FOOD & COOKERY – A TASTE & COLOUR EXPLOSION
At the beginning of the decade, food and cookery in Britain lacked variety and failed to inspire the palette. The nation’s cooks were sick of having to keep coming-up with innovative recipe ideas for the limited range of available foods. Food rationing placed a considerable strain on the beleaguered housewife. In 1951, meat rations were meagre. Finally, in 1952, tea was de-rationed, followed a year later by eggs and cream.
Sugar rationing ended at midnight on September 26th 1953 after thirteen and a half years of restrictions. In the four months leading-up to the de-rationing of this essential food item, the weekly ration, per person was one pound of sugar. The de-rationing of sugar gave a much-needed boost to the manufacture and retail sales of sweets and chocolate. In 1954, at midnight on Saturday 3rd July, butter, margarine, cheese, meat and bacon were de-rationed.
American born Alice B. Toklas her cookery book, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, published in 1954. Written while living in France, it is a mix of recipes and reminiscences and it became a great success. At the time that Toklas wrote the book’s introduction, butter had just come off of ration in Britain, she commented:
Butter being off the ration now in Britain, no better use for it can be found than in cooking. The margarine-minded for whatever reason will do well to remember that margarine has a definite taste and is more watery than butter. If, in view of expense and after the chastening effect of so many years’ rationing, you feel you must adulterate my butter with part margarine, pray reserve that substitute for dishes and sauces of strong individual taste.
There are so many lovely recipes in this book but one of my favourites appears in the penultimate chapter, ‘Recipes from Friends’. Toklas had a circle of friends drawn from the high society and the arts. Cecil Beaton sent Alice his recipe for ‘Iced Apples (a Greek pudding, very Oriental)’, here it is:
Iced Apples by Cecil Beaton
Prepare syrup with 2 cups sugar and 3/4 cup water and the rind of a lemon. Peel and cut in very thin slices 2lbs apples of a very good quality. Put them in the syrup and let them cook from 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Pour into a mould. Surround when removed from mould with a vanilla custard sauce. Decorate it with candied fruit. Serve very cold. Should be prepared the day before, or in the morning if served for dinner.
The housewife became the hero of the home front, keeping her family fed for fourteen years with limited provisions at her disposal. In 1953, Mr Leslie Gillitt, the President of the National Federation of Grocers’ and Provision Dealers’ Associations gave a speech at the Federation’s annual conference. He heaped praise upon the housewife and her response to dealing with the restrictions of ration book Britain:
We believe that the housewives of Britain, to whom we take off our hats in tribute to the fine job they have done throughout the years of rationed dictated dullness, deserve and will welcome a return to free choice of attractive varieties with no couponed limits on quantity.
I found in my mother’s treasure trove of vintage cookbooks, a really lovely Penguin paperback, Preserves for all Occasions by Alice Crang. My mother still uses the chutney and jam recipes today. Published in 1944, 1946, 1948 and 1953. The 1953 edition is the one my mother has. In the introduction there is another nod to the legend that was the fifties housewife:
The busy housewife, who is already trying to fit in so much extra work… this book is intended for those who have little time to spare and who have not done very much of this type of work before.
At the time this edition went to print (1953), sugar rationing still remained and the book addresses this problem in relation to preserving:
Sugar, being rationed, is the first consideration. Without it there will be no jams or jellies, for at the very least it will take half a lb of sugar to make one lb of jam or jelly. So before starting the season’s preserving it is well to take stock of the sugar supply and same some of this for the favourite jams.
Here are a few of my mother’s favourite recipes from this book:
Apple and Marrow Chutney
Ingredients: 1lb cooking apples; 2lb marrows; 1/2lb shallots; 1/2lb sugar; 1 1/2oz salt; 1/2 oz bruised whole ginger; chillies, peppercorns and 1 1/2 pints of vinegar.
Method: cut the prepared marrow into small pieces, put in a basin with the salt sprinkled over, leave overnight and drain well. Chop the peeled onions and apples finely, tie the spices in muslin, put all the ingredients except the vinegar in a pan and cook until tender. Add the vinegar and cook until it is of the consistency of jam. Remove the bag of spices and pour the chutney into jars. This yields about 3 and half lbs of chutney.
Green Tomato Chutney
Ingredients: 5lbs green tomatoes; 1lb onions; 1lb sugar; 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of salt; 1-2 teaspoons of mixed spice; 1 and 1/2 pints of vinegar.
Method: Slice the tomatoes, cut-up the onions and cook them together in a covered saucepan till they are soft. Add the sugar, spices, and vinegar and cook gently without a lid on the pan and with occasional stirring until the chutney is of the desired consistency.
Elderberry Relish Sauce
Ingredients: 3 pints ripe elderberries; 1 and half pints malt vinegar; 1/2 lb sugar; 1/4 tablespoon of cayenne pepper; 1 tablespoon cinnamon; 1 tablespoon allspice; 1 tablespoon cloves.
