Evelyn Waugh, Rationing, and Style: ‘the Period of Soya Beans and Basic English’(Part 2)

Posted on  by Val Hewson

By Chris Hopkins

Here is Part 2 of our literary food blog on Evelyn Waugh, by Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University.

The book is infused with a kind of gluttony … which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.

Evelyn Waugh, Preface to Brideshead Revisited, 1945, Revised Edition, 1959.

In November 1943, having been unwillingly transferred from the Marines to the Royal Horse Guards, and after having tried unsuccessfully to join the SAS, Waugh was sent on a parachuting course, though he was then forty years old. He actually enjoyed very much the sensation of jumping from an aircraft. However, in landing from one jump, he fractured his leg, and was given a period of leave to recover (eventually extended unpaid until June 1944) during which he began a new novel, to be published as Brideshead Revisited in 1945. (1) It is a novel filled with nostalgia and about nostalgia, but by no means without a critical if idiosyncratic theological framework. Even before this, in a diary entry for 29 August 1943, Waugh had written of his now changed feelings about Army life and of his urgent need to return to his work as a writer. It is perhaps particularly significant that he used a metaphor based on wine-production and cellarage to talk about how he saw the relationship between his experience and his writing at this point:

I dislike the Army. I want to get to work again. I do not want any more experiences in life. I have quite enough bottled and carefully laid in the cellar, some still ripening, most ready for drinking, a little beginning to lose its body. I wrote to Frank [Pakenham] very early in the war to say that its chief use would be to cure artists of the illusion that they were men of action.

Evelyn Waugh, Diaries, p. 548; also quoted in Eade, pp. 320-1).
In civilian clothes. Evelyn Waugh in 1940s. By Carl Van Vechten Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress). Public domain.

The vintages must be used at the correct time if they are not to spoil. Unlike his novels of the thirties and even his 1942 novel, Put Out More Flags, this new novel is not mainly about the now, about the modern and modish, but was to be a reflection, Proustian in some respects, on the decades of the twenties and thirties, and their relationship to the wartime present, as well as on various specific lives in the light of eternity and ‘divine grace’ (Preface, location 2). Perhaps in terms of the novel’s larger ambitions, its treatments of food and drink are not primary, but they are nevertheless prominent, and a key part of the work’s atmosphere. As Waugh saw, looking back from the perspective of nineteen-fifty-nine, what he and many others experienced as privations of personal pleasure and indeed style influenced the way the novel recalled the recent past. Here are some of Waugh’s reflections in 1959 on the time when he wrote the novel:

It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English, and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful. I have modified the grosser passages but have not obliterated them because they are an essential part of the book

Evelyn Waugh, Preface, location 8.

The connections Waugh makes between food and wine and other matters of style is notable. Nineteen forty-four is the period of ‘soya beans’ and of Basic English, both, in Waugh’s view, drastic reductions to full and proper ways of living. The Soy Info Centre’s invaluable time-line on the History of Soya Beans in Britain and Ireland explains that:

During and after World War II soy flour is used extensively as a substitute for meat, milk, eggs and flour in a vast array of foodstuffs … [it] developed the image of a bad-tasting ersatz foodstuff, and the English came to dislike any food with the name ‘soy’ attached to it, in part because of poor product formulations and the use of low-quality soy flour (2).

Basic English was clearly considered by Waugh a linguistic or stylistic equivalent to soya beans, wholly unable to substitute for the real thing. The idea of Basic English was formulated by Charles Kay Ogden in his book, Basic English: a General Introduction with Rules and Grammar (1932). Basic English was not intended to replace English as a natural language, but to be used by speakers of English as a second language, and to make international communication in English clearer and simpler. This second aim was associated during the war with an idea that Basic English could help sustain world peace in a post-war world. Basic English simplified English by reducing the number of words, both verbs and nouns, while retaining a more-or-less ‘natural’ word-order. Ogden argued that most everyday communication could be readily managed with only eighteen verbs and a core vocabulary of two-thousand words. These precepts are still in practical use – notably in the Simple English Wikipedia (3). Orwell based the ‘constructed language’ of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Secker & Warburg, 1949) on Basic English, fearing its potential for restricting not just free speech, but the expression of free meaning. Clearly, Waugh too saw Basic English as an impoverishment of natural English, and a sign of the times.

