Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

365 Days Draw to a Close…

December 1, 2010

Although it’s been a little while since I’ve posted (finishing up a job in Germany, moving to Canada, setting up a new business, etc. have kept me rather busy), Mrs Beeton and Household Management are very often in my mind.

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Over the last year, as I’ve tried a multitude of her wonderful (and not so wonderful) recipes and tips, I’ve drawn quite a few conclusions about Victorian England and the art of running a household in general.  Here are a just a few of them:

1. That English food is ‘rubbish’ or ‘sub-standard’ (as many people I’ve spoken to seem to unhesitatingly think, even if they’ve never tried it) is a fallacy.  English cooking often gets bad press, as far as its image goes.  But reputation in this case has very little to do with reality.  Perhaps there was a time when it wasn’t as inspirational or interesting as it could have been (I suspect the 1970s, but I could be wrong), but the lingering perception amongst the general public is really quite unfair when compared to reality.

2. That England has lousy cooks.  Again, I don’t know where this general idea comes from, and nor do people I’ve spoken to when pressed to back up their claim with an example.  If television is anything to go by (in the 21st century alone, think Rick Stein, Keith Floyd, Nigella Lawson, Anthony Worral-Thompson, Delia Smith, Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre-White, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Gary Rhodes, etc. etc. etc.), then the great English cook is alive and lustily kicking.

3. That running a household is something easy and effortless – ‘just a woman’s job’.  If my other half was fond of joking about this a year ago, he certainly isn’t now. What’s more, for those women and men who choose to make housekeeping / home-making a full-time job (and even for those who do it in addition to raising kids and working outside the home), I say ‘bravo’.

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As I finish my year of running my household with the reassuring guidance of Mrs Beeton, I feel I’ve come away from this adventure with a richer kitchen repertoire, a broader range of household tactics, and a whole lot more self-respect for my roles as Head of Finance, Head of Cooking, Head of Cleaning and Head of Procurement.

Thank you, Isabella Beeton.  It’s been an absolute pleasure.

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Mrs Beeton and the Art of Early Rising

June 4, 2010

Waking early has always given me an inexplicable sense of calm and order.

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Ever since I can remember, I’ve always awoken at the first glinting hint of dawn, if not before.  In the past, I generally stayed up until nearly midnight, quite happily surviving on 6 hours of sleep or a little less.  I can’t say I always fly out of bed trilling and tango-ing gleefully (especially in the shivery chills of winter), but it always feels somewhat, oddly right to arise while the world still slumbers.

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These days, I’m still an absurdly early riser (even when our three cats don’t mew wake me at 4.40am, like they did this morning, begging to be fed.  I was away on a solo cycling holiday for 4 days until yesterday, leaving my boyfriend in charge of their two ‘wet’ meals a day.  But, as he’s a guy who snores louder than an erupting volcano and can – indeed, has proven that he can, will and must – sleep through hailstorms, cat fights, being poked, jabbed and hollered at, as well as frenzied vacuuming, the poor little dears had to wait until at least 8am to be fed.  No doubt they’d have hot-lined the RSPCA if they could).

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4.40am, thankfully, is not the usual time I’m up.  My alarm is generally set for 5.45am (6.30am on Sundays), although I more often than not awaken a few minutes before the alarm pings me out of bed and causes my boyfriend to grunt and roll over in his sleep.

Unfortunately, as much as I’d love to, I don’t seem to last the distance in the evenings as long as I used to (I don’t think it has anything to do with age, I’m only 33!).  With a full-time ‘official’ job, and a full-time job at home (I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that cleaning, cooking, taking care of family / pets /household etc. is more than a full-time job, leaving precious little time for hobbies or other forms of relaxation.  And I don’t even have children yet!).

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I’ve also recently noticed that a glass or two of wine after dinner is enough to have me crawling desperately into bed, with barely enough time left to clean the kitchen, tidy up the living room, put away the cats’ bowls, fold the dry laundry, set up for the morning, pre-prepare the coffee maker, put out my clothes for the morning and other assorted pre-bed activities).

