Imagine you were an alien from another planet landing in any of our major cities, and opening a tabloid newspaper on arrival. You would soon think that in Britain, nobody can cook any more, that we are all obese, and that everyone lives off sad, tasteless microwave meals, scoffed inelegantly whilst watching The Great British Bake Off on 60 inch flat screen televisions. In the past, the tabloid argument goes, housewives spent hours and hours in the kitchen, rustling up nutritionally balanced stews from offal, and creating Victoria sponges lighter than the very hairspray that was holding their shampoo and set in place. All this was achieved powered by little more than tea and a set of good foundation undergarments.
Except, of course, many people could not cook. Some did not have kitchens, some did not have any money, some did not have any ingredients, and some, frankly, could not be bothered, and preferred to go down the chippy. As George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier:
Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you.
He was right, of course, and this is one reason that in 1945 the Ministry of Food saw fit to produce a basic cookery book for the price of one shilling, aimed at teaching the nation that basics, and helping them to eke out their rations. There had been others, but this one concentrated on very basic techniques such as how to prepare suet, how to steam a pudding, how to render and clarify fat from cooking to use with other things, and how to plan meals. To that end, there is an example of a daily menu plan, which might be interesting to compare with the 1910 daily menu plan I posted earlier.
Porridge (or other cereal or fruit with milk)
Cooked dish (eggs or bacon or fish, etc with fried potatoes or fried bread)
National or wholemeal bread (nasty bread was a bizarre dry ration loaf with extra salt, thought to keep better)
Butter or margarine
Marmelade or jam
Tea of coffee (cocoa or milk for children)
Milk for children. Mid-meal snack for men or women doing heavy work, such as cheese salad sandwiches.
DINNER MENU (dinner meaning your main hot meal)
Meat (or cheese or fish or eggs)
Fresh vegetables (a green one several times weekly)
Pudding (baked or steamed or cold pudding, or fruit in season, with milk or custard) – optional
Note: Dried peas, beans, lentils or oatmeal bread could be added to the meat, fish, cheese and egg dishes if the quantity of animal food was small through rationing or shortage).
National or wholemeal bread
Butter or margarine
Spread or sandwich filling (of shredded raw vegetables or yeast extract)
Cakes or Biscuits or Scones
Jam (if desired)
Milk for children
SUPPER OR LUNCH MENU
Main dish (of cheese or fish or egg or other muscle builders, as they called them)
Vegetable or raw salad
Bread with butter or margarine, and jam or honey or syrup
Tea or Coffee
Milk or cocoa for children
There’s something comforting about looking at that menu. You imagine a different world, with the cameraderie of the factory, a cheap, steaming workplace canteen, Workers’ Playtime on the wireless to listen to while you ploughed through your steamed pudding, and a sense of national purpose. Admittedly this assumes a social compliance that is pretty foreign to us now, along with the willingness to eat what other people think might be good for us, and sit with people you might not normally choose to socialise with whilst listening to some frankly dreadful music on the BBC’s Light Programme, but is this better than queuing up in Pret or Costa for a tasteless, overpriced sandwich before rushing back to eat it at your desk? Bosses, think on that, as you close your staff canteens and convert them to marketing suites.