Downton Abbey and My Great-Grandmother

This probably doesn’t have much to do with intercultural relationships, but I still thought I would share.

A few months back the local NPR station was advertising the PBS Masterpiece Theater program “Downton Abbey” (which was originally a BBC production) during one of their fund drives. I didn’t take much notice at that point, but then a blog I occasionally look in on about a British housewife in Kenya recently mentioned the series and was relating it to hired help in the Kenyan context. I looked it up and the program was streaming on Netflix, so I thought I’d take a look.

I admit, I enjoyed it, and wound up quickly watching all 7 episodes. The series centers on an aristocratic titled family in the English countryside two years before WWI, and the servants that live and work in their house. The program does a good job at going back and forth between the two perspectives (family and hired help) and the dynamics between them.

But I also had another reason for having an interest in it. The show made me think about my maternal great-grandmother known to the family as “Nanny.”

I never knew Nanny. She came to the US on a White Star Line ship in steerage from Ireland around the time that this film took place (1912-1914) and died a year or two before my parents married. My aunt tracked down the manifest at Ellis Island from the ship and saw her signature, age, and amount of money she was carrying (a few dollars).

She arrived in the US and stayed with a sister and eventually applied to an advertisement to be a cook—for one of the richest men in America at that time—JD Rockefeller. I’m not sure if she realized it at the time of application. Apparently before Nanny took the position there was a Swedish cook that had a hot temper, and one night lost it at the butler and chased him with a kitchen knife and was promptly sacked.

Rockefeller sent Nanny to cooking school, and she worked for him at his Kykuit Estate in Sleepy Hollow, NY for nearly 20 years before she decided to leave so that she could marry. By the time she had my grandmother (an only child) my great-grandmother was in her 40s (conversely my grandmother married at 19 and had seven kids before she was widowed in her 40s).

Probably about ten years ago my aunt (the same aunt who tracked down Nanny’s ship manifest) took me to Kykuit so we could do a tour of the estate. We bought tickets, and followed the group and guide through all the fancy rooms that the Rockefellers lived in, but my aunt and I really wanted to see the servants’ quarters and the kitchen, where Nanny spent most of her time. Although it was still interesting to see the house, and the artwork and the gardens, the tour didn’t let us see where the workers lived. My aunt pulled the guide aside near the end of the tour and explained about Nanny, telling the two famous stories from the kitchen from our family lore:

1)      That Nanny had personally baked Rockefeller’s 90th birthday cake in 1930.

2)      When Nelson Rockefeller (later the governor of NY) was a little kid he used to come down to the kitchen to watch the cooks. One time he insisted on helping Nanny make cookies so she gave him some dough, but he wasn’t patient with it, and played too much until it became stiff and inedible. However since JD was such a stickler for waste he insisted that Nelson’s cookie disaster be baked, and he had to eat the bad cookies from the kitchen. Not to mention that Nanny supposedly used to scold Nelson by threatening to hit him with a wooden spoon (something my grandmother also used to do, although she never did make good on the threat).

The guide graciously asked us to stick around after the tour and snuck us to the kitchens to see where Nanny used to rule as the head cook. It was pretty neat.

Downton Abbey gave me some insights into what life must have been like for Nanny in the kitchen. Granted, she wasn’t in England, but the robber barons of the gilded age were pretty much American aristocracy, and the kitchens were filled with Irish and other immigrants. There was even a side story in one of the episodes about the head housekeeper who was contacted by a former suitor from twenty years before, and she had to decide if she was comfortable leaving the household and being in the “real world” again, or if she should stay serving the family until retirement. My great-grandmother probably had that same dilemma at some point—I’ve worked here for 20 years, however if I don’t leave now I might never have a family. Should I stay or should I go?

And now eighty years later, here I am, a byproduct of her decision.

I think I’ve mention this before, but after 20 years of cooking Nanny was  “done” with fancy cooking, and so she didn’t teach my grandmother that many dishes, or really any fancy dishes that she must have learned going to a cooking school. In turn, my mother also didn’t learn any particularly special dishes from either my grandmother or great-grandmother, and I too, didn’t learn. Most of the food I know how to make now is P-inspired South Asian cuisine, or stuff I experimented with myself!

I also never realized that P and I actually have something in common. P’s grandfather also worked in an aristocratic household– as a driver (Family Tree), kind of like my great-grandmother the cook.

3 responses to “Downton Abbey and My Great-Grandmother

  1. I enjoyed watching Downton Abbey as well, but don’t have anything to relate to like you do.

  2. I’ve recently become obsessed with PBS/BBC specials through Netflix streaming…so I’ll have to put this in my queue!

    I always feel a little odd thinking about servants because my grandmother worked in homes between high school and marrying my grandfather (about 7 years or so). From what I can tell, the women were pretty nasty to her, and at least one woman specifically mocked her for being the class valedictorian and told her it meant nothing (to the point that she purposely didn’t tell her kids for a long time). I’m sure no one qualified as an aristocrat :) but it definitely affects the way I think about hired help and classism.

  3. god, wonderful writeup

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