Meat Loaf: 1967

Before today I’d never made or eaten meatloaf before. Growing up, my whole experience of it came from watching American films from the 90’s where it was always presented as a bit of a disappointment: dry, bland and uninspired, occasionally with ketchup. None of my friends ate it either so it became something I thought of as semi-fictional, in a boring kind of way. I think there was only one film where meatloaf was made to seem dangerous and exciting, but it was part of a messy, short lived scene that ended with a pickaxe and bits of Meat Loaf all over the walls and floor. Other than creating some mildly conflicting emotions in 12 year old me (who, let’s face it, knew she shouldn’t be watching a DVD that featured so much leather and red lipstick on the front cover), this particular scene didn’t really change my opinion of the dish overall.

I’m unsure why I thought of meatloaf as this slightly ugly, dull meal in comparison to the fancy sounding terrine when they are such similar dishes. It’s probably because the word “terrine” evokes French elegance, upmarket restaurants and crisp white napkins whereas the word “meatloaf” sounds like something we’d all be fighting over in the dystopian wasteland of a nuclear winter as part of a futile effort to avoid resorting to cannibalism. Or maybe I’ve just thought about it too much.

“It’s really boring” I told my husband. “At least, I think it is. You probably won’t like it.” I showed him the ugly photo of lumpy meatloaf in Marguerite Pattern’s 1967 edition of Quick and Easy Cookbook in Colour.

“Well why are you making it then?”

I showed him the photo of Wurstel Sausage in Aspic which had been the alternative for my foray into the food of the 60’s and 70’s. He agreed I’d made the right decision.

A third 70’s dinner option. Credit here.

In theory meatloaf has been around for centuries because dishes of compressed minced meat have existed since ancient times. In Apicius there’s a recipe for Brain Sausage involving pulverised minced brain which is shaped and cooked in a pan and sliced into portions to be eaten cold. I would do anything for my love of historical cooking, but I won’t do that. I needed a modern, non-brain version to make instead.

Our modern idea of meatloaf first appeared in American print in 1899 – coincidentally just after the invention of the meat grinder. From then on it became a firm American staple, appearing in cookbooks and on dining tables for decades after. It wasn’t until 1939 that meatloaf made it to British print, however, by which time it had cemented its place as a versatile but fairly inelegant meal. The recipe I used for today’s meatloaf, taken from Quick and Easy Cookbook in Colour, appeared under the title “Made-up meat dishes” which did little to change my perception of meatloaf as something that wasn’t quite real, but I was prepared to change my mind. Besides, I was using my gran’s old cookbook which bore tell tale splatter marks from when meatloaf had been all the rage in the 70’s.

First I melted 1 oz. of margarine in a pan, added two chopped onions and cooked them until they were soft but not brown. I then added 3 oz. of mushrooms, flour and milk to form a white sauce and cooked until thickened. So far, so easy. I was actually quite pleased to see that the first two ingredients were vegetables and not meat; it somehow made the unappetising image in the book a little less daunting.

Once the onion/mushroom/white sauce mixture cooled slightly I added a combination of minced beef and sausage meat, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, two eggs, 3 oz. bread crumbs, a teaspoon of mixed herbs and 1 oz. of parmesan cheese (“Oh, you’re making a fancy meatloaf then”, my mum said when she found out the ingredients.) I then added 3 tablespoons of tomato puree which gave everything a disconcerting pinky/orange hue and reminded me of Rocky Horror again, before squidging it all into a loaf tin and baking for just over an hour.


The thing I hadn’t appreciated about meatloaf is that it’s often meant to be served cold. Patten’s recipe called for the meatloaf to be chilled in the fridge for a couple of hours once cooked before being sliced and served with a salad. I had intended to serve this for dinner, and by the time it was done it was already 7pm. I didn’t think my family would appreciate waiting another two or three hours for a meal that I’d done nothing but complain about since starting. It’s fair to say expectations weren’t high and tacking on an additional countdown to inevitable disappointment wasn’t something I fancied doing to my family – so I served it hot.

Sliced warm, it didn’t quite keep its intended loaf shape – entirely my fault, but not very helpful in boosting the overall attractiveness of the meal. That said, it didn’t look as awful as I’d imagined a whole tin of squashed meat would. There was a pretty satisfying brown and crunchy top to the meatloaf which, once broken, revealed a surprisingly tender and moist interior. I was delighted to find that the crumbly dryness I’d been expecting was no where to be seen – it was like eating a lasagne without pasta and was quite delicious.

The mushrooms and white sauce lent the whole thing a pleasantly silky texture as well as preventing dryness. The tomato paste gave a surprisingly strong “vegetable” taste that threatened to distract from the beef and sausage meat, a combination that worked quite well, although I would have preferred more sausage meat than Patten used in her recipe.

I wanted to see what it tasted like cold, though, so a couple of hours later I cut a slice from the refrigerated leftovers. The flavours had intensified, with the beef becoming more prominent in particular and the tomato taking a welcomed backseat. The texture had become a little chunkier and less smooth too – it was somehow more robust. Overall I think I preferred it cold, as Patten had intended.

Tastier but still kind of ugly when cold.

Despite my limited pop culture references leading me to believe meatloaf was a bland meal, I didn’t find it bland at all and my husband and daughter seemed to wolf it down. However, the overall presentation and fact that it was best eaten cold meant that it would be out of place at a dinner party.

If I was going to a picnic though, and wanted something that tasted great but didn’t make me look too try-hard, I would absolutely make this again. Likewise, I could see this being a much enjoyed family meal if I had time to prepare, cook and chill it properly. And that, I think, is the beauty of meatloaf. It’s not trying to be anything more than it is – occasional family meal, satisfying picnic lunch, theatrical aging rock star – it’s all good.

E x

Meat Loaf

28g margarine
2 onions
85g mushrooms
28g plain flour
1/4 pint of milk
2 eggs
Teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Teaspoon salt
Teaspoon mixed herbs
28g Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
3 tablespoons tomato puree
85g pork sausage meat
450g minced beef
85g breadcrumbs

  1. Melt margarine in a saucepan and add the onions, chopped. Cook until soft but not brown.
  2. Dice the mushrooms and add to the softened onions. Cook for 1 minute.
  3. Add the flour and stir through the mushrooms for 1 minute. Keep stirring to prevent lumps forming.
  4. Once the flour has been absorbed, add the milk and stir constantly until the sauce is thick.
  5. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
  6. Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.
  7. Add the remaining ingredients to the onions and mushrooms and mix thoroughly.
  8. Press the meatloaf mixture into a loaf tin and bake for 1 hour – 1.5 hours.
  9. Remove from oven and allow to cool in the tin before transferring to a wire tray. Wrap the meatloaf in greaseproof paper and place in the fridge for 2 or 3 hours before cutting into slices.

Rock Buns: c. 1946

Today’s experiment and blog post can both be filed under “super quick”, which you’ll find next to the folder marked “can’t be arsed.”

You know those days when it feels like you have ten thousand and one things to do but no energy, time or patience for them? Well so far it’s been that kind of month. Maybe it’s because we’re onto week eight thousand of “lockdown” (are we still calling it that?), maybe it’s because my husband and I are stuck in a cycle of lasagne-spaghetti-ravioli dinners because we were both silently hoping the other one would step up and attempt to cook something without pasta, maybe it’s just because it’s June and I’m still checking to see if I need a coat before going out. I don’t know, I’m tired.

Rock buns (or rock cakes, as they’re more commonly called) are the sort of cakes we’re all familiar with from childhood. Having been coaxed into a trip to see grandparents by the promise of cake once there, rock buns are exactly the sort of non-iced, non-chocolate “treat” you’d end up being presented with. Or at least, that’s how I remembered them.

These rock buns are taken from a World War Two Ministry of Food leaflet – a government produced pamphlet to provide households with filling and nutritious recipes during the height of rationing. With eggs, butter and sugar all on ration by 1946, today’s experiment threatened to hark back to the days of disappointing afternoon tea at gran’s.

Oh you can afford fancy fonts but you can’t afford a couple of commas, Ministry of Food?

The recipe reflected the constrictions of the time; no eggs, very little sugar and margarine instead of butter. Reading it, there was also a distinct lack of descriptive language – whereas modern cake recipes usually tell us about the intoxicating smells, the golden hues, the nuttiness that dances lightly on the tip of the tongue etc, etc – this one really didn’t.

In fact, the whole thing was three sentences long. There was not one simile, not one metaphor, not even a charming anecdote, to make it more appetising. Clearly poetic writing skills were also on ration in 1946.

“Make the foundation recipe with the addition of 4oz. dried fruit and 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice added with sugar.”

I did as I was asked by mixing up a batch of the plain cake foundation recipe that formed the base of many of the cakes in the leaflet. At four sentences long, this was practically an essay and took a whopping 10 minutes to complete, but I persevered.

To the foundation mix I added the required dried fruit and spice and then just enough milk and water solution to help it form an incredibly dry dough (about two tablespoons.) I then rolled it into golf ball sized lumps and popped it into “a hot oven” for about 10-15 minutes as instructed. After 15 minutes the rock buns were still a bit anaemic looking so I left them for another 5 minutes or so while I went back to Googling “family dinner ideas – not pasta.”

Finally, they were done. About time too – I’d given up a full half an hour of my afternoon on these and was almost on my knees with exhaustion. I presented the fruits of my 30 minute labour to my husband and daughter with about the same levels of enthusiasm and energy as the author of the recipe had when writing it down.

“Here you go, sweetheart,” I told my girl. “Here are some disappointing cakes mummy made. What do you think?” I turned to grab the bin in anticipation…

And stopped; no one was complaining. My husband was already reaching for a second and nodding appreciatively. I bit into mine.

I don’t know whether I was just an obnoxious child (likely) or my gran was a terrible baker – but these were nothing like how I remembered. Where was the cardboard flavour? The burnt and crumbly currants that left a bitter aftertaste for hours? The crust so hard your teeth cracked with every bite?

Though these lived up to their name in terms of appearance, once the hard outer layer was broken into they were surprisingly soft and scone-like. The currants were plump and juicy and even as someone who dislikes dried fruit in cakes I found I didn’t mind them here. In fact, they were kind of necessary because they added a moistness that stopped the rock buns from becoming too dry.

In terms of flavour, the mixed spice shone through – perhaps because there was a lack of other flavouring – but it was very subtle and worked well with the currants. Unsurprisingly the rock buns weren’t very sweet; again I was reminded of a plain scone and were it not for a commitment to authenticity I think a big dollop of strawberry jam would work well with them (jam was on ration from 1941 to 1950.)

Less than 10 minutes after this was taken every single one had been eaten.

Sure, these rock buns lacked the appeal of an icing covered fairy cake and they weren’t as rich as chocolate fudge cake, but they were still incredibly moreish and I was surprised that for such a simple recipe they were so delicious. I found myself reaching for a second and then a third in a very unrestrained, un-1946 kind of way. It may have taken no time at all to whip a batch of them up, but it took even less time to devour them and with each one I felt my mood lift a little.

Gran, if you’re reading this – I’m on my way over. Get baking.

