Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Mixed Up Mashup: In the Kitchen


Introduction / In the Rose Garden / Tea with George / The Ladies at Longbourn / Finding Hunsford / Somewhere Over Surrey / An Awkward Business

Too much cannot be said of Mrs. Hodge at such a moment. Though the cares of a shifting reality lay just as heavily on her shoulders as on those belonging to the assembled company in Donwell's best drawing room, the latter did not need to concern themselves with how to procure sustenance for such a crush, including no less than two baronets, when the butcher has disappeared.

The nightmare began that morning when William Larkins burst into her office demanding whether or not she knew the world had been turned upside down. She did not, and a quick assessment from her window proved that the world was very well right side up, which she told him, though how to account for the familiar sight of Hartfield, looking anything but ordinary sitting no more than fifty yards distant, just as if it had always been so close, she did not know. "And how is a man expected to get anything done on an estate which had mostly vanished?" he inquired. Again, answers were unavailable, resulting in the rousing of Mr. Knightley, an audience for his complaints far more satisfying than Mrs. Hodge. Though Mr. Knightley was no more able than his housekeeper to address William Larkin's concerns, speaking with the master made him feel as if he were doing something.  The two men went outside to inspect the situation, while Mrs. Hodge set about the none too easy task of calming the alarmed servants. Before she could convince them to take up their customary duties, she found herself beset by the arrival of an angry crowd of discommoded gentry. The maids no longer had anytime to cry over the end of the world, for the ladies needs must be met, and refreshments must be prepared.

A moment of true panic came when Miss Woodhouse, no doubt meaning to be helpful, called upon Mrs. Hodge to join her in a survey of the pantry. Though flattered by the lady's praise of her arrangements, and while the dishes she suggested be prepared were very reasonable and showed a great deal of good taste, Miss Woodhosue seemed totally unaware that with the disappearance of the farm, and with no hide nor hair of Highbury to be seen, there was almost no meat to be found. When Mrs. Hodge attempted to voice her concerns, they were airily dismissed. "Under such circumstance, Mrs. Hodge, everyone can certainly make do with a light repast. They will all have born worse fare. Some of the most exclusive assemblies in town are known to offer only scant refreshment. I have no doubt Lady Catherine and Miss Elliot have attended Almacks, but to ask them such a question," she laughed, "would only earn them my disdain, and I dare not afford them such ready bait."

"But Miss Woodhouse, how many must be fed?"

"I think we are about twenty now, but there may be more," she said reflectively. "I am sure we will make do very well," and she left Mrs. Hodges to the more stark realities of their circumstances.

The dairy and poultry yard were still existent, a great relief to all at Donwell concerned with the making and procurement of food, and the men were able to shoot a few birds, but as the evening drew nearer, and the world had still not returned to normal, Mrs. Hodge became desperate. The numbers of  hungry ladies and gentleman continued to swell upstairs until near sixty were assembled, and while the dining room at Donwell could accommodate so many, it had not been called on to do so in the past forty years. As footmen began calling, bearing bandboxes and portmanteaus containing evening dress for their masters and mistresses, it was becoming increasingly clear to the harried housekeeper that a disaster of epic proportions was close at hand. Unwilling to completely empty her storeroom, not knowing how she would feed the household tomorrow if she did, every extra hand available was employed in quickly assembling as extensive a meal as the circumstances allowed, while the rest of the staff, idle workmen included, struggled to prepare quarters to serve as dressing rooms for the guests.

Mrs. Hodge troubles were unnecessarily increased by one of the gentleman - a querulous baronet by the name of Sir Walter Elliot - who seemed to require just as much or even more care than the most demanding of the gentler sex. Her patience in listening to his derision of the footman who had been ordered to assist Sir Walter, Mr. Knightly not keeping a man of his own, was an act of rare fortitude, draining the poor woman of almost every last ounce of energy yet remaining. When she fortified herself enough to enter the kitchen and gauge the progress being made there, she was almost entirely undone by the sight of a most unusual woman - genteel or not she could not tell - laughing bemusedly as she pulled several bizarre packages from a large bag, all made of some unrecognizable material, to the attentive audience of the entire kitchen staff. Upon spotting Mrs. Hodge, she abandoned her display to grasp the lady's hand familiarly, exclaiming in unusual accents: "And you must be Mrs. Hodge! To forgive me for the inexcusable predicament I have thrust you into. I had no notion of all the trouble I would cause, let alone that there might be any need for the practical necessities of daily life to be considered. I have nothing but my own ignorance to excuse me, which is rather shabby, don't you think?"

Finding herself expected to reply, Mrs. Hodges managed to murmur an ascent.

"I am doing my best to ease any difficulties until we can sort the whole fiasco out. You must let me know your needs, and I will see to them as best I can. I was fairly certain that Donwell was unlikely to be prepared for such a crowd as you are entertaining tonight, as I imagine Mr. Knightly usually entertains but seldom, and so went to the supermarket on your behalf. I know the plastic is strange to your eyes, but I assure oyu it is perfectly safe. Here are several roasts, all trimmed and ready for cooking. These are chicken breasts. As I was just explain to "Cook", as I understand she is called, that the bones have already been removed. Really rather inexcusable of Austen, is it not Mrs. Hodge, to have paid so little to head to the serving classes? You should be thankful for your name. That is a turkey. You will be unable to prepare it, I am afraid, for several days, for it is frozen. I do hope the rest it is enough to feed your guests. I know they will be expecting a great deal of protein. Had I though tofu might suffice, I would have brought you pounds of the stuff." 


"It's a bean curd product. Very nutritious, but no substitute for English mutton," she laughed. 

Mrs. Hodge tried to join in, but her failed smile was little more than awkward. Fortunately, the lady did not seem to mind.

"I think I can get a bushel of crabs tomorrow. No packaging, so they will appear just like you epect. Would that be satisfactory Cook?"

"Yes, ma'am. The master likes a buttered crab very well."

"Good. How I'm to sustain the grocery bill, I have no idea, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Mrs. Hodge, in spite of her troubles, was too thankful to anyone, no matter how strange, who was so willing to assist in overcoming the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of food preparation when there was no food to be found, without expressing her sincere gratitude. No matter if it came wrapped in strange film, compensation must be addressed, but the lady dismissed it, insisting that she would return later that evening to speak with the company upstairs, and instructing Mrs. Hodge to let Mr. Knightley know to expect her. It was only then that Mrs. Hodge thought to ask for her card. Again, she laughed inexplicably, exclaiming that she did not have one, but assuring the housekeeper that Mr. Knigtley would be happy to receive her, and causally informing the housekeeper of her name, just as if such a form of introduction was perfectly unexceptional, and departed.

"I'm grateful to the lady, no doubt of it, Mrs. Hodge," said the cook, after the door had closed behind her, "but I don't know why anyone would kill so many chickens and only cook the breasts. It makes one think the rest of 'em must still be running about somewhere."

Mrs. Hodge had no time to dwell on the implication of mutilated chickens. Seeing everyone go back to their work, she sought Mr. Knightley, only recently returned, and shared with him her tale of unexpected bounty.

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