Method: Measure the elderberries after they have been removed from their stems and stew gently in the vinegar until soft. Sieve the pulp, add the spices and sugar and simmer until it begins to thicken. Pour while hot into hot bottles and seal. Sterilize in water as recommended above. Yield is about 1 quart.
Ingredients: 4lbs plums; 1/2lb onions; 1/2lb sugar; 4ozs currants; 1 quart spiced vinegar; 2ozs salt; 1oz mustard (dry); 1/2 oz ground ginger.
Method: Dark coloured plums are best to use. Cut up the plums and onions and cook them in half the vinegar for half an hour. Rub the pulp through a hair sieve, add to it the remained ingredients and simmer for one hour with occasional stirring. Bottle it while hot.
If you are still stuck for Diamond Jubilee catering ideas then I have a recommendation for you. I found this newly published, brilliant little book at my local Sainsbury’s supermarket, British Baking in 2012 published in conjunction with BakingMad.com website. BakingMad.com’s website also has a great section containing lots of Jubilee Baking recipes. It costs £2.99 and has thirty recipes that can best be described as British classics: Victoria sponge; Jubilee cupcakes; Union Jack tray bake; jam tarts; Bakewell slices; Eccles cakes; Bramley apple cake; raspberry ripple ice cream; coffee and walnut layer cake; shortbread; Welsh cakes; Jubilee trifle; pasties; cheese party twists; cheese and mustard scones and much, much more. If you don’t have a local Sainsbury’s then you can purchase a copy online. CLICK HERE.
TIED TO THE KITCHEN SINK – THE DOMESTIC GODDESS EMERGES
The lifting of food restrictions heralded the beginning of new chapter in domestic cookery. For those who could afford it, the kitchen became a shrine to ambitious materialism. American and British designed gadgets to make the housewife’s life easier flooded the marketplace. Everything from vacuum cleaners, food mixers, liquidisers to fridges with associated advertisements that promised to reduce the time spent by the housewife on domestic chores so she had more free time to care for her husband and children.
In fact, these labour-saving devices often left the housewife chained even more to the kitchen sink and expectations of what she could realistically achieve with her daily chores were increased! For those families who couldn’t afford all the gadgets and white goods, life was a very different story. If you want an alternative take on what life was like for women in the 1950’s, then I recommend you read the recently published Fifties Mystique by Jessica Mann (Quartet, £9.99). Mann draws upon her own experiences to highlight the many domestic and professional challenges faced by women in the pre-feminist era of the fifties.
The fitted kitchen, part of the American Dream, was made possible by the mass production of cheap units. Kitchens were no longer spaces for just preparing food, they became spaces to dine and socialise with friends and family.
In the era of the kitchen-diner, hatches were often installed between the kitchen and dining-room. Alternatively your handyman husband could knock-up in a weekend, a large wooden structure to divide your kitchen in two, thus creating a separate dining area. In Christine Veasey’s Pins and Needles Treasure Book of Home-Making (1955) she suggests:
..by simple upright timbers supporting open shelves above. On kitchen side, to sink height, there are easily fixed plastic tiles to match the splash back around the sink. Note how the contrast walls of the dining alcove look. An inspiring room and project for any handyman.
Veasey also recommends that the kitchen cabinets can be re-arranged to create an area which can be used as a playpen for your toddler, so you can keep an eye on him/her ‘while mummy is working.’ On the subject of kitchen storage Veasey advises:
One of the goals of kitchen planning is to reduce the number of steps necessary in performing routine tasks. To accomplish this, modern kitchens are divided into work centres. That is, all the supplies and all the equipment for one general kind of kitchen work are grouped together. Therefore, in planning storage space for kitchens, the first thing to decide is the amount and location of the space needed for each main task.
The English Rose kitchen became the most sought after make of units in the latter part of the fifties. This brand offered high quality and style. The units were colour-coated and made of high-grade aluminium left over from the production of Spitfire nose cones and propellers. Trimmed with stainless steel and bolted together like Meccano. The English Rose kitchen is still popular today thanks to a renewed interest in 1950s vintage interiors. Re-using pre-loved fixtures and fittings also makes good green sense. Units on e-bay fetch high prices, although if you do decide to re-fit your kitchen with English Rose, remember that it can be difficult to incorporate modern appliances into the design layout. The Bath-based company Source Antiques specialise in restoring English Rose kitchen units and will can also help you design kitchen layouts. For more information about this company, CLICK HERE. For a short video clip about Source’s restoration team, Rod and his son Tom Donaldson, CLICK HERE.
In the second half of the decade, the housewife in her shiny, newly fitted kitchen needed something different to cook in her thermostatically controlled gas oven, enter the adventurous food writer. Elizabeth David’s exotic Mediterranean Food (1954), Ambrose Heath’s The International Cookery Book (1953) and the more traditional The Constance Spry Cookery Book (1956).
