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The Problem with Harrods Catering

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posted by alias raaen99 on Sunday 5th of September 2021 07:00:02 AM

Cavendish Mews is a smart set of flats in Mayfair where flapper and modern woman, the Honourable Lettice Chetwynd has set up home after coming of age and gaining her allowance. To supplement her already generous allowance, and to break away from dependence upon her family, Lettice has established herself as a society interior designer, so her flat is decorated with a mixture of elegant antique Georgian pieces and modern Art Deco furnishings, using it as a showroom for what she can offer to her well heeled clients. Today we are in the very modern and up-to-date 1920s kitchen of Lettice’s flat: usually Edith her maid’s preserve. However, this afternoon it has been invaded since four o’clock by several of the catering staff of the nearby Harrods department store. Two of Lettice’s Embassy Club coterie of bright young things are getting married: Dickie Channon, eldest surviving son of the Marquess of Taunton, and Margot de Virre, only daughter of Lord Charles and Lady Lucie de Virre. Lettice is hosting an exclusive buffet supper party in their honour this evening, which is turning out to be one of the events of the 1921 London Season. Over the last few days the flat has been in upheaval as Edith and Lettice’s charwoman* Mrs. Boothby have been cleaning the flat thoroughly in preparation for the occasion. Earlier today with the help of a few hired men they moved some of the furnishings in Lettice’s drawing room into the spare bedroom to make space for the hired band and for the guests to dance and mingle. Lettice has fled her flat for the day to avoid all the upheaval and keep out of the way of her servants and hired staff. Harrods delivered the alcohol this morning, the florist delivered some amazing floral arrangements at midday and now the caterers from Harrods are filling Edith’s preserve with a cacophony of chatter and the clatter of food preparation. Edith stands in a corner of her kitchen, dressed in her afternoon uniform of black silk moiré with her special lace collar, cuffs, lace trimmed apron and pleated headpiece kept for formal occasions. She carefully observes the three caterers wearing white aprons to protect their green Harrods uniforms as they busily work on different tasks around Edith’s central deal kitchen table. One artfully lays out a range of Macfarlane Lang Homestead cracker biscuits on one of the silver trays that Lettice has borrowed from her parents’ estate. The caterer carefully leaves space for several fluted glass bowls in which he has already scooped and garnished some brightly coloured salmon dip and French onion dip which he made upon arrival at Lettice’s flat. The second skilfully assembles vol-au-vents filled with spiced mushroom pâte and savoury petit fours of egg and lettuce, ham and tomato, lettuce tomato and cucumber and cured meats onto another of Lettice’s family silver trays. A second, smaller tray has a bowl of caviar and several petit fours topped with caviar and wedges of lemon ready to be served. The third caterer is busily assembling a tray of thin triangular sandwiches filled with egg mayonnaise, cucumber and lettuce, tomato and cheese, ham and tomato and ham and cucumber fillings. Their fingers dance across their work as they laugh and chatter lightly with one another, however their conversation does not extend to Edith whom they seem quite happy to ignore. “My goodness,” Edith remarks at length. “How swiftly you work, gentlemen.” “Time is of the essence.” one of the men deigns to reply. “There is no time to waste.” “Oh,” Edith replies quietly retreating a little further from the table, feeling somewhat rebuked for interrupting the men. “What time do your mistress’ guests arrive, girl?” snaps the head caterer as he completes another perfect petit four of egg and lettuce. “Ahh,” Edith stammers nervously. “The invitation is for eight, err… I think.” “Think? You think?” he splutters incredulously. “You aren’t here to think, girl! I asked you a question. Now answer it!” “Sorry, sir,” Edith mumbles. “Yes, yes, eight o’clock, sir.” “What was that girl?” he barks distractedly as he reaches for an empty vol-au-vent case. “Stop muttering would you!” “Yes sir,” Edith replies, trying to add confidence to her voice as she raises her voice. “Eight o’clock sir.” “And how many guests?” he demands in reply. “About one hundred and twenty.” Edith responds. “About? About?” The head caterer’s eyes widen and his face reddens like a beetroot as he retorts, “Catering is a precise business, girl! Even a stupid lump like you should know that! I didn’t ask for abouts, I want to know how many guests are coming, and I want an answer!” Mustering all her courage and resolve Edith counters, “And I’ve answered it as best as I can for you, sir. I’m afraid that I’m not privy to my mistress’ exact number of guests. When