E x

Rock Buns

115g plain flour
115g self raising flour
45g margarine
45g sugar
50g currants
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
Pinch of salt
A tablespoon of milk or water

  1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees c.
  2. Combine the flour, sugar, currants, salt and mixed spice in a bowl.
  3. Add the margarine and vanilla and combine.
  4. Add the milk or water until the mixture just sticks together.
  5. Roll the mixture out in golf ball size balls and place on a baking tray. Leave space between each one as they will expand a bit as they cook.
  6. Cook for 15-20 minutes until they turn golden brown.

Marrow and Pineapple Marmalade: c. 1929

A couple of weeks ago I got a gift. And, to pinch a Tim Minchin lyric, “like most gifts you get it was a book.” Actually, it was several books (and for any Minchin fans who were wondering – no, none of them were the Bible.)

My gift was a bundle of retro cookbooks from Lyalls Book Shop containing such gems as Dainty Dishes and Cyril Scott’s Crude Black Molasses: The Natural “Wonder-Food” – a pamphlet dedicated to promoting black molasses as an alternative medicine for almost all injuries and illnesses known to man. Scott, a composer and musician, also published other ‘medical’ works including Victory Over Cancer Without Radium or Surgery. This publication gave Scott a chance to flex his medical credentials as a “musical composer with a taste for philosophy and therapeutics”, which must have come as a blessed relief to the doctors of the time who Scott describes as being knowledgeable but “not necessarily wise or even skilful” and who had become “so cluttered up with accumulations of academic learning” they could therefore no longer see the simple and obvious facts surrounding the causes and treatments of cancer. He sold himself as a layperson who, unlike medics with “professional prejudices” (you know, like using cutting edge science to treat people), was blissfully unburdened with any medical training whatsoever and was therefore perfectly positioned to advise the public on the kinds of cancer treatment available to them – the more molasses involved, the better. An unfortunately prolific writer, Scott also published other works such as The Art of Making a Perfect Husband (actually I might get that one) and a 1956 opus magnum entitled Constipation and Commonsense.

But among the comedy was a Bestway Cookery Gift Book that promised to take me “step by step through the Everyday Dishes to Delightful Experiments in high class Cookery!” I couldn’t find too much info about the Bestway series (my book was a fourth book) but it seems that the offices of the “Best Way” series published a yearly book of recipes during the 20s and 30s for housewives. The books covering a range of recipes ranging from simple household staples like sandwich cakes to more challenging dishes such as Galantine of Beef (an inexcusable serving suggestion implied this dish should be served with the word ‘galantine’ piped over it in butter forced through an icing bag.)

The answer to all those times you asked your teacher when you’d ever need to know how to pipe butter in cursive.

The Bestway Cookery Gift Book was pretty functional and contained very few tips and tricks about its recipes – unlike modern cookbooks that are 30% anecdotes about how the author’s treasured and very secret family recipes were passed down faithfully through the generations only to end up reprinted in six languages.

The closest I could find by way of an introduction to today’s recipe was a paragraph called “Jam-Making Hints” which was confusingly formatted like an acrostic so that I spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to work out how to pronounce ‘UANKT BWP’ and what it meant. It actually turned out that each point was meant to be an easily remembered tip in jam making, like the world’s most impossible mnemonic; so far I just have Underdressed Androids Never Kick The Ball Without Permission which, I found out, was not a helpful jam making tip in the slightest.

Alternative suggestions in the comments, please.

Anyway, on to the jam. Straight away it was a farce. When doing these sorts of experiments I like to aim for as much authenticity as I possibly can and I start with a score of 100 and mentally deduct points for every alteration or mistake I make. Usually I end up with around 70 points left over but today I’m proud to announce I hit a new personal best: 40.

“4lbs marrow” was the first ingredient. Nowhere was selling marrows but I did have three large courgettes in. A quick Google told me that marrows were basically courgettes that had been allowed to go over (sort of) so I figured there wouldn’t be too much harm in using these instead. Minus 20 points for substitute ingredient.

I also didn’t have 4lbs of them so I had to half the recipe. Later I’d find out that this was a good thing, but at the time it felt like I was tipping further into the void and I deducted another five points. Once the ‘marrows’ had been peeled and chopped I saw I was supposed to pass them through a mincer, which we didn’t have. What we did have, though, was a blender which achieved a perhaps slightly too mushy result, but was infinitely quicker than trying to chop the courgettes by hand into mincemeat (or should that be minceveg?). Minus a further 10 points.

The recipe then instructed me to put my minced marrow into a bowl and “sprinkle with sugar and leave overnight.” So just how much sugar should I sprinkle on? Why, just over 1kg of course. It wasn’t so much a sprinkling as an avalanche but I was 35 points down already and had already seen that the words “preserving pan” appeared in later instructions (I don’t have one) so couldn’t afford to fritter away any more points. I delicately dumped sprinkled an entire bag of sugar over the courgette mess and left it overnight.

Despite the recipe recommending I return to complete the next stages “in the morning”, I actually forgot it was there until the next afternoon by which time the mixture was exceptionally stiff, almost like fondant icing, and a very faint green colour. The next stage was to add 1 large tin of pineapple, minced, to the courgette and sugar mixture. Ever so helpfully the recipe gave no indication how large “1 large tin” actually was.

At this point in the day there was a big government announcement about an advisor who had broken lockdown rules but wouldn’t be punished for it. I was therefore a bit distracted when adding my pineapple which explains why I accidentally forgot to half the amount to match the courgette and sugar, and estimated that 1 large tin was about the size of 2 small ones (which was what we had in) and added those, blended, to the mixture. Minus 15 points for incorrect quantities and over blending of pineapple, resulting in lumpy juice rather than finely minced fruit (but plus 100 for being able to stick to lockdown guidelines for 10 weeks even when those in charge can’t, am I right?)

It was now time to heat everything in my non-existent preserving pan. There seemed to be an awful lot of mixture and I doubted whether it would all fit in any of my saucepans so I chose to cook the jam in my ever reliable and ever inauthentic wok, which I’ve used to help Anglo-Saxon and ancient Persian bread rise, but have never actually used to cook a stir fry in. Yes, yes I know – minus 10 points. The trouble with cooking jam in a wok, I found, was that it didn’t heat evenly. I knew I was trying to get to about 105 degrees C for it to set, but after 15 minutes or so some parts of the wok were nearing 105 degrees and others were struggling to get past 100. I decided to transfer half of the mixture to a pan and cook it in batches, which worked much better.

After skimming off the scum and adding the juice and rind of a lemon, it was time to take the mixture off the heat. It looked pretty dubious. I don’t know a lot about jam, but I do know it relies on pectin to make it set, which is mostly present in the skins of fruits, particularly hard fruits. Not only had I used two very soft fruits, but I’d also peeled them thoroughly beforehand. The majority of the pectin was therefore coming from one measly lemon which, I now noticed, had a used by date of May 16th. I don’t know if that affected the levels of pectin in it, but with the way this whole thing was going it felt like this would only be a bad thing. I wasn’t sure my jam would set as firmly as I was used to but short of actually following the recipe properly by using the correct ingredients, quantities and methods, I felt I’d done all I could.

Amazingly, one thing I had done properly was sterilise some jars to put my jam in. The trouble was that both jars were old pickled onion jars and had retained some of their vinegar-y smell despite my best hot water and soap efforts. In a last minute attempt to find jars that didn’t have such an offensive whiff about them I raided my fridge for almost empty or gone off jars of something – anything – that I could use instead. There was nothing I could justify eating up or throwing out yet. And, I’m sorry to say, the only thing that came close was yet another jar of pickled onions sat forlorn and forgotten at the back of the fridge, left over from Christmas.

I spooned my jam, which had by now thickened to the consistency of wallpaper paste into the jars and sealed them, leaving a little in the pan for taste testing.

Mmm that sweet, sweet jam and pickled onion flavour!

It’s very hard to explain what this jam was like. Texture wise, it was lumpy and a bit grainy. Not unpleasant, necessarily, but not at all refined. Taste wise, it was…weird. That’s the only way I can describe it. It was sweet – very sweet – but in a plain way. I couldn’t really taste the pineapple, other than a bit of a tropically tang on the tip of the tongue, but my husband said he definitely could, so it may depend on individual palates how much comes through.

Mostly though, it tasted of very sweet courgette and I couldn’t see when you’d eat this. On toast? In puddings? Not really – it’s not fruity or acidic enough for toast or puddings or anything that needs either of those things to cut through. With cheese and crackers, like a sweet chutney or quince jam? No – it’s far too sweet for that and not spicy enough either to add an interesting dimension. The only thing I could see this being used in because you wanted to (rather than because you had to use it up) was possibly as a filling for a lemon cake that had a lemon buttercream icing on top to provide some sourness to the relative sweet blandness. Hardly a jam for all seasons, then. Now you may want to argue that some of this disappointment was down to my lackadaisical approach to this recipe, and you may be right. But, just like an aforementioned advisor, I believe that I acted responsibly, legally and with integrity at all stages of this recipe and will therefore not be taking any real responsibility for its shortcomings.

So overall what did I learn from all this?

One – as a family, we eat too many pickled onions.
Two – Like a musical composer with a taste for philosophy and ethics dipping his unqualified toe into the world of medicine, I did not posses the skills or tools needed to make this jam a true success. I ended up losing points in almost every category, like some sort of inverse jam-based Torville and Dean (weird analogy, right?) despite this recipe not actually being that hard to pull off.

Ultimately I wouldn’t recommend you make this unless you make a lot of lemon cakes (and even then, remember, that’s an untested recipe) or you really just want to try it for yourself. The concept was interesting and in the end it wasn’t bad or inedible, it just doesn’t have a clear role in recipes. With more pineapple and less marrow, perhaps it could be more of a traditional fruity jam but as it stands this is one that I’m happy to leave in the recipe books.

E x

P.S. in the end I actually was able to think of a better mnemonic – one to perfectly combine the farces of politics and jam: Unelected Advisors Needn’t Keep To Basic W.H.O. Protocol.

Marrow and Pineapple Jam

900g of marrow when prepared
1kg of sugar
500g of drained tinned pineapple
Rind and juice of 2 lemon

You will need to sterlise 2 or 3 jars for this recipe. I recommend sterilising them while the mixture is cooking which means they will be ready by the time it’s done.

  1. Peel and blend the marrow to a coarse pulp.
  2. Cover the marrow with sugar and leave for 12 hours.
  3. After 12 hours, chop or blitz the pineapple finely and add to the marrow and sugar.
  4. Over a low heat, cook the marrow, sugar and pineapple together until the sugar has dissolved.
  5. Once the sugar has dissolved, bring the mixture to a boil, skimming any scum from the surface.
  6. When the mixture reaches 105 degrees C, remove from the heat and pour into pre sterilised jars.