Brideshead Revisited certainly does use a more purple prose than Waugh had ever used before (except in the way of parody), but as Waugh realised, this was not just an incidental feature, but something deeply embedded in the conception of the novel. Here for example is the nostalgic opening of chapter one of Book One, which follows on from the much more austere Prologue, and which describes Captain Charles Ryder’s unexpected return to Brideshead when the Army sends his unit there:

‘I have been here before’, I said. I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were cloudy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of particular splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest (location 229). (4)

Strictly-speaking, purple prose is always a critical term, indicating a prose style which is so excessively decorative that it inevitably fails to hold the reader’s attention or to construct a clear meaning. In that sense, Waugh’s prose here is not purple, because it surely does work superbly in its context, but it is perhaps nearly as rich and ornamental as you can get before turning purple.

It was Waugh himself who made the connection between rationing, food and style in the novel in his Preface, and indeed there is a richness about the description of food in the novel which is equivalent in many ways to the novel’s love of the nostalgic, emotional and rhetorical charge of the past. Of course, the food recalled was indeed at the time a Remembrance of Things Past. Here is the most elaborate description of food, (French) cooking, and wines in the novel. As a foil to Charles Ryder’s knowledgeable enjoyment of this superb meal in Paris is Rex Mottram, who pays for the meal, but does not at all understand its quality:

I remember the dinner well – soup of oseille [sorrel], a sole quite simply cooked in a white-wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviar aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and with the duck, a Clos de Bèze of 1904.

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and a better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion, had learned another passion than his (locations 2420 and 2470). (5)

Perhaps one would not want to consume such prose all the time, but given the drabness of wartime rationing (which of course went on into the later nineteen-fifties), this response is not mere gluttony, but a heroic recreation of fine food, of food as art (even if Waugh’s own war was not entirely deprived of some decent food and wines – though I personally suspect that entire bottle each of 1920 Dow’s may have been a mistake, in terms of both style and appreciation of the virtues I imagine it to have possessed).

Read Part 1 here.

NOTES

Note 1. See Evelyn Waugh: a Life Revisited, by Philip Eade, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2016, pp. 321- 327 for some of Eade’s account of Waugh’s military career during this period, including a quotation from a letter to Laura Waugh about his enjoyment of parachuting.

Note 2. See History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in the United Kingdom and Ireland (1613-2015) – SoyInfo Center, based on a book of the same title by William Shurtleff and Akiko Ayoyagi (Soy Info Centre, 2015), which can be downloaded in full from the site.

Note 3. Information drawn from the Wikipedia entry on Basic English, which also gives links to Basic English word-lists still in use in various contexts and indeed in the Simple English Wikipedia. See: Basic English – Wikipedia.

Note 4. Some indication of the nature of Waugh’s post-war editing can be seen by comparing the 1945 original of this quotation with the 1959 revision:

‘I have been here before’, I said. I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fools’ parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as is given us once or twice in a life-time, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

(Readers Union with Chapman and Hall unrevised edition, London, 1949, p.15; 1945 editions are not that easy to obtain, being quite collectable; I have underlined textual differences between the 1945 and 1959 versions here, and again in Note 5).

Note 5. In the 1945 version, the first quoted paragraph is identical, but the second had a considerable expansion which spoke of the impossibility of describing a fine wine in its own terms, and saw all such accounts as influenced by the describer’s own emotions:

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and a better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion, had learned another passion than his (p. 135).

A concise overview of the textual complexities of Brideshead Revisited across its manuscripts and editions is given in Robert Murray Davis’ ‘Notes Towards a Variorum Edition of Brideshead Revisited’, in the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, vol. 2, part 3, p.4 (12/1/1968).

Evelyn Waugh, Rationing, and Style: ‘My Last Case of Claret’ (Part 1)

By Chris Hopkins

Today our literary food blog is taken over by Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, for a two-parter on Evelyn Waugh.

The book is infused with a kind of gluttony … which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.

Evelyn Waugh, Preface to Brideshead Revisited, 1945, revised edition, 1959.

