Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[68] Cooking with Gas

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It’s time to start another thread about how we used to prepare and cook food, which was very different then, and I need to start by looking at kitchens. Kitchens were smaller and simpler then. The kitchen has grown over the years and now many houses have a separate utility room for things we used to do in the kitchen. Washing and dishwashing will come in a separate blog.

Kitchens

It will come as no surprise that we did not have fan ovens, microwave ovens, food mixers, toasted sandwich makers, coffee machines, dishwashers, automatic washing machines and just about everything associated with a modern kitchen. We didn’t even have electric kettles. We did not have freezers or even refrigerators. (As you know frozen food was virtually non-existent.) You can see something about how we managed without mod cons in [45] Electrical Goods. Our fist electrical equipment would have been a toaster.

It was not a fitted kitchen as you would see nowadays. The sink was large and ceramic, what we now call a butler sink, with metal taps delivering hot and cold water (through metal pipes – no plastic!) The draining board at its side was wooden. Instead of the units which make a modern kitchen, there may have been two or three (movable) cupboard units, made of wood and perhaps some small shelves or cupboards fixed to the wall.

There were no worktops like those we have now. A small kitchen table, used at times for eating, functioned as a worktop. The nearest thing to a work surface was a wooden breadboard or chopping board.

BletchleyCooker

 

Pictured above is a reconstruction of a kitchen from the forties (taken recently at the museum in Bletchley Park). What we had in the fifties and early sixties was very similar. You can click on the picture and expand to show some detail. At the back you can just see the large ceramic sink and wooden draining board. There was always washing up to be done.

Ovens

The oven shown above is similar to ours. They were almost all gas ovens. Electricity was too expensive to use for cooking and not easy to control. What is not clear in this picture is that it was connected by a flexible pipe to a gas supply socket. You could just turn off the gas and unplug the oven. Gas fires were like that, you could move them from room to room. (Health and safety was never a big issue!)

You will remember from [6] Heating that gas was not the natural gas as we use today. It was a by-product of turning coal into coke, a product which is now itself obsolete.

We lit the gas with a lighted match, slightly more difficult for the oven. Later we had handheld gas-lighters using flint, which were not much easier. (There may have been a piezo-electric version. I’m not sure.)

The cooker – we called it an oven – had the same basic structure as you might expect now with four separate burners on the hob. The grill unit came underneath the hob. The plate rack at the top was useful for warming plates as you cooked.

Temperature regulation used the ‘gas mark’ or gas ‘Regulo’ scale of ¼, ½, 1, 2 … to 9. The lower and higher ones were rarely used and we had to allow for variation in the oven. Without fans it was well known that temperature varied a lot in an oven. Recipes would specify ‘middle shelf’ or ‘top shelf.’ (Later, temperature controls changed to approximate Fahrenheit temperatures, then to Centigrade – what we know call Celsius.)

Some other modern conveniences that we did not have for our ovens included automatic timing, overhead extractor fans, glass oven doors and oven lights. For those who had them, oven gloves were made of that well known and well used insulating material, asbestos!

cooker01

This one is slightly more modern, perhaps the sixties. The pans on the top are too modern. Our modern one from the sixties had a tiny pilot light (a continuing gas flame) which made lighting the gas a bit easier.

Food storage

The cupboards were for crockery and pots and pans. Almost all food was stored in a large cupboard in the kitchen, known as a larder. It went from floor to ceiling with shelves at the back, almost a walk-in cupboard. The larder was by an external wall and had an air-brick to allow air from outside to circulate.

We had nothing for food remotely resembling ‘sell by’ dates or ‘best before.’ Dried goods such as tea, flour, sugar, rice, raisins and dried herbs were effectively assumed to last forever. (We didn’t have fresh herbs.) The same was true for preserved goods like jam, marmalade and tomato ketchup. These would last forever until opened and perhaps for weeks or months once they were opened.

We had no refrigerator until about 1960 but we used bread, butter, margarine, lard, eggs, cheese, milk and meat, all of which would now be considered of limited shelf life. Opened packets of butter went into covered butter dishes and the same applied to cheese.

