My best food memories are from France when I discovered the fascination of food aged ten.
My parents were determined to broaden our food horizons. We had our first holiday abroad in the west coast of France and I remember the beautiful pale butter, the little pots of redcurrant and yellow plum jams, warm croissants and trying snails.
My mother was inspired to cook oeufs en cocotte when we came home, buying beautiful little brown glazed cocotte dishes just to try them out. She was then delighted to find them for sale in the Elizabeth David cookery shop some years later. Her careless children had broken the French originals.
From ouefs en cocotte to toast toppers
Women such as my mother were working part-time, as it was the late sixties. The developing food manufacturers targeted the newly time poor. However, she was determined to challenge our food horizons beyond tins and packets.
Market leaders in convenience food of the time were Findus crispy pancakes and toast toppers. The toast toppers were nuggets of indifferent ham in a creamy sauce to grill on toast. She never cooked the pancakes, but my sister and I had a sneaking liking for the toast toppers. She did however make a much better version herself on toast with peas, white sauce and tinned tuna.
Food books of the 1970s
My mother liked the new Sainsbury’s soft backed books that challened people to cook differently. Josceline Dimbleby was the author of the first one that my mother bought in 1978 – Cooking for Christmas. Writers such as Elizabeth David were not on most people’s bookshelves. It was easy to buy the much cheaper and accessible Sainsbury’s books with the weekly shop.
However my mother has just given me her boxed set of 1971 Pengin edition of Elizabeth David cookery books. She has told me that she was inspired to read as well as cook from them.
The small, accessible books called for quirky and unusual ingredients. These were green peppers, fresh ginger, cardamom seeds, and a refreshing use of spices as highlights to dishes. Sainsbury’s were waking up to the pre-Delia importance of promoting food ingredients. Strange to think that green peppers were once considered exotic vegetables.
Retro – domestic food and equipment booklets
Grease and flour smeared booklets produced by appliance companies typically found in the pale egg yolk glossy coloured drawers in the mid-century kitchen. Printed to encourage the use of freezers, rotisserie grills on cookers and the newly emerging microwaves, they were part of the growing interest in food and gadgets.
Educating the homemaker
The nationalized gas and electricity advisory services, food manufacturers and food boards sought to educate “the housewife”. This mission started in the 1920’s as more women had to cope without servants post the first World War. A significant body such as the Flour Advisory Bureau was incongruously located next to the Ritz hotel in London – and is still going strong. Organizations like this and the Dairy Council, the Potato Marketing Board, and the Mushroom Growers Association had efficient Home Economists working for them to promote their products and services.
These trained experts, usually women, undertook recipe development and demonstrations as part of product marketing. Companies or farming consortia funded these bodies so there was a seriously commercial intent. Their creative and resourceful Home Economists always emphasised accuracy and educational value.
After the television eccentricities and aspirational cooking of Fanny Cradock, the Home Economists and their demonstrations in regional gas board showrooms seemed staid. Then as the seventies passed into the eighties, lentils and wholemeal bread become trendy. Delia wooed and won the nation and at the same time, the ready meal crept into the ascendance and Home Economists went into food product development in the food industry.
Thanks to my mother and her food interests, I trained to teach nutrition, food technology and food science. My early students went into food journalism, teaching and food product development as well as other areas. But my interest in food, its stories and history plus women’s experiences of the domestic sphere, as tale-tellers, experts, and promoters of food values has never gone away.