Family Meals – a Resource for Historical Fiction Writers

Hope this title is not too pompous.  When you’re writing historical fiction, it’s always the little details that you crave, and can’t find, like what people ate and drank.  Including these can bring your story to life.  Having been around longer on this earth than many writers, I’m setting down some of the things I remember about food in the 1960s Britain.

Fruit

Older people insisted that strawberries must be eaten with bread and butter

Strawberries served with sugar, which was stirred into them in the bowl hours beforehand, drawing out the strawberry juices which sweated into it, generating pink goo.

Melon (always hard, always honeydew) as a starter, with a glace cherry on top, and served with a little dish of ground ginger?

How rare pineapples were.  I remember seeing one for the first time in Sainsbury’s in about 1967, priced 3s 6d.

Blueberries were for Americans only.

Tinned fruit as a treat.  One tin did the whole family.

A lot of rhubarb.  Every family grew rhubarb (always very tart, made your teeth go chalky).  Stewed rhubarb was often used to eke out other more expensive fruit.

Puddings (Desserts were for Americans)
Queen's Pudding (with a touch too much meringue)
Attrib BBC Good Food.
Queen’s Pudding (with a touch too much meringue)

Queen of puddings:  breadcrumbs mixed with egg yolk, vanilla essence and jam, topped with a light meringue crust.

Cabinet pudding:  like bread and butter pudding, but using slices of stale cake.

Apple pie, baked in a pie dish, with the apples swimming about in juice at the bottom and the crust several inches above it, held aloft by a pie funnel. Also plum pie – as for apple pie but with tinned plums.

Manchester tart:  pastry case baked blind, spread with jam at the bottom, then topped with custard (see below).

Chocolate tart:  pastry case baked blind, and with chocolate goo on top.

Custard:  mix 2 dessertspoonfuls of custard powder and 2 dessertspoonfuls of sugar in a very little milk at the bottom of a pudding basin.  Pour on boiling milk and stir vigorously until it thickens.  This was an essential condiment for every pudding.

Traditional Egg Custard
Attrib http://www.paleopantry.org
Traditional Egg Custard

Egg custard (the genuine article).  Egg and milk, with nutmeg on top,  prepared in a pie dish and baked, at a very low temperature, for several hours.  Exquisite!

Meat

Ham with a yellow crumb rind.

Potted meat.  A sort of basic (and very cheap) smooth pate, sold, by the piece, from a blue rimmed enamel dish.

Stews, very watery, flavourless and generally disgusting.

Liver casserole, liver with the texture of blotting paper, but served with bacon, which gave it some sort of taste.

All hot meat served with gravy, from a gravy boat on the table, which always dripped nasty congealing droplets on the outside of its spout.

Curry served in ‘duo-cans’, one portion of the tin containing cooked rice and in the other a curried meat sauce (looked like dog food).

(Wonder why I became a vegetarian?)

Fish (a rare treat)

Watery (topped with yellow breadcrumbs – from a tub).

No prawns.   Occasional shrimps, from a tin.

Tinned salmon, brought out on special occasions and served with salad.  One tin would serve a whole family and guests.  There were two sorts, pink (cheaper) and red (more expensive).

Boil-in-the-bag fish, mostly a watery and greasy sauce, with a small square of fish (usually coley).

(Still wondering why I became a vegetarian?)

Vegetables

Green vegetables predominated.  My parents didn’t seem to like carrots, parsnips and swedes much (but that maybe was their personal taste).

A lot of frozen peas.  Even before the age of freezers, a bag of frozen peas could be kept in the ice compartment of the fridge.

No courgettes.

Mushrooms rare.

Peppers were for the French.

Freshly grown vegetables from someone’s garden gratefully received.  If you had a good crop of a particular vegetable (eg runner beans) you ate runners every dinnertime until they were finished.

Bread

Sliced and always white.  Delivered by the breadman daily.

Cake

Always lots of it.  Yum.

Snack Meals
Welsh Rarebit
Attrib Wikimedia Commons
Welsh Rarebit

Welsh Rarebit (cheese on toast, but with a touch of mustard).

Everything on toast (egg cooked in various different ways, cheese, tinned tomatoes, baked beans).

Salad.  Yes, you all know about salad, but in those days they consisted of several different vegetables laid out on the plate, separately and not touching each other.  There would always be lettuce (leaves pulled apart and washed in a bowl containing cold water and a piece of coal), except in deepest winter when it might be replaced by garden cress or just left out.  Also tomatoes and cucumber and, if you were lucky, beetroot, or even watercress.  No pepper, no grated carrot.  Coleslaw was for Americans, until it took the supermarkets (and my grandmother’s table) by storm in the late 1960s, in small white tubs.  At Christmas, you got small white pickled onions or huge brown pickled onions with your salad.

Soup (always out of a tin or from a packet).

Fruit jelly.

Powdered sweets in packets, reconstituted with milk (instant whip, angel delight etc).

A loaf of sliced bread would also be on the table.

Timing of Meals

Breakfast was the full English, always.  Even when my parents were both ill with flu, it was felt necessary that I should go to school on cereal/ egg and bacon/ toast and marmalade.  I cooked it myself, setting fire to the fried bread in the grill, then making things much worse by moving the grill pan to the sink and turning on the tap.  Flames leaped up to the ceiling.  I ran out of the kitchen screaming, dragging my poor father out of his sickbed, only for us both to return to smoke and steam.

Dinner was generally served at midday.  Many men and schoolchildren went home to eat with their families in the middle of the day.  In the evening, at about five thirty to six, the family would eat high tea.

Foreign Food

Was generally considered nasty.   Foreign food was often cited as a good reason for not going abroad.  “You don’t know where it’s been,” was a common comment.

I could go on.  I’ve always been fascinated by food and cookery and still am.  If I’ve been working on the computer, writing or preparing a lesson (work), I often break off, after lunch, to prepare our evening meal.  I find doing something physical, particularly chopping vegetables, is therapeutic and refreshing.  I occasionally think of running a cookery blog, but I can hardly find the time to maintain this and the Dear Reader blog.

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2 thoughts on “Family Meals – a Resource for Historical Fiction Writers

  1. Ham salad, a roll of thinly sliced ham – or two – with your tomato, cucumber and lettuce – and salad cream of course! Or tongue, tinned. Spam fritters for school dinners. Strawberry custard at school with steamed roly poly pudding (or dead man;s leg as we called it).
    By the way, a great place to revive old memories or find new ones (!) is old magazines – search these out and scour the adverts and if they are women’s mags, the recipes.

    1. Yes, tinned tongue. Forgot about that. And the salad cream which is, I’m sure, healthier than mayonnaise.

      There are also websites dedicated to ‘retro’ cooking which I was going to explore whilst on holiday, but iPad is very poorly, maybe terminally.

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