Monday 2 September 2013

Cooking in a Bedistter

Dau.II left for her new life in Cork today.  She'll be living with her bloke and two others in a flat very close to the City Centre and has been gathering the necessary batterie de cuisine for such an adventure.  She and her mother took a trip to Ikea and bought a very modest amount of kit and she's taken our best bread knife because I find the older 'second-best' handier.  She'll be living a flat with a bathroom and a living-room and a kitchen, as well as a separate room to sleep in.  When I left home almost exactly 40 years ago, after a disastrous interlude in "digs", I (and later we) lived in a succession of Dublin bedsits.  One book I brought from home was Katharine Whitehorn's Cooking in a Bedisitter, first published in 1961.  It was very useful for Starters (in several senses of that word).

One of the things she recommended was always to have a damp cloth available while cooking -  because the nearest tap might be in the bathroom on the landing upstairs. She had a very short list of what was essential for equipment in a kitchen that was a corner in the room you did all your living except ablutions.
1 really sharp knife 1 piece of flat wood 1 decent pan 1 BIG frying pan
1 little saucepan 1 bowl (not plastic) 1 fish-slice 1 tin opener
1 jug saucepan 1 egg-beater 1 wooden spoon nothing else
This doesn't make much of a dent if you're going to be serious about living with less than 100 possessions. Whitehorn elaborates a little on each of these choices.  A single sauteuse, for example, can replace both the decent pan and the big frying pan.  The bowl shouldn't be plastic in case it needs to serve as the top of a bain-marie. The piece of wood may be "the back of a bread-board or tray or bought as an offcut from a hardware store"; it serves as a chopping board.  The jug is marked optional and so is a kettle. The egg-beater is "optional but only costs 3 shillings and though you can beat eggs on a plate with a knife it takes three long minutes to do it".  Choose a tin-opener "that can work without covering the room in blood".

The rest of the book is (it's still in print) full of sound advice tempered with that sort of humour. Whitehorn is also determined that straitened physical circumstances should never limit your imagination or your diet.  The literate Foodie goddess is cited: "No-one who has learned to cook in England since the war can fail to owe and enormous amount to Elizabeth David whose French Country Cooking  ...".  Both authors are readable and entertaining as well as informative. Whitehorn isn't making an objective case for simplicity but rather sharing, with others who are in a similar situation, her real experience of living out a suitcase or a card-board box.  If you have ever been to Aldidl to buy a bag of sugar and some mushrooms and come home with a waffle-iron, an electric chip-pan, or 40 matching tupperware boxes (and no mushrooms) then you may need to reflect on the stuff that's stuffing your kitchen cabinets.

I'm not making a make-do survivalist case in the style of Bear Grylls frying a slice of the liver on the scapula of an elk he's just killed. But I will point out that Dau.II's grandmother grew up in a town on the edge of the Sahel in West Africa. It was quite civilized but she and her sisters used regularly to mince meat using two really sharp knives - it doesn't take very long at all and makes a tough lean cut edible more efficiently than cooking it to buggery for hours.  Sounds bit like "in my day we lived in hole in t' middle o' the road" doesn't it?  Sorry.

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