Philip Eade, one of Waugh’s most recent biographers, writes that Waugh was ‘repelled’ by ‘the abysmal wartime food as a result of which he experienced real hunger for the first time in his life’ (1). He and a fellow officer refused to eat the sheep’s heart served to them in one billet in March 1942 – they were told they must then find their own food in future (2). Some, of course, might consider these experiences a potentially beneficial experience for an author whose social attitudes were not always inclusive. However, like many others with the wherewithal, Waugh did his best to ameliorate wartime conditions wherever possible, and being myself fond of fine cooking, I am inclined to sympathise to an extent with his wartime food and wine cravings, at least. Sometimes, especially early in the war, his pessimistic culinary expectations were not met. Eade reports that when in early December 1940 Waugh went to join the Royal Marines at Chatham as a lieutenant (his application having received ‘strong’ support from Winston Churchill), he wrote to his wife Laura about a welcome surprise:

The food is absolutely excellent … on the first evening there was a cold supper on account of a play which was being given to us in our own theatre. I was led to the supper table with profuse apologies, and found lobster, fresh salmon, cold birds, hams, brawn, exactly like the cold table at the St James’s. Afterwards, several rounds of excellent vintage port. (p. 284).

In civilian clothes. Evelyn Waugh in 1940s. By Carl Van Vechten Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress). Public domain.

Things were, of course to get worse, as pre-war cellars and stocks were eaten into.

Lieutenant and then Captain Evelyn Waugh’s diary for the war years refer to meals taken as a guest at friends’ houses, as well as in restaurants and at his club, White’s. Some meals are judged as good, others as bad, but generally little further detail of what was eaten is given. However, what he and fellow diners drink is always recorded in detail, as are any cigars smoked. For example, here is part of his diary entry for the weeks from 1 April to Saturday 11 April, 1942:

[arrived at a dinner-party] rather tipsy from drinking champagne at White’s [club], where wine is now rationed – no port in the bar and only one glass in the coffee room (pp.519-20).

Or for 12 October 1942:

I have reached my last Havana cigars – fifty left in reserve. And my last case of claret (p. 529).

Or for 24 October, 1942:

Basil and I drank a bottle of Dows 1920 before dinner and another after it (p.529).

Or for 3 April, 1944:

drank a great deal of good wine which is getting scarcer daily but still procurable by those who take the trouble (p.561).

Part of the diary entry for 4 May 1944 is an exception, for the whole menu and accompanying wines are detailed, perhaps because Waugh as host is (justifiably) proud of its splendour, four years into rationing:

That night —- and John Sutro dined with me. I gave them a fine dinner – gulls’ eggs, consommé, partridge, haddock on toast, Perrier Jouet ’28, nearly a bottle a head, liqueur brandy, Partaga cigars – an unusual feast for these times (p. 562).

In uniform. Evelyn Waugh by Howard Coster. Circa 1940. National Portrait Gallery collection. Creative Commons licence.

Waugh generally-speaking seems to have managed to find wine and more-or-less decent food throughout the war, no doubt because he had the right contacts, and spent some of his literary income on the matter. In his diary entry for his thirty-ninth birthday, in addition to parenthood, he certainly thought wine (and cigars) worth mentioning and seemed to have enjoyed both on the majority of days in that war-time year:

A good year. I have begotten a fine daughter, published a successful book [Put Out More Flags], drunk 300 bottles of wine, and smoked 300 or more Havana cigars. I have got back to soldiering among friends … health excellent except when impaired by wine.

Evelyn Waugh, Diaries, 28 October 1942, p. 530. Also quoted by Eade. p. 315).

However, this does not mean he was not feeling the effects of rationing (as well as wine) – he was a bon viveur with a strong liking for French wines and cuisine in particular – and Europe was, of course, completely cut off for most of the war so that new supplies of many luxuries were often unobtainable. In Part 2 of this blog, we shall see how rationing affected not just Waugh’s dining habits (to an extent), but also his literary style.

Read Part 2 here.

NOTES

Note 1. Evelyn Waugh: a Life Revisited, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2016, p.73, in a kindle edition. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text.

Note 2. The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Michael Davie, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1976, p.531, entry for Saturday 20th March 1942. All subsequent diary references are to the same edition and page numbers will be given in the text.

Wodehouse Serves Up A Feast

By Val Hewson

After posting our Edible England blogs for Heritage Open Days 2021, we found that we have more to say on literary food. By the way, there are spoilers below, though I’m not sure this matters much in P G Wodehouse.

It begins with a Prairie Oyster. After a ‘rather cheery little supper’ the night before, Bertie Wooster is trying to read Types of Ethical Theory, which his terrifyingly intellectual fiancée, Lady Florence Craye, feels will improve him:

‘If you would drink this, sir,’ he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. ‘It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.’ …

For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

‘You’re engaged!’ I said, as soon as I could say anything. …

‘Thank you, sir. My name is Jeeves.’