Vanilla Ice Cream: 1949

I love condensed milk. I love it so much that having even one tin of it in the house would constitute a genuine health risk to me; what my husband calls ‘previous incidents’ have shown that in a mere matter of hours I can eat a whole tin on its own. A few years ago I read that some children who were evacuated to the countryside during WW2 were often given small tins of condensed milk to sip on during the train ride to give them a sweet treat to shut them up cheer them up as they were wrenched from their families. Nobody can know how they’d react in a historical situation, but part of me feels that I would have been loudly and enthusiastically volunteering to be evacuated from the second I found out what would be in my lunchbox. To put it another way: if Roald Dahl had written about Charlie and the Condensed Milk Factory I would have replaced the Augustus Gloop character and would have been very happy indeed to drown in a pool of the stuff.

I don’t want anyone to think I’ve got a problem here; I can go months and months, a year maybe, without it. I feel smug when I pass it on the shelf in Sainsbury’s and ignore its saccharine call – “Not today, Satan!” I chuckle to myself to the alarm of other shoppers – but then a well meaning relative will invite me over for coffee and baking and it all goes to pot the second I have a bite of anything made with it. Move over, marijuana, there’s a new gateway drug in town and its name is millionaire’s shortbread.

So imagine my disappointment – nay, my horror – when I got back from the shop and furtively unpacked a tin of it to stash somewhere secret, away from exasperated husbands and perpetually hungry toddlers, and found…I had bought evaporated milk instead. Not my lovely thick, creamy, sweet condensed goodness at all but something altogether different. “Send me back home,” my imaginary evacuated self cried, “this isn’t what I was promised! Make it go away!”

I turned to Twitter for help, hoping someone would swoop in to reassure me that if I added x amount of sugar I could make my own condensed milk and all would be well. How much would I actually need?

“A shed load” came the reply.

Well, bugger.

Luckily I was assured that a bit of evaporated milk worked wonders in rice pudding and was very generously offered a delicious recipe that used up half my tin. But what to do with the other 200ml?

I’d always associated evaporated milk with rationing and frugality – it was the sort of thing I imagined my grandparents continued to eat on top of fruit despite cream being readily available again, just because that’s what they’d had as children. So I turned to WW2 for inspiration. More accurately, I turned to the years immediately following WW2.

In the years immediately after WW2 rationing continued and for some items got worse. Bread, which hadn’t been rationed during the war years, was added to the list of rationed foods in July 1946 – over a year after Victory in Europe Day. It was a bad time for children up until 1953 when sweets were finally de-rationed, and even worse for carnivores who had to wait until 1954 for meat to be de-rationed too. However, imported foods that had disappeared from Britain during the war began to be brought back into the country in small quantities such bananas in 1946 – much the bemusement of children who had never seen one before and tried to eat them with the skin on.

1943 sheet music for that famous chart smash “When can I have a banana again?” I don’t know, blame Hitler.

In 1940 the Ministry of Food issued a report called The National Food Survey to be compiled. The survey was to provide “independent check[s] on the food consumption and expenditure of the population during the war…to assess to effectiveness of the Government’s war time food policy.” It continued to monitor the food consumption of those it termed the “urban working-class” until 1949 and was published in 1951 because the information it had compiled was useful for helping show which foods could be de-rationed.

The data for 1947 and 1948 showed that, thanks to rationing, on average people from the sample were eating 12% and 20% less cheese, 7% and 12% less meat and 30% and 17% fewer eggs (including dried) respectively than compared to 1945 – the year the war ended. Milk consumption – in all its forms – was also down slightly in the two years after the war. But by 1949 consumption of milk, cheese and eggs had begun to rise, with milk being consumed at 107% of 1945 levels (though consumption of cheese and eggs as a percentage was still below 1945 levels and fresh eggs in particular remained conspicuously absent from many post war recipes.)

If you want to get really nerdy about it (and I do) you can even see the breakdown in the percentages of type of milk consumed. The amount of milk produced in 1948 rose by 50% compared to 1945 and by a further 7% in 1949. At these higher levels of production the government could afford to remove the restrictions placed on milk sales for a record fifteen weeks during 1949, which meant more people could drink more of it at much cheaper prices. This is partly shown in the data for 1949; we can see that “liquid milk” retailed at full price (excluding “School milk” and National Scheme milk which was subsidised) was consumed at a rate of 3.26 pints per head per week during this year compared to a rate of 2.93 pints per head per week in 1945. That’s an increase in consumption of 11.26% which doesn’t quite match up to the 57% increase in production – suggesting that less than half of the newly produced milk was being used as drinking milk.

(Hope you’re enjoying my rarely used GCSE maths skills because there’s more to come. Or you could skip ahead to the recipe, I won’t judge.)

Though milk and milk products might have been more readily available (although drinking milk was still rationed to 3 pints) tins of condensed and evaporated milk were still needed and could be bought on the points based system – with a can of condensed milk taking a whopping 10 of the 20 allocated points a person received in a month. But the beauty of canned milk was that a tin of condensed – or evaporated – could replace cream and sugar (and in some cases the binding qualities of egg) in one go, meaning that households could preserve their precious weekly rations of sugar and eggs (1 egg per person, about 200g sugar per person.) And as for cream? Ha! A luxury most had to give up – emphasied by the rise of numerous recipes for ‘mock cream’ from the time period.

We get it – you like data. But we’re really only here for the ice cream…

I actually hate data but I hear what you’re saying.

The best ice cream is made with sugar, egg yolks and cream – but all those things were still rationed in 1949 and a woman would really have to love her kids to use up her own weekly rations to make frozen dairy goodness for them. I’m not saying some women didn’t choose to forgo sugar and cream for themselves so their children could have a little treat, I’m just saying I wouldn’t. My daughter knows where she stands when it comes to my love of sweet food.

What mothers could do, however, was make fake ice cream using a tin of evaporated milk like the one I had shoved to the back of the fridge to wait forlornly before mould or cooking inspiration struck – whichever came first.

I used Marguerite Patten’s Post-War Kitchen for my ice cream recipe. Patten was a employee of the Ministry of Food during WW2 and was in charge of the Ministry of Food Bureau at Harrods demonstrating to customers the wild and wonderful recipe ideas that could be achieved on rations. This included recipes that some might call resourceful (others might call them abhorrent), as the government’s 1947 recipe for whale mince meat proves. Remember – any unexpected meat was a bonus and nothing was off limits, even whale carcasses that floated up the Thames were fair game.

Ice cream was a luxury whichever way it was served – fake or not. I halved Patten’s recipe to match the quantities of evaporated milk I had left over and found that half of the recipe was still plenty for a family of three. The recipe below shows the full quantities.

First I had to make the ‘cream’. That’s not me putting quotation marks around the word cream, that’s genuinely how it appeared in the book. I never really realised it before but my doubts for how well a recipe is going to turn out directly correlate to how many times quotation marks are used around seemingly normal ingredients.

For this I melted 25g of butter in a pan with 75ml of whole milk. I then spent quite some time whizzing it together in a blender to try and emulsify it. I think it worked, though it wouldn’t have passed for cream next to a jug of the real stuff; by the end of whizzing it was frothy and slightly thicker and there were no globs of butter floating on the surface, but it was still thinner than cream. Patten would have used a manual cream-maker to make her cream, but since the price of one of those today is around £20 on ebay and the price of actual cream is under £1 I didn’t think it was worth investing in one this time round.

While my ‘cream’ bubbled quietly in the background I whipped the remaining 200ml of evaporated milk with 25g of caster sugar (12.5% of my weekly sugar ration, that) and a teaspoon of, er, vanilla essence. I did have a quick Google as to the availability of vanilla essence in 1949 and as far as I could see it seems the jury’s out on whether it would have been present in many households. Certainly it wasn’t as commonplace as it is today. Let’s assume I got it on the black market, but don’t tell anyone.

Once the evaporated milk was whipped and foamy I folded in the ‘cream’ (still suspicious), poured it into a container and froze it – the recipe assured me it would not need mixing during freezing, so I was free to get on with some other post war things, like listening to the wireless. My husband and daughter – somewhat pointedly, I felt – instead chose these spare hours to make numerous trips to the freezer for Magnums and Fruit Pastille lollies.

After half a day the ice cream was done. And it looked good! It was pretty soft to scoop and I noticed that it seemed to have separated into two layers – a fluffy white layer on top that was soft and a yellowish harder layer underneath that was more icy.

I also bought some hazelnuts on the black market.

In terms of taste we were all really surprised. It was delicious! I wouldn’t say it felt like a traditional ice cream – the frothy white layer ended up turning to a mousse after only a few minutes out of the freezer and it wasn’t as sweet as modern day ice cream (which isn’t a bad thing necessarily.) Although it was less silky and had some ice crystals in it, it was somehow still very creamy and rich. I was also surprised at how strong the vanilla taste actually was given the small quantities of it, but it was unmistakable.

On a warm day in the garden my daughter had no complaints and finished a bowlful before demanding more.

“Hush sweetie,” I told her kindly. “I don’t love you enough to share my food or rations with you. You’ll just have to wait until next week.”

E x

Vanilla Ice Cream

For the ‘cream’:
50g butter
150ml whole milk

For the ice cream:
‘Cream’ as above
400g evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
50g caster sugar

  1. Melt the butter and milk for the ‘cream’ in a saucepan until just warm but not simmering.
  2. Pour ‘cream’ mixture into a blender and combine for several minutes until there are no bits of butter floating on the surface and the mixture is a creamy colour, slightly thicker and fully combined.
  3. Whip the evaporated milk with the caster sugar in a bowl until foamy. It should be like soft peak meringue.
  4. Add the vanilla.
  5. Pour the mixture into a freezable container and freeze for several hours until set.

Seed Cake: 1928

There’s something so comforting about the idea of afternoon tea, isn’t there? Like a scene straight out of an Agatha Christie novel; dainty ladies of a certain age in floppy hats and charmingly flowery dresses sitting outdoors, sipping tea out of china cups and chatting about the Church fundraiser. Maids laying delicate slices of loaf cake on three tiered cake stands already groaning with scones and cucumber sandwiches while men play croquet in the background. You know, just before the murder starts.

Very comforting indeed. And I realised, as I gazed at my own wasteland garden with its pigeon-poo-pebble-dashed picnic table, so very, very unobtainable.

For one, I didn’t own any proper china. Most of my cups are of the novelty, chunkier than a brick kind and none of them will ever match unless I happen to be given two of the same sets of hot chocolate kits for Christmas.

Secondly (and I really can’t stress this enough) I will never be dainty, delicate or charming enough to fit in with the quintessential afternoon-tea-on-the-lawn set. How do they not descend into animal grunts every time they bite into an eclair? Why must they wear those restrictive (but still charmingly flowery) dresses when a bin bag with a hole in it would cover one’s modesty whilst allowing for maximum bloat and serve as a ready made ‘take home’ bag if there are any cakes left at the end. Which, let’s face it, there would be. There are always cakes left over at those sorts of afternoon tea parties; hundred of cakes to choose from yet people only ever select one and then spend the whole afternoon taking sparrow-like pecks at it. Because apparently it’s not “decent” to slide an entire plate of fondant fancies into your handbag, or “socially acceptable” to stand by the buffet table windmilling shortbread into your mouth and trying to roundhouse kick anyone who approaches you with a plate of their own and laughably optimistic views about the notion of ‘sharing’.

It wasn’t my finest hour and no, I’m not expecting any more invitations to my grandma’s afternoon tea parties.

I have nothing in common with this girl.

