The Way It Was Back Then

Dining With Duvall by Lynn Duvall

When my daughters were small, I told them that girls were required to wear skirts to school in my day.

They were flabbergasted. Not long ago, they both mentioned my dress code stories, claiming that they were struck with horror and awe when they first heard them.

They say they cannot imagine how women grew up to be strong and self-confident with no sports teams for girls, playing dodge ball in skirts at recess. They cannot get their minds around the concept, let alone the actual experience.

My grandmother told me stories about her English childhood at the close of the Victorian era. Granny often referred to the scullery maid, usually a disadvantaged young girl who performed heavy, dirty kitchen work. As a child, she felt very sorry for the scullery maid. I thought she was exaggerating until I read "Inside the Victorian Home," a heavily researched volume, crammed with details of life in urban English households during the mid-to-late 19th century. Many questions I'd vaguely formed while listening to my grandmother were answered.

The English dependence on coal for cooking and heating was fierce and foolish. The resulting soot made life a nightmare. Soot fell into the food as it cooked and soiled the clean white tablecloth. It fell down from chimneys on the housemaid's cap and apron and poured in through open windows. Hardened soot mixed with grease made cleaning the coal stove and blackened pots a filthy, grim duty for the scullery maid.

Granny's aversion to coal makes sense to me now. As a young bride in Chicago, she insisted that her husband buy a house heated by gas at a time when most homes were heated with coal. She detested coal. In the winter, I had to sneak next door to ask for two pieces of coal to make my snowman's eyes. If she found out that I'd been in the neighbor's coal cellar, I would be in big trouble. It seems amusing now, but her inexplicable aversion to coal wasn't the least bit funny to a 5-year-old.

Another question answered by "Victorian Home" author Judith Flanders relates to Victorian menus. I've often studied English or American dinner party menus from Victorian times. They seem formidable. Who could eat that much food? It turns out that the average diner didn't eat much more than we do today.

Flanders explains that the style of service for a Victorian formal dinner party originated in France. Dinner guests arrived at a table heaped with platters of food. Diners weren't expected to eat every dish; they were free to pick and choose from a wide variety of menu items. While one person ate soup, another might be enjoying fish. As the century came to a close, a different style of dining - service a la russe - had been adopted.

The desserts were still displayed as diners arrived at the table, but the platters holding huge roasts and whole turkeys were missing. A good host had previously been forced to make a show of abundance - the platters held much more food than the diners consumed.

Switching to a series of single courses saved the host considerable fuss and, more importantly, money. Instead of 20 dishes from soup to nuts, the typical dinner party featured only six dishes. Flower centerpieces came into vogue, covering the space once filled with symmetric arrangements of soup, fish, meat, poultry, vegetables, jellies, puddings and tarts.

The dining room of a Victorian house was considered a masculine province. Even though the women of the house spent much of their time in the dining room sewing or writing letters, the room was decorated for men. Dark woods, substantial furniture and Oriental carpets prevailed.

The deep red plush upholstery, flocked wallpaper and voluminous velvet draperies that we associate with Victorian decor were designed to compliment the most expensive item in the room - the carpet. Fabrics and wall covering were chosen to match the red in the Oriental carpet.

The Victorian color schemes and dining styles crept into cultures across the oceans. Here in California, the residents of Los Angeles added cluttered Victorian bric a brac, furniture and doilies to their living spaces.

If you haven't visited Olvera Street lately, don't wait until the completion of the upcoming major renovation. I have taken several parties of visitors to see the ongoing restoration of the Sepulveda Building, a Victorian Eastlake structure on Olvera Street. All of them have marveled over the bedroom of Señora Sepulveda. Her California-Mexican decor was influenced by Victorian tastes. The mix seems odd, but the result is beautiful. It's a bit like the skirts only dress code, another reminder of how little we really understand about life in other times.

Write Lynn Duvall at or in care of the Valley Sun.

Stewed Rhubarb With Cream Rivers

In Victorian London, fresh fruit was considered "dangerous" by some food experts of the day. Grapes were recommended to relieve irregularity, but only if they were peeled and seeded. Most fruits were served stewed or baked. As a child, I keenly appreciated the addition of "cream rivers" to stewed fruit. I felt guilty pouring cream over dessert for my own children, but on the rare occasions I indulged them, they were delighted to watch the tiny rivulets of cream thread through the fruit. Non-fat half-and-half tastes great. Now I am can pour guilt-free "cream rivers."

- Lynn Duvall

6 cups of rhubarb, cut in one-inch pieces.

2 teaspoons lemons juice

3/4 superfine sugar

1 cup water

1. Slice thick rhubarb ribs lengthwise first.

2. In a mixing bowl, coat the rhubarb pieces with 3/4 cup superfine sugar. Add 2 teaspoons of lemon juice. Turn into a large, heavy saucepan. Add 1 cup water. Cover and bring to a boil. Uncover. Reduce heat to low and watch carefully. Don't over stir. Mixture should thicken. Stop cooking when the rhubarb pieces maintain their shape but are completely softened, about 25 minutes. Taste and add more sugar if needed. Cool. Put in a glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Serve in small glass bowls with cream rivers. (Slowly pour about one tablespoon of non-fat half-and half over each serving at table.) Serves four to six.

Icy Apricots (An Updated Victorian Summer Treat)

2 can s apricots

1/2 cup apricot jam

2 teaspoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons spicy rum (optional)

1. Drain two cans of apricots and mix with 1/2 cup of apricot jam and 2 teaspoons of lemon juice. Puree in a blender or a food processor. Pour into a freezer container. Freeze.

2. For adults: serve one scoop of icy apricots in a martini glass and drizzle with 2 teaspoons of spicy rum. For kids: serve children's scoop in small glass bowl with light drizzle of "cream rivers."

Serves 4-6.

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