(Cheese in those days was different. Ours was always Cheddar, a large piece cut at the shop from a much larger block. It came with a hard layer of rind on the outside. The rind was the best bit. If we left it so long that parts became mouldy, we would cut off the mouldy bit and eat the rest.)

Without preservatives and airtight wrapping, you can understand the need to shop much more frequently, often buying food on the day it would be eaten. We virtually never threw out unwanted food. Part of the housewife’s job was using the food that would not keep much longer, sometimes including leftovers.

Two types of food deserve special mention. Vegetables, often bought on the day of use (having come from Covent Garden in the early morning, so possibly consumed within a day or two of picking) could just go in a vegetable rack in the kitchen. Sometimes our vegetable rack was outside in the back garden. Vegetables would keep for a few days if required.

Meat storage

It is hard to imagine now but uncooked meat could not be stored in a refrigerator because we did not have one! It was bought from the butcher’s shop, where it would have been cut with a large butcher’s knife (or chopper) on a large wooden block and was not wrapped in an airtight package. It might have been just loosely covered in something like greaseproof paper. (Clingfilm did not exist.)

Often it would be cooked on the day of purchase but we had something called a meat ‘safe,’ an inverted close-mesh wire metal basket. Meat on a plate would be covered so that air could circulate but flies were kept off. At our second house the safe was kept in the garage, generally the coolest place in the house.

We even managed to keep cooked meat and leftovers. Turkey at Christmas kept us going for a week. When I see anywhere cooking food today there are all sorts of well displayed certificates about food hygiene training and the careful separation of cooked and uncooked meats etc. Either Mum had been well taught or we all were lucky not to die of food poisoning!

Utensils

I won’t be able to squeeze in food preparation or cooking yet, but I will end with a look at basic kitchen utensils. There were not many. I can’t find good pictures because so many apparently ‘antique’ pictures show plastic goods (which we did not have) and include things like spaghetti spoons. (We had macaroni. Like rice, it was a pudding.) All of our utensils were made of wood or metal, sometimes metal with wooden handles.

Modern kitchens now have a set of kitchen knives in about six different sizes. We had one large knife, which we called the ‘sharp knife,’ (which meant not a table knife.) There was also a bread knife, a carving knife and two smaller knives of limited usefulness.

Again in a way like modern kitchens we had six larger implements hanging in a rack. Most were hardly ever used – a ladle (presumably for soup, which did not feature in our usual meals,) a potato masher (possibly used for shepherd’s pie but at home not for mashed potatoes,) a palette knife (only ever used to smooth icing on large cakes) and a large spoon with holes (useful for dumplings.)

whisk jellydishes

The hand whisk was essential for mixing things together and adding air. It could turn cream into whipped cream and made meringues from egg whites. And it made one of my favourites – milk jelly, whipped to a foam before setting. You can see jelly dishes in the picture.

Whisk

The single handed whisk, shown above, came later. (Pictured versions are much more modern.)

Fishslice1I am despairing for pictures. This is nothing like our old fish slice. I even have an old one in the kitchen that’s much better, with a wooden handle. But we did have one, a thin flat metal implement, for anything fried. I don’t know why it’s called a fish slice as we didn’t fry fish in a frying pan. We used it for bacon, fried eggs, sausages, mushrooms, all the things that made a cooked breakfast. And anything else fried. (I will come to frying later but we never used cooking oils, only fats – normally lard, and butter for omelettes.)

colander Cheese_Grater lemonjuicer

There were just a few more things. The colander was used every day for straining greens; a wooden spoon was generally used in making cakes; and the cheesed grater and lemon juicer were in the cupboard for occasional use.

[You already know about toasting forks from [36] Miscellany (2) ]

 

Of course the utensil used most often was the potato peeler, of which more later …

And I haven’t forgotten the rolling pin. We used to make pastry, not buy it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

7 thoughts on “[68] Cooking with Gas

  1. That first oven was just like the one we had. I am enjoying remembering a life which was so far removed to now and yet where I live many people are trying to live as simply as possible like the old days. I still really like hard hard cheese. Joy

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