P G Wodehouse, Jeeves Takes Charge (1916).

Bertie is now in safe hands:

‘Good morning, sir,’ said Jeeves. He put the good old cup of tea softly on the table by my bed, and I took a refreshing sip. Just right, as usual. Not too hot, not too sweet, not too weak, not too strong, not too much milk, and not a drop spilled in the saucer. A most amazing cove, Jeeves. So dashed competent in every respect.

P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)

It is fortunate that Jeeves is ‘so dashed competent’, given Bertie’s and his friends’ incompetence.

Strand magazine 1921 illustration by Arthur Wallis Mills for Jeeves in the Springtime. Public domain.

In Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch (1922), Bertie has acquired another terrifying fiancée, Honoria (her laugh is famously ‘like the Scotch express going under a bridge’). Her father, Sir Roderick, a nerve specialist or in Bertie’s words, ‘a sort of janitor to a loony-bin’, wants to ‘satisfy himself that [Bertie is] perfectly normal’. Bertie is instructed by his Aunt Agatha to give Sir Roderick lunch.

‘Please remember that he drinks no wine, strongly disapproves of smoking, and can only eat the simplest food, owing to an impaired digestion. Do not offer him coffee, for he considers it the root of half the nerve-trouble in the world.’

P G Wodehouse, Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch (1922)

Bertie is rebuked for suggesting a ‘dog-biscuit and a glass of water’. On the day, Jeeves serves ‘cold consommé, a cutlet, and a savoury, sir. With lemon-squash, iced.’ Bertie has left the choice to Jeeves – a sign of how much master relies on manservant. The lunch is exquisitely awkward, with Bertie rambling nervously. And when three cats, a salmon and a stolen hat intrude, Sir Roderick, who fears cats, stalks out. ‘No wedding bells for me, what?’ says Bertie, realising that Jeeves has engineered the situation to save him from Honoria Glossop. Wodehouse’s menu tells us that a Wooster – Glossop match is not to be.  

In Jeeves in the Springtime (1921), Bertie’s friend Bingo falls for Mabel, a waitress at ‘one of those blighted tea-and-bun shops’:

Bingo studied the menu devoutly. ‘I’ll have a cup of cocoa, cold veal and ham pie, slice of fruit cake, and a macaroon. Same for you, Bertie?’ I gazed at the man, revolted. … ‘Or how about a bit of hot steak-pudding, with a sparkling limado to wash it down?’ said Bingo. You know, the way love can change a fellow is really frightful to contemplate. This chappie before me, who spoke in that absolutely careless way of macaroons and limado, was the man I had seen in happier days telling the head-waiter at Claridge’s exactly how he wanted the chef to prepare the sole frite au gourmet aux champignons, and saying he would jolly well sling it back if it wasn’t just right. Ghastly! Ghastly! A roll and butter and a small coffee seemed the only things on the list that hadn’t been specially prepared by the nastier-minded members of the Borgia family for people they had a particular grudge against, so I chose them, and Mabel hopped it.

P G Wodehouse, Jeeves in the Springtime (1921), chapter 1.

T. D. Skidmore’s 1921 Cosmopolitan illustration for Jeeves in the Springtime. Public domain.

Again the food tells us that Bingo and Mabel are not meant for each other. Jeeves must sort the mess out. In this case he turns out to have a personal interest, having an ‘understanding’ with both Mabel and Bingo’s uncle’s cook, Miss Watson. It all ends happily, of course: Bingo is freed from an unsuitable attachment; Jeeves and Mabel can get together; and Bingo’s uncle, Lord Bittlesham, who ‘devotes himself almost entirely to the pleasures of the table’ gets engaged to Miss Watson, on whose services he ‘sets a high value …’ (P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves, chapter 1).

Bingo, being Bingo, soon falls in love with another waitress, over lunch with Bertie at the Senior Liberal club, where ‘the cooking’s the best in London’ (P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves, chapter 17):

‘How would this do you, Bingo?’ I said at length. ‘A few plovers’ eggs to weigh in with, a cup of soup, a touch of cold salmon, some cold curry, and a splash of gooseberry tart and cream with a bit of cheese to finish?’ … I looked up and found that his attention was elsewhere. He was gazing at the waitress…

Happily, this waitress turns out to be more suitable – she is the romantic novelist Rosie M Banks, working as a waitress merely to get material for her new book – and soon she and Bingo are married.   

