Luckily for me, both sides of my family had habits of frugality, which included saving stuff and reusing it or keeping it in case one day it might come in handy. Some folks might call it hoarding, but I value the presence of old handed-down objects, even if no longer used, which are signifiers of a time when people were more in touch with where their food came from.
My small collection of inherited kitchenalia reminds me of how self-sufficient my grandparents’ generation was compared to many urbanites these days who heavily depend on highly processed foods and pre-packaged meals to an extent that my grandparents might have regarded as a form of learned helplessness. In the prevailing Western culture that pursues eternal youth, it can appear that in some respects we have forgotten how to be functioning adults.
An incredibly heavy cast iron household scale that was inherited from my South African grandmother
Our relationship with technology and the commercialisation of just about everything is reflected in the development of the modern kitchen and in the food we eat. Although there are many places in the world where households rely on a central open hearth or an outdoor fireplace as a principal living and cooking space, the development of the kitchen as a space dedicated to efficiency, hygiene and convenience reflects a less connected relationship with what we eat and how we store and prepare our food.
The advent over time (and relatively recently) of chimneys, closed stoves, the use of coal, gas and electricity and the introduction of piped water have all played a role in altering the domestic spaces where we store and cook what we eat. (Wikipedia provides an interesting overview of the history and development of kitchens.)
That all our food originates from nature – in the form of plants and (for many people) animals – is so obvious that it is often overlooked. In an era of fast food, takeouts and instant meals, the previously ordinary skills enabling ordinary people to take unprocessed natural ingredients and turn them into food can seem like a curiosity or can be viewed with nostalgia, or else such abilities are revitalised into cult-like hobbies or transformed into high art by celebrity chefs in an era where we even have reality-TV cooking contests.
Tipped on its side to provide a backdrop to three old egg cups from my childhood, is my South African grandmother’s Yellowwood rack for storing eggs. Eggs were stored in the pantry, predating the appearance of the electric refrigerator as an everyday kitchen appliance. Before fridges, cooling of selected foods might be done in an ice chest. My father recalled blocks of ice cut to size being delivered on a regular basis in the Pretoria neighbourhood where he grew up between the two World Wars
Not only is food essential for life and for sustaining ourselves and nurturing our families, but it is also a social and cultural signifier. The kitchen items that I inherited remind me of a time when preparing (and often growing) food for storage and subsequent cooking were everyday procedures entailing a high level of skills that were regarded as unremarkable. These kitchen items provide tangible links to ordinary household practices from a generation or two ago.
We make use of several old traditional glass storage jars in our grocery store cupboard. Not easy to find, the newer ones tend to have inferior rubber gaskets and wire clamps in comparison to the sturdy old ones. For some of these photos, I covered a shelf in newspaper with simple cut-outs as was popular in kitchen pantries when I was a child
A bean slicer that belonged to my English grandmother. My grandparents had a most productive vegetable garden that together with their Bramley apple trees kept the family pretty well fed during the years of World War II. My grandfather continued to maintain a small vegetable garden that he kept going well into his 80s. The runner beans that he grew, my gran sliced, salted and bottled so that they had a steady supply of green beans throughout the winter. She never even thought of buying frozen veg even when it became readily available. Also in the photo is part of a scale that belonged to her parents. I can’t remember seeing her use it
Mentioning Bramley apples reminds me of the amazing traditional apple pies my gran used to make every week, apparently as easily as if making an instant packet dessert, using home-grown apples and homemade flaky pastry made from scratch. My gran never measured ingredients, not even for cakes, so I struggled to learn from her how to bake on the basis of “a handful of this and then add just enough of that”. When I knew her she used bought butter, but when she was growing up, her family made butter from farm milk.
Butter pats, a rolling pin and a traditional bowl that belonged to my English grandmother. On the rare occasion when I need one, I still use this rolling pin
In the decades of the mid-20th century, in many urban areas including in the privileged parts of South Africa, milk was delivered in glass bottles to the door. Harking back to when milk was distributed from milk churns or perhaps so that empty bottles could be returned to the dairy for re-use, kitchen milk jugs were used to store milk and fancier jugs to serve milk at the table.
