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Station Amusements

Chapter XII. Culinary Troubles

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Chapter XII. Culinary Troubles.

I want to lodge a formal complaint against all cookery books. They are not the least use in the world, until you know how to cook! and then you can do without them. Somebody ought to write a cookery book which would tell an unhappy beginner whether the water in which she proposes to put her potatoes is to be hot or cold; how long such water is to boil; how she is to know whether the potatoes are done enough; how to dry them after they have boiled, and similar things, which make all the difference in the world.

To speak like Mr. Brooke for a moment. “Rice now: I have dabbled in that a good deal myself, and found it wouldn’t do at all.”

Of course in time, and after many failures, I did learn to boil a potato which would not disgrace me, page 194 and to bake bread, besides in time attaining to puddings and cakes, of which I don’t mind confessing I was modestly proud. It used to be a study, I am told, to watch my face when a cake had turned out as it ought. Gratified vanity at the lavish encomiums bestowed on it, and horrified dismay at the rapidity with which a good sized cake disappeared down the throats of the company, warred together in the most artless fashion. The reflection would arise that it was almost a pity it should be eaten up so very fast; yet was it not a fine thing to be able to make such a cake! and oh, would the next be equally good?

One lesson I leaned in my New Zealand kitchen,—and that was not to be too hard on the point of breakages; for no one knows, unless from personal experience, how true was the Irish cook’s apology for breaking a dish, when she said that it let go of her hand. I declare that I used, at last, to regard my plates and dishes, cups and saucers, yea, even the pudding basons, not as so much china and delf, but as troublesome imps, possessed with an insane desire to dash themselves madly on the kitchen floor upon the least provocation. Every woman knows what a slippery thing to hold is a baby in its tub. I am in a position to pronounce that wet plates and dishes are far more difficult to keep hold of. They have a way page 195 of leaping out of your fingers, which must be felt to be believed. After my first week in my kitchen I used to wonder, not at the breakages, but at anything remaining unbroken.

My maids had a very ingenious method of disposing of the fragments of their pottery misfortunes. At the back of the house an open patch of ground, thickly covered with an under-growth of native grass, and the usual large proportion of sheltering tussocks stretched away to the foot of the nearest hill. This was burned every second year or so, and when the fire had passed away the sight it revealed was certainly very curious. Beneath each tussock had lain concealed a small heap of broken china, which must have been placed there in the dead of the night. The delinquents had evidently been at the pains to perfect their work of destruction by reducing the china articles in question, to the smallest imaginable fragments, for fear of a protruding corner betraying the clever câche; and the contrast afforded to the blackened ground on which they lay, by the gay patches of tiny fragments huddled together, was droll indeed. That was the moment for recognising the remains of a favourite jug or plate, or even a beloved tea-cup. There they were all laid in neat little heaps, and the best of it was that the existing cook always declared page 196 loudly her astonishment at the base ingenuity of such conduct, although I could not fail to recognise many a plate or dish which had disappeared from the land of the living during her reign.

All housekeepers will sympathise with my feelings at seeing an amateur scullion, who had distinguished himself greatly in the Balaklava charge, but who appeared to have no idea that boiling water would scald his fingers,—drop the top plate of a pile which he had placed in a tub before him. In spite of my entreaties to be allowed to “wash-up” myself, he gallantly declared that he could do it beautifully, and that the great thing was to have the water very hot. In pursuance of this theory he poured the contents of a kettle of boiling water over his plates, plunged his hand in, and dropped the top plate, with a shriek of dismay, on those beneath it. Out of consideration for that well-meaning emigrant’s feelings, I abstain from publishing the list of the killed and wounded, briefly stating that he might almost as well have fired a shot among my poor plates. A perfect fountain of water and chips and bits of china flew up into the air, and I really believe that hardly one plate remained uncracked. So much for one’s friends. I must candidly state that although the servants broke a good deal, we destroyed twice as much amongst us during the week page 197 which must needs elapse between their departure and, the arrival of the new ones.

Shall I ever forget the guilty pallor which overspread the bronzed and bearded countenance of one of my guests, who particularly wished to dust the drawing-room ornaments, when on hearing a slight crash I came into the room and found him picking up the remains of a china shepherdess? Considering everything, I kept my temper remarkably well, merely observing that he had better go into the verandah and sit down with a book and his pipe, and send Joey in to help me. Joey was a little black monkey from Panama, who had to be provided with broken bits of delf or china in order that he might amuse himself by breaking them ingeniously into smaller fragments.

But the real object of this chapter was to relate some of my own private misfortunes in the cooking line. Once, when Alice S—— was staying with me and we had no servants, she and I undertook to bake a very infantine and unweaned pig. It was all properly arranged for us, and, making up a good fire, we proceeded to cook the little monster.

Hours passed by; all the rest of the dinner got itself properly cooked at the right time, but the pig presented exactly the same appearance at dewy eve as it had done in the early morn. We looked rather crest-fallen page 198 at its pale condition when one o’clock struck, but I said cheerfully, “Oh, I daresay it will be ready by supper!” But it was not: not a bit of it. Of course we searched in those delusive cookery books, but they only told us what sauces to serve with a roasted pig, or how to garnish it, entering minutely into a disquisition upon whether a lemon or an orange had better be stuck into its mouth. We wanted to know how to cook it, and why it would not get itself baked. About an hour before supper-time I grew desperate at the anticipation of the “chaff” Alice and I would certainly have to undergo if this detestable animal could not be produced in a sufficiently cooked state by evening. We took it out of the oven and contemplated it with silence and dismay. Fair as ever did that pig appear, and as if it had no present intention of being cooked at all. A sudden idea came into our heads at the same moment, but it was Alice who first whispered, “Let us cut off its head.” “Yes,” I cried; “I am sure that prevents its roasting or baking, or whatever it is.” So we got out the big carving knife and cut off the piggy’s head. Far be it from me to offer any solution of the theory why the head should have interfered with the baking process, but all I know is, that, like the old woman in the nursery song, everything began to go right, and we got our supper that night.

