Sit down, it’s on the table.
My other histories have all featured people. But have commodities got a story to tell? I think they may well have. Here is my attempt at “Sit down, it’s time to eat”. (A command I heard frequently all those years ago, that bore no refusals) I aim my comparisons to a period around the mid forties and ten years on; with WW11 just coming to an end. I was 11 years old at the time and my recall includes the period when rationing was still in force, and lots of things were in very short supply; or not available at all; or we could not afford them. It was a period of severe austerity.
The idea of a “food” history came to me whilst I was sitting down preparing cooking apples for a batch of sweet pickle. What would I have been doing way back if my production aim was the same? Pretty much no change I fancy, but pickle purchase in the 40s/50s was considerably different. Mustard Pickle, Piccalilli, Sweet Pickle and Pickled Onions were all very much home produced, but nowadays very little is made at home outside the Women’s Institute envelope. Today few of these items are not part of the fairly extensive range in the local supermarkets. These products; together with many other world wide variations; from Indian to Chinese types, some with Mango and other exotic fruits are all available off the shelf. The cooked home produced pickles of yesterday invariably employed a long boiling process, including a fair amount of malt vinegar, sugar, the main constituent of course, together with a very limited sprinkling of spices. It was followed by bottling, probably in Kilner jars, which were stood in the oven to sterilise them and then the lids screwed down tightly to exclude the bacteria that was lurking. A simple product that has some very tasty memories, and brightened up what was sometime a bland diet.
Jam and Marmalade were similar in manufacture. I recall my mother was watching for the first Seville Oranges to appear in the open air market. These were sliced and diced and the centres tied in a muslin bag before being boiled up with copious amounts of sugar in a large pan. It appeared the critical aim was to drop a blob of latent Marmalade onto the back of a saucer; and then tip it up. If the blob held its own without running down the saucer then you had cracked it. Get the jam jars out, heat and fill them, place a circle of grease proof paper directly on the top of the contents, then tie with string and a neat bow another larger piece of paper over the jar top, and trim off the edges. A little later discs of a cellophane material were used, secured by elastic bands. Don’t forget the sticky labels! Jam was treated in the same way, and made from all the soft fruits. Strawberry was possibly the most popular; with handpicked Blackberries a close second. With no “best by dates” the tops of these preserves often grew a light fluffy mould over a period of time. This was seen as proof of quality contents and was simply scraped off.
Another spread for a sandwich was Fish Paste. I don’t know how to describe it but do recall the little containers were very nice. It had to have something to recommend it. It was one of those snacks that stayed in your mouth and on your breath all day.
The Bread that would be covered by the contents of the jars was rarely made at home in our selected time period, it was obtained in a very different manner to the modern product. Often purchased directly from a local bakery; where it would have been baked during the previous night, it would not be sliced or indeed wrapped. A loaf was selected from a rack, possibly a “Tin”, or our favourite with a lovely folded crust, a “Farmhouse”. The selection was simply placed into a folded sheet of paper and taken back home. The baker would also drive his horse and cart to deliver his wares, very early in the morning. If you took delivery you had to be up early too! I do not recall the price of a loaf but four large crusty rolls cost a penny from the Yorkshire bakery in Whippendell Road. (This would currently equate to 960 rolls per pound sterling)
What went between the bread and the jam? Butter of course. Margarine was available; but generally described as Cart Grease, and only used in cases of emergency or desperation. It was a product that has certainly improved over the years. The butter was purchased by the ounce from the Co-Op or similar store, where the assistant would carve off a portion from a great lump on the counter of your requested size; provided your ration allowance was not been exceeded, . Using wooden paddles he would pat it into shape, impressing a picture of a cow; or similar, on its surface, prior to wrapping it neatly in greaseproof paper. I remember this transaction for the money handling system at the Co-Op. The cash presented would go into a round container together with a piece of paper with the cost and you “divi” number on it. Screwed into a holder; a lever was pulled and it shot along a wire to the cashier sitting in his “birds nest”. He would take out the proffered cash, place in the change, and twang it back. Most stores offered a “Dividend” as an incentive to go back again. Other items such as Cheese and Bacon were divided up and sliced at the counter. Cheese came in large muslin covered; barrel shaped chunks, and the grocer would use a piano wire fixed between two wooden handles to cut; with seemingly amazing accuracy, the size the customer had requested. Bacon came in the form of a hock and was sliced, on demand, into whatever thickness was requested by a circular, and very menacing cutting wheel. In addition to a mentioned “Divvy” number at the Co-Op other shops offered pressed tin discs that could be used to offset the cost of your next purchase. Some of the larger stores in Watford were: Home and Colonial, International and Sainsbury’s. Other much smaller outlets were no more than “front rooms” in a row of terraced houses. “Open all hours” is very reminiscent of some of these establishments.
