Thursday, 25 May 2017

Glorious Food of the 1940s & 1950s

It’s odd to think that ordinary run-of-the-mill Roast Chicken was once so revered that for us, and for most of our neighbours, it was Christmas Dinner, and everybody knows Christmas Dinner is the most special meal of the year. This was back in 1947 or 1948 when we, along with many others, kept fowl in the backyard, a belligerent rooster and a harem of hens. The Bassents next door kept Rabbits and fattened them for eating which I didn’t like to think about too much and occasionally, particularly on allotments, some people kept pigs. As the years progressed the much esteemed Roast Fowl lost its place at the top of the pyramid of prized foods and simply became a Sunday dinner. At the same time families like The Scutts of Springhead Road, who my mother regarded as decidedly Uppity, had already announced they were having Turkey for Christmas! So the formerly greatly favoured bird slid inexorably downwards, its demise coinciding with the Chicken Inn chain opening in the late 1950s. One by one all my Aunts led by Old Nan in her best hat and coat boarded the Saturday 11.10 Express to Charing Cross specifically for the thrill of a Chicken Dinner in Leicester Square at 3/3d apiece. It was several months before my mother could be persuaded to join them because generally speaking she didn’t hold with London, mostly because of the prices but by 1958 she had to admit that what with chicken still being quite dear in Gravesend, and when you added in the cost and the palaver of the cooking of it, an occasional 3/3d was not too steep. In any case whichever way you looked at it you had to admit it was a Day Out and everyone needed a Day Out from time to time and apart from all that, depending on what you ordered you could find an entire Chicken Leg on your plate together with roast potatoes, peas and gravy so you couldn’t complain. These days the bird has simply settled into becoming a midweek dinner choice whether roasted, poached or more imaginatively turned into a curry and the Chicken Inn chain is long gone.

Children of the late 1940s were accustomed to a diet that has largely disappeared and we were totally ignorant of foods that today’s child is completely familiar with. None of us had the slightest clue as to what a Kebab might be and although we might have heard of Pizza and perhaps even associated it with Italy that was as far as it went. Wimpy Bars were still firmly in the future along with Golden Egg restaurants and Chinese Takeaways. We would have been quite confused by a Big Mac, possibly associating it with some kind of rainwear. The only takeaway meal we were completely at ease with was Fish & Chips, an option that had been around since the middle of the nineteenth century. My mother who was born in 1908 remembered Fish & Chips as an occasional treat before WW1 and her own mother, spoke of the Fish & Chips in Bethnal Green with almost a tear in her eye. According to my Aunts, we who were growing up in the 1940s were a great deal better off food-wise than they who had been born back in Late Edwardian England. As a group they did not always agree with regard to matters concerning the past but as far as food was concerned they were for once in total accord. Their parents being afflicted with drunkenness, they were forced to become accustomed to hunger pains.

Fashions in food together with the availability of some items dictate that the culinary experiences of each generation will differ. For instance delicacies chosen to impress and prepared in advance of a Saturday visit by relatives would undoubtedly be a mystery to those born after 1960. Nevertheless the memory of the forward planning for such delights as Brawn or Jellied Eels is still vivid to me.

Old Nan always referred to Brawn as Head Cheese but of course it bore little resemblance to any kind of cheese I was familiar with. Usually I was sent to the butcher to order the pig’s head a few days in advance and told not to forget to ask him to split it. For Saturday eating I would be sent back to collect it before school on Thursday. Then it would be squashed into the biggest cauldron we possessed along with salt, onion and carrots and simmered on the scullery stove all day until the water was disgustingly gelatinous and as my cousin Pat observed, just like snot when you’ve got a really bad cold. By teatime the gas would have been turned off, all corners of the house would smell of boiled pig and the cauldron contents left to cool enough for the remains of the head to be pulled forth after tea and the meat patiently picked from the bones. I usually tried to dodge any assistance with this even if it meant electing to go to bed earlier than usual. By Friday evening both the meat and the liquid it had simmered in would be distributed among a number of receptacles and would long have set into typically unstable Brawn-like consistency, all ready to be consumed next day by the visiting relatives along with vinegar and bread and margarine, always referred to as bread and butter. Nothing horrified me more than having to sample it but the adults did so with enthusiasm and I would simply be sent to the off licence for bottles of Light Ale to accompany it.

