How to light a fire, a brief foray into social justice and the manufacture of matches, cooking methods and the question of ethical vegetarianism.
A love of cookery, or rather, of cooking, is born in all children. From their earliest years they will make sand or mud pies, turn puddings out of buckets on the shore, or make feasts in winkles and cockle shells. Who does not remember the toffee of childhood boiled only on snowy days and as hard as the nether millstone? Who does not recall the tallow, crimson drops evolved by application of a sugary lump to a smoking candle? Who does not recall the delight of snow pancakes and even of those wonderful flat loaves made from courtcards? Who does not love doughy pigs with currant eyes, or pastry mice with tender tails?
Yet how few of the maidens who esteemed an hour in the kitchen as the greatest pleasure of all their pleasurable childhood carry out this love into intelligent interest and manipulation in other years? Miss Benson had not been in error when she said that the three young Mertons would look upon the classes as a grand bit of fun. They came in sparkling and dimpling and bursting with eagerness. For the first morning their instructress let them work their own sweet will, “Just to let them know their own ignorance,” as she said. When this was manifested by a pile of burnt pies and sodden cakes, she raised their spirits by telling them that she would see they made no mistakes in future.
“Listen to what I say and follow what I say, and you will be successful.” And successful they were in the end, though inaccuracy and carelessness and inattention spoiled many a dish even after they had set themselves to learn in real earnest.
As Miss Benson’s classes were no formal ones, so no formal sequence of proceedings marked them. Just as was convenient she taught them various things, so my readers must not wonder if the lessons hopped from pastry to turnips and from soups to sweets.
“The first thing a cook must learn is how to lay and light a fire,” said Miss Benson, as her small class came in the next day. “I have not allowed cook to do mine this morning so that you might have a chance. Coal, sticks, and paper are the articles wanted. Rake out every bit of dust and cinder. Your fire requires air to breathe just as much as your lungs do. Now put a few of the larger cinders at the bottom. On them place a handful of sticks. No, not in a bunch like that, Linda! Build them up as you would do bricks. You have in your hand a bundle of prepared kindling twigs. Each end has been dipped in resin, as you see, to make it catch easily. A bundle costs one halfpenny, and half a bundle should be sufficient to light up a big range fire quickly. If speed be not an object the bundle can be made to light three fires, and it should be expected to do so, when used in the parlour or bedroom. For one penny, therefore, you have sufficient kindling material for three fires. Remember this when you have servants of your own, my dears.”
“But when wood is so cheap, is there any need to be so particular?” inquired Lucilla, with her most grande-dame air. “It hardly seems worth while, does it?”
“My dear child,” said Miss Benson, you have evidently never mastered the first principles of economics! A wise man has said, ‘Political economy consists in spending a pound to save a penny. Household economy consists in spending a penny to save a pound’. This is true, and every penny saved is a penny gained. I will not bid you add up the amount to credit if you save just one farthing in firewood per diem! Such statistics are futile to most folk! But I will demonstrate truth in another way. The heap of firewood in that corner beside you cost sixpence. There are twelve bundles. Take a third from each bundle, and you will lose four bundles at once! That is, that you waste twopence out of every sixpence, or nearly seven shillings out of every pound!”
Lucilla looked convinced. It was all as clear as day when Miss Benson put it that way!
“Now use that wire shovel beside you for taking up each bit of cinder. Heap it on the wood, and intersperse it with lumps of round coal. Not large ones, Linda! Just the smallest in the bucket. There! Your fire is alight!”
“But you use expensive matches, I see, Miss Benson,” quoth Lucille, remembering the little lecture on saving she had just been given.
“Yes, my dear, for two reasons! One is that common Swedish matches at fourpence a dozen are apt to catch fire when not wanted. Only the other night a child came in to me with her hand badly scorched by a box of these cheap things exploding in it! Extracting one match is often sufficient to cause the whole box to ignite. The second reason is that most match-making is a most fatal trade. By improper sanitary precautions the match-makers of England suffer from a most terrible and fatal disease called ‘Phosphorous jaw’. Manufacturers know that unless certain precautions are taken this dreadful disease is sure to attack those who engage in it. If these precautions are taken, it makes match-making a more expensive process than if they are given out to be made at home. For this reason I always use the matches made by the Salvation Army. These are made under healthy and safe conditions. And I believe Bryant and May are careful about their employees too, and their matches are very well made!”
“Then we should all use safety matches from unselfish as well as selfish motives,” remarked Lucilla. “I have only heard the cheap ones condemned because they are unsafe.”
“That is the reason usually given, because folks have not looked into the matter,” said Miss Benson earnestly. “But my reason is, as I have told you, because in safety matches, which are said to light only on the box, the head of the match contains no phosphorus as do those of ordinary make. They are tipped with a mixture of chlorate of potash and sulphide of antimony. These are comparatively harmless chemicals.”
Linda, whilst the talk had been going on, had the fire well laid and blazing. Miss Benson bid her carry away all refuse and, when the first blaze was a little over, she was directed to add more coal.
“As Mr Ruskin says a knowledge of cookery includes many other things, I must give you a little lecture about coal, I suppose,” sighed Miss Benson, for her class was eager to get “forrard”. “I wonder which of you girls can tell me to what kingdom it belongs.”
“As it is dug out of the ground, I suppose to the mineral,” quoth all three at once.
But the old lady shook her head.
