I am a member of the forum Gransnet (think Mumsnet + 25 years) and far and away the most popular post recently has been "What kitchen gadget could you not do without?" Everyone had one and was keen to post pictures of their favourite small paring knife or whatever. It got me musing, because my mum had been a cook and taught me basic English cooking so thoroughly that I still use many of her techniques, even though she'd be amazed at the Indian, Thai, Chinese and even Italian food made in my kitchen today.
So when Vintage Kitchenalia by Emma Kay (Amberley) arrived in the post, it brought back a few nice memories.
Everything in my mother's kitchen was made from scratch, a method I still tend to follow. Of course there was not much by way of ready-made food available in the 50s and 60s and a big supermarket shop was a concept way in the future. My mother shopped and cooked every day.
She bought lamb or beef from the butcher and put it through one of these:
So a shepherd's pie was made from freshly minced meat. She made her own pastry, though her hand was not considered as cool as my Auntie Maggie's - a cool hand being the secret of light pastry. But her Yorkshire puddings were legendary. Oh what would she think of my recourse to Jus-Rol and Aunt Bessie?
But, great cook though she was, she didn't make her own bread, at least not that I can remember. I expect she did when she was "in service" (She gave up work when she married, which was common in my parents' social class in 1932, the year of their wedding.) That's something that the many owners of bread-makers now do, even if they buy other processed food.
Another thing that is incontrovertibly better is domestic coffee-brewing. In my first family's home, the abominations of Camp and Bev liquid "coffee" were the norm, except on Saturdays when coffee was "perked" on the stove.
You put the ground coffee in the metal basket, water in the pot, lowered the basket into the pot and put the whole caboodle on to the gas flame on top of the cooker. The water boiled all up through the basket and fell down again through the ground coffee. You could watch it doing this through the glass knob at the top. At the beginning it smelled delicious but they left it on the gas far too long and the wonderful aroma deteriorated into something burnt and unpleasant.
Nevertheless, when we married, we asked for and got a Russell Hobbs electric percolator. And when it died after eighteen months, out of guarantee, like suckers we bought another one, which did the same. Years of experimenting with the different ways of making coffee followed in search of the perfect cup.
And after many experiments with drip methods, espresso machines, "Moka" stove top models and electric, we settled decades ago on the simple cafetière:
Emma Kay is more focussed on tea but an earlier book by Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork (Particular Books 2012), devotes the last section of her book to the other popular hot beverage, beginning, "Coffee technology has become perplexing."
One thing is sure: what you display and use in your kitchen - which might be two different things - say a lot about you as an individual, your class, education, travel and commitment to such things as organic food, minimising of packaging etc. etc. It has become a cliché that people with expensive gadget-filled kitchens and shelves of glossy recipe books, often do know more than pop a frozen pizza in the microwave before pouring a glass of supermarket wine and settling down to watch yet another glamorous TV Chef or a competitive programme about baking.
Was it ever thus?
Emma Kay has chapters on storage, preparation, cookware, moulds, utensils and serving, which are all fascinating subjects in their own right. (Who now owns a mould or makes blancmange, jelly or "shape"?).
And a truly riveting list of 1929 of the equipment for a kitchen in a "household of about six persons." This was about the time my mum was a cook and I wonder if she had a tin pudding mould, a "netted mop," a cinder sifter and a knife-cleaning machine.
And what would such a list contain nearly 90 years later?
What strikes one most on reading Vintage Kitchenalia, is what hard work it all was. The section on "Dairy," for example, tells us about cream, cheese and butter-making tools and even talks about making your own ice-cream.
Of course the invention of refrigeration revolutionised storage and cooking of food. I remember own first fridge entering the kitchen. Before that, food sat in our larder, in a meat-safe or a china cheese wedge. And I remember in the 70s going to the house of a old schoolfriend who had a freezer and thinking "this will never catch on."
Now I revel in my American-style fridge freezer, have an old Bosch in the garage and even another small freezer there. But I still crave a larder like my mothers, with cool marble shelves lined with jars of jam, marmalade, chutney and pickled onions, all home made. (I do make the preserves but they live in the garage too).
I particularly enjoy Emma Kay's chapter on utensils. I do have a wire whisk, but for egg whites and cream, do prefer this:
And although I have a food processor, I still use a pestle and mortar for spices:
But can YOU recognise these? Answers in the comments below.
And do you know why John Betjeman put fish knives in his 1958 poem "How to get on in society"?
Finally, do share your own indispensable kitchen gadget, with a photo.
Food tastes best when you eat it with your own spoon. Danish Proverb