Tuesday, 30 December 2014

12 October 1901 - 'The White House Class' by Lina Orman Cooper - Chapter 1

Another educational serial story, in which a saintly invalid teaches three girls the finer points of middle-class cookery.

There was great excitement at Merton House.  The master and mistress were going out to dine.  This in itself was no extraordinary thing.  But as it was a vice-regal dinner-party to which they had been bidden, this particular feast excited much interest.  First of all, the dress proper for such an occasion had to be thought of; feathers and lapels arranged according to the Chamberlain’s order; ancient buckles fished out of a grandmother’s chest; diamonds burnished up and fresh flowers begged, borrowed or stolen.

It was early when Mrs Merton set forth in the festive chariot, it was late when she returned.  It was very late when she showed her face next morning, for the dinner had been heavy and her sleep deep in consequence.

Now, I should not have mentioned this dinner-party save that it determined Mrs Merton to give all her growing-up daughters a course of cookery lectures.  It came about in this way.  Mrs Merton went, as usual, to a certain little white house ro7und the corner to tell a certain invalid, there resident, of how the grand dinner-party had gone off.  It had not been a success in one way: though a cook had been hired for the occasion at one hundred pounds for the week, the dinner was sadly lacking in many points.  The lemon sponge had been lemon rock, the ice pudding full of lumps, the soup cold, the entree uneatable.

“It has determined me, dear Miss Benson,” concluded Mrs Merton, as she finished the recital of all the deficits as well as the pleasures of the last night’s entertainment, “to have Linda and Lucilla and Eva taught the rudiments of cookery at all events.  If Lady Canforth had known anything about it, she would never have allowed her guests to go hungry away from the table.”

“Probably not,” answered little Miss Benson calmly.  “Such a thing as housewifely training amongst the ‘upper suckles’ as Jeames Yellow Plush called them, is almost unknown.”

“And it is almost as sealed an art in our middle-class circles as well,” moaned the mother of five.  “It ought to be one of the courses in our elementary schools.  Isn't it Mr Ruskin who writes, ‘The education of girls should begin in learning how to cook’.”

“Yes,” answered Miss Benson.  “And he says even more than this.  He considers a knowledge of cookery to imply a pretty extensive acquaintance with most other things.  Give me my commonplace book, dear, and I will look it up.”

Mrs Merton brought the thick strongly-bound volume to her old friend, for, alas, Miss Benson was tied to her couch with an incurable disease.  From that couch, however, radiated more light and wisdom than from most of the scholastic centres in our midst.  Mrs Merton, at least relied almost more entirely on the old lady’s sound sanctified common-sense than on anything else in this world.  So near the veil of futurity lived Miss Benson that she seemed to have drunk in a sibylline spirit, and to have a stock of good advice on almost every subject.  The quotation she was looking for was quickly found.  She bade Mrs Merton read it aloud.

“A knowledge of cookery means the knowledge of all herbs, and fruits, and balms, and spices, and of all that is healing and sweet in fields and groves, and savoury in meats; it means carefulness, and inventiveness, and watchfulness, and willingness and readiness of appliance; it means the economy of your great-grandmothers and the science of modern chemists; it means much tasting and no wasting; it means English thoroughness and French art, and Arabian hospitality; and as you are to see imperatively that everybody has something pretty to put on so you are to see yet more imperatively that everybody has something nice to eat.”

Mrs Merton was silent for a while.  This extract had altogether raised the subject into a higher realm than that of an ordinary kitchen.  Then she broke on.

“If cooking is indeed all that Mr Ruskin claims it to be, however are we foolish enough to leave it to the ignorant women called ‘plain cooks’?”

“I think, my dear, we do not leave it as much as we used to do.  Kensington has done much towards making it into a fine art.  It trains its students on a sound principle; it supplies reasons for each act of the culinary calling.  For instance it tells its students why potatoes are peeled thinly and why turnips are peeled thickly; it gives rules about the proper course of events in a kitchen – why onions should be shred before potatoes are cut if we wish to eliminate their particular flavour from a knife; it teaches economical habits, it insists on cleanliness.”