I asked her, she told me around one hundred and twenty guests.” “Useless, useless girl!” the head caterer carps as he returns to his task. “Very good gentlemen,” he continues more kindly as he addresses his companions whilst glancing up at the kitchen clock hanging on the wall. “We’re doing splendidly for time.” “Did you ever doubt it, Walter?” the caterer filling sandwiches replies. “Never!” Walter, the head caterer answers back, smiling proudly. “We are a well-oiled machine.” His smile vanishes as his gaze falls upon Edith and his lips purse in disapproval. The youngest caterer, the one creating the sandwiches, looks over to his left and gives Edith a momentarily smile, which she returns, feeling a little relief that at least one of the three Harrods staff was a little kinder than the others. Emboldened by his engagement with her, she addresses the youngest man. “Can I help in any way,” she asks timidly with a small smile. “The best thing you can do,” Walter snaps, looking up and glaring at Edith. “Is to keep out of our way, you stupid girl, and speak only when spoken to!” Edith feels tears of embarrassment and shame start to sting her eyes as she lowers her head. She reaches into the pocket of her dress and withdraws a small white handkerchief and discreetly dabs at her eyes. “It’s alright Miss,” the younger man says kindly in reply to Edith’s offer. “It’s good of you to offer, but we all know what our allocated tasks are. We can manage fine.” “I could do with a spot of refreshment to keep my gears greased,” remarks the caterer setting out the biscuits. Looking up from his work, he spies Edith standing quietly by the stove, her hands folded meekly before her. “You there girl!” he addresses her loftily, as if seeing her for the first time. “Do something useful girl and put on the kettle and make Mr. Rowntree,” He looks at Walter. “Mr. Brown,” He looks at the youngest caterer. “And myself a pot of tea! Now girl!” “Yes sir,” Edith replies and catches herself just in time to stop herself from curtseying to the haughty caterer. The young girl picks up the brightly polished kettle and walks across the room and over to the sink where she fills it. Walking back, she heaves the heavy vessel onto the shelf beside the stovetop and reaches out to move one of the large copper pots of consommé boiling on the stovetop to one of the rear burners. “Stop!” Walter cries out, almost causing Edith to spill the boiling contents of the pot on herself as she jumps anxiously. “Don’t touch that!” “But sir,” she answers. “The kettle is too heavy for me to lift over the pot. I shall burn myself if I try.” “You can’t just go moving that consommé to another burner, you stupid, stupid girl!” blusters Walter angrily. “That is sitting at perfect simmering temperature. Burn yourself for all I care, but you are not to move that pot! Who the bloody hell do you think you are?” “And ooh the bloody ‘ell do you fink you are?” comes a cockney voice from the diagonally opposite corner of the kitchen. All eyes turn in surprise to the door leading from the service stairs into the kitchen, where Mrs. Boothby, Lettice’s charwoman*, stands. Arrayed in a long blue coat, she has a fox fur stole draped about her shoulders whilst on her head sits a pre-war toque of navy blue. Her rangy figure bristles with anger as her beaded blue bag and her umbrella in her hands and the single peacock feather aigrette sticking out of her toque tremble with the anger radiating from her. Raising her chin, she draws herself up to her full height as she glares with eyes aflame at the head caterer from Harrods. “Who?” Walter splutters, as much startled as the others by the woman’s sudden appearance in the doorway. “Nah! Nah!” Mrs. Boothby replies, shaking her head at him as she steps purposefully across the room. “I asked you a question,” She pokes the man sharply in the chest with a bony right index finger. “And I believe that a gentleman answers a lady’s question. Nah! I’ll ask you again, since it seems to me that youse maybe ‘ard of ‘earing. Oooh the bloody ‘ell are you, to be bullying this ‘ere young girl?” She pokes him again for good measure. “I’m Walter Rountree, head cater of Harrod’s catering department.” he replies pompously, pulling himself up to his full height, looking down his nose imperiously at Mrs. Boothby. “Who are you, old woman, to come barging in here like this?” The youngest caterer utters a snorting laugh which he quickly extinguishes as the Cockney woman’s beady eyes momentarily snap from Water’s face and glare at him. “I,” Mrs. Boothby sneers with a set, square jaw. “Am Mrs. Boothby, ‘ousekeeper for the ‘Onourable Miss Lettice Chetwynd, Mr. Walter Rowntree of ‘Arrods catering!” She pokes him sharply again, and this time Water backs away slightly. “And I am responsible for this ‘ere girl’s well bein’. And,” she adds forcefully. “I don’t like the way you’re addressin’ ‘er!” “I don’t think I rightly care, Mrs. Boothby.” he blusters in reply. “I know now who to blame for