It may be pertinent at this point to remind the reader that the stores at this time were all counter orientated. i.e. You asked the assistant for a product and he retrieved it and placed it on the counter. A display on racks behind the counter contained many of the items available, which suggests, no proves, that there was not a tremendous selection to choose from. With some items like dried fruit not being very plentiful, this set up gave rise to the term “under the counter”, where favoured customers would be offered such items with “a nod and a wink”. It maybe also pertinent to mention that the assistant would visually scan your group of purchases; possibly pointing with his pencil as he did so; and write down the total. All without the aid of a calculator or sometimes even a till.
We have our breakfast so what about a cup of tea? Today a tea bag in each cup would probably cover most eventualities, not then though. Many choices of both make and quality were available. Loose tea in quarter pound packets was emptied into “Caddies”; and after warming the pot, were employed at the rate of one teaspoon full for each person, and one for the pot. Boiling water was poured onto the content and a cosy placed over the top for the tea to “draw” for two or three minutes. Sugar and milk were put into the cup before pouring the infused tea through a tea strainer, and what is claimed as the brew that got us through the war was ready to drink.
This raises another item. Milk. I first remember as a lad helping to push a three wheel cart with upright churns standing on it. These had long handled ladles hanging on the inside. The lady of the house would bring out her jug, complete with a cloth, bead edged cover, and the milkie would ladle out a measure in half pint increments. Later the delivery was by horse and cart and in bottles with cardboard discs tops, and a finger hole part punched into the centre. Without using the upmost care your finger could go straight through and spray milk everywhere. The tops were not without their benefits though. Mothers used them to make woollen bobbles to aggravate their very young offspring. The quality of the milk was limited to Milk, and Jersey Milk. The later had an inch of cream settle out at the top once the shaking it had received on the horse and cart had settled down.
Whilst bread and jam or toast and Marmalade were very nice, a fried breakfast was nicer. The substance used for frying is the most interesting part. It was taken from a basin (which was specially kept for the purpose), into which a mixture of lard, and the fat poured from the Sunday roast baking tin, had been deposited. The bowl contents came under the general heading of “Dripping”, which was also spread directly on a slice of toast. The jelly at the bottom was the particular favourite and with a good sprinkling of salt it made a savoury and possibly near lethal; over a number of years, snack. Lovely! Of course today; with many options as far as oils for cooking are concerned, there is no need to clog up our arteries and damage our hearts with a fry up. Olive oil in its many forms fill up the shelves. Imported from mainly Mediterranean countries it comes in dark, light and Virgin and it complements the numerous other cooking oils available. Vegetable oil, Peanut oil, Bergamot and Rape seed oil to mention just a few. These were not available way back. If you wanted Olive oil you went to a Chemist, him with the large green and red bottles displayed in the window. There you received a tiny bottle with a cork stopper and a glass “fountain pen filler”. Taken home, the oil would be dropped into your ear to soften the wax prior to syringing. I don’t recall seeing larger amounts for sale for culinary purposes and it would have possibly been labelled “foreign muck”, as was most things that were not made by a British company.
Cereals packets were also to be seen on the breakfast table. In my case it was Wheat Flakes; for some reason the Corn variety was not available then. Shredded Wheat and Wheatabix also figured, with the former akin to a present day organic Brillo Pad, and the latter drank all the milk and turned soggy. The thought that we may be taking on board our daily roughage quota never entered our heads. As we all know, now there are assortments infinite on the Cereal aisle, many of them with frightening amounts of sugar, or salt and with added chocolate and other flavours. Added vitamins and Niacin too! The graphics on the packaging are the best part in some cases.
