It’s time for more about food and how we used to prepare and cook food. You will have read about our kitchens in Blog number  and a little about cooking utensils. (If you haven’t read it, there’s time to go back now. I will wait for you to finish. Then come back here.)
With the usual proviso about sweeping generalizations, you will understand that we only ever ate at home and food was always cooked from basic ingredients. (Yes, we had tinned baked beans, dried herbs, even Bisto powder but we certainly didn’t have frozen pastry. Read on.)
The kitchen able was the only worktop where most of the action took place.
I’m starting with a diversion because of the picture above. I was half way through writing this when I found it and it seemed so appropriate for this blog. It looks like a modern, carefully set up arrangement for a museum, probably more thirties or forties than fifties but the table and chairs, and everything on the table, look right. It also shows an open fire with the sort of metal grill fireguard that was one of our few items of Health and Safety! (I think it’s a range on the left, which would pre-date gas cookers.)
Fresh vegetables were in no way prepared. Potatoes were covered in earth and had to be washed before they were peeled. Even when peeled they had ‘eyes’ and other nasty bits to be cut out. New potatoes were just washed carefully. As far as we were concerned potatoes were usually cooked as roasted or boiled. Chips were a very occasional treat that took a lot of preparation and cooking. It was probably nearly 1960 when Mum first tried jacket potatoes baked in the oven – they still had to be washed, scrubbed and prepared but not peeled.
(It won’t surprise you to find out that the picture of a potato peeler is not a completely realistic version for the fifties. They would have had wooden handles, without the serrated edge shown. You can still get plastic versions although potatoes don’t generally need peeling.)
Peas came still in their pods and all green vegetables needed preparation. (That’s peas, not the new-fangled mange-tous! We didn’t eat the pods.) Vegetables like carrots and mushrooms were peeled.
Recipes and Ingredients
There were lots of things – like pastry, meat pies and Shepherd’s pie – that Mum cooked so often that she didn’t need a recipe. But for anything else she did not have access to all our modern books and magazines and the Internet. I think she had just one recipe book by Margueritte Patten.
As you know, Mum read Woman magazine and this always contained recipes. Newspapers also sometimes contained recipes. So what we actually had was one well-worn recipe book, with dozens of bits of paper cut out and put between the pages in appropriate places – with lots inside the front and back covers.
And, of course, everything we used had to be weighed on scales like these. You can get some idea of what we used to cook with from the posts about shopping – nothing prepared and a very small range of choices. There were none of the items of electrical equipment we now use. Food mixers, blenders, juice makers … were as out of place as bread-makers and ice-cream makers. A hand whisk and a hand-turned mincer were the most technical pieces of food preparation equipment in our kitchen.
Cooking was not helped by the fact that non-stick surfaces for frying pans had not been invented. They were attributed to the Space Race and did not appear until the 70s.
Food preparation was a much lengthier process, as there were only unprepared basic ingredients. I have to start somewhere so, in my usual random fashion, I will start with pastry, which we had quite often. We didn’t nip down to Waitrose for frozen pastry. It was done the slow way.
Pastry is, of course, made from flour. Flour, which could have been plain or self-raising, had to be sifted before use in cooking. Passing it through a fine metal sieve, with the help of a spoon, removed all the tiny lumps.
[In 1963 a technological breakthrough in flour production meant that bakers would no longer need to sieve their flour. The new flour had no large grains or dust, and was launched as a national brand – Spillers Homepride. The launch was supported by advertising that highlighted the need not to sieve, with the strapline Graded Grains Make Finer Flour. Very soon it was followed by an advertising campaign with tiny animated men called Fred. You could buy your own versions of Fred as shown in the picture.]
Making pastry started with flour and butter, mixed together with the fingers. You could cut the butter into small pieces with a knife first. (Fat for cooking was butter, margarine or lard. Margarine for cooking meant Stork. Although technically olive oil existed, we never used any vegetable oils in cooking.) I think the later stages used a wooden spoon to blend in eggs. It ended as a ball of raw pastry manipulated by hand and with a (wooden) rolling pin. With a light dusting of flour to stop it sticking, the pastry was rolled to a large flat sheet and cut to shape. (That last sentence may sound easy but it was not an easy or quick process.)
Pastry was shortcrust pastry. Expert cooks may have been able to make flaky pastry, puff pastry, or choux pastry but we never did.
I remember a few things made often with pastry. We had meat pie. It started with a layer of pastry in a pie dish, trimmed round the edge with a knife. Then just chunky lean beef, either braising steak, [US: chuck steak] or stewing steak. I think the meat was partly cooked with a little gravy before it went in. On top was another layer of pastry with the edges crimped together with a fork. There was usually an inverted egg-cup inside to stop the pie collapsing and there were fork holes in the top to let the expanding air out.
It was cooked in the oven and made a meal for us all, with potatoes and vegetables. Nobody else has ever made meat pie like the pies I remember my mother making. (This may say more about my memory than Mum’s cooling.) If there was any left over, the lucky ones would probably eat it cold the next day.
A meat pie was a meat pie, not steak and kidney, not steak and onion, not steak and ale, just steak.
Apple pie was made in much the same way as meat pie, using stewed apples instead of meat. As a simple dessert we had it with freshly made custard. Like the meat pie, leftovers could be eaten cold the next day on their own.
Then, there were jam tarts. Wikipidea has a list of pies and tarts through the world but no jam tart. I can assure you there are lots of jam tarts and we had them often. When Mum made pastry she generally did a meat pie and some tarts. Pastry was rolled and cut into circles, which went into a greased tart tin. A spoonful of raspberry jam went into each one before cooking. (You could use any jam. I suspect the picture has a different type of jam.)
They were not only a pudding – we used the word ‘afters’ – but they were in the larder as a treat, perhaps when we came home from school. They didn’t last long. They also tasted much nicer than the modern ones that come in boxes.
There was always some pastry left over when you had to cut out circles. It was never wasted. Nan would roll it out and fold it with a bit of butter and sugar to go in the oven with jam tarts.
OK, sometimes there were other things with pastry. At Christmas we made our own mince pies – made like jam tarts with a spoonful of mincemeat and a topping of another layer of pastry. (For non-British readers, this is a traditional desert, served with custard, or can be eaten separately as a cake. Mincemeat comes in jars like jam and is mostly dried fruit like raisin, currants and sultanas. It does not contain meat – but it did a couple of hundred years ago.)
And I also remember individual Bakewell tarts, which Nan always called cheesecakes, although they contained no cheese!
Cakes and Puddings
I can’t give a detailed breakdown of what we had to eat every day. When we were young we had school dinners (which I will come to at some time) so our tea later at home would have been probably just bread and jam. But there were Saturdays and Sundays and school holidays when we had cooked meals and generally cooked desserts. And when we had cakes they were cooked at home, not bought or prepacked. [You should be recognizing sweeping generalizations by now!]
Cake making was a bit like pastry making. Ingredients were mixed in a bowl according to the recipe. It was done with a wooden spoon and sometimes a hand whisk. The mixture would go into a cake tin and into the oven. (Recipes used to carefully specify what went in order with mixing in between. With modern food-mixers recipes it didn’t matter so much so recipes started to say; ‘chuck it all in together and mix.’)
(Because it was not a fan oven, the temperature varied through the oven. Recipes would specify ‘top shelf’ or ‘middle shelf,’ which could make life a bit complicated when cooking several things at once. The other problem with some cooking was that there was no glass door. You couldn’t look to see whether something was cooked. I am not an expert but I know that some things suffer by opening the door when they are not complete.)
Back to cakes! We often had Victoria sponge – two layers cooked separately with jam and cream and icing sugar – especially for Sunday tea. I could say it tasted better than the prepared version you can buy now. You can assume that is true for all food even if I don’t bore you by repeating it!
As well as cakes we had steamed puddings – suet pudding and chocolate pudding. I can’t give you the recipes but both involved more complex cooking. They were wrapped in some kind of cloth, which was tied into a bag and cooked in boiling water for two or three hours. I think our favourite was chocolate pudding, which was just an occasional treat. It came with white sauce (not out of a packet sauce mix!) There was never leftover chocolate pudding!
The other more common things we had for afters were the milk puddings – rice, ground rice, tapioca or semolina – just boiled milk puddings. Sometimes we could have a spoonful of raspberry jam with it.
I keep coming back to this draft blog with more thoughts. We also often just had fruit and cream. By fruit I mean tinned peaches, tinned pineapple chunks, tinned mandarin oranges or a mixture, and of course the cream was tinned evaporated milk. And evaporated milk reminded me of my favourite, which we didn’t have often, milk jelly – made by whipping up jelly made with evaporated milk before leaving it to set. For a celebration party children would look forward to jelly and blancmange.
I’ve done afters so back to the first course where the most significant was Sunday Lunch. Traditionally this has always been the time when parents and children would sit down together for the most important meal of the week. It was roast meat with vegetables cooked in the traditional way which has continued almost unchanged to modern times – except that today we might all just go to the local carvery! Then everything for our Sunday Lunch for eight of us was done by one person, Mum, working hard all morning. (Of course Nan helped when she was with us. Dad never did anything in the kitchen – because in those days men just didn’t. Dad wasn’t bad – come the late sixties and later he started to help a lot more.)
The roast meat, a large joint, went into the oven on a baking tray. Roast potatoes also went into a baking tray with pre-heated melted fat (probably lard) – never vegetable oil. Yorkshire pudding was mixed in a bowl, without any electric mixers, and poured into another tray of hot melted fat. Boiled potatoes and green vegetables were done in various saucepans on the top of the oven. And it was all timed to be ready at the same time.
Other main meals
It surprises me when I look back to think that basically we had just lean meat for most of the time, starting with what was left from the Sunday joint. This could also be processed in a number of ways. In particular I remember Shepherd’s pie.
Oldies like me will reminisce about the device shown in the picture. It’s a meat mincer. You may have spotted one in the first picture of a homely kitchen. Here it is taken apart. (You had to take it apart to wash up after use!) The screw at the bottom acted as a vice and enabled it to be fixed to the table – so you can understand that the table was utilitarian rather than ornamental. One of the three circular bits went inside before fitting the handle. (I suspect that we only ever used one.) Then you fed in chunks of meat at the top, turned the handle and out came minced meat. You were, of course, careful with your fingers pushing the meat down – for Health and Safety reasons. At the end you pushed through a piece of bread to get the last bit of meat through.
Here is a picture of a mincer fixed to an old wooden table.
This was the only way we ever had minced meat. It was not something you bought in shops. For shepherd’s pie a layer of minced meat was cover with mashed potato and baked in the oven.
We also sometimes had sausages and toad-in-the-hole. The picture above will give non-UK readers an idea of this dish although what we used to have was not quite the same. It’s just Yorkshire pudding and sausages cooked together. For a family with six children we had a larger version with lots of smaller sausages. (In the picture the Pyrex dish, metal fish slice and everything apart from the toad-in-the-hole are pretty modern.) The other things I remember as regular meals were liver and stew. Stew was chunky meat, carrots and onions and dumplings. (Dumplings were made like suet pudding made into small balls and thrown into the stew near the end of cooking.)
The lack of variety came because not much was available and we kept to traditional British cooking. We had never heard of exotic fruit and vegetables; curries, rice (except as a pudding) or anything Indian; chop suey, chow mein or anything Chinese; sushi or anything Japanese; pasta, pizza, or anything Italian; hamburgers or any form of takeaway, apart from fish and chips; kebabs, couscous, yoghurt, qinoa and much, much more. We had never even heard of fish fingers!
In those days all meals were eaten by the family together, sitting round a table in a more formal way than today. In our house then Sunday lunch was the most formal but Sunday tea was a very different ritual (of which more later.) The gradual trend away from this may have been started by the desire to watch television but there are many other factors such as the ease of food preparation. It is now so easy for everyone to prepare and eat what they want when they want it.
I have to end this blog with marmalade. Once a year Mum made marmalade. It was quite a long process, basically a matter of heating a mixture of Seville oranges and sugar in a large metal saucepan. Putting it into jars was not easy. (It would have been impossible with a proper Health and Safety analysis first.) Eventually the cooled marmalade was stored in airtight jars and could be eaten through the year.
I always remember that one day when we were very young someone had come to school and to celebrate the event we were given the afternoon off. (I don’t remember who it was.) They did things like that then. We were just sent home and we walked home, arriving unannounced.
Mum was in the middle of making marmalade. She was not best pleased! As she pointed out, melted sugar was much hotter than boiling water. I presume we kept out of the way!