Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Downstairs Cookbook: Recipes from a 1920's Household Cook by Margaret Powell

The Downstairs Cookbook by Margaret Powell

"Margaret Powell was the first person outside my family to introduce me to that world… where servants and their employers would live their vividly different lives under one roof. Her memories, funny and poignant, angry and charming, haunted me until, many years later, I made my own attempts to capture those people for the camera. I certainly owed her a great debt." 
- Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey

As much as I love the glamour of the upstairs lifestyle on Downton Abbey, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that my favorite characters on the show are Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, the household cook and her kitchen maid. They have an entire storyline of their own with even more characters because of the dishes they turn out and the part food plays in the lives of not only the family upstairs, but also their guests and the servants below the stairs. The grand households of times gone by boasted dinner tables and menus that say a lot about the time and its customs, not to mention their part in establishing what would become the traditional food of Britain. Because of my interest in the Downton kitchen, I knew I had to read The Downstairs Cookbook by Margaret Powell who was a real-life Mrs. Patmore in her youth.

Margaret Powell was in service as were generations of women in her family before her and by a stroke of luck, she was able to direct her career in servitude towards the kitchen, which was a good job and left her with a useable skill once she married a milk man later in life. Powell aims to lift the curtain on the grand productions below the stairs, not only to show how things were done, but also in aid of a more modern society where we (well, most of us anyway) don't have servants and most of us cook for ourselves. Reading this book is like having a granny you can go to time and again for advice such as how long to hang a game bird before cooking, how to get your pastry just right, how to make homemade jam or the secret to picking a good piece of meat at the butcher. As an American living in London, I find this very handy as I often come across phrases and terms in English or European cooking that I don't understand.

The Downstairs Cookbook was originally published in 1970 as The Margaret Powell Cookery Book after her success as the author of a couple of memoirs that inspired the television shows Beryl's Lot and Upstairs, Downstairs. What's amazing to me is how Powell felt about the new, modern food products and shopping experiences available in Britain in the 70's. She could've nearly predicted the farm-to-table movement that's been so popular lately as her disdain for the newfangled, chains of grocery stores was incredible. Having learned to cook in an environment where everything was carefully chosen for quality and flavor, a large percentage of a household's income was allotted for food and individual vendors would know a cook by name, she was none too pleased with the assembly line food wrapped in plastic that became available to the masses during the 20th Century. While her rants may have been unpopular opinion back in 1970, she'd fit right in today when many people are putting more priority on the quality and the provenance of the foods they eat. Perhaps she was just ahead of her time by about 45 years…

All in, The Downstairs Cookbook is a very enjoyable read, especially for anyone who's fascinated by the early 20th Century grand British households and how they worked. I will definitely hold onto this book as a reference for my cooking, however I'm not sure how much I'd cook from this book. It uses many old-fashioned measurements and while they're explained, it might be a bit time-consuming to work out what's what. These are also recipes that require a lot of time, focus and effort. Though I'm not one to shy away from an all-day recipe on a Sunday, it's just not entirely practical for me (or most people I should think) to cook these types of recipes on a regular basis. That said, don't let that keep you from reading this book or trying out the recipes within. It's full of kitchen wisdom, history and recipes that might come in handy for any cook.

1 comment

  1. I absolutely love the show and must look at this cookbook!


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