A beverage that is very popular; and expensive, these day is Coffee. Many multinational outlets sell the stuff in many forms and provide the source of the cardboard containers with plastic lids that are seemingly mandatory for office workers to carry on their way to business. These cost anything up to £3 each and rarely less than £2. They all share the use of roasted and ground beans of various types. At the end of the war “a coffee” usually meant a spoonful of Camp Chicory and Coffee essence in milk, and was thought of in our house as being very exotic. I recall I considered it was foul! I was therefore surprised to see that it can still be purchased; and the label still contains the picture of a Rajah and a guy in Highland dress sitting, supping, outside a tent! I thought it was only a war time replacement for when coffee beans were not seen as a very important sea going cargo. Soon after the end of the war roasted and ground coffee appeared again. A shop in the High Street; almost opposite Loates Lane, would roast and grind small amounts whilst you waited. The smell was splendid and was accompanied by a lot of smoke and glowing particles discharged through a vent in the window among the passing shoppers. I don’t know who bought it; but I know we didn’t! Another one of those foreign concoctions! Previously roasted beans were ground by some of the grocers on demand. My experience as an errand boy was that these were purchased by those persons who lived “down the Park”.
The next meal of the day was dinner. In days of yore this was a mid-day affair and the main meal, but now is the evening repast. Dinner usually consisted of variations of meat and two veg, plus potatoes. On Sunday a large Yorkshire Pudding would often go in with the meat; and be served with lots of Bisto gravy to help fill a few holes. Let’s take the meat first. This was obtained from the butcher who was entirely separate from the other food outlets. His shop would have various animal parts either hanging from hooks or laid out under glass. The better ones would have a layer of cleanish sawdust on the floor and dusty footprints on the pavement outside. As the refrigeration of items on display was not available they were quite limited in number. A part carcass of Beef would be produced out of the large wooden fridge, and what was required would be cut off, weighed and wrapped. The same applied to Pork, although in this case the chops and sausages were on display. Gibson’s was the name for Pork in those days, their sausages were legendary and they were considered World Famous in Watford. It should be remembered that a joint of meat; bought for Sunday, would reappear in various forms; possibly three more times during the week. Other sources of protein would be Rabbits. These had been skinned, gutted, and hung up for display. When a selection was made the butcher would invariably place the carcass on a block and chop it into three or so pieces. This had the effect of producing hundreds of bone particles, and was therefore not my choice in what was otherwise a very nice stew; complete with vegetables, suet laden dumplings and Pearl Barley. Don’t forget the OXO cube. Poultry was usually sold “in feather”, complete with head and feet, and required first plucking; which was a very messy process, with feathers getting everywhere, then gutting, which was an even more messy operation. Perhaps operation is a very apt term. Some bits removed were essential and edible and therefore kept, others were vile and not to be violated. Sometimes the bird had come from the backyard enclosure and this led to a certain amount of tears. Corned Beef from Argentina had been a mainstay during the war and with the right cook could be made into an amazing meat pie with mashed potatoes on top or frittered with batter. Not so nice in a salad though. The fatty bits were a little unpleasant cold. Corned beef was provided free of coupons at a rate of 2 pennyworth a week per person.
Of course the availability of all sorts of meat at the Supermarkets today seems endless. All the cuts are enclosed in plastic and quite often rest in a tray. Chickens by the dozen line the racks, Chicken legs, Chicken thighs, Chicken breasts, all chilled and marked with cooking time and oven temperature. Unfortunately they have all been injected with various solutions, as indeed has the meat. There would be a shortage of meat juices to top up the Dripping bowl these days. Very little seems to come out of the bird or joint during cooking. It should be remembered that there was not a joint or bird every day, far from it! Both availability and the cost had to be considered. This was where the Corned Beef came into its own.
The Vegetable content of your dinner was varied. The ever present boiled Potatoes; which were often home produced on the allotment and started off covered in soil or even mud. They were also sold in the market by the pound where they were also covered in mud. Nice clean loose ‘tatties, or even scrubbed and package ones were not available. It would also be extremely unlikely that your local store would sell tinned, or especially part fried chips in sealed plastic bags. Cabbage was also an allotment product. No mud this time but they could not be guaranteed to be entirely free of Cabbage White butterfly caterpillars and possibly a slug or two. Root veg, such as Carrots, Swede, Turnips, Parsnip, Beetroot and similar were either grown or purchased as they were pulled, complete with tops. It did not seem to matter that they were not all the same size, or straight! They possibly tasted much the same whatever length or deviation they possessed. Peas came in the pod which gave the purchaser the opportunity to “shuck” them, ejecting the little grubs; that given the chance would have eaten the lot. Pod less and frozen, who would do a thing like that? Broad and Runner beans were a particular favourite, in season. I now recall that everything was seasonal, very little was grown and shipped from warmer climates in those days and there was no fuel to heat greenhouses. Sweet potatoes and other semi exotic vegetables were nowhere to be seen. Paper bags were the container of choice, possibly because plastic ones had not been invented.