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And yet, I don’t think I really mind.  Too much. Who was it that said ‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’?  Everything I do is my own, instinctive choice.  My boyfriend is usually stunned and peskily delighted (“Ha!  I actually got up before her!”) when I very, very infrequently stay in bed a bit longer.

Interestingly, here’s what Mrs Beeton had to say about early rising – especially for the ‘mistress’ (or hausfrau, homemaker, housekeeper, housewife, serving wench, domestic slave or whatever else we like or tend to call ourselves!)

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EARLY RISING IS ONE OF THE MOST ESSENTIAL QUALITIES which enter into good Household Management, as it is not only the parent of health, but of innumerable other advantages. Indeed, when a mistress is an early riser, it is almost certain that her house will be orderly and well-managed. On the contrary, if she remain in bed till a late hour, then the domestics, who, as we have before observed, invariably partake somewhat of their mistress’s character, will surely become sluggards. To self-indulgence all are more or less disposed, and it is not to be expected that servants are freer from this fault than the heads of houses.

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Aside from the comment about sluggardly domestics, her advice still rings true today.  At least, I feel it does for me.  There’s not enough time in the day for everything as it is.  Even in the 21st century, early rising seems – to me – essential for some sense of order in the household, no matter the size.  Not to my boyfriend, however, who is at this very moment snoring lightly, wrapped cosily in both his own blanket and mine, too.

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On balance I think, even if I had the choice to stay in bed later, I probably wouldn’t.  For, to quote Mrs Beeton (quoting ‘The great Lord Chatham’):  “I would have inscribed on the curtains of your bed, and the walls of your chamber, ‘If you do not rise early, you can make progress in nothing.’”

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Mrs Beeton’s Advice for the Mistress of the House: http://www.mrsbeeton.com/01-chapter1.html#3

A Simple Use for Cold Potatoes

March 27, 2010

Following a horrifyingly high electricity / gas ‘corrected’ bill from our provider (who, it seems, heartily took the recently harsh winter into account when re-calculating people’s ‘average’ electricity consumption, and used this as the basis of the revised fixed monthly payment – meaning that we got a 110% increase to our monthly estimate), I’m on an energy-saving mission.

Off goes the 6-8 hour a day PC use in our household.  Out goes cooking every day.  Out goes the heating switch, unless vital.  Showers are being shortened.  Appliances are being unplugged unless in use.  Our cats are becoming readily-available sources of warmth (they seem rather startled but pleased at the sudden increase of permitted lap sittage).  My boyfriend’s face is getting longer and longer as I come up with more energy saving ideas.  I’m beginning to feel rather Victorian already.

In keeping with this new approach to energy efficiency, I managed to have 5 different dishes going simultaneously in the oven last night.  And I even used the residual heat once the oven was switched off to dry some old bread for use as breadcrumbs.

To use up some cold potatoes, I, rather conveniently, found a recipe for ‘How to use cold potatoes’ in Household Management.

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INGREDIENTS – The remains of cold potatoes; to every lb. allow 2 tablespoonfuls of flour, 2 ditto of minced onions, 1 oz. of butter, milk.

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It’s a quick and simple recipe.  Simply mash the potatoes, add the other ingredients, and pop the mix into some small pie moulds and slide them in the oven.  In 25 minutes, little potato pies are ready for consumption.

”Bit bland, isn’t it though?” commented my ever-so-slightly disappointed boyfriend as he reached for the salt.

True, I silently admitted.  Although the recipe doesn’t call for it, a dash of salt and pepper in the mix before baking it is highly recommended, to make it more appealing.

But, as far as economy and simplicity go, this recipe is absolutely perfect.

Now, where are those cats…?

