Tuesday, 20 January 2015

4 January 1902 - 'The White House Class' by Lina Orman Cooper - Chapter 4

A Victorian curry. Look, I don't condone everything here, I just transcribe it, all right?

Having had two “sweet mornings”, or rather two mornings devoted to sweet things, Miss Benson thought a lesson in savoury cooking would not come amiss.  Mr Merton, in fact, had gone out of his way in order to call at the White House and ask Miss Benson to teach his daughters how to cook a curry.

“Having been in India so long,” he explained, “I am devoted to curry.  No, my liver is not out of order, Miss Benson, but my life is incomplete without that spicy and toothsome mixture on my table occasionally.  It is true, my wife gives me a yellowy, pallid compound, which she calls curry!  But it is nothing like unto the crisp, browny, golden mixture I used to get in Bengal.”

“Well, I think I can give your daughters instruction on that point,” answered Miss Benson, smiling.  “I myself learned from a shivering Bengalese in London many years ago.  He came to my mother’s house one bitter wintry day clad in his national costume.  No, not in a neat postage stamp and a necklace, Mr Merton, but swathed in snow-white muslin.  The poor fellow was such an object of compassion, that my people took him in, until they could communicate with the proper officials interested in such stray Orientals.  In gratitude, Mooza taught my sister and me how to make his national dish.  I never eat a curry now in any house but my own.  For what professes to be such is but a feeble imitation. 

Mr Merton was full of thanks.

“And don’t forget the rice,” he whispered, as he took his way down the white steps.  “For goodness’ sake, Miss Benson, don’t forget the rice!”

So on the fourth morning, the round spice-box, full of every kind of dry pod and bean which can be used, stood on the kitchen dresser when the three young maidens arrived for their weekly instruction. 

“Condiments, my dear girls,” began Miss Benson, in her most pedagogic manner, “are rather adjuncts to food than foods themselves.  In fact they may be said to be medicines more than foods.  Yet they are extremely valuable in rendering food more palatable, stimulating a jaded appetite, supplying a necessary substance, and assisting in the preservation of food.  Your father was here yesterday, and though he did not pl illness, or complain of a jaded appetite, he did ask me to teach you all how to make him a savoury curry such as his soul loves.  Lucilla, Linda and Eva, you are this day to make a curry succulent enough to melt in the mouth, hot enough to tickle the palate, soft enough to be eaten with a spoon, and crisp enough not to be a hash!”

Miss Benson was evidently in good form this morning.  Lucilla kissed the white brow which was so often wrinkled with pain, and looked lovingly at the thin cheeks.

“Yes,” replied Miss Benson to the unspoke sympathy, “I am feeling better than usual.  So you girls will have to look extra spry if you want to please me.  I am all anxiety to turn out a first class curry.”

On the table the girls saw some raw beef cut up into dice, some cooked vegetables left from last night’s dinner, a bottle of powder, and onions.

“First and foremost, Linda, those onions must be cut into rings.  I have some compassion on your eyes, dears, so I asked cook to peel them for you.  That is right, Linda, I want a good pile.  Now, Eva, melt in a stew pan a lump of good dripping or butter; when it boils, and it only does this when all bubbling has ceased, pour in your rings and let them fry.  You may let them, indeed, look quite a dark colour and feel quite crisp before you remove them from the fire.  Linda, if you peel a couple of potatoes with the knife you have used in slicing the onions, all unpleasant odour will be eradicated.  Now, Lucilla, dredge over the meat and vegetables with flour out of its dredger.  Don’t be satisfied with a sprinkling, but see that every part is well covered with a white veil.  Eva, whilst the onions are frying, mix a tablespoonful of curry-powder with a breakfastcupful of milk.  It I had been able to get butter-milk or thick sour cream it would be even better.  Mix thoroughly and take out every lump with the back of a spoon.  Pour it into the pan.  When it boils up, Linda, must put the meat in.  There, that will do, but as we have had to use sweet milk, Lucilla, please squeeze a lemon over the meat, and see that the sauce covers it completely.  That is the foundation of all curries; but we must add much more if we want really a good one.  I see an apple on the dresser, slice that in, and are not those green gooseberries in that basket?  Top and tail a handful, little Eva, they can go in too.  Is there anything else?  Yes, that bottle of chutney is nearly empty and its contents too dry to use.  Pop it in – the chutney, not the bottle, I mean.  Now give it one or two ‘rakes’ with a folk, Lucilla, and if it’s bubbling draw it away from the open ring and leave it to cook at the side of the range.  The lid is well down, isn’t it, Linda?  Doesn’t fit properly?  Oh, then we had better dispense with it altogether!  Our object will be to keep in all the steam which may arise; so put a plate over the compound, Lucilla, it will act splendidly.”

“But when will the curry be ready, Miss Benson?  It is scarcely cooking at all at the side of the range.”

