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Ten Dollars Enough

February 8, 2016
RQ reader Bridget emailed me last week to tell me about Ten Dollars Enough, by Catherine Owen, and. Guys. If any of the rest of you know about novel/cookbooks that include the prices of everything and also potentially people pulling brains out of calves’ heads, my inbox is open. Yeah, I forgot to check my blog email for, like, a year, but I’m checking it now.
The book was originally serialized in Good Housekeeping–basically it was a glorified cooking column, but there is a story, and the story does its job well. Harry and Molly Bishop have spent their first year of marriage living in a boarding house, and they’re sick of it. They’re not sure they can afford to live as well as they’d like on their small income, but when friends who are going abroad offer to rent them a small house for three months, they decide to make the experiment. They can afford to spend ten dollars a week on food, and Molly, who has been to a series of cooking schools and used to keep house for her mother, is convinced that she can make it work.

Molly doesn’t ever mess up in the kitchen. I sort of felt like Owen subtly altered her backstory as the story went on because she had to account for Molly’s expertise. At the beginning, you get the impression that she and another young wife have been to a few cooking classes together, but then the friend turns out to be a cooking instructor herself, who has involved Molly in her research and taught her scientific methods.  The few mishaps we do get are the fault of Marta, Molly’s German maid, who she seems to have hired straight off the boat. The treatment of servants in this book is pretty uncomfortable, actually. The overall message seems to be that foreign servants have a low mental capacity and the key to being satisfied with them is lowering your expectations. Anyway, Owen isn’t mean to Marta so much as vastly condescending, and Marta does teach Molly a few German recipes, which is cool. Mostly Marta is there so that Molly can instruct the reader through her. And there’s a lot to learn.
When Molly and Harry leave the boarding house, it sounds like they’re planning on lighter, simpler meals–Molly contrasts the “coarse abundance” of their boarding house breakfasts with a vision of an egg, bread and butter, and a decent cup of coffee. But then she produces breakfasts for Harry that…well, here’s an example: broiled lamb chops, eggs, tomato salad, muffins, and stewed potatoes. A dinner might consist of oysters, steak, a ragout of lamb, stuffed potatoes, lima beans, cheese canapes and lemon pie.
Owen acknowledges that Harry is a little spoiled, and the recipes get increasingly complicated as Owen tries to teach readers new skills, but it does seem a little excessive sometimes, and not just because meals were more elaborate in the 1880s. Molly and Harry dine as well as Harry’s parents, who have a much larger staff, and all their neighbors are impressed. But Owen sells it, mainly with Molly’s enthusiasm. I was reading chunks of the book to my mom last night, including a bit where Molly apologizes to a neighbor for reeling off three different dessert recipes over the course of a sentence, explaining that she loves cooking so much she can’t help it. And my mom and I were both like, “Yeah, I do that.”
Reading recipes can get boring after a while, and they are most of the book, by volume, so I don’t think this one is for everyone. But if you, like me and my mom and Molly and probably Catherine Owen, have ever found yourself enthusiastically recounting recipes, I think you’ll enjoy it a lot. Ten Dollars Enough makes me want to cook. Some of the recipes feel outdated–I don’t anticipate wanting to prepare a knuckle of veal anytime soon, or a fricassee of mutton, but I definitely want to try some of these recipes. I mean, I’m looking up where to buy suet.
In conclusion, two things:
1. If you read this and try any of the recipes, I want to hear about it.
2. I love books about people doing things. I love them so much.
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15 comments

  1. I don’t read cooking columns. I like your other book
    reviews better!


    • I don’t read cooking columns either–I just love food a lot. But don’t worry, there’s not enough of this kind of thing around to take up much of my reading time.


  2. This sounds kiiiiiind of amazing


    • It’s so much fun. I’ve been looking at historical recipes for days.


  3. This book is mentioned in “Perfection Salad,” which is about how American cooking was influenced by cooking schools and experts like Fanny Farmer. I can hardly wait to read this.

    http://www.amazon.com/Perfection-Salad-Cooking-Century-California/dp/0520257383


    • Oh, that book looks really cool. Ten Dollars Enough is very much on the early end of the scientific cooking movement. I looked around for similar books afterwards, and it was funny to go from Owen specifying, like, a lump of butter the size of a walnut to an author twenty years later reminding readers that all measurements are level.