Catherine Ives’ recipe

Today’s experiment is an attempt to conjure up some of that classic nostalgia that surrounds a good Marple-esque afternoon tea. Seed cake was a classic guest of vintage tea parties. Its presence at village fetes and W.I. meetings was as guaranteed and cliched as finding out that yet again the murderer was the doctor (butlers of the world rejoice; it’s always the doctor now.)

The recipe I’m using is from Catherine Ives’ 1928 book When The Cook Is Away – a handy companion aimed at alleviating pressure on a whole generation (and class) of women who had suddenly found themselves cook-less and somewhat unwillingly independent following the end of World War One some ten years previous. Ives’ recipe was re-printed in Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food which focused on recipes from the interwar period. Boxer highlighted that after WW1 the heavy, bloated Edwardian dining habits of the middle and upper classes ended thanks to the fact no-one could afford to pay for a full set of household staff. A whole host of well dressed, well spoken, well helpless women were suddenly faced with an unimaginable prospect: learning to cook for themselves. Catherine Ives’ When The Cook Is Away was therefore aimed at young aristocratic women with little prior experience in the kitchen who needed a few tips (although in reality many of these women were able to continue employing at least one member of staff who might help out with cooking.)

Boxer also argued that the 20 years or so between WW1 and WW2 were largely forgotten about, food wise. With stodgy Edwardian puddings at one end and strict rationing at the other, the interwar period had quietly slipped out of society’s recollection. Thanks to the work of historians like Annie Gray, the whole scope of 20th century food is coming back into focus, but Seed cake remains one of those ‘forgotten’ dishes, occasionally remembered by a nostalgic relative or Nigel Slater.

It’s not even an interwar creation, which makes the fact it’s been consigned to the dusty corners of kitchen memory even more upsetting (I imagine; I don’t know all the emotions cakes have.)

There are references to Seed Cakes throughout pre-20th century literature: Miss Temple dazzles Jane Eyre with a “good-sized seed cake” in 1847, David Copperfield shares a “sweet seed-cake” with Miss Clarissa and Miss Lavinia in 1850 and as far back as 1573 the poet Thomas Tusser used not at all annoying rhyming couplets to advise wives that the best time to prepare seed cake was during the harvest.

Recipe books mention cakes and tarts containing caraway seeds as far back as 1591, such as A. W’s ‘Tarte of Prunes’ in Book of Cookrye. But the beginning of seed cake’s heyday was the 1700’s where it appeared in Hannah Glasse’s 1784 edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy multiple times: “A Cheap Seed-Cake”, “A Fine Seed Cake”, “A Rich Seed Cake”.

Reassured that seed cake’s withdrawal from common society was an unexpected consequence of the outbreak of WW2, given its previous popularity, and not because it was a disgusting waste of sugar, I set about recreating my own from Ives’ recipe. “We’ll see who’s a “disgrace to polite society” when they see this”, I muttered (or I would have, if I’d been a real murder mystery character.)

Firstly, I beat butter into a cream and added sugar. I used a hand held mixer for this but it woke my daughter, who sleeps in the room above the kitchen, and my husband assured me that if I didn’t stop making noise he’d add “thief of domestic harmony” to my list of cake-based crimes. Also that I would have to do all of the subsequent nighttime settling if she woke for good, which was the bigger incentive to stop, to be honest.

Butter and sugar combined, I added half the flour and one egg, stirred it in and then added the rest of the flour and another egg. Catherine Ives then said to add between 1/2 and 1 tablespoons of caraway seeds (I chose 1/2) and the rind of 1/2 a large orange, which we didn’t have. What we did have, though, was Tropicana With Bits – so I spent 10 minutes sieving juice into a jug and scraping out the pulp into the cake, much to my husband’s exasperation.

“Just say you used an orange – who’s going to know?”

I said people would, because I’d tell them. He said I was cutting off my nose to spite my face so I said he wouldn’t be saying that once it was baked and he wanted a slice. He told me that with the length of time it was taking to get enough pulp, I’d never get round to baking the damn thing anyway and I replied that I’d be sure to include this exchange as part of the blog so people could see how unsupportive he was being. So there you go.

The next part of the cake was physically demanding. I didn’t expect it to be because, well, it’s a cake. It’s literally the food of people who aren’t good at physically demanding things. I had to beat the mixture for 10 minutes by hand because of my bat-eared toddler and because it was lacked any liquid it was a very dough like batter and not very pliable at all. There was a huge disparity in the ratio of dry ingredients to wet ingredients and it was like beating cement. I managed about three minutes before I limped back to my husband sweating profusely and gasping for air, and begged for help.

Like the gentleman he is really, he obliged and spent the next seven minutes huffing and puffing as he walked round the living room stirring and complaining about the bowl “too flimsy!”, the handle of the spoon “too sharp!” and the speed of time in general “too slow! There were four minutes left when I asked three minutes ago!” Finally, after about 12 minutes (sorry darling, but I was still a bit annoyed with you) it was done. The mixture was less solid but still very dense. I spooned it into a loaf tin and baked it for 1 hour.

I had high hopes for this cake; it was no longer a simple, humble seed cake in my opinion but had taken on a more significant meaning. In its making it had caused a minor rift in my marriage and helped me drop a dress size. With its completion I anticipated my triumphant return to tea party society where I would resume my rightful place at the buffet table and no one would dare come near me or the shortbreads again.


I hate liquorice, which I know caraway can be reminiscent of, but when I tasted this cake I was very surprised. Yes, there was an aniseed hint there but it was very subtle rather a flavour that shone through. Mainly the flavour was mild and creamy – there was a hit of almond that I couldn’t work out since there was no almond in the recipe. The cake was also surprisingly light given its dense appearance pre-baking, and quite dry, but not unpleasantly. For all its simplicity of appearance it tasted and felt rich and buttery; I began to wonder whether grandma would even need shortbread at her next tea party if she had this.

But therein lies seed cake’s biggest problem (other than getting bits of caraway seed stuck in your teeth): it’s not pretty. It isn’t attractive like a fondant fancy or sugary sweet like Battenberg. It lacks the gleam of ganache on fudge cake, the call of caramel in millionaire’s shortbread, the appeal of apple in a tart (and so on, and so on. Have fun making your own up.) Yes it tasted great, but it has to convince people to actually choose to eat it before they realise that it tastes great, and when faced with a scone topped with cream and jam or a slice of plain seed cake, I know which one I’d go for.

Still, we enjoyed our seed cake – my husband, daughter and I. Sat among weeds and wildflowers on furniture that had seen better days, sipping out of a Sports Direct mug fighting over the last few slices – there was no other tea party I’d rather be at. And since there weren’t any Christie-inspired doctors invited to our tea party, no one ended up murdered which was an added bonus.

E x

P.S. By the way – since this is a tea party cake and I haven’t mentioned any tea I recommend a variation of masala chai without the heat of the peppercorns or cloves (recipe below). Its combination of mild spices and sweetness perfectly matches the creamy notes (who do I think I am?!) of the seed cake. Try it – you won’t regret it.

Seed Cake

180g unsalted butter
120g caster sugar
2 large eggs
225g self raising flour
1/2 to 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
Grated rind of 1/2 large orange

  1. Set the oven to 160 degrees C.
  2. Beat butter to a cream, add the sugar and cream both.
  3. Beat in one egg and half the flour and combine.
  4. Beat in the second egg and the rest of the flour and combine.
  5. Add the caraway seeds and orange rind.
  6. Mix the mixture by hand for 10 minutes (or blend with a handheld mixer/food processor for 2 or 3 minutes.)
  7. Pour mixture into a loaf tin and bake for 1 hour or a little longer, until the the cake is set and golden brown on top.

Masala Chai

Almond sized piece of fresh ginger
3 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons of black tea (or 2 teabags if you don’t have loose tea)
Sugar to your taste (or honey, maple syrup, agave syrup etc)

  1. Fill a medium saucepan 3/4 of the way with water and bring to boil.
  2. Crush or grate the ginger into the water.
  3. Crush the cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks and drop into water.
  4. Allow the spices to boil in the water for 3 or 4 minutes before adding the tea.
  5. Once the tea has been added, turn the heat off and allow tea to infuse into water. You want a strong brew, not a weak one. Wait about 5-10 minutes.
  6. Pour milk into a cup – just under 1/2 of the way up.
  7. Strain the tea and spices and pour into the cup of milk.
  8. Add sugar to your taste – though I think the sweeter the better.

Parsnip Pie: 1954

I languished at home, the very picture of a glamorous but troubled 1950’s movie star, (think Grace Kelly or Elizabeth Taylor, thanks) cradling my wailing child and weeping to my husband that we hadn’t tasted anything that wasn’t tinned and steeped in sugary tomato sauce for 84 years now.

“Well – just go to the bloody shops. You’re still allowed, you know”, was his unsympathetic response.

“I can’t just go out”, I snapped back, “I’m social distancing. No, this is it for us – a diet of spaghetti hoops, Marmite, and that jar of chutney my mum gave us back in 2012. Oh, cruel world, why must things be this way…” My husband had already walked off.

‘How rude’, I thought, and went and got a bag of crisps.

Later, he told me he’d booked delivery of a veg box from a local farm shop that was due to arrive in two days. You just got what they had in, so I awaited its arrival with mounting excitement.

Finally the day came and the veg box arrived – overflowing with carrots, onions, potatoes, swede, courgettes, apples and oranges. I’d post a picture, but you all know what a carrot looks like. Also, there were rather a lot of parsnips. In fact, without wanting to sound ungrateful, there was an almost obscene number of parsnips. You know that nursery rhyme about the magic porridge pot that won’t stop cooking porridge until it overflows and engulfs an entire village? It was like that, but with parsnips. I checked with my husband that he’d not asked for so many of them, or inadvertently ordered the delivery under the name ‘Parsnip King’, but he hadn’t. It seemed that whoever packed our box just really wanted to spread the parsnip love.

No matter, though, I was sure there was a historical recipe to be found somewhere. And there was. Lots of them, in fact. It would seem that the humble parsnip has quite a longstanding history of its own. I hope you’re ready.

The story of the parsnip

Stop being so childish. Credit: wikimedia.

It’s not really a sexy vegetable, is it? (Okay, bad example. Although, I am a bit worried if humorous root veg does it for you.) Lumpy, wonky and with enough crevices for dirt to get really stuck in, the parsnip isn’t a veg celeb like its sleeker, more colourful cousin the carrot. In fact, it’s almost like the parsnip doesn’t want us to like it; the leaves of the parsnip can exude a sap that is toxic to humans and the flowering part of wild parsnip looks incredibly similar to the violently poisonous water hemlock – which can be lethal to humans. The parsnip’s anti-social personality hasn’t gone unnoticed in the world of showbiz, either; in 2018 Aldi’s successful Christmas mascot, Kevin the carrot, battled an ‘evil’ parsnip called Pascal.