“It will not be ready till eight o’clock dinner,” explained Miss Benson, “by that time every ingredient will be undistinguishable.  It will be a golden brown mass of soft stuff, most toothsome and most appetising.  Never be in a hurry with curry.  It is always better after twelve hours’ cooking.”

“Do you always make your curries of fresh meat, Miss Benson?” quoth  Lucilla the prudent.  “Mother says she uses up all the cold meat and scraps in one.”

“Your mother is quite right, Lucilla, as she always is.  For I hope your motto is the same as I had when a girl – ‘What mother says is so – Is so, even if it isn’t so.’  Curies may be made of any scraps at hand.  It’s in the mixing and the cooking that success hangs; but, of course, a curry made of fresh meat or fowl is better than one made of dry, cold mutton or any reheated stuff.  As I wanted your father to have a really good one, I have been extravagant enough today to use fresh butcher’s beef.”

“Now for the rice!” exclaimed Lucilla.  “That is a more fearsome mystery than the curry even.”

“It is less seldom met with properly cooked,” answered the old lady.  “Let us try our ‘prentice hands anyway.”

So, according to directions, a quarter of a pound of Patna rice was well washed in clean cold water, every disfiguring dark grain being ruthlessly picked out.  It was then put  into a large saucepan of madly boiling water.

“A large saucepan is a sine qua non for cooking rice,” explained Miss Benson.  “There must be room for each separate grain to whirl about in the water.  If you put rice into a little water, it will absorb it, and become a glutinous pulpy mass.  If there be sufficient water that is impossible.  Keep it boiling quickly for fifteen minutes; at the end of that time try a grain between finger and thumb; if there still be a ‘bone’ in it, give another minute’s boiling.  Then strain quickly, pour cold water through it, and after covering the rice with a dry clean cloth, put the sieve and it into an oven, and serve when every grain is distinct.”

“Is there much difference between the different kinds of rice we see in the grocer?” queried Linda, who was particularly fond of the delicious little grain.

“There is a great difference in price and some difference in appearance, Linda,” answered Miss Benson; “but there is not much difference in their nutritive qualities.  The large-grained Patna rice at threepence a pound is quite indispensable for cooking with curries.  It is so white and firm; but the smaller grains at twopence a pound do well enough for milk puddings, etc.  The cheaper kinds, and there are cheaper, must be I think the sweeping of grocers’ shops, and to be avoided.  It is wonderful how we are able to get rice at even threepence a pound, which is the top price in the market, when one thinks that it is an entirely tropical or sub-tropical production, and the long way it has to travel to reach us.  We ought never to grudge the price.  Rice requires much moisture and germinates best in marshy surroundings.  For this reason the paddy fields of India and the cultivated portions of the Nile banks grow the finest kinds.  There is not much nutriment in rice myself, though from the earliest records it has formed the staple food of the great masses of population in both India and China.  One has only to read of the way in which Death mows down his millions in those countries whenever an epidemic breaks out, to see how little stamina the people possess.  It is the additions we make to it that makes rice wholesome.  In India it is the ‘ghee’ or rancid butter, they mix with their daily dole, which sustains life.  In this country the milk and sugar we usually cook it with is what makes it valuable.”

“Can anything be done with this plain-water boiled rice when there is any over?” queried economical Lucilla, looking at the pile of snowy grain left on the sieve after being boiled.

“One nice way of eating it is to add cold milk and aw sugar to it and eat it thus.  As a child I delighted in this mixture, and every other child I have ever given it to does the same; but, as a rule, rice is not worth heating up twice.  You can soon tell how much you  need to cook.  Usually far too much is put into saucepan or pudding.  Amateurs forget how much rice swells, one teaspoonful to half a pint of milk is quite sufficient for the milk-rice so much used.  Skim milk will make this, if you replace the abstracted cream with a bit of finely-chopped suet.  This suet is better than butter in giving a thin yellowy-brown skin to the baked pudding.  It never tastes as strongly as does cooking butter, and it is more wholesome to weakly digestions.  You know suet boiled in milk is largely given to consumptives as a fattening, sustaining, heat-giving food.”

The curry prepared that morning at the White House appeared at the dinner table of Mr Merton that same night.  It was of a dark-brown complexion, and encircled with a high wall of dainty grains of white rice.  N.B. – This was freshly boiled, the trio of cooks having demolished the first-made pile with sugar and milk before they left Miss Benson’s kitchen.  In addition to the curry was a small glass pot of hastily-made chutney.  I append the recipe for the same. 

A handful of sultana raisins well cleaned and finely chopped, a few small chillies treated in the same way, a handful of fresh green mint chopped and pounded, and a fistful of raw brown sugar.  All these ingredients pounded together in a mortar and moistened with a few drops of tarragon vinegar.

“The very nicest chutney I ever tasted,” decided Mr Merton, the connoisseur, as he helped himself for a third time.  “More power to your elbows, girls, and may your shadows never grow less!”

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