Soiling the doilies

Any discussion of social class in England will come down to the question of cutlery at some point. Does the way you use your knife and fork reveal your social standing? My parents certainly seemed pretty relaxed compared to those of my friends when we were growing up; unlike others, we were not expected to wash our hands and brush our hair before meals, though table manners were important. The correct way to hold our cutlery – how to place them on the plate when we’d finished eating, and so on – was an easy rite of passage for most of us, but an unintelligible foreign language for my poor younger brother, much to the consternation of our father.

Cutlery wasn’t the only invisible boulder we had to negotiate: the English language was a minefield. Words such as “toilet”, “pardon” and “dinner” were absolutely forbidden in our house, though there were exceptions for the latter where a special meal was concerned, such as a “dinner party”. My family was completely thrown last Christmas by the multiple guises of “dinner” introduced by relatives visiting from America. To us, it normally refers to the largest meal, usually in the evening, for which “supper” is an informal alternative. However, depending where you live in Britain, some people still call their midday meal “dinner” and their evening meal “tea” (served around 6pm), whereas for others the midday meal is “lunch”.

In WM Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs (1879), class was a series of positions in society and a snob was one who aspired to be associated with persons of a higher status. In later decades, as social classes continued to evolve, a snob became someone more likely to look down than look up, and latterly, snobs have become more focused on possessions. There’s also a certain snobbery attached to the foods we eat and where we buy them. In medieval times, a family’s prestige derived from the amount of meat at table and the spices used to flavour them, such foodstuffs being the preserve of the upper classes. Nowadays snob value is accorded to people who abjure meat for health reasons, and devouring a T-bone steak might be perceived as “common”.

Words such as “toilet”, “pardon” and “dinner” were absolutely forbidden

Oysters have had a rollercoaster ride of popularity: plentiful and cheap in the 19th century, for example, when they were sold on almost every street corner in London, they were a substitute for expensive beef in stews and soups. According to the company Simply Oysters, over 700 million oysters were consumed in London in 1864 alone, and oyster fisheries employed around 120,000 people across the UK. But having been over-fished, with natural oyster stocks desperately low, they are now only enjoyed by the rich.

As a child, I remember my mother’s embarrassment at having to order coley for our fish pie, when cod prices had rocketed. She always gave us home-cooked food, even though shopping and cooking were time-consuming in the days before supermarkets and kitchen gadgets. One time when I needed a packed lunch for school, as its kitchen had just been condemned, I had to make my sandwiches under her watchful eye, which meant they were generally dull (read: “healthy and balanced”) and I was envious of my friend, whose busy mum just gave her money to buy crisps and sweets from the tuck shop. Far from looking down on her poor diet, I’d secretly think how lucky she was to be given such treats and I would generously offer to swap my vitamin-laden fruit for one of her unhealthy options.

While Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket (aka “Bouquet”) in the 1990s BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances will always be one of my favourite snobs, as children we enjoyed being quoted verses from John Betjeman’s How To Get On In Society. It was supposed to remind us not to lick our knives or use a spoon to slurp up gravy, but we found his delicious mockery of the nouveau-riche middle classes irresistibly funny:

“Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.”

My mother remembers being brought up by Nanny in the nursery, presented to her parents bathed and brushed just before bedtime. She’s still a huge fan of nursery food like treacle tart, so it must have been a happy place! Easy to make and comforting to eat, this rice pudding is rather better than the usual version.

Rice Pudding

5 min prep time + 2-3 h cook time
Serves 4

75g butter
75g caster sugar
100g arborio rice
750ml milk
350ml double cream
½ vanilla pod

Melt the butter in an ovenproof saucepan, add the sugar and cook, stirring until it turns to a pale, toffee-coloured goo. Add the rice and cook, stirring for another minute, then add the milk and cream and stir gently until it comes to the boil. Add the vanilla, if using, and then transfer to the oven and cook for 3-4 hours or until the rice is cooked through. Serve hot, warm or cold.

Lydia Brownlow is a former cookery editor at Good Housekeeping magazine and contributor to The Daily Beast. She currently inspires children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com

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Food For Thought, June / July 2024, Life

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