And yet throughout history the parsnip has been lauded as a king of vegetables (or at least a courtier of vegetables.) The Roman emperor Tiberius had wild parsnips specially imported from the banks of the Rhine as part of the tribute owed to Rome by Germany and in 1288, the writer Bonvesin da la Riva spoke about the parsnip as being one of the delightful foods enjoyed by the people of Milan in his work Marvels of Milan. The golden age of the parsnip took off in the Middle Ages, before Europeans became aware of the potato and that flashy bastard, the carrot, thanks to its unbeatable sweet flavour and versatility. As well as providing bulk and nutrients to stews and soups, mashed parsnip was added to sauces as a thickener and to puddings for sweetness when sugar or honey wasn’t readily available.

Parsnips were introduced to North America during the 16th century, predominately as a root vegetable, but the Americans knew they had a good thing in their own homegrown spuds and the humble foreign parsnip failed to take off on a huge scale. Unfortunately for Pascal and his parsnippy pals, things were about to get worse as demand for parsnips dwindled thanks to falling sugar prices during the 17th and 18th century and potatoes (which, let’s face it, are so much better) became available on a global scale. Today, parsnips are mainly eaten in northern Europe in soups, as accompaniments to roast dinners and as the disappointing bits of vegetable crisps.

That’s enough parsnip history, thanks


So what was I to do with my unexpected glut of parsnips? For inspiration I turned to Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England. Hugely acclaimed from the moment of its publication, Food in England is both a cook book and a history of English food from the middle ages to the 20th century. As testament to its popularity, it has remained in print since the first edition and has been called a classic by both food critics and chefs alike.

Reading through the book it was clear to see that Hartley loved what she did. The recipes were littered with her own opinions and comments and at a whopping 676 pages long it was far longer than a cookbook need be, suggesting that the author was enjoying researching and writing about as many foods as possible. Many of the recipes that Hartley states as being ‘historical’ aren’t cited, which is a bit frustrating for someone trying to uncover the history of a dish, but rather are recorded by Hartley in the tradition of oral history; she travelled along England collecting old family recipes from far flung communities that had been passed down through generations. Sometimes she could pinpoint the origins of a recipe, such as a 1615 recipe for ‘Eggs and Bacon’, but mostly it was just a record of ordinary people’s meals, carefully collected and curated under appropriate titles with vague time periods such as ‘To Pickle Mackerel (a very good, old recipe)’.

Good old Dotty. She knew that nothing would improve the reputation of English cuisine than a cookbook with a pig’s head on the front of it.

Parsnip pie is one such vague recipe, which is why I’ve stuck with the publication date of Hartley’s book. There are literary references to it from 1810, but no definitive recipes for it that I’ve found.

I began my pie by peeling and boiling three of the largest parsnips I had. This still left plenty of parsnips over for a roast dinner and more than enough for anyone who cared to glance into the veg drawer of my fridge to exclaim in honesty, ‘gosh, that’s a lot of parsnips!’ Parsnips naked, I chopped them and boiled them until they became very soft – the goal was to be able to push them through a sieve.

While the parsnips were boiling, I enlisted my husband to make a shortcrust pastry for the pie case. I am fortunate that my husband is a man blessed with above average intelligence, so I was astounded when he replied that he didn’t know how to.

“What do you mean? Use a recipe – it’s just flour and butter?”

He tentatively began mixing. Then he paused. “It says to add some water.”

I waited, but it appeared he had finished speaking.

“So? Add some!”

“How much? What water?”

I gestured towards the thing called the tap. “Enough to make it stick together.”

He brought the bowl over and stood looking at it for a long time. I have never seen someone more petrified by a sink.

“You do it – I’ll add too much.”

I know it’s learned helplessness, but I was so bemused by the sight of a grown man so utterly unable to mix flour and water into a dough that I did it for him. He began to mix it together as if in a trance and I turned back to the parsnips, with a lot to think about.

Once they had boiled into a semi mush, I attempted to sieve them. This was a bloody pain in the arse and I wondered if Dorothy had included this but as part of her witty approach to recipe writing – was she laughing at me from cookery heaven, like I’d laughed at my husband? I really couldn’t see much difference between the small mound of parsnip I’d managed to push through the sieve and the great mass still in the sieve that I’d mashed up with the back of the spoon so, checking that my husband wasn’t watching my momentary lapse of culinary superiority, I tipped it all in the bowl.

Hartley suggested adding one tablespoon of honey to each pint of parsnip which by my estimates was about two tablespoons, and a good deal of ground ginger and allspice. To this I added an egg yolk and the zest and juice of two lemons and then rolled out the finally finished pastry to cover a pie dish. Long time readers of this blog (hi, mum!) will know that when it comes to pastry, I don’t believe a pie to be a pie unless it has a pastry base, sides and top. I’ve said it so much that it’ll probably become an epithet on my tomb when I die, but: A pie without a pastry case is just a stew with a lid.

I was so close. Dorothy Hartley was so close. We had a full pastry case with a filling neatly contained inside it – no faffing about. And then she suggested a lattice work crust. The barest, most meagre pastry top a pie could have. A pastry top that only covers approximately 50% of the pie, leaving 50% open to the elements and thus creating an unholy pie/flan combination.

I couldn’t work out what I was more disgusted by: a stew masquerading as a pie under a puff pastry crust, only to reveal its true self in all its charlatan misery once broken into, or an almost-pie with no sense of mystery that spilled its delicious secrets before even being cut into, thus ruining the anticipation. In my distress both options seemed equally devastating. All I knew was that my admiration for Ms Hartley had evaporated, much like the moisture and intrigue in a pie with a lattice work crust.

Stoically I continued, cutting strips of pastry slightly thicker than was necessary to compensate for the abominable holes in the crust and laying them in a lattice. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that the skill of lattice work was an evil magic I had no prior experience of and I actually found it quite tricky to start with. In fact, I had to restart it a couple of times to get the overlapping and underlapping just right.

Lattice work completed and brushed with egg yolk, the ‘pie’ went into the oven at 180 degrees for 30 minutes while I started on the meringue.

Oh yes. Parsnips and meringue – don’t say I don’t treat you.

Hartley’s meringue wasn’t cooked in an oven. She described it as being beaten sweet egg whites with lemon rind which was piped onto the edges of the completed pie and then returned “to the cool oven to set.” The absence of an oven, or mention of cooking the egg whites in any way led me to believe the recipe meant an Italian meringue, since this version of meringue held its form best and did not require any cooking other than boiling sugar syrup.

Once the pie was out of the oven and sufficiently cooled, I piped my meringue in very fetching 1950’s rosettes along the sides. I was so pleased with my piping skills I got a bit carried away and added unnecessary dots of meringue around the rosettes, which sort of ruined the look to be honest. I let it sit for an arbitrary amount of time, since the meringue was good to go anyway, before cutting a slice for me and my husband.

Yeah, I was pretty proud of the lattice work in the end, thanks for asking!

Straight away, my husband dived in for a bit of the pastry, ignoring the filling.

“This pastry is delicious!” He cried. “It’s the best pastry I’ve ever tasted. It’s so buttery and rich. Well done you. Except, I suppose well done me, really. Who knew I’d be a natural?”

I resisted the urge to hurl my plate at him and bit into a forkful of my own pie. It was…disappointing.

Because it looked very similar to pumpkin pie I had hoped for buttery sweetness. What I got was a weird mix of sweet and sour, because of the amount of lemon juice in the mixture. The sweet wasn’t all that sweet, either. Either my measurements were off with the honey, or Dorothy didn’t try all her own recipes, because I had to search very hard for the honey at all. The flavour of the parsnip wasn’t wholly unpleasant, but it was somewhat lost with the acidity of the lemon and the two flavours together seemed to fight rather than complement one another.

I didn’t get much of a ginger hit, either. The spices were too subtle against the two warring flavours of parsnip and lemon, so other than a residual heat from the ginger, there wasn’t much to indicate any seasoning at all.

The meringue was great, though. It provided much needed sweetness to balance out the filling. The only trouble were the ratios – there was far too little meringue to filling so after one pleasant forkful it was back to parsnip and lemon gruel.

I will, grudgingly, admit that the pastry was also good. That’s because it was a BBC good food recipe for basic shortcrust pastry I’d found by googling a ‘really easy shortcrust pastry recipe – like, really really easy’ for my husband to follow after his kitchen meltdown. There was no way it could have gone wrong. Still, there he was sitting gleefully on the sofa still sampling the delights of the foolproof pastry without having tried any of the weird sour filling. I had an idea.

“You’re right, the pastry is great,” I told my husband, sneakily scraping my serving into the bin. “I’m actually going to try and cut down on my carb intake while we’re indoors so the rest can be for you. Thank you so much for helping me make it. This one’s basically like a joint effort!”

“Yeah, and it couldn’t have turned out better.” He bit down on more pastry. “I’d be happy to help you next time too, if you want?”

“Yeah. That’d be great. Enjoy the rest of it.”

Four hours later and he’d eaten every bit of the pie. Every bit, that was, except the filling which had been carefully scraped out, dumped into a bowl and pushed to the back of the fridge along with my mum’s homemade 2012 chutney to be rediscovered next lockdown.

I went back to the veg box. I could still see at least four parsnips nuzzled in amongst the broccoli. Dorothy Hartley also had another recipe for Parsnip Cakes. I considered it for all of one second before cutting them into chunks for a side dish to our roast dinner – king of the veg they may have been and no matter how much Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would love me to embrace the ‘snip, for me they’re best as a side dish to a roast dinner. With carrots. Thank god for carrots.

E x

Parsnip Pie

3 large parsnips
2 tablespoons of honey
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
Ground ginger
2 large eggs
225g plain flour
100g cold butter, diced
100g caster sugar
25ml water

  1. Peel, chop and boil the parsnips.
  2. While parsnips are boiling, rub flour and butter together until it resembles sand. Add in a little water to form a dough and roll out to cover a pie dish.
  3. When parsnips are soft, push them through a sieve, or mash until very fine.
  4. Add the yolk of an egg, honey, lemon zest and juice and spices to the parsnips and combine thoroughly.
  5. Smooth parsnip mixture over pastry case evenly.
  6. Cut remaining pastry into strips and cover parsnip mixture in a lattice work pattern. Brush with egg yolk.
  7. Cook at 180 degrees for 30 minutes or until pastry is golden.
  8. While pie is cooking, begin on the meringue. Weigh out 50g of egg whites into a bowl.
  9. Into a saucepan, weigh 100g of sugar and 25ml of water. Heat until boiling and sugar is melted.
  10. Whip the egg whites with a handheld mixer until foamy and then pour boiling sugar syrup into the mix. Pour down the side of the bowl to avoid splashing yourself with hot sugar.
  11. Whip the egg whites and sugar syrup until peaks form.
  12. Once pie is out of the oven and cooled, pipe meringue around the edges.

Beef Tingler and Stimulating Jelly: 1970’s and 1905

It’s okay – this is still a food history blog, despite the title it’s not become that sort of website.

The lurgy has struck our household but it’s not the One That Must Not Be Named. It’s just a general run down-end of winter-haven’t had a break since Christmas one. I should mention I’m talking about my husband here. He’s spent most of the day in bed, grunting at me when I offer him tea and saying things like “I couldn’t possibly eat a thing, you know I have no appetite” before scoffing half a packet of medicinal chocolate hot cross buns.