Another phenomenon of the age was the “British Restaurant”. These were invented during the war to insure that workers and housewives were able to eat the right things at a very reasonable price. They were mainly to be found in church hall. For less than two shillings you would receive your M&TV, plus something and Custard, and the obligatory cup of tea. I believe the cooking was done at one of the local schools with the children’s dinners.
Tea time was the Salad time in our house; in season, and although I recall some of the contents being obtained it does not stick in my mind as a memorable meal. Lettuce came from the allotment and I recall was usually quite large and coarse. Not the delicate Little Gem or crisp Iceberg a la ASDA, all laid out and enclosed in a nice plastic cover. Tomatoes were very seasonal and came this time from the greenhouse, as did the Cucumbers. Spring Onions were a particular favourite and preceded the large and powerful fully grown ones. Mustard and Cress was grown on the windowsill in little trays of earth and harvested with a pair of scissors. Watercress came from beds at the bottom of Whippendell Road and Cassiobury Park via the market. It was pulled out; complete with roots, and washed in the river water it was grown in, it was a spicy item and came free with a few water snails and Crawly Bugs. Beetroot was a very favoured vegetable, despite the fact it had to be washed, boiled and skinned, and produces a liquor that stained everything, including the pan it was cooked in. Some Greengrocers would boil them up and sell them at a much higher price. Salad was the dish with the Corned Beef, and the only way I found it at all palatable was with a lot of Mustard and homemade Salad Cream which disguised the little lumps of cold fat. Mayonnaise was another item fraught with danger in its manufacture. Oil and water do not mix readily, and with egg and vinegar and no mechanical means of emulsifying the mixture, much cursing and temper tantrums were required to produce a usable product. So much easier to buy a bottle from the many choices available today. One mantra; oft quoted was, “don’t throw it away”. Whatever the food item, or its condition, there was nearly always a way to recycle or disguise it. If there was absolutely no chance of keeping it for human consumption then it was taken to the nearest pig bin, where a local ‘keeper would collect it and feed it to his pigs.
A subject must be “Eating out” or Takeaways”. It will not take too long to describe the situation in the mid forties/fifties. Fish and Chips was it! A piece of battered Cod, or slightly more expensive Haddock, together with chips would cost in the region of a shilling. Wrapped in a piece of greaseproof paper and a couple of pages of “The News of the World” it would have been doused in vinegar from a large dispenser and smothered in salt by the Fish Shop man, whose front was covered in batter splashes and his face running with sweat. Usually taken home to eat it was sometimes part of a family order, possibly instead of salad. But not very often! An added delight was a portion; usually free, of Crunchy bits. These were the bits of batter that fell into the fat as the fish was submerged. They must have been 90% fat and deliciously crunchy. Other than the British Restaurants and very few other eateries such as Camfields; by the Post office in Market Street, there were few other options that could be afforded, even occasionally. This of course is completely different to modern times and eating habits. With Indian, Chinese and several other ethnic eateries, together with Burgers, Fried Chicken, Kebabs and many more that have not entered my sphere as yet. If ever.
Although not strictly eating. In fact not eating at all, I must mention drinking habits. We had Tizer, Ginger Beer and Lemonade in returnable (1 penny) glass bottles. The alternative was what we called “Adams Ale”, otherwise known as tap water. Virtually no one walked about the streets with a bottle in their hand and cash was not available to buy very many bottles anyway. I suppose a screw stopper’ed glass container was not as portable as a modern plastic one and with a deposit to recover you would have to carry them back with you empty. The pubs were much more numerous, but in the main drunkenness was less of a problem. Saturday nights for the husband and wife and Sunday lunch time for the husband and his mates, with beer being the number one booze item for the men. For the ladies a Gin and Orange, or Port and Lemon, with a Babycham in the late 50’s for special occasions. The older ladies seemed to favour a bottle of Milk Stout. With a packet of Crisps that included a blue twist of paper with the salt in it.