One of the most important minor characters in Wodehouse is intimately connected with food: the French chef, Anatole, ‘with a moustache of the outsize or soup-strainer type’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves!, chapter 20). Anatole works for Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia and is a ‘monarch of his profession’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves!, chapter 4). Bertie’s friend, Tuppy Glossop, says:     

… the thing that I admire so enormously about Anatole is that, though a Frenchman, he does not, like so many of these chefs, confine himself exclusively to French dishes, but is always willing and ready to weigh in with some good old simple English fare such as this steak-and-kidney pie to which I have alluded.

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8.

But things begin to go wrong when, at Bertie’s behest, Tuppy Glossop refuses his dinner:

‘Let us get this straight. Tonight, at dinner, when the butler offers me a ris de veau à la financiere, or whatever it may be, hot from Anatole’s hands, you wish me to push it away untasted?’

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8.

Tuppy is persuaded because he can raid the larder later:

‘There is something cold there … A steak-and-kidney pie. … One of Anatole’s ripest.  …’.

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8

Bertie persuades Aunt Dahlia and Gussie Fink-Nottle to forego dinner too for various reasons. But, unlike Jeeves’ schemes, it doesn’t work. ‘The whole thing more than a bit like Christmas dinner on Devil’s Island’, (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! chapter 9) as nonnettes de poulet Agnès Sorel and cèpes à la Rossini are refused. Anatole, like all his race and profession, is temperamental and naturally gives notice:

‘I hear that when the first two courses came back to the kitchen practically untouched, his feelings were so hurt that he cried like a child. And when the rest of the dinner followed, he came to the conclusion that the whole thing was a studied and calculated insult …’  

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 11.

After much farce, including Bertie getting engaged to yet another girl, Madeline Bassett, Jeeves contrives to make everything ‘oojah-cum-spiff’ again, with a fire bell, a bicycle and a key.

Strand magazine 1922 illustration for Scoring for Jeeves by Arthur Wallis Mills. Public domain.

Bertie ascribes his valet’s brilliance to diet, to fish.

‘It’s brain,’ I said, ‘pure brain! What do you do to get like that, Jeeves? I believe you must eat a lot of fish, or something. Do you eat a lot of fish, Jeeves?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Oh, well, then, it’s just a gift, I take it; and if you aren’t born that way there’s no use worrying.’

P G Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves (1919).

Food is clearly important in P G Wodehouse. He uses food as image, often hilariously: ‘she looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho! Jeeves, chapter 20). Food offers a framework for Bertie’s life – breakfast from Jeeves, lunch at the Drones and so on – and for Wodehouse to write his set-pieces, like the disastrous dinner cooked by Anatole. Wodehouse describes food – the hearty food of his childhood and the rich French dishes popular in the Edwardian era – with obvious relish. And food may be an indicator: characters with unconventional tastes in food like Sir Roderick are to be treated with caution, while those with a good appetite for ‘proper’ food, like Tuppy and Bingo, are approved of.

Here is a recipe for a Prairie Oyster. It is said to be a cure for a hangover. Mix together a raw egg or yolk, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, a dash of vinegar, a dash of tomato juice (optional) and salt and pepper. The drink is swallowed in one go, with the egg/yolk whole. Jeeves apparently adds red pepper and perhaps a secret ingredient.

Pineapple Chunks and Sardines

By Val Hewson

On a school trip to London, when I was about 17, we stayed overnight in a boarding school. The dormitory was just as all the stories described: small cubicles, curtains to divide them, narrow beds and small lockers. We smuggled in, not food, but a bottle of wine. Well, we were pretty grown up, you know. Not so grown up, however, that we remembered a corkscrew. (Here’s a tip: you can dig out a cork with a nail file, but it’s a messy, slow business so don’t try it unless you have to.) The next morning, some of us smuggled the empty bottle out and disposed of it in a bin on the Underground, while others distracted our teacher. Looking back, I wonder if she knew all about it and was kind enough not to say anything.

This was the closest I ever got to a midnight feast. It has been fun to read about them again for Heritage Open Days 2021 and Edible England.

Food is often mentioned in the classic school story. Noisy dining rooms with teachers or prefects serving the meal from the head of the table; going out for lunch or a picnic with parents at half-term; tuckboxes filled with goodies; teashops in town on half-holiday; muffins toasted over the fire in your study; scrumptious teas with the visiting lacrosse team you’ve just thrashed; Frühstück, Mittagessen and Abendessen in the trilingual Chalet School; and of course midnight feasts.

