Glancing through ‘The “A1” Cookery Book’ written by Helen N. Lawson and published in 1901, I began to realise how valuable this little book must have been to people who had never cooked before. Maybe newly married women, maybe newly employed kitchen maids, maybe people who had fallen on hard times and no longer had servants and cooks and had to face the reality of making meals for their families by themselves. Or maybe it was useful for the new independent young women who left the family home and were working and looking after themselves, including cooking and household chores, for the first time. The extended subtitle says the book contains ‘everything essential, for those who wish to have plain food daintily prepared, and written in the simplest possible manner to help the inexperienced.’
The little book happened to fall open at the vegetable section on the page dealing with potatoes. Coming between ‘to boil parsnips’ and ‘sea-kale’, there are fifteen different instructions and recipes dealing with potatoes, from the simplest, ‘to boil potatoes’, ‘to steam potatoes’, and ‘to boil new potatoes’, to recipes using potatoes, ‘potato balls’ and ‘economical potato balls’, ‘potato mould’, ‘potato soufflées’ (sic), ‘potatoes á la Maître d’Hotel’, and a favourite which I might well try, ‘potato scallops’. One item missing which may seem extraordinary to us is chips or French fries – did they not have them in 1901? There is an instruction on frying potatoes, which I thought might be chips; however, on reading it I was taken back to my mum cooking fried potatoes:
To Fry Potatoes: wash and pare some potatoes and cut into very thin rounds and throw into cold water. Have ready some boiling fat, drain the potatoes and dry them on a cloth; put them, a few at a time, into a frying basket, and plunge into the boiling fat. Let them remain till they are of a light brown colour. Put them on a plate covered with kitchen paper, and set them near the fire to drain and keep hot; let the fat boil up again, and put some more potatoes in the frying basket, and drain them in the same way.
I had forgotten completely this rare favourite mum made, and I feel they were always served with fried eggs – and were called chips by her! Thinking about it now, I wonder if it was an economical meal when funds were running low. Dad grew all our vegetables, including potatoes, but Mum would have bought eggs – no idea how much they would have cost, but certainly cheaper than meat or fish I would guess.
As for potato balls, the recipe includes the yolks of two eggs, cream, butter parsley, but the Maître d’ recipe is a little more complicated:
Boil 2 lbs potatoes of a firm kind, and let them get cold; cut them into slices a quarter of an inch thick, and ten into pieces of the same size with a round cutter. Melt 2 oz of butter in a saucepan, stir in a small dessert spoonful of flour, and shake the pan over the fire for two or three minutes; add slowly a small cup of boiling water or white stock, some pepper, salt and a tablespoon of chopped parsley; put in the potatoes and toss them gently over a clear fire until they are quite hot, and the sauce adheres well to them. At the instant of serving, add a dessert spoon of lemon juice.
To be honest, I’m not sure the results sound as if they would be worth all the effort! One last little thing to note, at the beginning of the vegetables section, Helen gives this instruction:
All vegetables, except potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes, and dried peas and beans, should be put into plenty of fast-boiling water, which has been salted and skimmed.
Interesting that water needs skimming – skimming what? I guess if it comes from a pump or maybe even a well, then there maybe all sorts bobbing about in it.
By the way the very excellent fish and chips and mushy peas in my featured image was served piping hot and delicious in the Dolphin a coupe of weeks ago.