The youngsters in the family would be directed to collect natural; and free, food items from the woods and fields. The best time of year was late summer and the autumn. From the hedgerows we would collect Blackberries and Rose hips and from the fields with cattle in them; early in the morning, would come mushrooms. A little latter we picked Cob Nuts from the hedges, collected Beach nuts from under the trees, and assaulted Sweet Chestnut trees by throwing big sticks at them for their seeds complete in their very prickly cases. We also collected sacks full of Acorns, but these were for the pigs.
Scrumping was the word for redistributing surplus fruit from neighbours trees. Creeping into a garden and filling up the pouch made by pulling up the bottom of your pullover, and creeping out again, was the method employed. If caught, it usually entailed a clip round the ear by the tree owner. Running home whining to your dad would probably get you another one! I recall the apples were often unripe and could wreak their own revenge in the shape of severe stomach pains. This enterprise was our own, and the prizes were for our personal consumption. If we had taken them home I suspect our parents would have made us take them back.
Various other natural items would be used for making wine and cordials, such as Elder Flower and its berries, Dandelions, and for the brave; Stinging nettles. I was of an age that would not know the difference between good and bad in this area but we were kept entertained as the bottles would blow their corks with surprising ferocity , and spray the inside of the cupboard with their contents.
I have in the main attempted to recall the situation as it existed in the ten years after WW11. and just a little beyond. It is worth remembering that Ration Books were still in use until 1955. There is no need to further detail the current situation regarding availability and affordability as this will be obvious. We, or the parents of the day had to manage with what there was in the shops and possibly what they could afford. After all we had just fought and won a World War! although it did not feel like it.
A brief mention for some of the more unusual things we had for our delectation. Cod liver oil and malt provided missing vitamins and was consumed from a spoon dipped into the substance and the “string” wound up to prevent it going down your woolly. Orange juice, designed for young mothers; but so weak it can have had little if any effect, and the piece de resistance, Whale Meat. This was introduced to be a substitute for beef and in no way was it successful. It looked OK, but only Inuit’s could have loved it. There were numerous concentrated flavour essences and some weird instructions as to their use. Did you know for instance that in the absence of Bananas, a drop of the appropriate essence in mashed Parsnips would be indistinguishable from the real thing? Yes it was! The other horror was Rennet. Used to curdle milk, with some flavour added, it was supposed to be delicious. No it wasn’t! I believe the product was Little Miss Muffet in a bulbous shaped bottle. I bet it is still on the market somewhere, like Camp Coffee.
These observations are those of the writer and should not be copied in whole or part without his permission. They are designed to be included within the History Section of the Kingswood Residents Association web site and follow the “It was 50 Years ago” theme, now well established.
Alan Orchard. September 2017.
Addendum. (October 2017)
I have had some more thoughts on bread, and other items for the kitchen or table..
The Farm House loaf was baked in a tin, and the top; as it rose, rolled over the edge of the container and formed a structure that could be construed as a miniature thatched cottage. The “roof” was always very crusty, (my father insisted on this attribute, and would make me take back one that did not meet his specification). The shape and crustiness made slicing difficult; but it was a skill that my mother had perfected. A sharp knife; and loads of breadcrumbs later, produced a section akin to a button mushroom sliced from top to bottom. And big with it. It was easy to see if she had not cut the last slice as the business end looked as though it had been attacked with a chain saw.
Although not a food item, another use for “the staff of life” consisted of dough removed from the centre of a stale loaf, soaked in water and kneaded to a putty like constituency, then wrapped in a piece of cotton sheet and boiled in water. It was then taken out, flattened, and applied to the boil or other erupting skin infection whilst still fairly hot; usually accompanied by loud screams. This was much cheaper than the chemist Kaolin poultice substance sold in tins; and seemed to “bring things to a head” nearly every time. It is worth mentioning that boils, styes and similar skin infections were much more common in those days, possibly due to our depleted diet.
The aforementioned breadcrumbs, and sometimes stale bread baked in the oven on a Sunday, would be crushed with a rolling pin and used to add some crunch to such things as baked apples. Or, mixed with a hard boiled egg and fed to the clutch of chicks in the garden.
Bread Pudding was a thing of joy. Commonly known as “Duck Sinker” it contained stale bread, dried fruit, an egg or two and cinnamon. It was all squelched up and baked in a tin until really solid. When cold, with its crispy edges and heavy/solid interior it was sprinkled with sugar and was a great favourite. Google has never heard of it so it must be really good.
