Saturday, March 31, 2012

When cleaning house

Ah, spring! The daffodils are blooming, the grass is green, the air is crisp, the snow is falling...

Yes. Although it's the end of March, New England thinks it's still time to throw down a healthy mix of snow and rain. What a dirty trick, after 70-degree weather a few weeks back.

No matter. Spring has a sense of newness about it, a feeling of being able to start over again. Maybe that's why I got the urge to clean house recently. After a few weekends of hosting friends, dashing down to D.C. to meet fiances, and preparing to lead an upcoming field trip, I was ready for a quiet couple of days at home.

So last weekend I decided to hold a mini-spring cleaning in my apartment. I swept out all the nooks and crannies, discovered that my baseboards do indeed collect dust, and wiped down my sinks and dish rack. I took my winter clothes to the dry cleaner's and washed three loads of laundry. Then I settled down to all that schoolwork that still awaited me. By the end of the weekend, I was exhausted, but my apartment looked better for it.

But like the last time I deep cleaned the apartment, I started wondering what spring cleaning had been like before women had washing machines and vacuum cleaners. So I turned to Maria Parloa's Young Housekeeper (1894) once again. She didn't disappoint.

Miss Parloa introduced her chapter on seasonal cleaning with the following:
"The season of house-cleaning is greeted with different degrees of welcome, or horror, by the different members of the family."
Sounds intimidating, right? Well, with good reason. Miss Parloa goes on to describe in great detail how to clean the various rooms of the house. Here's a paraphrased list (with commentary):

1. Wait until you don't have to light daily fires for warmth (so you can clean the furnace and stove). I guess March is not really the time to start.

2. In the cellar, remove the cinders from the furnace, then clean the whole furnace in pieces. Sweep the whole room (including the ceiling!), then whitewash the walls. I am so glad I live in an apartment.

3. In each room, brush and wipe all storage boxes and closets, then saturate with naphtha to keep out bugs. Line each box with new paper before replacing the stored goods. I suppose I moved some of my winter clothes to storage boxes...but since I'd recently cleaned all of them in the January moth scare, this was as far as it got.

4. Brush down the furniture, then place outside the room. You wouldn't want the furniture to get dirty!

5. Brush down the walls, ceiling, and windows of each room. Sweep the floor, wash the windows, woodwork, and the floor. Let dry for an hour, then replace all the furniture.

6. To clean carpets, remove the carpet tacks with a tack-lifter, then roll up the carpets in old sheets. Take the carpets outside and beat them on both sides, then let them lie on the grass until the room is ready. I don't even know where to start with this one. I guess carpets were held down with tacks before the days of rubbery carpet liners--that makes sense. But tack-lifters? You need a whole different tool just to pick up the carpets?

7. Clean the floor of each room once the carpet has been removed. Sprinkle the floor with wet sawdust, then sweep it up. Clean all surfaces with a broom covered with flannel. Wash the floors with lime water to make the floorboards "whiter and sweeter." Parloa also includes a recipe for making your own lime water (unslaked lime and water). This is getting awfully serious, friends. I am suddenly grateful that there are companies who spend all their time making cleaning products so I don't have to.

8. In bedrooms, take each bedstead apart. Pour naphtha into the grooves of each piece to prevent bedbugs. Dip the ends of slats into a bowl of naphtha. The only time I plan on taking my bedstead apart is when I move. That thing is tricky.

9. When you replace the carpet, rub the soiled spots with naphtha and flannel. Then wipe the carpet with ammonia water (that you have also made yourself). How did these people not die of naphtha poisoning?

10. Repeat appropriate steps for downstairs rooms, and make sure to beat the draperies. Good Lord. We're only halfway done?

11. In the kitchen and pantry, remove all china and dishes from the cupboards, and wash and dry the shelves. Cover with new paper. Scour the tinware, tables, and sink. This is a little more like what I did last weekend...but it's pretty much the only similarity.

Then, when the young housekeeper is finished cleaning the house, Parloa also recommends that "the piazza and yard should be put in order." At that point, were any of them still standing? No wonder she recommends hiring extra help for the week (week!) of spring cleaning. I'm not sure how anyone could manage that by herself, much less keep the meals going for the rest of the family. Apparently whole families tended to dread spring cleaning because the woman of the house would be so harried, and because she could only provide cold meals (if anything). Poor husbands.

The moral of this story is practically banging me over the head. Thank goodness for modern conveniences, and for the fact that we don't have to worry about bugs to the extent that 19th-century families did. It's fun to read between the lines for details like that: dust seems to have been a big issue, too, given the sweeping of walls and ceilings. I'm guessing soot from the furnace and gas lamps would have built up in the house as well.

Now I'm curious to hear about your spring cleaning. What have you done (or what are you planning to do) to get ready for spring? Hopefully no one's going to haul out their tack-lifter...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Williamsburg veal partridges

Some days are just full of questions. Like, why aren't there more movies like Back to the Future? Why do my students all wear feather extensions in their hair? If I walk around a lot while I teach, does that count as the day's exercise? Why is my dwarf hamster still afraid of everything that moves? And when were toothpicks invented?

I promise there's a reason for that last one.

Last week I made veal partridges, a dish which is a mystery in itself. Why call it "partridges" when the only meat involved is veal? I think it has something to do with the way the dish looks once assembled:

See, you roll up thin strips of veal and stuffing, then secure the rolls with toothpicks inserted crosswise. The resulting meat looks a little like partridges (or any bird) that have been trussed for roasting. Personally, I thought they looked more like pigs in a blanket, but I had a pretty good feeling those hadn't been invented yet in colonial America.

I also had a pretty good feeling that toothpicks hadn't been invented yet in colonial America.

{you probably couldn't buy toothpicks in a store}

Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by the answer to that question. Turns out that people have probably been using toothpicks since they first got food stuck in their teeth. However, these early toothpicks were found or whittled from bigger pieces of wood, and it wasn't until the mid-19th century that toothpicks were first mass-produced the way we know them today. (For more on the "glorious" toothpick, check out this article.)

So, jury's out on how historically accurate these veal partridges are. They may have been secured with little spikes of wood, but it's more likely that a cook would tie them in bundles with a piece of string. Still, they're quite tasty, which is really all that matters at the end of the day, right?

Williamsburg Veal Partridges
(adapted from The Williamsburg Book of Cookery)

half an onion, chopped
3 tbsp butter, divided
one piece of bread, diced or shredded into crumbs
salt & pepper
1/4 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp sage
1 tbsp milk
5-6 thin slices of veal
1/4 cup flour

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Melt 1 tbsp butter in a pan and brown the chopped onion for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, assemble the stuffing: mix the bread crumbs, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste in a medium bowl. Add the onion and mix well, then moisten with the milk.

Lay out the veal strips and spread them with the stuffing. Carefully roll up the veal and stuffing to make rolls, and secure with two toothpicks stuck crosswise. Roll each veal bundle in flour.

Melt the other 2 tbsp butter in the pan and cook the veal rolls in the butter until browned. Place the rolls in a baking dish, along with any unused stuffing, and pour the fat over the veal. Cover the baking dish and bake for 40 minutes. Serve with brown rice.