The Way it Used to Be: Rememberances of Senteur de Boue

by Jean Senteur de Boue, Cressy and Associates


Back when Senteur de Boue's ancestors lived in France, things were a bit different than they are in Bakersfield today. As it turns out, many of our cherished customs and sayings date back to those times when life was simpler, more practical, and perhaps not as tidy as today. Below are a few examples imparted to us by Senteur himself.

Most folks had June weddings because they took their yearly baths in May, and they were still smelling pretty good by June, which was a time of leisure after the spring plantings had finished. However, a June wedding was still a couple of weeks past that annual bath, sometimes a month past, and most folks were starting to smell a bit on nuptials day. Thus, wise brides took the precaution of carrying bouquets of flowers to hide the B.O.

Baths in those days required considerable effort to fill a large tub with hot water, for the water had to be carried into the house by a bucket that was heated on a wood or coal fire. The man of the household had the privilege of enjoying the nice clean bath water first. His sons had their turns next, followed by other male members of the household, then the women, and finally the children. Last of all the babies were washed. By then, the bath water was so dirty that you could actually loose someone in it. Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water".

Most homes had thatched roofs, made of thick straw piled high with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so pet dogs and cats, along with other creatures like rats, mice and bugs, lived in the roof. When it rained, the thatch became slippery, sometimes causing animals to slip and fall off. Hence the saying, "It's raining cats and dogs".

Because of thatch roofs, there was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up a nice clean bed. However, folks found that if they made beds with big posts and hung a sheet over the top, it addressed that problem. Hence, those beautiful big four-poster beds with canopies.

The floors of most houses were dirt, and only the wealthy had something nicer to walk on. Hence the Saying "dirt poor". The very wealthy had slate floors that got wet and slippery during rainy weather. So folks would spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As winter wore on, they would add more and more thresh until when one opened the door, thresh would start slipping outside. To prevent this, a piece of wood was placed at the entryway. Hence, they made a "thresh hold".

Meals were cooked in a big cast iron pot, the infamous "Dutch Oven" that always hung over the fire. Every day folks lit the fire and added more food to the pot. Because many were poor, they ate mostly vegetables and didn't get much meat. Folks would eat this vegetable stew for days, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight before starting up the fire for the next meal. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there for days. Hence the rhyme: "peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old".

For most people, meat was a luxury. Sometimes folks would get some pork, and they would feel really special. So when company came over, the generous host would bring out the bacon and hang it out to show it off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could "bring home the bacon". Thus, when company came, folks would cut off a little piece of pork to share with guests, and everyone would sit around and "chew the fat".

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Unfortunately, foods with high acid content caused some of the lead in the pewter to leach out onto the food, giving dinner a bit of an unpleasant taste. This happened most often with tomatoes, so folks stopped eating tomatoes . . . for 400 years. Most people didn't have pewter plates, but had trenchers instead—a bowl-shaped piece of wood with the middle scooped out. Trenchers were never washed and often worms got into the wood. After eating off of wormy trenchers, many people got "trench mouth".

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the "upper crust".

Pewter cups were used to drink ale or whiskey, and sometimes the combination of lead and booze would knock the drinker out for a couple of days. If someone had the misfortune of passing out in the road in a drunken stupor, a common occurrence, friends or family might find them, take them for dead, and prepare them for burial. As a precaution, the "deceased" were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days. Then family would gather around to eat, drink, and while away the hours telling jokes as they waited to see if the deceased would come to. Hence, the custom of "holding a wake".

Because French villages are old and small, with closely spaced houses, folks started running out of places near the church to bury people. So, they would dig up coffins, relocate the bones within to a house, and re-use the grave. When some of these coffins were reopened, many (some say one out of 25) were found to have scratch marks on the inside. To their horror, people realized that they had been burying their friends and loved ones alive (in other words, a "wake" had not been held prior to internment). So folks came up with the idea of tying a string on the wrist of the presumed corpse, leading the string through a hole in the coffin, up through the ground, and tying the string to a bell. Someone would then have to sit out in the graveyard all night listening for the bell. Hence, on the "graveyard shift" of midnight to morning, the deceased was either "saved by the bell", or a "dead ringer" when the shift was up.

Toilet paper is a modern luxury, and people in those days, if they bothered at all, kept themselves clean with a bucket of water. Common sense dictated that the hand used for this task was not the same hand used to bring food to the mouth at meal times. Hence, the unclean hand wielded the knife, and the clean hand held the food or used the fork. Thus, proper Frenchmen, such as Senteur, keep their fork in the same hand when they eat. One wonders why American etiquette dictates that people cut their meat with their fork in the "clean hand" then change the fork to the other hand to eat.


When pigs fly