Bread and Butter pudding on the other hand was horrible. Buttered slices were laid in a baking dish with dried fruit and covered in egg and milk. A little nutmeg was grated on top to produce a pudding that my mother told my new wife I loved. Where she got that idea from I don’t know. Nearly grounds for divorce.
Another childhood favourite was sugar sandwiches. Just like it sounds, and possibly one of the reasons we got spots.
Fried bread was another use for a slightly stale loaf. Cut thickly and sprinkled with water, it was lowered into a pan of smoking hot melted dripping. This gave the slice a beautifully crisp coat and a soft centre in a matter of seconds, together with quite a lot of smoke. With an egg on top it was a breakfast fit for a king. Not forgetting the “Daddies” sauce of course. And it was also another possible contributory trigger to skin blemishes.
Reference skin infections and particularly eye styes, one of the treatments was to eat raw Baker’s Yeast directly from the Whites the Bakers “on the corner”. Foul tasting and putty like, it stuck to the roof of your mouth and did anti social things in the digestive tract. I don’t recall if it had any effects on the infections. Today no doubt it would be an antibiotic job.
Completely away from the culinary and towards the recreational was the use of bread paste; or flake, for a fishing bait. Many a Gudgeon (Gobio gobio) from the canal or Roach from the River Gade succumbed to this lure.
The common loaf of bread was many things to many people, and it came as a shock when it was rationed for two years from mid 1946. Due; it was claimed, to the continual rain ruining the wheat crop. Different classes of people were given differing rations. Workers and children had the slight advantage and the standard adult was allowed nine ounces a day. Cakes and other flour containing items formed part of the daily ration. Rationing was to continue until 1954 for many other food items.
Puddings. Custard was sometimes; but rarely, made in the old fashioned Crème Anglaise manner with egg yolks, milk, cream, (from the top of a bottle of Jersey) and sugar. The milk sugar and cream were brought gently to the simmer and tipped very steadily into the whipped egg yolks whilst still whipping like crazy. The end result was sometimes scrambled egg, with all sorts of recriminations. Today it’s hot milk and “Birds”, or a tin from the Supermarket. This said the Birds variety had been available for more than 100 years.
As an aside, the skin that formed on top of custard was like Marmite! Not of course in taste, but it was either very much liked, or absolutely hated. Nobody seems to have any idea why. I like, my wife hates. So like the Jack Spratt family, we lick the platter clean.
The other “sauce” we had to cover our baked apple or similar was Blancmange. These alternated with Sago, Semolina, Rice Pudding and the dreaded Junket. What was left over was used as the base for the next day’s pudding. Only rarely did we get unadulterated anything. Christmas Day was the day for pure Custard!
As far a baked Apples were concerned, we had a tree in the back garden that produces masses of large and tart fruits. These had their centres removed by a strange circular punch and the cavity was filled with dried fruit and dark sugar with the occasional nut, then baked in the oven. Only in season of course!
The time span of this history also covers a number of ways of actually doing the cooking. Or rather a number of different devices employed. Pre war, and in many houses during the war and just after, the cooking was carried out on the “Range”. This was a cast iron coal fire contained by a cast front grill which heated the integral oven sitting next to it. The top, or hob, had a couple of holes with cast covers that provided the means of heating saucepans or kettle. This latter was often again of cast iron, and of prodigious size, and would sit for most of the day on a “trivet” attached to the front grill, thus providing a spout of steam and constant hot water for numerous cups of tea. The range had several disadvantages. You could not have a roast on Sunday; or any other day come to that, without a roaring fire in the kitchen. A hot summer day was not really conducive to this situation. Most housewives of the day would clean out and “Black lead” the whole affair when it was not in use, and this together with feeding it with coal and removing the ashes regularly when in use must have been a pain. It also tended to spit out small burning embers from its vertical grill; witness the myriad small burn marks on the rug in front of it. In those days the rug was often home made of strips of rag looped into sacking, and fortunately did not seem to actually catch fire. As there was no other way of either boiling a kettle or heating a saucepan; then the heat; want it or not, was there to be contended with. Some households may have had a paraffin heater for a cupper. These were either of the wick variety; and very slow and smelly, or of the Primus type, which had to primed, pre heated and pumped to perform. They also smelled.
