Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Afterlife of Things

Before fridges, butter came in a lump, kept in a butter crock in a chilled pantry. When it was needed for breakfast, tea or dinner, it was turned into pats or curls (by rolling small pieces between two ridged bats), put onto a small plate and sprinkled with water (to keep it cool). You served yourself a pat or curl with a silver butter knife like a tiny fish knife. (You weren’t supposed to cut your dinner roll with your own knife, but break off a piece, dab a bit of butter on top, and eat it.) Bread and butter at teatime probably came ready buttered. You might spread your own toast at breakfast when manners were more free and easy, but you couldn't ask anyone to pass you the butter - you had to wait for them to pass it to you.

Fridges happened in the 50s. There was a short period during which a block of frozen butter would be put on the tiny butter plate, and guests would attempt to carve off a piece with the tiny, blunt, fragile butter knife… I remember being shouted at to SPREAD my bread with the rock-hard butter. Not easy, aged six. Eventually people came to their senses and butter knives became more robust.

Perhaps our parents longed to get back to gracious living after serving in the forces and having just one knife, fork, spoon, mug and plate. But there was also a sense that we had to do things this way because this was the way things had always been done.

Until the late 19th century, sugar arrived at the house in the form of a “loaf” (in the shape of a bullet or a concrete bollard – a “tall cone with a rounded top”, says Wikipedia). This was cut up with special cutters called sugar nippers. It could then be grated to form granulated or caster sugar (fine enough to be served in a caster), or proffered in tiny pieces – perfect for picking up with a pair of tiny Georgian silver sugar tongs and dropping in your coffee or tea. Apparently the first lump sugar factory was built in 1802. Lump sugar was certainly around in the 50s – in lumps too big to be easily picked up with those tiny sugar tongs. Especially when you were six. They soon went the way of the Georgian silver butter knife.

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