‘Downton Abbey’ and the practicality of refrigerators

Deborah Mitchell - Contributing Columnist

Deborah Mitchell

Contributing Columnist


Max and I are latecomers to “Downton Abbey,” the PBS series about the Crawley family, British landed gentry in the early 20th century, and I am grateful that Amazon Prime allows us to watch it now.

The excellent series is set in 1912 at the sinking of the Titanic, and then follows the family through 1925. We have been fascinated by the historical parts of the series, including costuming, set design, and references to events in that time period. We have followed the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic, the introduction of electricity into the castles that serve as “home” to families with royal titles, the introduction of cars, women’s insisting on driving and working, World War I and the Teapot Dome Scandal from the British perspective, and the roles of gender and money in continuing British tradition and family responsibility.

As entertaining as the historical perspective is, we also enjoy the interaction of the well-developed characters. The Crawley family itself exhibits a mixture of generosity, “noblesse oblige,” and self-absorption, but the most interesting character relationships are of the staff – probably because we don’t have a staff and don’t understand how a pecking order among servants works.

The butler runs the house, the housekeeper runs the servant pool, and the head cook runs the kitchen. Each of these servants then manages a separate staff, including footmen, ladies’ maids, valets (pronounced, to my surprise, “vallets,” rhyming with “pallets”) and kitchen maids. For the most part, the servants are pleased with their lots in life, proud to be in the service industry, and proud to serve this particular family.

Probably because I like to cook, I am intrigued by what goes on in the kitchen. At the time of the beginning of the series, the house – and the kitchen, which is “down below” – had no electricity. I think of what that means and cringe! No Kitchen Aid mixer! No Cuisinart food processor! No immersion blender! No microwave, for heaven’s sake!

In one episode, Daisy, the cook’s assistant, mentions making hollandaise sauce – by hand, of course, because the kitchen had no blender. But Mrs. Patmore, the head cook, has everything under control. She has lists of complete menus and the recipes – she calls them “receipts” – to put those menus together. Each person in the kitchen has a job, and each gets it done.

Mrs. Patmore, however, is not too much in favor of change. She is quite comfortable with the way things have always been, and becomes somewhat discombobulated when something new happens. In one of the last episodes we saw, big change is coming to the kitchen in the form of a refrigerator. The old ice box will be no more, and all the food will be stored in the newfangled cooler. Even when she recognizes that she will no longer have to break up huge blocks of ice, Mrs. Patmore is somewhat leery. And after I thought about it, I understood.

Mrs. Patmore was being prescient. I’ve yet to meet anyone who is happy with his or her refrigerator. Oh, it looks all sleek and shiny and wonderful as it sits on the floor of Sears, or Lowe’s, or wherever a person buys refrigerators. But then it goes home, and its shelves are too wide or too narrow, it’s not deep enough or it’s too deep to see what’s at the back of the shelves, food spills all over it and it has to be cleaned out, lettuce or some other leafy green hides at the very back of the crisper until an observant owner looks down and says, “What’s that stuff?” Mrs. Patmore probably saw all that coming.

I wonder why someone hasn’t come up with a refrigerator design that is truly practical — maybe a refrigerator door that we can see through – THAT would keep it clean – and drawers that slide out like dresser drawers or those high-sided drawers in my great-grandmother’s Singer sewing machine. Then we could see what’s at the back just by pulling out the drawer. Until that day, though, I guess I will just have to side with Mrs. Patmore about refrigerators.

I wonder what she would think about freezers?

Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.

Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.

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