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Cold Potato Recipe (Recipe 1141): http://www.mrsbeeton.com/25-chapter25.html#1141

Day 33: To Cook or Not to Cook

December 20, 2009

It’s now been a month since I started this Household Management challenge.

Looking back over the last 33 days, it’s already been an incredibly interesting journey.  I’ve tried quite a few things that I’d never have tried otherwise (Carrot Jam, Dampfnudeln).  Some things I won’t be trying again (Apple Soup, anyone?), but others will probably stick with me long after Mrs Beeton in 365 Days is over.  My household accounts are already in far better shape, for one.

But the thing is, when I first started this experiment I thought the focus would be much more ‘’householdy’’.  Instead, a lot of this challenge has so far revolved around the kitchen.  In a way, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is really just a cookery book, with the kitchen as the star, the diva, the prima donna.  The chapters that provide advice to members of the household – the supporting cast, if you will – act as the backdrop against which the kitchen can properly function.

Part of the problem in applying Victorian advice to the 21st century, is that a lot of it just isn’t that relevant anymore.  At least, not in ordinary, non-toff households.  No one I know has a Butler, Footman, Housekeeper, Cook, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry Maid, Cook, etc. (sometimes I wish I did!).

My boyfriend and I hired a weekly cleaner several months ago, which was possibly the biggest thrill I’ve felt since discovering Bretzeln (freshly baked pretzels).   But I felt so awkward about having a stranger in the house, and not knowing the proper employer-cleaner etiquette, that we let her go within a couple of months.

The core of Household Management – the beautiful, bountiful recipe sections – remains absolutely relevant today.  Even if the world were to be taken over by robots and aliens tomorrow, cooking – and the kitchen – will always play a central role in daily life.  A world without it wouldn’t be a world worth living in.

In the meantime, as it’s still apple season here in Germany, I lugged home 4 kilos from the market yesterday.  I spent the entire day in the kitchen, with Household Management by my side.  Most of the day was spent making preserves, including Apple Sauce.  I also made another quantity of her delicious custard, which I liberally doused over some Apple Crumble for dessert this evening.

Perhaps I’m making too hasty a judgment about Household Management’s wider value outside the kitchen (after all, it’s fairly long and I have several hundred pages yet to get through).

332 more days will tell!

Apple Sauce: http://www.mrsbeeton.com/10-chapter10.html (Recipe 363)

The Meaning of Charity

December 2, 2009

Charity and benevolence,” writes Isabella Beeton, ”are duties which a mistress owes to herself as well as to her fellow-creatures; and there is scarcely any income so small, but something may be spared to it…  It is to be always remembered, however, that it is the spirit of charity which imparts to the gift a value far beyond its actual amount, and is by far its better part.”

The problem is, I’m not really sure what ‘charity’ means.  Well, in a literal sense I do (‘to help others less fortunate than yourself’).  But the word has a slightly superficial, do-gooding ring to it.  It makes a definable goodie-goodie virtue of something that should be an essential part of human nature, not something unique to and worth pointing about about the pro-actively good amongst us.

I don’t think of myself as an ‘uncharitable’ person.  But when I think back to what I’ve actually done (not just thought about doing) to help others in a meaningful sense over the past year, all that springs to mind are some random acts of kindness and a regular handing-over of change to street beggars. (In the past I used to think 50c was OK – I’d pass 3-4 beggars per day and thought this, plus the occasional food package, was more than enough.  ”Insulting and inconsequential”, my boyfriend said.  So now I make it €1, but still feel guilty about it not being enough.  What’s too little or too much? Is there such a thing?)

When I lived in Ukraine (I left in September 2008), I did a lot more and felt really good about it.  I think often about the food, money and medicine that my friend and I gave to a lame, very ancient widow who could only survive by begging in a central Kyiv metro station every day.  Then struggling home in the overwhelming summer heats or bitter knock-you-on-your-feet snowy blizzards of winter.