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Has anybody ever reflected on how difficult it must be to get a chimney swept without ever a sweep or even a brush? Luckily our chimneys were short and wide, and we used a good deal of wood; so in three years the kitchen chimney only needed to be cleansed twice. The first time it was cleared of soot by the simple process of being set on fire, but as a light nor’-wester was blowing, the risk to the wooden roof became very great and could only be met by spreading wet blankets over the shingles. We had a very narrow escape of losing our little wooden house, and it was fortunate it happened just at the men’s dinner hour when there was plenty of help close at hand. However great my satisfaction at feeling that at last my chimney had been thoroughly swept, there was evidently too much risk about the performance to admit of its being repeated, so about a year afterwards I asked an “old chum” what I was to do with my chimney. “Sweep it with a furze-bush, to be sure,” she replied. I mentioned this primitive receipt at home, and the idea was carried out a day or two later by one man mounting on the roof of the house whilst another remained in the kitchen; the individual on the roof threw down a rope to the one below, who fastened a large furze-bush in the middle, they each held an end of this rope, and so pulled it up and down the chimney until the page 200 man below was as black as any veritable sweep, and had to betake himself, clothes and all, to a neighbouring creek. As for the kitchen, its state cannot be better described than in my Irish cook’s words, who cried, “Did mortial man ever see sich a ridiklous mess? Arrah, why couldn’t ye let it be thin?” But for all that she set bravely to work and got everything clean and nice once more, merely stipulating that the next time we were going to sweep chimney we should let her know beforehand, that she might go somewhere “right away.”

I feel, however, that in all these reminiscences I am straying widely from the point which was before my mind when I began this chapter, and that is the delusiveness of a cookery book. No book which I have ever seen tells you, for instance, how to boil rice properly. They all insist that the grains must be white and dry and separate, but they omit to describe the process by which these results can be attained. They tell you what you are to do with your rice after it is boiled, but not how to boil it. The fact is, I suppose, that the people who write such books began so early to be cooks themselves, that they forget there ever was a time when such simple things were unknown to them.

Even when I had, after many failures, mastered the page 201 art of boiling rice, and. also of making an excellent curry,—for which accomplishment I was indebted to the practical teaching of a neighbour,—there used still to be misfortunes in store for me. One of these caused me such a bitter disappointment that I have never quite forgotten it. This was the manner of it. We were without servants. My readers must not suppose that such was our chronic condition, but when you come to change your servants three or four times a year, and have to “do” for yourself each time during the week which must elapse before the arrival of new ones, there is an ample margin for every possible domestic misadventure. If any doubt me, let them try for themselves.

On this special occasion, which proved to be nearly the last, my mind was easy, for the simple reason that I was now independent of cookery books. I had puzzled out all the elementary parts of the science for myself, and had no misgivings on the subject of potatoes or even peas. So confident was I, and vain, that I volunteered to make a curry for breakfast. Such a savoury curry as it was, and it turned out to be all that the heart of a hungry man could desire; so did the rice: I really felt proud of that rice; each grain kept itself duly apart from its fellow, and was as soft and white and plump as possible. Everything went well, page 202 and I had plenty of assistants to carry in the substantial breakfast as fast as it was ready: the coffee, toast, all the other things had gone in; even the curry had been borne off amid many compliments, and now it only remained for me to dish up the rice.

Imagine the scene. The bright pretty kitchen, with its large window through which you could see the green hills around dotted with sheep; the creek chattering along just outside, whilst close to the back door loitered a crowd of fowls and ducks on the chance of fate sending them something extra to eat. Beneath the large window, and just in front of it, stood a large deal table, and it used to be my custom to transfer the contents of the saucepans to the dishes at that convenient place. Well, I emptied the rice into its dish, and gazed fondly at it for a moment: any cook might have been proud of that beautiful heap of snow-white grains. I had boiled a great quantity, more than necessary it seemed, for although the dish was piled up almost as high as it would hold, some rice yet remained in the saucepan.

Oh, that I had been content to leave it there! But no: with a certain spasmodic frugality which has often been my bane, I shook the saucepan vehemently, in order to dislodge some more of its contents into my already full dish. As I did so, my treacherous page 203 wrist, strained by the weight of the saucepan, gave way, and with the rapidity of a conjurer’s trick I found the great black saucepan seated,—yes, that is the only word for it,—seated in the midst of my heap of rice, which was now covered by fine black powder from its sooty outside. All the rice was utterly and completely spoiled. I don’t believe that five clean grains were left in the dish There was nothing for it but to leave it to get cold and then throw it all out for the fowls, who don’t mind riz au noir it seems. Although I feel more than half ashamed to confess it, I am by no means sure I did not retire into the store-room and shed a tear over the fate of that rice. Everybody else laughed, but I was dreadfully mortified and vexed.