Enid Blyton’s feasts are typical. Here is an example from her St Clare’s series (which I enjoyed reading for the first time in over fifty years for this blog):

‘Let’s have a midnight feast!’ said Pat, suddenly. ‘… I don’t know why food tastes so much nicer in the middle of the night than in the daytime, but it does!’ … ‘Each girl had better bring one thing – a cake – or ginger beer – or chocolate.’

The most lavish contribution was Kathleen’s! She brought a really marvellous cake, with almond icing all over it, and pink and yellow sugar roses on the top.

‘Golly! Pork pie and chocolate cake, sardines and Nestlé’s milk, chocolate and peppermint creams, tinned pineapple and ginger beer!’ said Janet. ‘Talk about a feast!’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 8

The midnight feast in repeated in most of the novels in the St Clare’s series. Blyton varies the theme: sausages fried on an oil stove; a summer feast by the outdoor pool, with a swim first; theft from the cupboard where the goodies are stored; and the French teacher, Mam’zelle, encountering a sleepwalker, locking up three girls under the impression that they are burglars and failing completely to spot the actual feast.

Blyton clearly enjoys this: the girls contributing biscuits, cakes, sausages and at least one elaborate cake from a tuck-box or the baker’s in town; choosing a venue far away from any teachers’ rooms; secreting everything away in handy cupboards; setting the alarm clock and putting it under someone’s pillow; creeping around in the dark to avoid waking those who are not invited; narrow escapes from discovery and even being caught out.

The food the girls enjoy so much is always the same: sardines and tinned pineapple and biscuits and sausages and cakes frosted with sugar rosettes on top and pork pies and Nestlé’s milk and prawns and ginger beer and chocolate.

Feeling queasy? Well, dear reader, I wrote the list deliberately:

‘Look – take a bite of a sardine sandwich, and then a bite of a pork pie, and then a spoonful of Nestlé’s milk,’ said Pat. ‘It tastes gorgeous.’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 8

Unsurprisingly, some of the girls feel ill the next day:

Matron had some most disgusting medicine. She dosed the girls generously and they groaned when she made them lick the spoon round. … ‘I know these symptoms,’ said Matron. ‘You are suffering from Midnight Feast Illness! Aha! You needn’t pretend to me! If you will feast on pork pies and sardines, chocolate and ginger beer in the middle of the night, you can expect a dose of medicine from me the next day.’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 9

The girls do not, however, learn this lesson at least. In The Second Form at St Clare’s (1944):

They ate everything. Carlotta even ate sardines and pineapple together. Alison tried prawns dipped in ginger beer, which Pat and Isabel said were ‘simply super’, but they made her feel sick taken that way. However, the others didn’t mind, and mixed all the food together with surprising results.

‘Nobody would dream that sardines pressed into gingerbread cake would taste so nice,’ said Janet.

Enid Blyton, The Second Form at St Clare’s, chapter 17

When two girls are sent to Matron the next day for refusing breakfast and dinner, Matron is not fooled:

‘You are both suffering from Too-Much-To-Eat. A dose of medicine will soon put that right.’

Enid Blyton, The Second Form at St Clare’s, chapter 17

The food all seems typical of the period and place (mid-20th century Britain): tinned fruit, tinned fish, fruit cake with icing and ‘lashings of ginger beer’, as Blyton’s Famous Five would put it. It makes the adult stomach curdle but it is one of Blyton’s favourite jokes, calculated to make schoolgirls of the time long for a midnight feast and groan in sympathy at the visit to Matron the next day. 

It’s not, however, just about indigestible combinations of favourite foods. For some poorer readers, the quantity and range of the food described must have been unimaginable. And there is no reference to rationing, even though the St Clare’s series was written and published during World War Two. Perhaps Enid Blyton chose to shield her readers, or was reminding them of happier times (unlike Elinor M Brent-Dyer with her Chalet School in the Austrian Tyrol). In reality, when the twins arrived at St Clare’s, sugar, meat, fats, bacon, and some tinned foods were all rationed and a wartime midnight feast would have been a poor thing.

