What’s in Store: Cooking up a storm

In this guest blog, Wenyu Dong fills us in on what she and fellow student Tori Harris-Burton have been doing during their work placement at Gallery Oldham as part of their MA in Museum Studies at the University of Manchester.

Our ‘What’s in Store’ exhibition introduces a new display that focuses on a rather day-to-day theme: cooking and the kitchen. We have selected a number of interesting objects from Oldham’s social history store, which are valuable not only for showing how people cooked in Oldham in the past, but also as a reflection of the food culture and changes in society. 

Image of a terracotta bowl with lid which would have been used to cool and store butter.

In these kitchen objects we always found how innovation and invention helped people to solve the challenges of life. For example, it is hard to imagine an ordinary clay jar could be a ‘refrigerator’ for storing butter.Clay was considered as an ideal material for kitchen utensils—cheap and easy to obtain, mouldable and lightweight with porous attributes that spreads heat and coolness for good preservation. The butter contained inside the pot could be left in at room temperature without splitting or being contaminated.

Likewise, the glazed ceramic pot can resist high temperatures, making the white pudding boiler challis a great addition to any kitchen. Simply place it over an open fire to make the pudding, while the handle and lanyard allow it to be hung and fixed.

Pudding boiler, white ceramic glazed bowl with metal top and handle with string for placing the pudding above a steaming pan to boil.

Although the kitchen appliances in display may seem outdated now, they are always in some way linked to the present. This 1960s ‘Tefal’ pressure cooker shows how people struggled to reduce time and energy costs in the kitchen. By expelling the air from the container and collecting the steam produced by boiling liquids, the pressure cooker allows cooking at much higher air pressure and temperature. It reduces cooking time to more than half and saves a great deal of energy. Even today, this kind of struggling still goes on, especially in the context the cost of living issue.

Not only that, but the gender issues embodied in these old kitchen objects provoked us to think. It is obvious that the users of kitchen appliances were considered to be mainly female, this is why this ingenious knife grinder was promoted as a ‘Servant’s friend’ or ‘Lady’s friend’, as women or servants were most often found in the kitchens cooking and cleaning. 

It is also evident that the ability to take care of a kitchen used to be a matter of whether women performed their duties well. How would you portray a happy day? Women in 1923 Oldham’s answer may not be the same as yours. Three or more children, 1 nursemaid, sun, lawn and trees, these made up a recipe of ‘Happy-Day Pudding’. Similarly, a ‘Marries Woman’s Happiness Cake’ calls for ‘a sprinkle of Interest in all your husband does’. 

In any case, change never stops in kitchens, for that it is not only about the objects, but also about the people and ideas within them.

Explore our collections further by visit Search the Gallery Oldham Collections webpage.

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