The monetary amount wasn’t especially huge in western terms, but to her it was enough for several months’ rent, food and clothing.  Temporary security, but an indescribable relief from waking at 5am and begging all day, with no bathroom breaks or food to fuel the awful 10-hours on her barely-clad feet.

At the time I was in a miserable situation – freshly escaped from the tail-end of an unsatisfyingly loveless relationship that I’d tried so hard to make work, and rather lost in such a foreign (in every sense) country with a job I didn’t particularly respect or like.  It seemed easier to see the misery of others when I was also miserable.  Helping them out of their misery became my way of being less miserable myself.

It shouldn’t be like that.

I’m determined to do more – sincerely more – to help others in any way I’m able to.  Life’s too short and there is a heck of a lot of need out there, in small ways and big.

More to the point, I’m going to stop talking and start doing.  I recently met a guy who, on a deeply-felt impulse to make a difference, jumped on a plane and headed to Rwanda. He’s now overseeing the building of a school and is the force behind numerous wonderful projects that are pulling his new community out of poverty and giving people a self-sufficiently better life.  I promised to take time to sponsor some children so they could go to school, something I haven’t yet had a chance to do (really, an embarrassment over not understanding all the German on the website, even after studying the language for so many years in school – albeit 14 years ago.  Ridiculous pride).

Tonight, I’m going to finally take care of this.

I’m determined that from now on, I must be more aware of and do more to help others.

I don’t need to be miserable to be a more-aware human being.

For anyone who would like to know more about the Rwandan project, the link is:  http://www.schule-ruanda.info/ (the site is in German)

Someone call me a carriage…

November 18, 2009

As Isabella Beeton so wisely put it, “As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house”.

I’ve had copies of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) over the years, as an off-shoot of my love of history and a lingering fascination with ‘’the way things were’’.

Then each copy just sits there waiting for an occasional flick-through, getting more action from the duster than from my fingers. Eventually I give it away, regret it, and buy a new copy with an enthusiastic ‘’This time, I’ll read her properly.’’ Ad finitum.

It’s hardly cool to admit it I know, but the idea of being a domestic goddess oddly appeals in a retro sort of way. I’d love to be one of those ‘has it all, does it all’ sort of women –family, home to run, job; whipping up sponge cakes and mending shirts while working full-time and finding time to do it all over a glass of wine. I almost have it all, but am I doing it all – and am I doing it effectively?

Hence the subtle attraction of Beeton’s self-help guide for the would-be-if-she-could hausfrau.

It’s not exactly come-hitheringly sized. It’s big. It’s not light. But it’s sitting there, and it’ll continue to sit there unless I follow through and actually ‘read her properly’. And do something with it.

Which leads me to this challenge.

Is it possible to try out all her advice? In the modern world, probably not (how many of us still have servants, rather than just feeling like one at times?). But I figure I can give most of it a go. A year is doable. My boyfriend says he’ll be supportive if I don’t expect him to whip up a syllabub and if I slip on a mini-apron occasionally.

Here’s how our modern household stands on Day 1:

Me: 32, ‘mostly’ vegetarian, love cooking and trying new things. I just bought a sewing machine but as the instructions are in technical German, I haven’t yet figured out how it’s supposed to work. I work full-time as a corporate English trainer.

Him: 38, ‘mostly’ carnivorous, lukewarm to cooking and trying new things, quite happy to spend the weekend surfing the net / killing zombies / insert any other PC-based activity here. Vegetables are a source of suspicion. Cleaning products are the enemy. Also a corporate English trainer.

Our home: 1-bedroom central apartment in the middle of a small cosmopolitan city in Germany. No kids yet. 3 cats. 1 man. Cleaning is necessary on a daily basis.

If her book is still on sale after nearly 150 years, and people still buy it, then is it really all that ‘outdated’?

I’ll soon find out. Hopefully while learning a lot (and having fun) along the way.

Here’s to the next 365 days!