Grandma was a war widow, Dad was a War Pensioner. Mum had lost her brother and then her career to looking after her mum. We all grow up in the shadow of something, mine was the shadow of war.
In the fifties and early sixties, austerity wasn’t mentioned – it was just the way life was. Sidestomiddled sheets, coats on beds, one fire to warm the house and dry the clothes, roast on Sunday if you were lucky, eked out on Monday and beyond, tinned pilchards for a holiday tea and cardboard in your shoes when you wore them through. We were poorer than most but then there were eight children and people usually said little and lent a cup of sugar.
Holidays were only just beginning to be fashionable – in south east London circles anyway. If you went to Margate and came back with tales of jugs of tea on the beach, you were posh: most people went to “Ourgate” in the summer. So I was wonderfully lucky to have a grandmother who lived in Torquay and parents who saved, who knows how, enough to send a couple of us off to Grandma for the Easter holiday. To be at Grandma’s was to be in the lap of luxury. The house she shared with Great Aunt Toto was theirs, not large but warm, painted and decorated, hung with pictures and possessed of a mysterious garden that ran up a cliffside. The rooms in the house were carefully divided between the two ladies and in the kitchen were two identical gas stoves, side by side because sharing the cooking was not something Grandma and her sister could do.
Grandma spent a lot of time talking about “the War”, sometimes “the Great War” too, but she and her sister really lived it out in the kitchen. Which is to say we ate well and plenty but all thought out with care and very dependent on what was local, plentiful and cheap. I remember her omelettes most – a delicacy not seen at home but made by her one per person, with one egg, a teaspoon of flour and a tablespoon of milk. I was an adult before Delia Smith taught me that was NOT the right way to do it. Grandma sent me to the butcher’s for “shoulder of mutton” which I remember the butcher once politely declined to provide, saying, “ we only have lamb”, to make the stew with its delightful sediment of “Pearl Bailey” and vegetables at the bottom, solid enough to fill up hungry children. It was generally accompanied by purple sprouting, grown right at the top of the garden on the only flat space and picked by me, just before it was cooked, briefly, so it was al dente or “grippy” as Grandma called it. There was always yellow plain cake, made once a week and eaten with tea to fill in afternoon gaps, bread and marrow jam and puddings of junket made on the plate rack over the stove or reconstituted dried fruit, with clotted cream for a treat. On the evening Grandma went to play bridge Aunt Toto would take over and we always begged for ”Welsh rabbit” which was, I think, a mixture of grated cheese and possibly an egg eked out with breadcrumbs, milk and a dash of Worcester sauce, cooked up in a pan, then poured over toast and browned under the grill. Whatever it was, we loved it.
The war time attitudes may have little resonance with now – life is different, pressurised, and we have little time for setting junket to separate or making marrow and ginger jam. Meat was an essential component, although in small quantities and so was dairy: we question these areas now. The thing I think has relevance to Transition is my response as a child – I adored my Grandma and Aunt Toto and at least some part of that adoration was “cupboard love” for the food they provided. In a society which buys its pancakes ready made in plastic packs from Marks and Spencer’s it is easy to concentrate on nutrition, good diet, food that allows you to be on time for the next essential extracurricular activity and forget that our children love the actual making of the food, the kitchen sights and smells, tasting, touching, being around its creation. The cost, the prettiness, the advertising stuff, none of it matters compared with the fact that its “our” food, “our” way of making it and it will always be a matter of loving memories.
Recipe – Lentil Pie - vegan
Actually donated by my mother-in-law, Joan Jackson, from her wartime memories. The quantities are largely a matter of experience – you want to create a kind of very thick lentil stew/soup with lumps of vegetable in it, well flavoured with sage – so it all takes on a slight green tinge then put thick pastry over the top and cook it in the oven. All quantities below are terribly approximate – just have a go.
One large onion, two large potatoes, two carrots, piece of swede or some small turnips
350 gm lentils or more if it isn’t thick enough
Margarine or oil for frying
1 pint stock or water
Dried fresh sage enough to make a difference
400 gm pastry or more if you like (made with half white/half brown flour is good)
Set oven to about 200c – pastry temperature.
Prepare all the vegetables – chop into reasonable bite-sized lumps, smaller if, like carrots they take longer to cook. Melt margarine or heat oil in large sauce pan and fry onion till tinged brown, add veg and stir fry for 3 mins, add lentils and sage and stir fry for further 3 mins. Pour in stock and simmer for about 15 - 20 mins till the lentils are beginning to break down and the veg is nearly tender. You need to stir the pot every now and again to make sure it doesn’t catch. Take off heat, give it a good stir and pour into a pie dish to cool slightly. Make and/or roll out pastry to size of dish – the pastry should be a bit thicker than usual for a pie (£1 coin thickness at least). Put an upside down egg cup or soup dish in the middle of your pie dish if necessary to hold up the pastry in the middle, lay pastry over pie, pinch up the edges and then cook for about 30 mins till the pastry is crisp and cooked through (though some children have been known to beg me to leave it just a bit squidgy in the middle because it is SO nice with the lentil stuff. It takes all sorts.)
Pictures: Torguay 1957 (Google) , welsh rarebit, marrow and ginger jam, lentil pie (creative commons)