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Looking through the cracks

My Grandma Hughes’ neighbour Mrs Tiveney smashed all her crockery one day. It took her nearly half an hour to get through it all because she was a woman of means and many dinner sets. Armed with the poker she chased the last bowl as it rolled around the kitchen, yelling ‘Coom ‘ere, you boogger, Ah’ll bloody get you yet!’ In the 1920s there were no television gurus, no therapists for such as her: only Fr Finn the choleric little parish priest who felt himself to be above his company, God forgive him.

In those days Gorton, Manchester, was full of little brick terraces on narrow streets dotted with pubs that were an obstacle course for the returning worker. Woe betide the family whose dad liked to shout the bar with his week’s wage. A woman could be the wife of a high earner and still have little to put on her prized dishes. So Mrs Tiveney cracked, along with her crockery, and her family drank from tin cans and ate from the saucepans for months after. Neighbours might offer replacements if they dared, but in vain; the Tiveneys were almost as proud as the Hugheses.

I was tempted to follow her example the other day when I was faced with an unusually horrible washing up. (O spoilt 21st century bitch that I am! Mrs Tiveney’s wildest dreams could not encompass the legal equality, the educational opportunity, the mass entertainment, the household appliances, the medical advances, the comfortable runners, the aromatherapy and the Mars bars that are routinely available to me and my whinging ilk.) I glared at the pile of messy saucepans and yearned suddenly to live with vampires, whose culinary needs are simple, with no washing-up required afterwards. This, despite the fact that I’m very disappointed in the latest series of Angel, the Buffy spin-off that began so promisingly. It’s finished now in the US and the last episode will be seen here soon. But it’s not the great loss to TV that it should have been. Joss Whedon’s great feminist-spiritual project degenerated into a clunky, blokey soap with all the strong and likeable female characters written off. Pity: we need a strong female voice again in the world, when even the ABC radio’s Life Matters led up to Mother’s Day last month with a ‘Father’s Week’, in which we were told repeatedly how inadequate women were as single parents and as teachers of boys.

Anyway, to return to our muttons, the lads had been cooking again, not that they would ever deign to cook something as ordinary as mutton. They are greatly encouraged in this by the TV. There must be 20 male TV chefs to every Nigella or Delia, who tend to be sniffed at for whatever reason. (Nigella so annoyingly privileged; Delia so annoyingly domestic-science correct; both such female cooks.) Everyone thinks of Jamie Oliver when this comes up, but there are legions of others on cable: Nigel Slater, Giorgio Locatelli, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nick Rhodes, Ainsley Harriot, Neil Perry. They all have a tendency to the obscure über-gourmet stuff; the truffles, the quails, the venison, the chocolate couverture that costs more than the pot it’s melted in.

This fascinates the Y-chromosomed in our house. Not for them the ham and salad roll, unless the ham is parma and the salad rocket and the dressing themed heavily with words such as virgin and balsamic.

When men are cooked for, the call is for lots of fried red meat and spuds, with bacon featuring everywhere. But when they take to the stove, it’s a different story. Woks, bamboo steamers, mandolines and pasta makers pop up in your kitchen like daisies on a lawn. You come home to a new ceramic carving knife from Japan whose cost means you can’t afford to go on holiday this year and a French cast-iron cauldron that weighs more than the piano. Your cupboards bulge with clumsily ripped bags of Arborio, wild, basmati and jasmine rice because they never use a whole packet of anything. You keep finding bits of saffron in the tea caddy. The house starts to smell more garlicky than van Helsing’s jockstrap. Your discarded dental floss is black with vanilla seeds and squid ink, and you keep washing pots.

This is because men in their Y-effrontery can be as indifferent to the ultimate fate of the pots they pollute as a footballer is to a silly girl looking for approval. I hear indignant baritone rumblings in the background; claims are being made regarding the washing of dishes. Yes, yes, dishes: Things you eat off, frequently licked quite clean to start with. I agree that men are quite handy around the china and glass; they love the sound of chipping Doulton. But it’s the women who have to sandblast the burned-on gravy, the caramelised onion residues, the stiff brown floor of scorched sauces from the bottom of the cooking pots.

Which brings me back to Mrs Tiveney in the 1920s. She cooked, cleaned and got a bit fed up. They treated her differently after that. But I must be a wimp, because I let the damn dishes live to spite me another day. I wonder what the footballers’ wives have to wash.  

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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