I’m not surprised he’s feeling rotten, and I’ve tried to be the very model of a dutiful and caring wife; I’ve made sure he has something to drink, opened the windows to let the fresh air in and fought a pensioner for the last packet of paracetamol and toilet roll for him in the shop (twas a bitter fight but I don’t reckon I’ll be seeing much of Doris again, because neither of us are allowed back into Sainsbury’s anymore.)

So imagine my surprise – no, my utter outrage – when, after I lovingly asked how much longer he was going to groan and flop about for because I had actually planned on changing the sheets today and he still had to bring the bins off the street because we were at risk of becoming those neighbours, he snapped back “you could show a bit of kindness, you know, I feel really poorly!”

Well. I retreated downstairs, his words ringing shrilly in my ears like Doris’ battle cry. Maybe he was right. Maybe I hadn’t been sympathetic enough. Maybe what he needed was some good old fashioned care (you know I love a tenuous link.)

History’s cookbooks are littered with recipes for ‘invalids’. These recipes are intended to be bland but nourishing, simple yet enticing, and fortifying without containing really containing any ingredients in any useful quantities that could propel someone from the sick bed fully recovered. One of the earliest records of food playing a role in recovery comes from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates who is supposed to have said “let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food” (actually, it’s probably a misquote or a fanciful Renaissance scholar embellishing history, as no-one’s found any evidence for the saying in any of Hippocrate’s surviving works.)

Looking at Hippocrates’ understanding of illness, it’s clear that he felt food played an important role in health. For those afflicted with hemorrhoids, for example, Hippocrates recommends a lentil-heavy diet, and he suggested other legumes such as chickpeas could help with stomach ulcers and problems of digestion.

If we’re talking about Hippocrates we might as well mention Galen, who built on Hippocrates’ idea of the Four Humours (previously mentioned here) and added the Theory of Opposites. Galen was a big believer that all food had certain qualities (spicy, dry, hot, wet, etc) and that these qualities could cause or cure illnesses, depending on how they were mixed. To highlight this theory, Galen used the example of the cause of ‘hot’ diseases “[one cause of excessive heat] lies in foods that have hot and harsh powers, such as garlic, leeks, onions, and so on. Immoderate use of these foods sometimes sparks a fever…” Now, I’m not an expert at all but it seems pretty obvious that to keep coronavirus at bay, as well as frequent handwashing, all the greengrocers in the country should be forced to self-isolate as a matter of urgency.

Moving forward through time and one thing that begins to spring out of recipes for the sick is an emphasis on broth and gruel, presumably to ensure that the patient was genuine in their illness and not just faking it to get a day off school? One broth in particular stands out: beef broth. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management contains no fewer than three recipes for it (though she calls it beef tea) under the chapter ‘Invalid Cookery’. The recipes are without fail bland and uninspiring: basically just boiling beef in water with a little salt. Mrs Beeton somewhat optimistically recommends that when caring for the sick, one should always have ready “a little beef tea, nicely made and nicely skimmed [so] that it may be administered as soon almost as the invalid wishes for it.” I imagined I would be waiting a fair while if I told my husband that was going to be lunch.

But what to make him? Every cookery book I consulted told me in no uncertain terms that food for the sick should be as plain as possible – an edible punishment for daring to succumb to various virus and bugs. And then – inspiration, in the form of the marvelously stomach churning 70s Dinner Party: Beef Tingler.

I have to work very hard not to get too Carry On Matron about this. Beef Tingler seemed to combine all of the beef broth elements of invalid cooking but attempted to zhush (how do you spell that?!) them up a bit, mostly through the misguided addition of whipped cream. Two things I have to confess here – one: unable to find any tins of condensed beef broth, I just used ordinary canned beef broth, and two: I halved the recipe because I didn’t want any more of this nightmare in my kitchen than was absolutely necessary.

First, I heated up a can of plain beef broth. As someone who feels caring for the sick should be made as quick and easy as possible, so that the caretakers might get on with other things (like recapping Inside Number Nine and occasionally texting spoilers to the invalid), it was a promising start. To this broth I added 1/8th of a tin’s worth of brandy.

While this was cooking I whipped up 1/4 of a tin of cream and added vanilla extract, nutmeg, cinnamon and orange zest. The soup was then poured into a bowl and a dollop of cream was placed on top, whereupon it immediately melted and rendered any chance of a photo impossible. Luckily I’m a bit of a pro by now and had suspected this might happen, so had reserved half just in case. I decanted the remaining soup into a glass tumbler, added on another spoon of whipped cream and cackled to myself that I wasn’t going to be the one to eat it.

What was an especially appetising touch was the way the lipids in the cream separated out into a greasy yellow layer upon contact.

Even I felt this might be a step too far as I carried it up the stairs to my husband at 11.00am. The cream was sort of frothing about and the smells were confusing – hot meat and alcohol, cinnamon, vanilla, orange. There was a lot going on.

I think my husband sensed it wasn’t going to go well for him and was doing a fabulous bit of pretending to be asleep when I came to the bedroom. He opened one eye blearily.

“No, no, no, no…”

“It’s Beef Tingler -” (in hindsight, probably shouldn’t have opened with that.)


“It’ll be good for you, possibly.”

“Please, just take it away. No. Dear God, what’s that smell?”

It was clear he would not sip even a little. It would have to come down to me. I managed two spoonfuls in total before it went down the sink. The cream was very odd – foamy but quite thin because so much of it had melted. It had mixed with the top part of the broth by now which was really quite alcoholic but not in a good way and tasted faintly cheesy.

I assume the brandy was meant to be the ‘tingler’ in this but who the bloody hell would know? No one, I repeat, no one, will have ever managed to swallow down enough of it to find out.

On to dessert and straight faces are maintained all around for the arrival of ‘Stimulating Jelly’ and its author, Fannie Farmer. I kid you not.

This recipe is from the 1905 edition of Ms Farmer’s American cookbook Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent. I liked that title, it lent an air of occasion to the situation I was in. It made me feel almost like a real doctor consulting a manual – which food to help with this illness, which food to avoid for that. Ms Farmer’s approach to food in this book is nothing short of astoundingly scientific for its time. She starts off with a pretty impressive chapter on the classification of foods, including a diagram of a classification tree of organic and inorganic matter and the chemical elements of each type of food (carbon, hydrogen, sulphur etc) and makes a big deal of the fact that food for the sick should be both appetising to look at and not just variations on faintly flavoured water.

The book is broken down into sections depending on the type of meal one wishes to cook, so I flipped straight to chapter 24: ‘Jellies’. If beef broth was the quintessential convalescent’s meal, then surely jelly was the quintessential convalescent’s pudding.

It started off normally enough and I flipped lazily past recipes for lemon jelly and orange jelly and milk jelly until I stumbled across the alcoholic jellies – which is where I found Stimulating Jelly. The main flavour in this was port, which we randomly happened to have in (possibly a gift a from some polite guest who clearly doesn’t know either of us?). I couldn’t see my husband objecting too much if I brought him a jelly made mainly of alcohol, so I ploughed on.

The port bubbled away for 10 minutes or so with half a cinnamon stick and one (Fannie was very precise about that) clove. After this had cooked, I added lemon juice, sugar, 3/4 granulated gelatin and – you guessed it – beef extract. This was essentially the liquid that had been squeezed out of a raw steak. Even in puddings, the belief that even tiny quantities of meat juice would perk you up was prevalent.

I poured the mixture into a ramekin, noting that Ms Farmer assumed there would only be one invalid in the household judging by the amount her recipe yielded, and popped it into the fridge.

At least it set…

I attempted to convince my husband (who had rallied enough for a chicken tikka sandwhich while I spluttered my way through Beef Tingler, by the way), to give this a try. I didn’t tell him about the beef juice at the time. Like all good nurses I eventually succeeded in trapping and exhausting my patient into submission and he took one tentative spoonful. And another.

“It’s not too bad,” he conceded. “I can’t finish it all though.”

He wasn’t wrong – it was a much stronger flavour than we might expect a jelly to be, because of the alcoholic nature, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It was even quite refreshing, dare I say – stimulating? The beef juice lent a subtle savoriness to it rather than being a taste of its own; as my husband put it “it’s not too overwhelming, I’m not like ‘oh my god what’s this cow doing in here?'”

I’m pleased to report that after a day cowering under the duvet from me and dishes of various wobbling shades of brown, my husband is feeling fit to work tomorrow. I may not know much about modern medical practices, but I reckon a return back to serving beef broth, in all its various forms, to invalids might ease some of the pressure on our hospitals. At the very least it would free up more time for NHS staff to watch some well deserved TV.

E x

Beef Tingler

1 can of beef broth
1/8 can of brandy
1/4 can of whipping cream
Zest of 1/4 orange
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg

  1. Heat the broth and brandy in a pan.
  2. Whip the cream, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg together into soft peaks.
  3. Fold the orange zest into the cream.
  4. Dollop a spoon of the cream onto the soup.

Stimulating Jelly

3/4 teaspoons granulated gelatin
1/3 cup of port
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 clove
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice

  1. Heat the port with the cinnamon stick and clove for about 10 minutes.
  2. Remove from heat and add the lemon, sugar and gelatin and stir.
  3. Pour into a mold and set in the fridge for 5 hours.

Brazil Soup: 1909

It’s Lent. A time for abstaining from all that makes life worth living and doing large amounts of pondering all the awful things you’ve ever done while being increasingly sorry and mortified by them. As a species we’ve pretty much covered overthinking every mistake ever made and still being embarrassed by that time we called the teacher mum. Do we really need 40 days to dwell on it all – especially when all the chocolate’s been locked in the cupboard?

“Well,” one of my more philosophic friends told me when I announced my thoughts. “It’s not all about you, really.”

I asked her to repeat herself; in my head I’m used to hearing most of those words in that order most days, but the addition of the word ‘not’ was a new one.

“You’re meant to use the time to think about the things Jesus gave up for us and be reminded of the 40 days he spent in the desert, if you believe in that. Or how you can help people who aren’t as fortunate as you. And some people use it to kick start health regimes because it feels a more supportive time to start.”

I would hazard a guess that from the dawn of consumerism, Lent hasn’t been the most commercially profitable season. This is why you don’t see supermarkets getting themselves worked up over it; no matter how good your tagline, austerity just isn’t sexy: “This isn’t just any cabbage in plain boiling water; it’s M & S cabbage in plain boiling water.” Er, no thanks.

You know what is sexy? Chocolate. Slow motion shots of melted chocolate ribbons dripping off spoons and carefully curated piles of crumbly chocolate lumps, tumbling over each other in a carefree way. ‘Quick’, advertisers ordered, ‘get the Easter eggs out to stop people remembering they’re meant to be abstaining from shopping. Let’s spend these 40 days of Lent bombarding the suckers with almost indecent images of chocolate instead! We’ll tell them that they deserve to eat it all, even though we’ve just spent all of January telling them that they’re disgusting pigs who need to lose weight. Hide those diet pills – we’ll need them back on the shelves literally the day after Easter!’