Next along came the Gas stove. Instant heat whenever it was required. Some of the early devices were still pretty primitive and not at all very well insulated. The delay between turning on the tap and applying the match to a burner needed to be very short, or a ball of flame was likely to take off your eye lashes. Lighting the oven was even more of a risk, as kneeling or bending down, half in the cavity, placed the cook in an even more dangerous situation, as the burners were situated at the bottom of the oven, at both sides. The first side was lit by match taper or flint device, and the second; if not attended to promptly, would auto light via the exploding mass of gas in the enclosure. This was definitely an eyebrow loser! Some of the more forward thinkers had “Eye level grills”. These enabled you to knock pans off the hob whilst avoiding “eye level fat” from the pork chops, or turning the toast. It was also much easier to set fire to your pullover whilst leaning across to see how much more time was required before incineration occurred. The cooker was easier to cope with than a range though. If you were fast enough, and not too flammable!
The early electric cookers were a further improvement; but still far from perfect. Usually having four “burners” on the hob of which two would be described as “fast boilers” they also had reasonably reliable thermostats controlling the oven. Nothing like the “state of the art” modern device with its Micro wave and Induction heating, complete with fan and ceramic hob and a nice extraction hood. These were some of the first, of what we would now call “White goods”, to appear in the kitchen.
Whilst on the subject of toast, without a doubt the best toast came from the brass toasting fork held in front of the Range grill. A degree of skill was needed, but it could produce sandwiches, complete with fillings. Very nice on a Sunday evening filled with Pork slices or chicken. And home made chutney of course. Free standing electric toasters soon came along after the war. They were fairly primitive and only did one side of the slice at a time. Midway through the process the sides were let down and the bread turned. Once returned to the upright it was only necessary to wait for the plume of smoke from the top, and all was ready. There was no setting for light or dark toast, it was smoke, or no smoke. One of several drawbacks to this device was that a Farmhouse slice was too big to go in.
There were no appliances such as Blenders, Mixers, Food processors or the like. The nearest you came to mechanisation was the Mincer. This device; clamped to the table top, was capable; with a bit of a struggle and vigorous handle turning, of mincing meat and such. It had its own little pitfalls in the shape of an unguarded feed channel. It was very easy to mince the end of a pushing finger, although as the owner was also turning the handle the pain feedback was almost instantaneous.
Storing food was a different challenge in those day too. Most homes did not have refrigeration of any kind. The substitute; but not really very effective, was a shelf or slab of slate or concrete in the larder, often situated under the stairs. It did not take too many hours of warm weather in the summer to convert this slab to ambient temperature and thus keep the stored food at “incubator” temperature. The Dripping bowl would contain only liquid and butter would be near molten too. Cheese; under its wedged shaped china cover would swiftly grow a light coating of fluffy mould. Meat; both fresh and cooked, was at particular risk from both decomposition and the dreaded Blow Fly. The secret seems to have been to buy small amounts frequently, cover everything and buy a meat safe to keep out the flies. (I recall my mother in tears when she opened the safe to find she had actually shut a Blow Fly in with the remains of the Sunday joint).
The cheese would be scrapped free of mould and the fly eggs would also be removed from the meat. It must be remembered that these were the times when replacement or substitution was not a consideration. Once your Ration Book quota was purchased then there was no more until next week. Your purse may not have covered the option anyway. Another problem was of the four legged, long tailed, sharp teeth and whiskers variety. The House Mouse could seemingly climb anywhere and chew through most things. With unenviable toilet habits, it was as dangerous as any of the other health hazards. They seemed to favour access around the gas, water or electric cable entry points. As these were situated in the cupboard, under the stairs they were not making a bad choice. For them that is! Traps were the answer. Cats too, but it was unwise to leave the cupboard door open as they seemed to be quite keen on dripping, meat and cheese too. It would be true to say that the removal of all hazards was just not possible and Health and Safety would have had several fits, but possibly have no answers available at the time.
Soon after the war small refrigerators’ came on the market for those that could afford them. They were often both very small and operated by gas, not electricity. Most households had a gas supply, but not all had electricity.
This addendum to the original resulted from a memory jolted by readers comments. I am sure there is much more of the same or similar. Please let me have your memories of FOOD in the forties.
Alan Orchard. October 2017.