* Prices may differ from that shown
Marguerite Patten worked for the Ministry of Food during World War 2 and subsequently at the Ministry of Food Bureau at Harrods, where she had a responsibility to provide advice on how to use rationed food in tasty, nutritious recipes. I found this book in my local library and was drawn to it because I've always been interested in culinary history. I used to enjoy browsing through my grandmother's recipe collection, fascinated by the way ingredients, cooking methods and eating habits have changed over the years.
In this book Marguerite Patten looks at the type of food eaten by the British people in the period from 1945 to 1954, a time of continued rationing after the war. It is a combination of original recipes, contemporary photographs, extracts from Ministry of Food publications, adverts and lots of information on changing culinary habits. The balance between pictures and text makes for a relaxed read and recreates the atmosphere of the period very well.
Each chapter deals with a different year in the 1945-1954 period and begins with introductory details about what was going on at home and abroad during the particular year, which puts things into context. I certainly hadn't realised that foods came off ration at different times and had no idea, for example, that fresh eggs were scarce right up to 1953. Somewhat naively, I hadn't appreciated how long it took for things to return to normal after the war as far as food was concerned, so this book certainly opened my eyes to what life must've been like for families at this time.
I find this more interesting as a historical reference book than a practical recipe book and honestly don't think it is very likely that I would want to try out many of the recipes contained therein, except perhaps if I found myself doing the catering for a 1940s charity tea dance, or something! Modern recipe books usually contain lots of coloured photos of the food to accompany the recipes, but here Marguerite Patten just presents the recipes in their original format, with no illustrations apart from the occasional pencil sketch. I think most modern cooks would feel nervous about cooking something without seeing a glossy photo of what the finished result is supposed to look like.
Bearing in mind how cheaply you can buy own-brand biscuits at your local supermarket these days, it might be hard to find the incentive to make 'Economical Bourbon Biscuits' and the like purely on money-saving grounds, although it's good to have the recipes there in case the urge ever takes you. Sometimes it's just comforting to bake old-fashioned treats and to fill your kitchen with the kind of aromas you might remember from your granny's house. Marguerite Patten explains how in 1952 she was overwhelmed by requests to provide economical cake and biscuit recipes to accompany the Great British cuppa when tea finally came off ration. The end of sweet rationing in 1953 and the availability of fresh eggs and sugar again meant baked fare could become more luxurious, with meringue-based recipes such as Chocolate Floating Islands and biscuits with real chocolate icing featuring in this chapter.
It's certainly useful to have access to some budget recipes for times when you might need to tighten your belt and this book is a reminder that you don't need to eat steaks and expensive foods all the time. Indeed, I wouldn't turn my nose up at Savoury Cheese Pie if it was served up to me or Carrot and Potato Chowder. (I would probably give Tripe Mornay a miss though.)
What this book demonstrates so well is how the housewives of the post-war period became good at improvising with what they had available, which is a very handy skill to master even nowadays. A recipe for Sausages in Cider, for example, was intended to make the low-meat, low-flavour sausages of the 1940s a bit tastier. Similarly, Moist Orange Cake uses marmalade as a way to save on sugar. (Preserves were off ration by 1948 but sugar was scarce until 1953) Even in these modern times, I often find myself in the position where I need to make things go further or tweak an existing recipe because I don't have certain ingredients to hand. This is part of the challenge and fun of cooking. However, to housewives of the post-war period it was simply a way of life.
It was interesting to read about the impact of electrical devices such as mixers and blenders. By 1949 pressure cookers were being introduced into homes, which meant food could be cooked much quicker. This had the advantage of not only retaining more nutrients but also saving on fuel, an important consideration at the time. The advent of refrigerators also had a big effect on people's shopping habits.
Reading about some of the foods available during the post-war years did little to build my appetite. "Remember to reconstruct the dried eggs carefully, making sure there are no lumps," says a recipe for Eggy Bread. Mock Cream made from corn flour and milk does not exactly inspire me either, but real cream did not become available until 1953. I was amused to read that many young teenagers, on tasting real cream for the first time, found it rather disappointing, much preferring the evaporated milk they had grown up with.
A much more disturbing item on the post-war menu, however, was whale meat. Marguerite Patten tells us that she hated handling raw whale meat - and who could blame her? Apparently it had, "an unpleasant smell of fish and stale oil." In a bid to win the British people over, the Ministry of Food's nutrition booklet suggested that, "most people cannot distinguish it from beef steak when it is finely cut before cooking or mixed with strong flavours." It doesn't sound too convincing to me! Recipes for hamburgers and Hungarian Goulash, both using whale meat, are included by way of example. Almost as uninspiring as whale meat is the canned snoek, a South African fish that proved universally unpopular despite the Ministry's attempts to insist it tasted just like salmon.
Obviously, you can't re-create the post-war cooking experience completely, because you are not able to get hold of dried eggs, whale meat and snoek anymore (thank goodness). However, Patten assures us that many of the original recipes can be authentically re-created using fresh eggs instead of dried and using modern, refined flour instead of the heavy, dark variety that was available in the post-war years. Marguerite Patten provides lots of helpful modern adaptations to the old recipes. For example, a frugal recipe for cheese biscuits can be made more indulgent for modern tastes by increasing the amount of fat and cheese. Patten also suggests that whipping cream or double cream can be used in an ice cream recipe instead of the originally specified evaporated milk and 'cream' made from butter and milk. Where an original recipe specifies yeast extract for flavouring, Patten advises that a stock cube would work just as well. She even suggests that a snoek and tomato dish can be made with a can of tuna instead.
Reading this book made me ponder whether people were healthier in the days of rationing. It was interesting to read how the nearest thing to making chips before the end of fat rationing was to oven-bake potato slices on a lightly greased tray. By 1954, when fats came off ration, people began frying chips in lard in a pan. The availability of fats also led people to experiment with richer cakes and pastries. Who could blame them for letting their hair down a bit after all those years of snoek and whale meat? Besides, fatty food was not frowned on in the way it is today. Marguerite Patten points out that fats were viewed by nutritionists as an excellent source of energy and essential to keep you warm in winter.
This book can be obtained new from sellers at Amazon for just 75p. It's a light read and the sort of book you can pick up and browse, without necessarily having to read the chapters in chronological order. The information is spread out on the pages in such a way that something will always catch your eye. It would appeal to anyone who is interested in social history and in particular the history of food. I also think it would be especially enjoyable to anyone who lived through the post-war period as it offers a nostalgic trip back to those times.