this girl’s inability to answer the simplest of questions.” A tense silence falls across the room, with the other two caterers standing mid activity, poised with knife or spoon in hand and poor Edith cowering by the stove, all watching the stand off between the haughty head caterer and the old cockney woman. Only the ticking of the clock on the wall and the distant rumble of traffic through the ajar kitchen window breaks the silence. “Well, Mr. Walter Rowntree of ‘Arrods catering,” Mrs. Boothby continues undaunted. “I think you will when Mr. Cowling, the ‘ead of catering learns ‘ow you bullied a young and defenceless girl, what I left ‘ere to oversee your work whilst I was out on business.” She pauses and then adds. “It is Mr. Cowling what sent you ‘ere, wan it?” The other two caters gasp at the mention of their superior’s name, giving Mrs. Boothby the advantage that she needs to bolster her bravado. Glancing momentarily at the other two men she proceeds, “And, I don’t think Mr. Cowling would be terribly pleased to ‘ear that the actions of you, Mr.?” She raises a black leather glove clad hand to the caterer arranging the biscuits and dips. “Err, Mr.?” “Mr. Jones, Ma’am.” “And you, Mr. err?” the old woman looks sharply at the young man standing over the sandwiches. “Brown, Ma’am.” Returning her gaze to Walter, Mrs. Boothby completes her sentence with names. “I don’t think Mr. Cowling would be terribly pleased to ‘ear that the actions of Mr. Jones, Mr. Brown, or you Mr. Walter Rowntree of ‘Arrods catering, were to blame for the sudden wivdrawl of the patronage of the ‘Onourable Miss Lettice Chetwynd, ‘er parents the Viscount and Countess of Wrexham, or the Marquess and Marchioness of Taunton, what’s son and future daughter-in-law tonight’s party is being ‘eld in ‘onour of, from the hestalishment of ‘Arrods Department Store, nah would ‘e?” No-one responds to her at first. “Well… no.” Walter finally replies, breaking the stunned silence enveloping the others in the room. “No, he wouldn’t.” “Well then,” Mrs. Boothby smiles thinly. “I suggest that you apologise to Edith ‘ere right nah, and if youse does it nicely, I might just forget this whole sorry business and not tell my Mistress what disgraceful behaviour I’ve seen ‘ere today. Hhhmmm?” Walter blanches as she smiles smugly at him before slowly turning back to Edith and the other two men, who still stand goggle eyed and white faced at he and Mrs. Boothby. He clears his throat awkwardly. “Err… I’m sorry, Miss. I didn’t mean to be so abrupt.” “Or rude and abnoxious,” Mrs. Boothby pipes up helpfully. “Err, yes, or rude or obnoxious. I hope you will forgive me.” Edith doesn’t reply, too stanned by what has just taken place in her kitchen. Mrs. Boothby releases a long breath of satisfaction at Walter’s apology, resulting in one of her nasty fruity smokers’ coughs bursting forth, wracking her body. “Oh Mrs. Boothby, are you alright?” Edith gasps, rushing over to the old woman. “Here, let me get you a glass of water.” The old Cockney woman bats Edith’s attentions away with a waving hand as she regains her composure. “I’m alright, dearie,” she gasps breathlessly. “Nah, grab that box of champagne bottles what’s sittin’ up there and come wiv me. We best stock the cocktail cabinet before Miss Chetwynd gets ‘ome.” “Yes Mrs. Boothby!” Edith replies, dropping a curtsey at the imposing woman’s instructions. Edith picks up the box the Cockney woman indicated to and takes it towards the green baize door that leads into the flat’s dining room, and still dressed in her coat, fur and hat, complete with umbrella and beaded bag on her arm, Mrs. Boothby follows. Turning back to the three men, Mrs. Boothby addresses the youngest as an afterthought. “’Ere Mr. Brown, put the kettle on would you and make us a cup of Rosie Lee** would you?” “Yes ma’am.” he replies meekly. “Ta!” Mrs. Boothby acknowledges before following Edith through the door. Edith and Mrs. Boothby giggle as they scuttle across the dining room and out of any possible earshot of the three Harrods caterers. “Oh, Mrs. Boothby,” Edith gasps as she puts the crate of champagne on the empty dining table. “I don’t know how to thank you.” “Humph!” Mrs. Boothby sniffs, looking back to the door leading to the kitchen. “We may not all ‘ave the vote*** yet, but that don’t mean that little men like ‘im can treat us women like rubbish.” “But, but how did you know his manager was Mr. Cowling, Mrs. Boothby?” Edith asks. The old Cockney woman smiles broadly. “Easy! I read ‘is name this mornin’ on the docket on Miss Lettice’s desk when I was tidying.” Both women chuckle as the start to sort out the bottles in the crate. *A charwoman, chargirl, or char, jokingly charlady, is an old-fashioned occupational term, referring to a paid part-time worker who comes into a house or other building to clean it for a few hours of a day or week, as opposed to a maid, who usually lives as part of the household within the structure of domestic service. In the 1920s, chars usually did all the hard graft work that paid live-in domestics would no longer do as they looked for excuses to leave domestic service for better paying work in offices and factories. **Rosie-Lee is Cockney slang for tea, and it is one of the most well-known of all Cockney rhyming slang. ***In 1921 when this story is set, not every woman in Britain had the right to vote. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed which allowed women over the age of thirty who met a property qualification to vote. Although eight and a half million women met this criteria, it was only about two-thirds of the total population of women in Britain. It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women over twenty-one were able to vote and women finally achieved the same voting rights as men. This act increased the number of women eligible to vote to fifteen million. This busy domestic kitchen scene is a little different to what you might think, for it is made up entirely of 1:12 size dollhouse miniatures from my miniatures collection. Fun things to look for in this tableau include: On Edith’s deal table delicious canapés are being prepared for the party. The plate of sandwiches, the silver tray of biscuits and the bowls of dips, most of the savoury petite fours on the silver tray closest to the camera and the two white bowls containing salmon dip and egg mayonnaise were made in England by hand from clay by former chef turned miniature artisan, Frances Knight. Her work is incredibly detailed and realistic, and she says that she draws her inspiration from her years as a chef and her imagination. The loaf of bread with the slices hanging off it is made by Polly’s Pantry Miniatures in America. The ripe red tomatoes in the Cornishware bowl are made by hand by Beautifully Handmade Miniatures in Kettering, whilst the sliced pieces of tomato on the chopping board come from The Dollhouse Suppliers in England, who specialise in hand made fruit and vegetables made from Fimo and dried air clay. The bowl of caviar was made by Karen Lady Bug Miniatures in England. The very real looking lettuce lying next to the bread I bought along with a few other vegetables, including the cucumber on the chopping board, from an auction house some years ago. The jars of herbs and lemon slices are also 1:12 miniatures, made of real glass with real cork stoppers in them which I also bought from an auction and have had for many years. The tin of Macfarlane Lang’s Homestead Biscuits features a 1920s design on its lid. It was purchased from Shepherd’s Miniatures in England. Macfarlane Lang and Company began as Lang’s bakery in 1817, before becoming MacFarlane Lang in 1841. The first biscuit factory opened in 1886 and changed its name to MacFarlane Lang and Co. in the same year. The business then opened a factory in Fulham, London in 1903, and in 1904 became MacFarlane Lang & Co. Ltd. In 1948 it formed United Biscuits Ltd. along with McVitie and Price. The tray that the caviar is sitting on and the champagne bucket sitting on the bench in the background are made by Warwick Miniatures in Ireland, who are well known for the quality and detail applied to their pieces. The Harrod’s crate sitting next to the champagne bucket on the kitchen bench in the background I purchased from an EBay seller in the United Kingdom. It is full of bottles of Deutz and Geldermann and De Rochegré champagne. All are artisan miniatures and made of glass and some have real foil wrapped around their necks. They are made by Little Things Dollhouse Miniatures in Lancashire. On the first shelf of dresser that can be seen just to the right of shot stands the Deftware kitchen tea set. Each piece features the traditional painting of a windmill. To the left of the dresser, a spice cabinet with six marked drawers hangs from the wall. I have had that piece since I was around eight years old. Also hanging on the wall are three copper frypans with black metal handles which, along with the copper pots and kettle on the stove came from a specialist dollhouse supplier. Edith’s Windsor chair, just visible beyond the heavily covered table, is a hand-turned 1:12 artisan miniature which came from America. Unfortunately, the artist did not carve their name under the seat, but it is definitely an unmarked artisan piece. In the background you can see a very modern and up-to-date 1920s gas stove. It would have been expensive to instal at the time, and it would have been the cook’s or maid’s pleasure to cook on and in. It would have included a thermostat for perfect cooking and without the need of coal, it was much cleaner to feed, use and easier to clean. It is not unlike those made by the Roper Stove Company in the 1920s. The Roper Stove Company previously named the Florence-Wehrle Company among other names, was founded in 1883. Located in Newark, Ohio, the company was once the largest stove producer in the world. Today, the Roper Stove Company is a brand of Whirlpool.

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