This milk jug was used by my South African grandmother to store milk in the refrigerator. It used to have a white ceramic disc as a lid. I was never sure if the lid was improvised or was made specifically to cover the jug
Two of my favourite jugs, suitable for use at the breakfast table, which my mother passed on to me
A Cadbury stoneware jug perhaps intended to promote drinking hot cocoa. My English grandparents would routinely have cocoa or milky instant coffee just before bedtime, but I don’t remember them ever using this jug
This pot suitable for tea or coffee was made at Watcombe Pottery, Torquay, England. It was likely bought by my grandparents on one of their regular holidays to Devon and Cornwell and also likely that it was purely decorative rather than used. The little homily on one side of the pot reads:
Walk on Hope on
Self help is noble schooling
You do your best and leave the rest
To God Almighty’s calling
While taking these photos, I was assisted by two of our cats who were interested by the new set up and investigated many of the pieces photographed here. Fortunately no breakages resulted from their inspections.
This is Nougat. Historically of course, cats were kept around homesteads to catch rodents that were after foodstuffs stored in barns and kitchens
Although many domestic skills were passed down from elders and practiced from a young age when children participated more in household tasks, with urbanisation, the advent of the nuclear family and the emergence of dedicated kitchen spaces, food and its preparation became increasingly commercialized and best practices were overtly endorsed in line with conventions related to gender roles, social class and even moral virtue. I have inherited books that reflect such a convergence where advice given was not simply practical but was highly normative.
Two of my inherited books that include much advice related to food are pictured here. Enquire Within Upon Everything is a veritable hardcopy “Google” equivalent. The book provides no publication date, but I guess this edition is likely to be from the early 1930s. Some of its advice is so surprising I might share some such gems in a future post
These advertisements for cookery books appear adjacent to the back flyleaf at the end of Enquire Within Upon Everything. I think they reflect quite well something of the flavour of the times. The first is “for the housewife who has to carry out her domestic duties in a house with but one maid” and the second carries recipes with two versions to “suit two different kinds of purses” as the author “aims at helping the servantless by teaching economy in time and materials”
Also from Enquire Within Upon Everything, I was incredulous the first time I read this recipe (inexpertly cut and pasted above). Essentially, to make Marbled Goose one takes a pickled ox tongue, proceed to boil it then slit it and fill it with spices and 12 Spanish olives pounded together. The stuffed tongue then gets stuffed into “a barn-door fowl” (deboned), which is then wrapped in slices of ham and in turn stuffed inside a goose (also deboned), and it is all sewn up and taped in a “natural shape” before being baked for 2 ½ hours in clarified butter in an earthen pan or jar. After a bit more work, the goose and its contents can be re-immersed in melted butter and stored in the jar, which is tied down “with bladder and leather” and can be kept “for a long time”
This large stoneware bean pot was given to me by my mother. She had inherited it from her mother and as far as I know it came in turn from her mother’s mother. I don’t remember seeing it being used but it was a treasured family item. Bean pots were used for slow baking beans, such as haricot beans, but I imagine it could also have been used for baking marbled goose such as in the recipe above
I have tried using this old jelly mould for sweet jellies, but even when rinsing it in cold water prior to using, the jelly gets thoroughly stuck once it has set and I try to unmould it!
I really like the simplicity of a glass lemon squeezer. It would have been especially useful when squeezing a quantity of lemons such as when making lemonade. This one belonged to my South African grandmother. The old-fashioned rough-skinned lemon was grown in our garden
This old Mazawattee Tea tin was kept by my aunt to store old papers and bits and pieces. This decorative tin does not feature the famous image of a grandmother and child drinking tea that appeared on many of the tins and advertisements for this British tea company. Mazawattee tea ceased being produced during World War II, but the brand name was revived in 2017
I am not sure that this pot would have been regularly used to make tea or if rather it was a display item, although there are traces of tea stains inside. The potters mark underneath identifies it as made by John Maddock and the design is “Rustic”. I have never used it to make tea nor do I recall anyone else using it, and I generously describe it as being quaint rather than charming
And to end, this robust and beautiful basket was used by my mother-in-law as her vegetable shopping basket. We still use it occasionally when we need to take food items when visiting friends, but we no longer use it when we visit the local farmer’s market as after decades of use it has become quite frail
Laudan, Rachel, review of The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850, [by Sara Pennell] (review no. 2180) Reviews in History. https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/2180
Old favourite Mazawattee Tea enjoys rebirth. 2018. Beverage Business World. https://beveragebusinessworld.com/latest-news/old-favourite-mazawattee-tea-enjoys-rebirth-11-09-2018/
Wikipedia. 2018. Kitchen. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitchen
Posted by Carol