I was less unsettled by Jellied Eels with the possible exception of the first part of the preparation. Everybody knew that to do the job properly you had to buy the eels not just fresh but definitely alive. We usually bought ours in Northfleet High Street after school and carried them home threshing around at the bottom of a shopping basket. I dreaded their approaching slaughter, not because I felt particularly concerned for their lives but because after chopping the bits carried on wriggling. Once an almost whole eel escaped before execution and had to be salvaged from beneath the copper while its tail still fidgeted on the table.

The squirming pieces were dropped into boiling water with salt, diced onion and bay-leaves and simmered until after tea when they were left to cool and ultimately served in much the same manner as the Brawn. By Saturday I would have put the demise of the unfortunate creatures aside enough to sample a small helping. My Grandmother was particularly fond of them and without fail every time she ate them told the story of how she was once friendly with Tubby Isaacs of Aldgate when he first opened his famous stall just after the First War and how he had passed it on to his nephew Solly in 1939 before the Second War and ran off to America in case the Germans won. Nobody could make Jellied Eels like Tubby Isaacs she maintained. And maybe she was right because I wasn’t overly fond of my mother’s version but then as a child I was somewhat choosy about all food, seafood in particular, favouring shrimps over everything else available at the time.

On Sunday afternoons the Shrimp Man trundled through the local streets with his pushcart, sometimes offering crabs along with the shrimps, cockles, and whelks all sold by the half pint or pint. If my mother felt the budget didn’t run to shrimps I was happy to settle for cockles but never whelks. We only ever bought half a pint of shrimps for me and my brother but as my parents always favoured whelks anyway, they usually bought a pint or two to share between them. Occasionally as a special treat we might have a crab.

Another food hawker was the Pease Pudding & Faggots man who usually came on a Friday or Saturday but wasn’t as reliable as the Shrimp Man. I was particularly fond of Pease Pudding which appeared to be quite harmlessly made from split yellow peas but not quite as keen on the Faggots especially after I once witnessed my Aunt Martha making them out of very fatty bits of pork belly and an evil smelling pig liver. She said she didn’t hold with buying them off the street because you didn’t know what was in them. There didn’t seem to be an appropriate response to that comment but I didn’t forget it.

The gastronomic highlight of our week was Sunday dinner which would always consist of a piece of Lamb or Beef together with roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, cabbage, carrots and gravy made with Bisto granules. Afters would most likely be Stewed Plums and Custard in summer and Prunes or an occasional Treacle Pudding in winter. There would be at least two other meaty meals during the week, cheap cuts such as Neck of Lamb which would be made into a stew with dumplings or possibly Pork Belly or Brisket. Horrifyingly I have now lived long enough to see these cuts that I was always wary of in the first place, appear on upmarket restaurant menus along with very fancy prices. As much of the current customer base has no former memory of them they are greeted with Oohs and Aahs of delight. Being the rather fussy eater described, I wasn’t all that keen first time around so I avoid them if I can. Meals I was in fact more keen on included Liver, Kidneys, Stuffed Hearts and Sausages, most especially the latter.

In deference to my father’s Catholicism, on Fridays we always had Fish, even long after he had died. I found some fish meals, particularly those simmered in milk, most unappetising, mainly because my mother had never got the hang of how to thicken a sauce with flour and insisted that milk flavoured with salt and parsley was actually Parsley Sauce. She was never a confident cook, putting her lack of skill down to the fact that when she and her siblings were growing up in Maxim Road, Crayford, there was such a lack of food that my Grandmother had been totally unable to provide any kind of role model. Not that she expressed it quite in those terms of course. I definitely recall other Friday fish meals of Sprats, Kippers and Bloaters with much more enthusiasm than her attempts at simmered fish with any kind of home-made sauce. The sauces I was happiest with and accustomed to were HP, Daddy’s and Tomato.

