Who were the Cooks? What We Know (More or Less) about Kitchen Servants (1)

The Kitchen, Downton Abbey

While studying The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (Steel and Gardiner, 1888), I found the instructions concerning servants a fascinating insight into the mindset of the authors and – by extension – their time period.

And the current intense interest in the British TV series “Downton Abbey” allows us to answer some of  the questions of how servants, their roles, and their presence, made possible many things in history that we take for granted.

Cooking, for one thing. And not just the one-pot meal hung over a smoking fire in rustic peasant huts, a scene that elicits sighs of nostalgia among certain proponents of the simpler life.

The Turnip Peeler (Painted by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 1738)

One tremendously important source of information for us about servants lies in the popular household manuals. Although chiefly prescriptive – that is, the genre identifies the ideal way of doing things, much as viewing the House & Garden network counts for us today –  the household manual offers insights into what ambitious people aspired to and what they desired their lives to look like.

And the household manual also dictated the behavior of the servants who made those rarefied lives possible. Nineteenth-century household manuals like Mrs. Beeton’s’ might be the most familiar. But household manuals began appearing during the Renaissance, aimed at stewards of large noble households competing with each other, like a more sophisticated versions of males-only pissing contests. The person who threw the largest party won …

That women played no role in this state affairs goes without saying. But French  chef Menon, in La cuisinière bourgeoise (1746), according to Stephen Mennell, believed that “only the less well-to-do members of the middle class would, by that date, make do with a woman cook in charge of their kitchen.” (Mennell, All Manners of Food, 82)

Given the prevalence of these household manuals in Britain, I have to say that I’m wondering these days about the organization of kitchens in the American South and how much influence these manuals had on the kitchens from early colonial  days to the Civil War.

That is not to say that we can just willy-nilly take the information in the manuals, no questions asked – far from it. To get a grip on the day-to-day facts of servants’ lives takes a lot more. Fiction and art provides us with material, as do memoirs, diaries, letters, and oral history, as well as newspaper positions-wanted/positions available ads, etc. And a look at the architecture of the grand houses also suggests just how the logistics of meals feeding hundreds of people a day took place.

Victorian kitchen servants, and we know quite a bit about them, followed a hierarchy that looked something like this:

Cook – in charge of kitchen and supervisor of kitchen staff
Kitchen Maid – The cook’s assistant; prepared simple dishes and cleaned the kitchen
Still-Room Maid – Attended the room where preserves were located (cordials, jams, pickles, etc.)
Scullery Maid – Lowest on the hierarchy of household servants; generally the youngest. – Kitchen Boy – Ran errands for the cook

See the following for more  on servants and household manuals in the past:

Not in Front of the Servants, by Frank Dawes (1974)

A New Present for A Servant-Maid: containing Rules for her Moral Conduct, both with respect to Herself and her Superiors: The Whole Art of Cookery, Pickling, and Preserving, &c, &c. and every other Direction necessary to be known to render her a Complete, Useful and Valuable Servant, by Eliza Haywood  (1771)

Lest We Forget the Servants, an analysis by historian Rachel Laudan

Regelement donné par la duchesse de Liancourt à la princesse de Marsillac sa petite-fille pour sa propre conduite et pour celle de sa maison (1694)

Servants and Masters in Eighteenth-Century France: The Uses of Loyalty, by Sarah C. Maza (1983)

Household Servants in Early Modern England, by R. Richardson (2010)

© 2012 C. Bertelsen



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