Should probably have an 18+ certification
Photo by Marta Dzedyshko on

Nowadays, the reasons for participating in Lent may be countless and, as evidenced by supermarkets’ increasingly early Easter egg advertising, society’s attitudes to Lent might vary, but a few hundred years ago Lent was taken very seriously indeed. The early Catholic Church instructed its members that there were numerous ‘meatless’ days in the year which must be observed, including Lent but also Wednesdays and Fridays and various other fast days. The fasting was designed to encourage Christians to think about God, as well as show their unquestioning devotion to the Church. Early Lenten tradition was an amorphous mishmash of ideas about what could and couldn’t be eaten, and how often it may or may not be eaten, but by the 6th century the rule was to eat only one meal in the evening on fast days. That meal could contain no meat, butter, milk, cheese or eggs. This very severe set of rules lessened as time went on until Lent became a time to give up meat, but not necessarily limit oneself to one meal a day. To this day, the Church continues to instruct people on fasting protocol – in 1966 Pope Paul VI reaffirmed in the Paenitemini that Fridays were to remain penitential times where no meat (other than fish) could be consumed.

So, with my friend’s words ringing in my ears, I began to think about Lent a bit more and how I could selfishly twist it to suit my needs. I know, probably not what she had intended, but that’s what lazy proselytizing gets you. I decided that in honour of the first week of Lent, I would make a vegetarian meal from history. Not just a meatless Lenten recipe designed to make me repent my sins and long for the return of chicken dinners, but a truly wholesome vegetarian dish.

I was temporarily transported back to my primary school where the school dinners were amazing – proper Victorian style puddings and huge portions of mash and gravy, regardless of what the main meal actually was. The only trouble was my parents didn’t trust the safety of any meat that might have come into contact with beef, having endured the BSE outbreak of the 80’s and 90’s. As a result I experienced something I affectionately think of as ‘enforced selective vegetarianism’ but at the time I bitterly described as ‘mum won’t let me eat school dinners, even thought everyone else does and the meat isn’t that grey’. I vowed that this meal would be nothing like limp cheese sarnie lunch replacements and that it would be a meal in its own right.

Enter Mrs Jean Oliver Mill. In 1909 she wrote one of the first Scottish cookery books dedicated to promoting vegetarianism: The Reform Cookbook. At the time, there were some members of society who felt uneasy with certain common practices – eating meat and drinking alcohol, for example. These people were known as reformers and they had a problem with meat eating for various reasons: religious, ethical, monetary and health-related. Somewhat predictably, their call to ‘reform’ society’s eating habits were met with ridicule by many as Mrs Mill attests: “a vegetarian dare hardly sneeze without having one down upon him with ‘I told you so’ and ‘that’s what comes of no meat.'”

The Reform Cookbook was not only aimed at reformers looking to spruce up their diet, but housekeepers who wanted meat-free alternatives to summer lunches when the heat from the day would cause rotting meat to putrefy and stink. It was also a decidedly Scottish book; Mrs Mill commented that most of the cookbooks she had encountered were aimed at English audiences and though she bore no ill-will to the English, she was fed up of not understanding certain English phrases or quantities just as an English grocer wouldn’t understand a “Scotch lass who came in asking for a muckle broon pig tae haud butter.” I mean, she was right: first person to guess it right wins a fiver (unless you’re Scottish, in which case I’m not playing this particular guessing game with you!)

Brazil soup seemed to be the perfect starter meal for a fledgling veggie: it sounded unusual and more interesting than other veggie soups (yes, even the ones that think they’re exciting, like red pepper) and, most compellingly, it wasn’t just a meat-free version of a meal. Oh – and it didn’t contain mushrooms. Win-win.

It also, weirdly, didn’t contain that many vegetables either. In fact, it was fairly typical of the recipes in The Reform Cookbook in that Mrs Mill was genuinely concerned with promoting a healthy and nutritious lifestyle using as many available meatless resources as possible. That included veg, of course, but it didn’t limit it to veg alone. I think I’d been expecting the soup to have 80,000 different types of vegetables in it and served in a hollowed out pumpkin with spoons whittled from celery sticks.

First, I roasted 500g of brazil nuts and then ground them in a food processor. Well – I say I ground them, but really I ended up just chopping most of them up because my food processor is old and blunt and I felt a bit sorry for it – the brazil nuts just laughed in the blades’ faces and wouldn’t grind down into anything more than gravel size. Mrs Mill says you should pass the nuts through a ‘nut mill’, whatever one of those is, to achieve a nice sandy consistency but Argos didn’t have any nut mills in stock in the half hour window I had between getting to a shop and picking my daughter up from nursery, so half-hearted gravel it was. I added the brazil nuts to a stock of haricot beans, celery and onions and let it cook for six hours. What?! Did early 19th century vegetarians not have social lives? Did they not work? Surely they had better things to do that watch a pan of boiling nuts bobbing around for a quarter of the day?

Apparently not. I actually fell asleep while this was cooking, only to be woken by my husband later with the worried face of a man who knew that if he wasn’t careful with his wording there’d be two types of nuts boiling in the pan.

“I know you asked me to keep checking on it, and I did. But I left the lid off for a bit and when I went back…well…I’m sorry, but it’s turned into a bit of a gruel…”

Introducing a new and exciting type of food: regurgitated gruel! Coming to a bin near you!

It really had. I’ve never written a cookbook, least of all a cookbook designed to convert the doubting masses to a new style of eating, but I’m fairly sure using the word ‘gruel’ to describe a dish is advertising suicide. No matter, it wasn’t finished yet. Maybe this was meant to happen, remember I had been meant to leave this to simmer for six hours (though I’d only managed four) – what did Mrs Mill expect to happen?!

To the gruel I added a pint of whole milk and gradually stirred it in. As I did so the gruel eased up a little and became much more like a thick stew. I added a bit more milk so I could strain it through a colander and added some chopped parsley. Though the soup now looked a whole lot more appetising and I was fairly sure this would taste quite pleasant, I made my husband try it first as his punishment for gruel-ifying it in the first place. He took a sip…

…and pulled a face.

It turns out that when you roast and then simmer brazil nuts for four hours they take on a distinctly mushroom-y flavour. Kind of earthy and rich. I felt a bit betrayed by Mrs Mill; I’d deliberately picked this soup because it was meant to be a new taste and more importantly contained no mushrooms. But here it was, slopping about in the bowl acting like the world’s most successful mushroom soup understudy.

It was also quite gritty, which was entirely my fault, but still a bit off putting nevertheless. If you wanted to try this I’d recommend putting the effort in to grinding the brazil nuts as finely as possible. It was also quite oily even though I’d not added any oil to the mixture. I’d sort of anticipated this, but was still surprised by just how much oil there was.

More like brazil NOT soup (sorry)

Overall it wasn’t a disaster. In fact, if you like mushroom soup it actually might make a bit of an interesting alternative. I could even see this being something delicious if there was some garlic, salt or chili added to it. Ironically, once the mushroom flavour had gone it even had a faintly meaty/savoury aftertaste, which I’m not sure the reformists would approve of. I’d serve this as a small starter, though, rather then a main course as the oil might put people off and, like I said, mushrooms are disgusting so who’d want a whole bowlful?

I don’t think I’ll be giving up meat for good for Easter, but I’d be willing to sacrifice brazil nut soup. Sorry, Mrs Mill – this household will just have to suffer the stench of rancid meat in the summer after all.

E x

Brazil Soup

1 litre vegetable stock
500g brazil nuts
Chopped or dried parsley

  1. Roast the brazil nuts in an oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
  2. Grind the roasted nuts to as fine a powder as you can.
  3. Add to the vegetable stock and cook on a low heat for 4 hours, or until most of the liquid has evaporated.
  4. Add a pint of whole milk and incorporate. Add more milk if you prefer a thinner consistency.
  5. Strain soup through a sieve (or colander if you prefer more texture.)
  6. Add parsley and/or croutons.

Trench Cake: 1914

I’m teaching trench warfare to year 9 at the moment. I really like my year 9’s; they’re funny and inquisitive and (fortunately) have never had to live through anything more distressing than the wi-fi going down. So it’s really hard for them to grasp just how grim conditions in the trenches would have been. We’ve gasped at images of trench foot (seriously, only click on that if you’re done eating), analysed maps and images showing the position of trenches and groaned at the futility of going over the top, just to be cut to shreds by machine gun fire. And yet, they still don’t quite get it. How can they? I can pinpoint the exact moment they lost their ability to relate to the situation on the Western Front and that moment is called the Somme:

“I just wouldn’t go over the top, miss, I’d just refuse and tell the C.O. to do one.”

“Yeah, what would they do if the whole trench didn’t go over?”

“I’d run away back to England. D’you think I’d get to keep the gun, though?”

I did my best Mary Poppins-esque smile of charitable patience, even though we’d covered these exact scenarios every single bloody lesson so far.

“You think you could swim the English Channel in full military uniform, do you Finn?” I queried in what I hoped were calming non judgmental tones to hide my inner eye roll. “You must have just been pretending you didn’t have the stamina to do the 800 metre race at sports day, hmm? And Robbie – realistically what do you think might happen if you told a 6 foot something man with a gun who’s also out of his mind with fear to ‘do one’?”

We agreed (yet again!) that none of us knew what we’d really do if faced with similar circumstances to the men who fought in the trenches of World War One. It was an incomprehensible time – in everything I’ve taught, nothing comes close to matching the futility and horror of trench warfare and the impossibility of how people coped with it. Take Herbert Burden, a soldier who fled the battlefield after seeing the carnage and massacre at Bellwarde Ridge (1915), where over 1000 men were slaughtered in a 1/2 mile square battlefield in 12 hours. Aged just 16, he was still 2 years too young to have officially and legally signed up to the war but he had lied about his age – like many others, he had been swept along in the propaganda campaigns promising excitement and adventure. Still didn’t stop him getting executed by firing squad for desertion, though.

My students’ repeated inability to accept what happened in the trenches is a clear indication of how awful the reality must have been for a lot of men when the fighting was happening. Even when there was no fighting and boredom was the predominant emotion, it was still boredom mixed with mud, rats and the risk of an unexpected bullet hole in the head if you happened to stand in the wrong place at the wrong time. That year 9 can’t accept the realities of trench warfare, but instead come up with incredulous scenarios they’d try in order to escape the trenches every lesson, shows how out of the ordinary the situation was.

Imagine, if you can, you are a young man fighting in World War One. You’ve just got back from a gruelling week on the front line. You haven’t taken your boots off for days, you’ve only slept curled up in a dug out and it’s been pissing it down constantly because the climate of Northern France doesn’t give a damn about making this war easier for you. And that’s one of the ‘better’ front line experiences. You get back to the rest camp for 4 days’ break before returning to the front line again and after a mandatory wash and shave (this is the British army after all – got to keep those personal standards up, even if the water’s grey and the towel smells like feet) you are handed a package. Something from your family, to keep your spirits up: a cake.

