to imagine looks like the one you see on the adverts, with lots of plastic toys, plastic decorations, plastic-looking food & a plastic-looking family. So a few ideas to cut the cost (and the plastic – horrible stuff!) whilst retaining the joy and good cheer might be timely.

The catering itself isn’t very much different to an average Sunday dinner round here; a few more faces, a few more trimmings and a few more hours with the cooker blasting away, perhaps, but plenty of willing hands to help, too. Good solid food & plenty of it, followed by treats like nuts and a well-chosen cheese board, but no dubious “gourmet” delights that no-one will actually eat, only stuff that can be eaten cold with salad, made into leftover dishes or frozen for later reference. I rarely have to do much shopping after Christmas until well into January, apart from fresh fruit, bread & dairy stuff.

But the setting does need a bit of adjusting, we can’t fit 11 round the kitchen table… however, we can run two market tables end-to-end down our conservatory and use the folding wooden chairs we use for doing the markets. This year’s festive board will be dressed in 5½ yards of pure vintage silk – an elderly & slightly damaged sari, before you panic that I’m about to ruin something priceless – and I’m really rather proud of my planned centrepiece. I came across a handful of mismatched tall crystal glasses at the Tip yesterday, and some old floral decorations; I can just see the glasses lined up down the centre of the table, with tea-lights glowing & twinkling inside, and pale silvery, slightly glittery hellebores laced around the bottom of the stems. Something like the picture below, in fact, but with sparklier glasses & less OTT greenery, when it’s all cleaned up.The china will be my parents’ old China Tree set, I found a set of 12 matching glasses at the Tip recently, and I don’t suppose anyone will even notice if the cutlery doesn’t match; hopefully they’ll be too busy eating, chattering & laughing.

We’ll be using our “fake” tree, acquired at vast expense – part of £1, if I remember correctly – at the Tip some years ago, in about May. It’s a perfectly nice one, even if it doesn’t smell like a real one; then again, it doesn’t make me come out in a rash like a real one does. I’m not quite sure why people find it necessary to buy a new fake tree in the latest “fashionable” colours every year; seems somewhat wasteful to me, but I know they do. And I’m not really happy with the idea of real trees being sacrificed for such trivial reasons, even if they’d never have been grown otherwise, and I’m certainly not happy to pay £35-40 for one. Decorations will be much-loved old favourites, home-made or foraged from the garden & the riverbank; the hallway is always adorned with big star sequins dangling on cotton pinned to the ceiling, which sway & glitter in the breeze whenever anyone walks down there. They cost 50p for a large tub, many years ago; I’d meant to use them for card making, but never did. In amongst them is the odd bigger star, bought for pennies in sales after previous Christmasses, never before. I’m afraid I buy my cards that way too, from charity shops; it’d be nice to give them the full price, but I know they still make a small profit on them half-price & I get to feed my family too!

We’ll be making paper chains for the living room. It’s a small space and big brash tinselly things are far too dominating; chains made from wallpaper samples or free printables from the Web are just right. There’ll also be a garland of evergreens over the fireplace; branches & ivy from the garden & riverbank woven into a tube of old chickenwire & decorated with fir cones, cinnamon sticks and berries from the berberis and cotoneaster bushes. We’re lucky enough to have a female holly tree too so springs of holly will be poked behind all our pictures & mirrors. If I’m organised enough, we may even have home-made crackers; I can do a LOT better for cracker surprises with the cash that one box of bought crackers would cost, never mind two. Paper hats are easy, but sadly the home-made jokes will probably be even worse than usual. I might try decorating the tree with broken bits of junk jewellery this year; single dangly ear-rings & broken glittery & pearly necklaces I have a-plenty & I’ve always thought that might look rather nice. I’ll report back, maybe with a picture. Or not…

For many years we’ve had a strict upper limit on what we can spend on each other in the wider family, and we all stick to it. It’s just plain sensible; Christmas presents are meant to be a token, not to beggar us all. And some of us have agreed not to exchange anything at all now; it doesn’t mean we don’t love & respect each other, but that we all have enough stuff & don’t need or want any more. If money must be spent, let it go to a good cause like Oxfam Unwrapped or Sightsavers, not to buy more stuff to further clutter my home with. Unless, of course, it’s a timeless vintage treasure you simply know I’ll love…

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I’m sitting here, toasty warm…

January 18, 2013

…snow on the ground, sky thick with nasty needly little flakes that are more like hail. The heating’s on in the background but not blasting away; the conservatory’s wrapped in bubblewrap and the curtains & quilted blinds have stayed shut in the rooms that aren’t in use today. And I’ve been out and about with my camera, in my wonderful secondhand felted-wool coat (best bargain ever! If not exactly cheap…) my long-deceased great-aunt’s sheepskin gloves, my sturdy secondhand North Face boots, my 20p-at-a-jumble-sale handknitted wool jumper in shades of red & pink, and an assortment of other unlikely garments. I probably look like a small round ball of random vintage textiles but I’m warm, dry & happy!

Our local market was open for business this morning; many of the traders had travelled for miles to get here but sadly most of their customers hadn’t bothered, so I scooped up some excellent bargains. Stallholders pay for their stalls in advance, and run the risk of losing advantageous pitches if they don’t turn up; customers don’t run such immediate risks but may find their favourite stallholders have gone away or even gone under if they don’t support their efforts whenever possible. However, it really isn’t a day for driving if you don’t have to; luckily it’s an easy walk for me and my (reclaimed) shopping trolley, given sturdy weatherproof boots. And I do have the space to preserve & store my bargains.

We have enough supplies stashed away to coast through several weeks if necessary, but many people aren’t able to store much food, or even proper clothing for bad weather. A few years back, when I was working in sheltered housing, I was blowing my top about elderly tenants trotting off to the shops in the snow & ice in woefully inadequate clothing – high-heeled boots, thin tights, plastic raincoats, no hats or gloves – when one of them stopped me in my tracks by enquiring, “Where would we keep clothing for weather we hardly ever get? And where could we store extra food so we didn’t have to go out?” It was all too true; their “flats” were glorified bedsits with an alcove for a bedroom, a tiny living room and a kitchenette so small you had to choose between a proper cooker (as opposed to a microwave) or a storage cupboard. Adequate, perhaps, if you  lived a very active & social lifestyle so you didn’t need any room for, say, a sewing machine, or books, or could afford to spend all your winters on the Spanish Costas, as indeed many had envisaged when they moved into them 20 years before, as soon as their kids had flown the nest. Home was just somewhere to sleep, TV would take care of all your entertainment needs if you couldn’t get out, and there was always Meals on Wheels…

I do love the Tiny Houses that you see online, and many of them have roots that go back a long way, to a far more self-reliant & mobile lifestyle; the gypsy caravans, shepherd’s huts & narrowboats, the converted buses & railway carriages. You can make a home and a life almost anywhere, and a good one, without a lot of space, if you’re happy not to put down roots. And it’s very easy to accumulate far too much stuff; stuff that acts as an anchor, so that you can never spread your sails to the winds of Fate without being swamped. But equally, it’s possible to throw the baby out with the bathwater and not have enough space to store the things you really do need, even if you don’t need them all the time. I know I err on the side of having too much (which I’m constantly battling against) and that occasionally, in extreme cases of hoarding, this can prove fatal. But that’s not as likely as crashing your car  as you rush to the supermarket in the snow because you have nothing in to feed the kids, or slipping & breaking a hip on the ice because Meals on Wheels couldn’t get through, and you have no sensible footwear because you have nowhere to keep it…

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