Time and again these days, I come upon newspaper articles which extol the virtues of the food of the late fifties and sixties. I find that publishers of modern cookery books (which, incidentally, are my second love, after crime fiction, and why, in this festive season, I am embracing a less noiry topic!) are very prone to printing black-and-white photographs of slender, glamorous fifties housewives wearing gingham pinnies over their full skirts and strutting in improbably high heels as they remove perfect fairy cakes and Victoria sponges from the oven. I realise that such photographs were probably originally circulated as part of a plan by the governments of the day to re-establish, post war, the rightful (hah!) place of women in the home and thereby to massage the employment figures, but what of the food itself?
I have mixed memories of it: although it was not uniformly terrible, it undoubtedly had its limitations. Lack of variety was one of them; being a victim of the first wave of processing was another. Tinned peas were emerald green – as a student in the seventies, I worked in a canning factory and can testify that they were dyed with the green equivalent of Reckitt’s Blue. Although we ate perfectly acceptable ham or cheese sandwiches at home, ‘meat paste’ (a kind of sludge composed of goodness knows what trimmings and offals) was always on the menu at picnics. So-called ‘cling’ peaches were interred in an opaque swamp of sugar solution. Custard – which was bright yellow, presumably because it also had been subject to a dyeing procedure – always came out of a tin labelled Bird’s; gravy was a more restrained pale brown and produced from a packet with two impish children on the side (one wearing a red, the other a green, hat) who were sniffing at what looked like a waft of cigarette smoke and proclaiming ‘Ah, Bisto!’
As I say, it wasn’t all bad. To a small child, snatching a taste of Camp coffee (actually, essence of chicory) was all the more delicious for being forbidden (even pseudo-coffee, it was well-known, stunted growth in children). In an era when no-one thought that children were damaging their teeth by eating sugar, provided that they cleaned them twice a day, Christmas was marked by a Saturnalia of unrationed chocolate bars from the many selection boxes supplied by relatives and Easter by an almost-equally-magnificent bonanza of chocolate eggs. Dried fruit (a handful was allowed as a treat on baking day) came in mysterious plain blue paper packets labelled in long-hand by the grocer.
What I remember most, however, was the monotony of it all: no fruit but oranges and apples in the winter; no vegetables but what my father grew at any time (I was astounded when I discovered that some people actually bought vegetables!); Sunday’s joint re-hashed on Monday because it was washing day; always fish on Fridays when my grandmother came. If, as a nation, we were slimmer and fitter then, it was because, aside from the odd splurge, we ate to live. Food was an essential, not always a pleasure. I’m sure that this is not what the publishers of today’s cookery books, somewhat over-burdened as they are with nostalgia, intend to convey.