Leaving aside the fun, midnight feasts are one of the ways in which the girls’ characters are formed in Blyton’s books, along with games, lessons, exams, classroom tricks, plays and concerts, parental visits and more. Her St Clare’s is a ‘sensible,’ single-sex boarding school, priding itself on bringing out the best in its girls. The series starts with the arrival of Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan, aged about 13, and follows them and their class from the first form to the fifth (that is, from the age of 13 to 17, or so). The sequence is incomplete, however, with three books set in the first form, and one each in the second, fourth and fifth. What happened, you wonder, to the third and sixth forms? After Fifth Formers of St Clare’s (1945), we hear no more of Pat, Isabel and their friends. Enid Blyton starts the similar but arguably more polished, 6-book Malory Towers series (1946-51). Its main character, Darrell Rivers, is a stronger, more convincing character than the two-dimensional and often absent from the action Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan.

The St Clare’s novels follow the familiar path of school stories. They start at the beginning of the term or year, with old friends re-uniting and a few new girls, or maybe a teacher, to generate plot. The newcomers have difficulty adjusting, or an established pupil gets into trouble. By the end of the term, some girls will have settled, accepted by the school community, while others will not come up to the St Clare’s standard and leave. (In a way, it’s survival of the fittest.) Mischief is accepted:

‘…at some time or another most schoolgirls attend a midnight feast! Do not take too serious a view of it!’

‘In my school days such a thing was not even thought of!’ said Mam’zelle. ‘Ah, we knew how to work, we French girls!’

‘But did you know how to play, Mam’zelle?’ said Miss Theobald softly.

Enid Blyton, The O’Sullivan Twins (1942), chapter 6.

Cheating, stealing, not owning up, pride, malice, bullying, silliness and excessive interest in one’s appearance, however, are generally condemned, by both staff and girls. Being straightforward, honest and honourable are the St Clare’s way. Foreign students, of course, find this difficult – the French girl, Claudine, is sceptical of the English sense of honour:

‘You English girls, you are so serious and solemn and so very, very honourable. The good Miss Theobald, she said to me this morning that one thing I must take back to France with me , one only – the sense of honour.’

Enid Blyton, Claudine at St Clare’s (1944), chapter 30.

By the fifth form, however, Claudine is beginning to respect the code. To the adult and/or the 21st century reader, the school’s judgements on failure to live up to expectations seem harsh but Blyton’s is a strict moral universe.

‘You are a hard and spiteful woman,’ went on Miss Theobald’s solemn voice [to a temporary Matron who has been unkind to her own children]. ‘This boy and girl need help and comfort, but they would never get it from you!’

Enid Blyton, Claudine at St Clare’s (1944), chapter 22.

‘[Prudence] has a lot of lessons to learn in life,’ said Miss Roberts, seriously. ‘She has been taught a very big one here, and has learnt for the first time to see herself as she really is – and for two or three weeks she has to undergo the ordeal of knowing that others see her as she is, too. Ah, well – I don’t know how she will turn out. She’s a problem – and I’m glad I haven’t got to solve it!’

Enid Blyton, Summer Term at St Clare’s (1943), chapter 20.

The people I know who went to boarding schools generally hated them, and have memories of poor food, strict discipline and even a sub-standard education. Pineapple chunks and sardines are just a lovely dream.

The Centenary Dinner of the Sheffield Book Society

By Sue Roe

In today’s Heritage Open Days blog, Sue Roe tells us about the centenary dinner of one of Sheffield’s earliest literary groups.

The Centenary Dinner for the Sheffield Book Society was held on 29 December 1906 at the Royal Victoria Hotel. The Book Society had been formed in 1806 at the King’s Head Hotel, Change Alley, by six men for the circulation of books. There was a strong Unitarian presence: three were Unitarian ministers and the others were members. The group did expand quickly to twenty-five and then to thirty. It continued throughout the nineteenth century and during the First World War – in fact it was only dissolved in 1944 because of a book shortage. Titles were chosen by the committee with suggestions from members; the books were then sold at the Annual Dinner and the profits used to buy more. The books were circulated amongst members and a record was kept via a ‘check book’. Members were expected to bring this to the Annual Dinner or be fined. Later in the nineteenth century a collector was appointed to deliver and collect the books.

Michael Ellison’s check book (Sheffield City Archives)
Michael Ellison’s check book (Sheffield City Archives)

Planning for the Centenary Dinner started early. At a Committee Meeting in September 1905:

It was resolved to hold the Centenary Dinner of the Society on Dec. 29 .1906 & to select Mr. Wightman, as the Senior Member of the Society, President for that occasion.