“I had thought I might teach the girls myself,” said Mrs Merton hopelessly, “but you and Mr Ruskin show me how little I know myself after all.”

“You know enough to teach your young fry,” answered Miss Benson firmly.  “All the same, I think you had better not do so.  The fact is, one of the chief moral lessons taught by learning how to cook is self-reliance.  It is far better that too much help should not be given at the commencement.  For this reason I, who seem a useless log lying on this sofa –“ Mrs Merton made a gesture of denial, “- am a far more competent teacher than an active mother could ever be.  Lucilla and Linda will have to cultivate their powers of memory because I cannot get off my chair to fetch forgotten ingredients fo them.”

Miss Benson looked quite pleased at the prospect of her cooking lectures, and Mrs Merton gave in gratefully.  A somewhat lengthy conversation followed the compact.  In it Miss Benson spoke of the observation required by cooking, of the self-control cultivated by preparation of dainties which might never be tasted save in the preliminary stages, of the accuracy indispensable, of the alertness acquired even by the most lethargic young persons when a few minutes may turn a light sponge into a piece of lead, of the deftness and delicacy of touch so valuable; lastly, but by no means leastly, of the habits of tidiness and cleanliness engendered by the culinary art when properly understood.  Mrs Merton went away from the White House thinking more of the moral than the economical side of the classes to be given to her young fry.  She felt that Miss Benson would raise the subject even higher than Mr Ruskin had done, that her three daughters would understand more forcibly by means of her instruction than by any other the sacredness of food and our responsibility in connection to it.

His wife enlarged on all these points to Mr Merton when he came home from the City that night.  Manlike he thought more of the physical than of the spiritual side of the question. 

“Why, my dear, I shall be able to retire from business years sooner than I had contemplated, for Lucilla and Linda and our little Eva will require about half the dot I had thought would be necessary for them!  Any man will jump at the chance of such virtuous and educated wives.  They have each a certificate for swimming, haven’t they?”  Mrs Merton nodded.  “Well, if any suitors come, I had intended to meet them armed with that fine piece of parchment.  ‘Here,’ I would say, ‘is a wife who will help you out of deep water whenever you get into it.  Is not she a valuable person?’  But if Miss Benson teaches my girls all she intends, I shall wave a far more important document in my right hand.  ‘Here,’ I shall say, ‘is the hallmark on Lucilla and Linda, and the rest of them which shows that any of them are capable of keeping you out of deep water’.”

Mrs Merton smiled.  Her husband would have his joke, as she knew.  But there was truth in what he said, nevertheless, for by teaching the girls cooking her old friend was giving them a good dowry of commonsense and usefulness. 

Not many days after this a small group were gathered in Miss Benson’s kitchen.  It was a “lovely” one, if loveliness consists of perfect adaptability to a purpose; it was long and rather low, with thick rafters intersecting its ceiling.  Originally a barn-like excrescence from the house, these rafters could not be hidden, but were found useful for hanging up flitches of bacon and the home-cured hams Miss Benson delighted in.  The windows were two; in one of them was placed a solid square table, in the other a small couch on which lay the mistress of the house.  Behind it on a writing table – Miss Benson supplied her housemaidens with many luxuries not usually given to servants, and had cheerful willing service rendered in consequence – rested a cookery-book, a ledger and pencils.  Ranged on the walls were cover-dishes and jam-pans in silver and copper and block-tin.  Roses peeped into the two windows, and God’s sunshine permeated the room, lighting up its comfortable corners and allowing no place for dust or debris of any sort.  A tile patterned linoleum was on the floor, pretty prints bound with red braid, and therefore easily replaceable when an annual turn-out called for spotless prints, a bookcase full of intelligent readable volumes, a bright steel range and a glowing fire.  These were some of the object lessons which surrounded three demure apron-clad figures on the morning of Miss Benson’s opening lecture.  What was taught thereby I will tell in our next paper.

No comments:

Post a Comment