“To the vegetable, my dears! Coal is of vegetable origin. It is, indeed, the remains of vast forests which grew in the carboniferous period! There is a long word for you, little Eva! Wherever coal is now found was once, ages and ages ago, vast swampy forests, in which grew gigantic trees. These forests subsided beneath the sea, and the accumulated vegetable matter was covered with a layer of sand. The wet vegetable matter underwent slow decomposition, and consequently became richer and richer in carbon. Our ordinary household contains, I believe, on an average about 88 per cent of carbon. That is why it fizzes in little jets and gives out such a cheery flame. Another form of true economy, Lucilla, is connected with coal. The cheapest is never the cheapest in the long run! Good, hard, clean coal is far less wasteful in use than cheap, soft stuff. It burns itself and does not leave behind clinkers and cinders and ash. I save the proverbial pound by spending the proverbial penny in this matter.”
The kind of fire necessary to our different processes of cooking were next dwelt upon. For roasting, Miss Benson said, a clear hot fire was called for. This could be secured by having the front surface built up of lumps and kept in place by a background of damp slack.
“In large kitchens,” she said, “the fireplaces are built very shallow. At King’s College, Cambridge, where the kitchens are almost as beautiful as the Chapel, long grates measuring only about three inches in depth are found. These give a large surface and very little background. Spits hang before these long gratings, and food is cooked in the most digestible way. In roasting, our object must be to seal up the juices of the meat in a kind of envelope. Hence we hang a joint as near the fire as we can. Intense heat freezes the surface, to use a Hibernianism. After a time the meat is drawn backwards and basting begins. This keeps the inside moist and helps to make the envelope crisp. The rule for roasting is, twenty minutes before the hottest part of a fire to begin with; then twenty minutes to each pound at a reasonable distance from the same.
“For baking we need much the same kind of fire, but it must be as fierce at the back as in front, otherwise our oven will not heat. This fire must be kept at the same heat all the time the oven is required. Regulation of it must take place by letting in air to the oven and letting out fair from it. Twenty minutes to each pound is again the rule for all meat cookery in an oven. Roasting and baking may be called the aristocratic branches of heating. The poor must be content with boiling and stewing – indeed so must the dyspeptics! No way is meat so digestible as when stewed. By stewing I mean extracting the juices and goodness of meat by slow boiling. French people seldom cook in any other way, and in stewing, inferior or, I would rather say, less expensive parts of a carcass can be used. Really inferior meat is never economical. Go to the best butcher in the town, is my advice. If you cannot afford to buy the best joints buy the cheaper ones. But by dealing with an honest well-to-do man you are sure of getting good value for money, and of getting even the less tasty part of meat of good quality. It is the duty of a cook to so present these inferior parts that they may be just as nourishing and toothsome as the superior ones. A good cook in this way is a most economical thing. I pity housewives who have to put up with a ‘slavey’ at six pound a year. She will waste more thorough ignorance than one realises. If you cannot have a good trained cook, girls, then do the cooking yourselves! So much depends on the kitchen in a modern household – health and spirits and brain and cheerfulness!”
Miss Benson had apparently forgotten the last branch of cookery. Lucilla reminded her she had said nothing about boiling.
“For boiling,” amended the old lady, “you need a gentle heat. For what is called boiling a joint is not boiling at all – or certainly not beyond the first two minutes. Here again our object must be to produce an envelope capable of resisting the action of hot water. This we obtain by plunging the leg or shoulder or chicken into a pot of madly bubbling water. Introduction of the said shoulder, etc., immediately stops boiling. But let the pot come up to a bubble again and you will have sealed the pores of the meat, and can depend on juices being retained until it is cut at table. All delicate-looking white-complexioned meat is produced by not attending to this rule. And then not only is the meat tasteless but its most nourishing properties have been left behind in the pot from which it was lifted. That contains the essence, as it were, extracted by the process of stewing.”
“Mother told me to ask you, Miss Benson, if New Zealand frozen meat is as nourishing as English-fed animals? It is so much cheaper, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” replied Miss Benson. “It may be prejudice but I must confess I prefer nice English mutton to any which has come over the sea. New Zealand lamb, however, and American beef are much in vogue now. It depends entirely on how long they are cooked whether they are as nourishing as English produce. In some ways I rejoice at the introduction of ice chambers and refrigerators. It has done away with much of the dreadful trade of shipping living animals for consumption in our little island. It makes one inclined to forswear all animal food to read of the torments inflicted on poor brutes during the passage, say, from Ireland to England, or from Normandy to us.”
“Do you, then, approve of vegetarianism?” queried Eva with wide-open eyes.
“Yes, in many ways,” answered Miss Benson. “But for ourselves I believe our cold climate calls for use of animal food in moderation. We eat far too much as a rule, little Eva. If milk and eggs could be procured as cheaply and easily as flesh, I think our artisan population might be largely benefited by using them more generously. I am sure our ‘upper suckles’ would benefit largely by knocking off half their daily meat allowance.”
By this time the hour was up. Miss Benson and her two pupils looked ruefully at the clock.
“We have done absolutely no cooking this morning,” urged the trio. “Can’t we go on for awhile?” But Miss Benson shook her head.
“I perceive these classes will be as diffuse as Mr Ruskin could wish!” she said. “But one hour is quite enough, my dears, both for teacher and for taught. Next week, I promise you, you shall do some real cooking. But you will have to light the fire first, remember.”