  4. And two more by Catherine Owen, because I loved reading about this stuff – Molly Bishop’s Family & Progressive Housekeeping.

    Molly Bishop’s Family is a continuation of Ten Dollars in the same style but with more than just recipes. Progressive Housekeeping is a general manual of how to clean a house for a complete newbie. 1880s style. You can read them both on line but not I think at Project Gutenberg.

    All I can say is that my our great great grandmothers worked far harder before breakfast than I do in a week.

    And thank you to Melanie for having this blog where I can both read & talk about books like these.


    • Oh, excellent. I looked around for other story/cookbooks on Gutenberg after I finished Ten Dollars Enough, and I found a few, but none of them were as engaging (although a couple were very beautifully illustrated).


  5. Caroline French Benton wrote “Living on Little” in 1918, and Louise Bennett Weaver och Helen Cowles LeCron wrote a similare book in 1917, “A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband”. You can find them both on Gutenberg.


    • I’ve looked at A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband, and it didn’t do much for me as a story, although I loved the illustrations. I’ll check ou tthe other one.


      • The second ‘Bettina and Bob’ book is called “A Thousand Ways to Please a Family” and is written on similar lines.


  6. The title is making me antsy. Does it need an apostrophe, like ten dollars’ worth? Or is it stating the thesis of the book, that Ten Dollars Is Enough for a couple to live on per week? I find the lack of punctuation disturbing.


    • I have one thing to say to this and that is: ditto.


  7. I read this a little while ago, and I could not believe the degree of garnishing/presentation involved. (Form little cones of mashed turnip and mashed carrot, alternating, around the edge of the dish…) I will undertake that sort of finicky time-consuming nonsense for a tea party, because it is kind of fun to do occasionally, but for daily food? NOPE. (also, I like my food to be hot, and if you’re spending that much time garnishing it, it’s not going to be still at its ideal temperature when it gets to the table – many of the Fancy Meals I have had in restaurants, with composed plates, have had entrees which have fallen under this as well – I would rather have the food at the temperature it tastes best and not structured like an adorable tiny log cabin than have it be arranged stunningly with tweezers but with its fat slowly congealing.)

    Also, I do not buy that a kid would be as cool in a “light flannel” as they would in a plain-weave unbrushed thin cotton fabric, but maybe their flannel was different from modern flannel?

    Regarding the servant question: I have noticed, in various working roles, that 1. not everyone does things by intuition or cross-applying skills, and what is blindingly obvious to one person is opaque to another, and 2. it is hard mental work to do the organizing, and hard physical work to haul/wash/peel/etc., and it probably is beyond many people’s strength/capability to do both, especially at the same time. But yes, poor Marta doesn’t get a very fair shake. There were surprisingly few misunderstandings, given the language and cultural barrier *and* the supposed newness to cookery *and* the fanciness of the menus, but the author also had her hit her competence “ceiling” surprisingly early (from my point of view). My general experience with cooking is that there is an initial “don’t know how to do it at all” learning stage, then “can do it slowly and carefully with a recipe, possibly making some minor mistakes”, then a gradual improvement until more rapid, accurate results occur, at which point multitasking can be introduced, as someone gets accustomed to what a recipe “looks like” at each stage and no longer has to refer as much to the written recipe and details of the instructions.

    Anyway, yes, a fascinating book! Not going to be rushing out to buy suet myself, though if you have success with the recipes, I’d be interested to hear about it!


    • I think prioritizing presentation over temperature is a sign of not actually a very good restaurant. In my experience, the really nice places keep things minimal, or save their flourishes for cold dishes. Or make the food look attractive in itself.

      I’ve never really understood the flannel thing myself–it also seems to be the fabric of choice for athletic clothing in a lot of old books.

      I think I mostly agree with what you’re saying about learning. What I had an issue with was Marta hitting her competence ceiling early–that’s a really good way to put it–and the implication that she and any other foreign servants were necessarily going to have a very low competence ceiling.



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