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
nutmeg
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
parmesan

  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.