Although I recall a tin of Fry’s Cocoa suddenly appearing as a supper drink when I was about ten years old, few of us drank anything other than tea with our meals alongside the grown-ups. I was aware that some children were occasionally allowed Tizer or Lemonade but we only managed that on those occasions when we were required to sit outside a Pub with the adults inside. Even then Old Nan grumbled and complained that it was a waste of money saying she had no time for Bleeding Brahmans demanding lemonade to Sweeten Their Piddle. On Pub occasions though she was ignored and we couldn’t help but feel triumphant.

Breakfasts back then were infinitely more straightforward than they are today. There was no choice of Muesli and Yoghurt was unheard of so weekday breakfasts usually consisted of bread and jam in summer and porridge in winter. I should add that the porridge was of the rustic variety with no choice of flavourings and definitely not QuikCook. An occasional egg might be served to children on Sundays though their fathers and sometimes their mothers might have bacon as well occasionally. I envied Molly and Georgie a door or two down whose mother regularly provided Shredded Wheat but when I suggested we follow suit I was told boxed cereals were much too dear, like cube sugar which I also had a longing for and occasionally saw at their house. Old Nan said in her experience it was only Nobs and Toffs who went in for Frills such as cube sugar and it was likely such people went in for Real Cream as well. This remark caused me even more confusion because I thought Cream was the Libby’s Milk that we regularly poured over our tinned pineapple at Sunday teatime after consuming the compulsory two slices of bread and butter. The idea that there was something else known as Real Cream was astonishing.

Libby’s Milk was also sometimes served alongside the Sunday tea-time trifles my mother learned to make from Woman Magazine in the doctor’s waiting room. Her first attempt appeared in 1953 in honour of my brother turning six, not exactly a Birthday Party like some children were beginning to have in those post-war years, but all the same a most Special Tea. A Swiss Roll from the Co-op had been sliced and arranged at the bottom of a glass bowl, topped with a can of Fruit Salad and set with an orange flavoured jelly. This was left to completely solidify in our always chilly Front Room and when Bernard returned from school at 3.30 it was ready to be admired. His excitement was intense and even more so when the can of Libby’s appeared. He told me it was just like Sunday Tea Time and his ears turned pink with delight when we sang Happy Birthday.

Other infrequent treats were Lyons Fruit Pies, appearing on our tea table intermittently, never a whole one each, and cut reverently in half for my brother and me to share. It only occurred to me recently that my mother never appeared to partake of these occasional treats and I imagine that could only be because of the cost. An annual delight that all of us did take part in was the making and eating of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, served deliciously with the juice of a lemon and a sprinkling of sugar. Other festive food included Hot cross buns appearing without fail in time for Easter, though we never made our own, and usually we were also given a small chocolate egg like every other child in the street.

Throughout my childhood there were some foods that were completely free such as Hop Tops, Cobnuts, Chestnuts, Blackberries and Crab Apples and if you could face it, Hedgehogs. But you had to make the effort to collect them which of course we did with enthusiasm except for the Hedgehogs which were usually left to my Grandmother who was more resilient about the fate of small mammals. There were also foods that were purloined on a seasonal basis from local farmers such as Apples, Pears, Cherries, Peas, Beans and New Potatoes and we viewed these thefts less as pilfering and more as a Right passed down via generations before us.

Now looking back over those years between the mid 1940s and the mid 1950s I have come to realise that there were a number of typical Kentish dishes that I never came across. No member of our large extended family seemed to make, have any interest in making or the necessary knowledge as to how to make local delights such as Gypsy Tart, Kentish Pudding Pie, Cherry Batter Pudding or Lenten Pie. Others spring to mind also, but they all remained a mystery to me and I only tried them decades later as an adult with the assistance of a suitable cookery book. If she was still alive, Old Nan would undoubtedly say that this was because they were foods that only Toffs & Nobs ate but somehow I don’t believe that.


  1. I like "sweeten their piddle". I must use that line;

    1. I think you will find it is a remark of its time - probably wouldn't be understood by most people today (hopefully anway)