Now, people back home during World War One weren’t totally ignorant of the realities of the war. They would have seen men returning bandaged and broken, unable to speak of their experiences and worked out that maybe this war wasn’t the jolly 20th century Butlin’s holiday it had been billed as. Soldiers also wrote home to their families to tell them of their experiences. The only problem with this was that at the start of the war, every letter sent from the battlefields was opened and read by a junior officer and then read again at Home Depot in Regent’s Park (the Post Office sorting office, not the home improvement shop) to make sure it contained no classified information that might fall into enemy hands. If it did, or if it contained information that wasn’t classified but was deemed too graphic or likely to lower morale, that section could be deleted or crossed out.

So I can only think that people back home were aware of the guns and general ‘ugh’-ness of the war and trenches, but must not have realised the true extent of the reality; the mud, lice, blood, despair and boredom, when they named the cake in honour of them. Also, as a side note, if you know that your husband’s having a bit of a hard time fighting in less than ideal conditions, why would you send him a gift named after the very thing he’s struggling with? “Made you this cake, darling, know how much you’re hating it out there so I’ve called it trench cake to remind you that you can never escape. Toodle-oo!”

It’s astounding that in the depths of war, the Post Office still managed to deliver 12 million parcels and letters every week to men at the Western Front. Among the lipstick marked envelopes and perfume scented photos, some of those packages contained Trench Cake baked by the wives, sisters and mothers of men fighting to keep their spirits up and serve as a welcome break to the unrelenting front line diet of bully beef and bread.

Although rationing wasn’t introduced until the end of the war in 1918, some traditional cake ingredients were still hard to come by as import shortages occurred and prices rose. In order to get to France in one piece and be enjoyed properly, Trench Cake had to be the cake equivalent of Lord Kitchener himself: robust, a patriotic reminder of England and able to keep without being wrapped in brown paper or stored in an airtight container (I’m assuming – but what Lord Kitchener got up to in his own time is his private business.)

Following the re-released recipe, I mixed margarine, brown sugar, flour, currants, spices, lemon rind and cocoa together. It smelt lovely and reminded me of a light version of a Christmas cake. Surely any man would be delighted to get this? The recipe then said I should add milk, mixed with a teaspoon of vinegar with 1/2 a teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in it. Hmm… I guess the vinegar and soda were supposed to react to make bubbles and cause the cake to rise, but in my case it just led to a jug of funky smelling liquid after I mixed it with the milk. I added all the ingredients together and baked it at 180 degrees for 1 and a half hours. The recipe called for it to bake for 2 hours, but after 1 and a half the edges had started to burn and it was most definitely cooked through.

Shiny, shiny vinegar cake

First impressions were that if it didn’t taste great it could at least serve as a back up weapon, maybe a bludgeon or missile, in a tight spot. It was very, very dense and very, very dry. If I was sending this cake today it would have cost me over £5 to get it to France and I would also have to label it in capital letters “PERISHABLE”, which might have been one ironic morale booster too far for front line troops.

Turns out, it probably wouldn’t have ever made it to France for the simple reason that it was actually pretty decent. Sorry, imaginary front line soldier, but you’re going to have to get through another tin of corned beef without dessert this time.

Because there wasn’t any white sugar in the recipe it wasn’t very sweet – I had to go back and check I’d actually added any sugar at all. As the sweetner used had been light brown sugar (and not an abundant quantity at that), the flavour was more treacle-y, made slightly sweeter by the currants, but definitely not like modern cakes at all. The ginger and nutmeg spices weren’t obvious, except in that sort of subtle warming way TV chefs mention and that up to this point I’ve had no idea how to recreate properly. You’d miss them if they weren’t in the cake, but you didn’t notice their individual presence. I gave my sister – who has developed an uncanny ability to always appear at times of culinary triumphs and disappears at times of despair – a slice. She said she could taste the cocoa very well and could she take half of the cake home, please?

Looks like a cake, tastes like a cake, sits in your stomach like a cannon ball

In all seriousness, this was a success. I can absolutely see how men would be delighted to receive this and how their loved ones at home would have enjoyed the process of carefully measuring and weighing ingredients out, knowing their act of love would bring happiness to their man abroad and perhaps a welcome distraction from their imminent return to the front line.

Next week, year 9 will be watching Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (hey, it’s the end of term and one of the perks of being a History teacher is the prerogative to watch historical films in the name of education.) As we watch and comment on what the students can see and hear, and how the genuine front line footage supports what they know about trench warfare, I think we might all be eating a slice of trench cake too. That, or hiding under the tables if Robbie and Finn decide to tell me, their commanding officer, to ‘do one’ and use it as a missile instead.

E x

Trench Cake

225g plain flour
115g margarine
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 pint of milk
85g brown sugar
85g currants
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
ground ginger
grated lemon rind

  1. Grease a round cake tin and pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees.
  2. Rub margarine into the flour.
  3. Add dry ingredients to the flour and margarine. Mix well.
  4. Dissolve the soda in the vinegar and mix. Add the milk.
  5. Add milk, vinegar and soda mix to the dry ingredients and stir well.
  6. Turn into the cake tin and bake for between 1 1/2 hours and 2 hours.

Spaghetti a la Campbell: 1916

When my daughter was born a very good friend gave me the best ‘new mother’ advice I’ve ever received: lower your standards. If things are still too hard to manage, lower them again.

As I lunged towards my daughter who was smearing peanut butter into our velvet sofa (the purchase of which remains one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done) I thought of these words. As I slammed my foot down on top of one of her lego blocks and fell to the floor screeching a stream of incoherent swear words, I heard my friend’s voice repeat them. And as I gazed from my vantage point to under the stupid sofa at the litter of tissues, toys and gently festering bits of forgotten food while my daughter prepared to jump onto my head, I heard my friend shout, “too low! TOO LOW!”

Clearly, our household management was lacking. So today while my husband was still working and I had put the wild child to bed I decided to learn how to look after our home better, beginning in the kitchen.

Once in the kitchen, I had no idea where to actually start but fortunately in 1916 the American soup company Campbell’s released a promotional recipe book called Helps for the Hostess. This was aimed at families (well, let’s be honest – women) to help them raise their standards and create harmony throughout the home, mostly through the medium of soup. With hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that for Campbell’s the soup came first and the family harmony was more of a bonus.

Now, I didn’t really think soup was going to fill the crack in our kitchen wall, or solve the damp problem under the stairs, but the Campbell’s book was so overflowing with that very American brand of brisk optimism that I began to hope it could.

“A refined, well appointed home gives a recognized social standing which money alone will not achieve, among people who are worth while”, it declared right from the start. My God, I wanted to be worth while already. The book went on to assure me that with a few soupy additions to my cooking, I, a sweet and simple young wife, could now “charmingly welcome” my husband home after a hard day’s work with a “little dinner…the very fact that [I would have] prepared the meal and served it to him [would] add to the intimacy” of our 21st century relationship.

After I’d changed out of my work trousers into my best gingham frock, I set about researching the background to this gem. In 1916 the Americans had yet to join World War One, and so their cooking instructions lacked some of the frugality found in some British cookbooks of the same time period. The trouble for Campbell’s soup, however, was that they were struggling to fit into what the average American needed in their day to day life. Plain canned tomato soup, as convenient and relatively inexpensive as it was, just wasn’t speaking to the public on any sort of consumer level.

To shift more tins, Campbell’s changed their advertising to create the iconic red and white striped background and overlaid images of enticing food on top of this. Still, nothing. Frustrated, they began to target housewives who cooked soup from scratch, arguing that buying their soup would save them time and work. But, the equally frustrated housewives argued back, peeling and boiling vegetables for soup was a welcome break in the afternoon from surreptitiously swigging whiskey and sobbing into a pillow.

Then, Campbell’s had its breakthrough: what could any sane woman like more than impossibly large pig faced babies extolling the virtues of the soup with peppy slogans? Slogans that tapped into women’s insecurities about how well they were looking after their families. Slogans that implied the only way to be a good mother and wife was to fuel their families with soup. Slogans that gently suggested that wives would bring shame and humiliation on their husbands if they brought dinner guests home without much warning and there wasn’t enough store cupboard food to feed said guest.

The combination of disturbing pig kids spouting annoying rhymes about how the soup would make them strong and clever began to work on the women and business began to grow. As sales boomed, executives worried that there might be a limit to how much soup one household might reasonably need, so created a series of recipes that would encourage housewives to use more cans of the stuff in ingenious ways whilst simultaneously destroying what might otherwise be a decent meal.

You’ve eaten enough soup, boy

Spaghetti a la Campbell is actually one of the more appealing suggestions in Helps for the Hostess. Wanting this meal to actually bring me closer to my husband rather than be the grounds on which he successfully filed for divorce, I had decided to skip over offerings such as ‘Tomato Aspic with Cucumber Filling’ and ‘Stuffed Eggs in Aspic’ and, something called ‘Rum Tum Ditty’ which as far as I could tell was just tomato soup with a whole block of cheese sinking miserably in the centre of it.

In what appeared to be a genuine attempt to make life easier for housewives, the recipe itself was really straightforward. As I was cooking it I could feel myself getting more charming and competent around the house. I did a tinkly laugh as I thought of how my husband might like it if I warmed his non-existent slippers by the fire for later, and how I would regale him with delightful tales of our delicate and naive daughter who had spent the day tenderly playing with her dolls and not at all jumping in puddles and throwing sand at pigeons in the park.

If you wanted you could also use Campbell’s tomato soup as an emergency self tan

“I’ve made pasta”, I told him when he got home. “It’s got tomato soup in it.”

“Oh. Don’t we have anything else?” was the response. Hardly the warm and grateful attitude I had been expecting.

“No we don’t. You could have had aspic. You still can.”

Despite the rocky start, it wasn’t a bad weekday meal. Sure, the tomato soup made it a bit sickly sweet for modern day standards, and the cold raw pepper garnish was a bit odd, but the smoked ham added a nice subtle flavour to what was essentially a basic tomato sauce. In fact, it was so inoffensive that I forgot I was eating something experimental and my husband had seconds. Housewives of America must have thought it was alright too, because the company continued to go from strength to strength throughout the first half of the 20th century eventually buying out other American brands and incorporating them into the Campbell’s family. 1916 was still too early to be considered the era of convenience food, but with their tinned soup and quick family friendly recipes, Campbell’s was definitely paving the way by creating new and innovative shortcuts.

After eating we were too tired to clean the kitchen up. The silent mess under the sofa was still quietly rotting away and the lego bricks were still strewn with dangerous abandon across the carpet. We lowered our standards once more.

E x

Spaghetti a la Campbell

1 can of condensed Campbell’s tomato soup
2 onions
2 peppers
20 button mushrooms
280g of spaghetti
5 slices of smoked ham
1/2 teaspoon thyme
2 cloves of garlic

  1. Boil the spaghetti in a pan of salted water with 2 cloves of garlic.
  2. Chop the onions and fry them in olive oil. Add sliced up pepper and mushrooms, leaving some of both raw to the side to garnish later, and cook until soft.
  3. Slice the ham into strips and add to the onions and peppers. Fry for 3-4 minutes.
  4. Add a can of Campbell’s tomato soup to the ham and veg mix and stir together.
  5. When the spaghetti is cooked, drain and add to the pan of ham and veg and add a 1/2 teaspoon of thyme. Stir thoroughly.
  6. Lay on a plate and add the left over raw sliced pepper and mushrooms and serve with Parmesan.