The first TV chefs appeared: Fanny Craddock, Robert Carrier, Philip Harben and Marguerite Patten all demonstrating dishes to inspire your culinary prowess. For the housewife without a TV then magazines such as Woman’s Weeklyprovided an alternative source of cooking inspiration with regular columns giving advice on food related matters as well as simple, tasty recipes.
I have a copy of a supplement on Bacon Cookery that came with a copy of Woman’s Weekly from September 27th 1958. I printed some recipes in an article posting in November last year. Here are few more from the ‘Party Snacks’ section. If you are planning a vintage-inspired Diamond Jubilee party in a few weeks and looking for recipe inspiration, then you could try some of these:
Ham Cornet Sandwiches
Ingredients: 2oz thinly cut boiled ham or bacon (2 slices); 4 slices of bread and butter, with the crusts removed; a few leaves of watercress; 1 small tin oven baked beans.
Method: Cut each slice of ham into four triangles. Form on into a little cornet, lay it on a slice of bread and butter and at once fill it with baked beans – this will help it to hold its shape. Make the other cornets in the same way, placing two cornets on each slice of bread and butter, with a garnish of watercress leaves between them.
Ingredients: 4 ozs minced cooked bacon; 4 circles about 3 inches in diameter of bread and butter cut from the square slices; 1/2 level teaspoonful dry English mustard; 2 pickled walnuts; 1 teaspoonful tomato relish or ketchup; 2 tablespoonfuls single cream; salt, if necessary, and pepper; 3 tomatoes.
Method: Put the minced bacon into a bowl with the mustard and tomato relish. Chop one and a half pickled walnuts (keeping the remaining half for the decoration), add this to the mixture and bind it with the cream. Season it with salt, if necessary, and pepper, and spread it on the slices of bread. Peel the tomatoes. Cut the flesh of the tomato into petal shapes and arrange them in the shape of a daisy on each sandwich, with a little piece of pickled walnut for the centre.
Ingredients: 12 oz minced cooked bacon; 6 soft round bread rolls; 1 level tablespoonful finely chopped onion; 2 teaspoonfuls tomato ketchup; pepper; 1 egg; a little fat for frying; 12 spring onions or rings of raw onion.
Method: Mix the minced bacon and the chopped onion with the tomato ketchup. Beat the egg well and work it into the mixture, then season it well with pepper – it is unlikely to require salt. Form the mixture into six flat round cakes about the size of the bread rolls. Heat a little fat in the frying pan and fry the hamburger cakes on both sides to heat them thoroughly. Place one between each cut roll and insert two spring onions or the rings of raw onion on top.
Coronation chicken, a British BBQ and buffet staple, is an invention of fifties Chef Rosemary Hume. Hume created the recipe for the official banquet lunch to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The recipe appeared in the first edition of The Constance Spry Cookery Book (1956). For more information about Hume’s coronation chicken recipe, I found a recent article by Andrew Crowley (Telegraph on-line edition). The article also includes a reprint of the original recipe. CLICK HERE.
Curried Chicken – Mrs Beeton Style
I know that Mrs B is not a 1950s cook, however, I couldn’t resist a nod to my food heroine. Here is her recipe for curried chicken:
Ingredients: 1 chicken, ¾ of a pint of white stock, 2ozs of butter, 1 tablespoonful of curry-powder, 1 dessertspoonful of flour, 1 teaspoonful of curry paste, 1 dessertspoonful of desiccated or fresh cocoanut, 1 dessertspoonful of chutney, 1 tablespoonful of lemon-juice, 2 tablespoonfuls of cream, 1 apple, 1 onion, salt, cooked rice.
Method: Divide the chicken into neat joints, and fry them lightly in hot butter. Remove them from the stewpan, put in the onion minced, fry for 2 or 3 minutes without browning, add the flour and curry-powder, stir and cook for a few minutes, then pour in the stock and stir until boiling. Replace the chicken in the stewpan, add the curry-paste, cocoanut, chutney, sliced apple, lemon-juice, and salt to taste, cover and cook very gently for about ¾ of an hour if the bird is young, or until the flesh of an older bird is tender. Arrange neatly, add the cream to the sauce, and strain over the chicken. The rice should be handed separately.
THE START OF MODERN CAFE CULTURE
Coffee bars/houses enjoyed a revival towards the end of the decade. Cosmopolitan meeting places serving continental foods, such as Swedish-style open sandwiches and exotic drinks in coconut shells. Brightly decorated interiors and curios such as the pet monkey and exotic birds kept at El Cubano Coffee House on Brompton Road in London. Some coffee houses offered creative activities to its customers, such as painting. Although for the more conservative Briton, coffee houses were thought to be a left-wing concept where dangerous liberal thinking took place! The coffee bars were popular with young people too. By the end of the decade the coffee bar had become so popular that it threatened the survival of the traditional British pub. Pub landlords and breweries fought back by undertaking ambitious programmes of modernisation to the interiors of their establishments in an attempt to attract a younger customer. Here are a couple of short British Pathé films featuring 1950’s coffee bars, including the El Cubano on Brompton Road: