Another in the list of historical reference materials and this one has the added benefit of being a reference in its own time period!
The height of domestic service coincides with the Gilded Age, 1880-1920, roughly. In that time a housewife who got into the business of Intelligence Offices (that’s employment agencies for domestic staff) wrote what would become the standard in what to expect and what was appropriate for domestic staff positions of all stripes. While Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book is a cookbook with recipes of the time (which is the classic gallery of regrettable food) it is also a manual of household management at the turn of the last century.
Published originally in 1902, (the copy I read is a reprint from 1984 with an introductory essay entitled Housekeeping in the Gilded Age by Shirley Abbott which itself is full or fun information about the time period), Mrs.Lida Seely explores the expected relationship between staff and employer, the job responsibilities of all staff in a household – running the gamut from cooks, to butlers, to scullery maids, to coachmen and the running of meal service both for family and a dinner party. She also lays out the Don’ts for both employer and staff with such practical advice as “Don’t blame servants for every fault or mistake and then leave good service unthanked” to go with “Don’t spend your time comparing the ways of one mistress to those of another – each one has a right to her own rules in her own house”.
At this point in the book, approximately 70 pages in, Mrs. Seely gets into the recipes and the required tools of the cooking trade which make up the lion’s share of the book.
What is perhaps the best aspect for me of this book, and perhaps to anyone with an interest in the running of the large estates exemplified by the Downton Abbey series, is that this book was written to place employers and employees on the same page about the realistic expectations of the work. And in so doing, provides the interested parties of today a portal to see what was actually happening, or could be expected to be happening, in a home with a staff – whether it is staffs of 1 or 2 or over a dozen live in servants at the height of the Gilded Age. The other bit of knowledge that I wished I had as I was learning to shop and cook for myself are the chapters on selecting meats and vegetable as well as the standard proportions of cooking and general advice. While many of the recipes as I noted above would no longer appeal to the modern palate (mousse of fish anyone?) the cooking basics are still of use to the modern cook.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.