Earlier this week I watched the film Julie and Julia, about one bloggers quest to cook her way through Julia Child’s 1961 book Mastering the Art of French Cooking which includes 524 recipes. Blogger Julie Powell is really up against it; she’s not only cooking food from a different country, but food from a different era. In one scene she struggles over making aspic – a dish where different ingredients such as eggs or meat are set into a gelatin made from meat stock (usually from the legs/trotters etc.) Now, I have no idea whether there may actually be some very nice restaurants out there where aspic is very much in vogue. However, to my knowledge it’s not so popular these days and I am certainly not keen to try it (meat jelly? I’ll pass thanks). Our palettes change, sometimes because of what’s in fashion, sometimes because of politics and always depending on what is available.
This brings me to the real focus of this post, the oldest recipe book my mother has in her possession. This book is called Cooking in a Hurry by Marguerite Patten and has recently been a great source of amusement for me. Published in 1973 some of the recipes in this book are bordering on hysterical.
I decided to do a little bit of research and discovered that Marguerite Patten is actually a very interesting character. Born in 1915, she would describe herself more as a ‘home economist’ rather than a celebrity chef. During World War II she worked for the Minister of Food devising ingenious recipes from the limited rations available, and presented her ideas on a BBC radio program called The Kitchen Front. Suddenly Cooking in a Hurry starts to make a lot of sense. Food in Britain suffered a great hangover from the war years. Rationing did not end on all products until well into the 1950s, rumor has it that some children were so used to powdered eggs and other food substitutes that they preferred them to the real thing. It was difficult to shake off this sort of food after the war, and instead of being discontinued things like Spam and condensed milk just became amalgamated into the national diet. Enter the age of e-numbers, long life food and ready meals.
Another interesting thing I found while flicking through Cooking in a Hurry was the use of bits of animal parts that I have never had such as kidney ‘kebabs’ and tongue Florentine. In the past, especially in wartime or in rural communities, I imagine that no part of an animal went to waste. This is a great contrast to today where we only seem to cook with the most choice cuts of meat (although I have a sneaking suspicion that maybe nothing is ‘wasted’ per se – rather put in a blender for Jamie Oliver to cry over). Society standards of course reflect my own views on food, while I’m pretty happy to lament over our ‘waste’ of food I have no desire to run out and buy tripe anytime soon. Foodie types out there have obviously given this matter some thought though, and ‘head to toe’ cooking is becoming more popular. I think probably the biggest reason people don’t cook tongue, liver, tripe etc. any more is that we don’t have too, if rationing came back into force at any point I have no doubt it would all be back on the menu.
In 1947 Marguerite Patten hosted the very first cookery program on the BBC, paving the way for modern celebrity chefs. She has provided inspiration for the likes of Nigel Slater and Jamie Oliver. Cooking in a Hurry might be a piece of British food history rather than a viable recipe book these days, but the message is certainly there for gloomy economic times; to be thrifty and not wasteful, and ultimately to be creative and make the best of what we have.
If you want to know more then I found an excellent interview with Marguerite Patten (now aged 97) here.