(Arthur Wightman was the longest serving member.)

In September 1906,

…it was decided that no public officials (as such) should be invited. It was suggested that a Card of invitation be prepared and each Member be furnished with three wherewith he may invite that number of guests.

Invitation Card (Sheffield City Archives)

Furthermore:

The Honry. Secty. was instructed to have a full list of all the members of the Society printed, giving the year of their election from 1806 to the present time & that such list be presented to every one at the Centenary Dinner together with a short history of the Society from its commencement.

Members of Sheffield Book Society (Sheffield City Archives)

… the Society … is managed by a Committee of twelve … who are appointed each year at the Annual Meeting in December. This Committee meets at the house of each member in turn, about every three months, for the purpose of voting in new books from a list furnished by the Honorary Secretary. Periodicals Magazines and Art Publications are only voted in at the Annual Meetings.

The contrast was drawn with Sheffield in 1806 when ‘The age of cheap literature had not yet dawned. Books were costly.’ Novels were often published in three volumes. The Magazines and other periodicals were usually bought by members and given to charitable institutions.

Short history of the Sheffield Book Society Image 1 (Sheffield City Archives)
Short history of the Sheffield Book Society Image 2 (Sheffield City Archives)

At the Committee Meeting in December 1906:

The Menu for the Centenary Dinner on Dec 29 was submitted, discussed & decided upon.

Menu for the Centenary Dinner (Sheffield City Archives)

The menu seems a bit daunting these days – ten courses and then coffee. Four meat courses and fish too! Intriguing that they would have foie gras rissoles as the penultimate course.

Oysters are thought of as a luxury these days but in the nineteenth century they were a common dish. In The Pickwick Papers (1837) Sam Weller observed ‘the poorer a place is the greater call there seems for oysters’. Soup followed the oysters: a choice between a Petite Marmite and Cream of Artichoke. The former was a soup consisting of a variety of meats – the cheaper cuts of veal, beef and pork with vegetables simmered in stock, then served all together in individual bowls. A petite marmite is a small bowl in France, so the dish is named after the vessel.

The Joinville sauce accompanying the sole is a béchamel sauce with crayfish and shrimps, garnished with mushrooms and often black truffle. Whitebait need no explanation, I would imagine. Neither does the chicken soufflé.

Tournedos Béarnaise is fillet of beef with a sauce made from butter, shallots, tarragon and white wine. The guests were obviously accomplished diners.

Mutton was long regarded as superior in taste to lamb and was a staple in many households: Dickens’ favourite dish was mutton stuffed with oysters. Game such as pheasant was also a common course: shooting was a popular sport.  

For dessert guests could choose from ice cream or cake: Peach Melba was created by the French chef Escoffier at the Savoy Hotel in the early 1890s for the famous Australian opera singer Nellie Melba. It is a dish of peaches with raspberry sauce and vanilla ice cream. Friandises are small pastries or sweets – what we would call petit fours.

Savoury courses were often served towards the end of an Edwardian meal – rabbit, cheese mushrooms, herring roes, chicken livers, ‘devilled’ in a spicy sauce. It is hard to imagine any of them choosing foie gras rissole (deep fried pastry turnovers with foie gras and truffles) after such a gargantuan meal. And yet there was a dessert course to follow!

The Hon. Secty. offered a prize to the School of Art pupils for the design for Menu Card at the Centenary Dinner – thirteen designs were submitted and the one by Mr. C. S. Jagger was selected.

I wonder if Mr C S Jagger was a relation!

The menu, the list of members and the short history were collected into a booklet with a front page presumably designed by C S Jagger.

Front page of the Centenary Booklet (Sheffield City Archives)

Despite the Committee’s decision that no public officials be invited, guests included W F Osborn, Master Cutler; Sydney J Robinson, an ex Master Cutler; the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr. Smith; and Professor Arthur Herbert Leahy, Professor of Mathematics at Sheffield University.

The event was widely reported in the local newspapers: an article in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (December 1906) pointed out the number of Sheffield worthies who were, and had been, members. Two Sheffield families had shown long membership. John Favell had joined in 1817 and from that date to the date of the dinner there was always at least one member of the Favell family in the Book Society. A later article spoke of:

the exceptionally large attendance of members … The company was representative of the medical and legal professions, as well as the manufacturing and commercial interests of the city, the former predominating.

In an article in the Sheffield Telegraph in January 1907, Robert Leader complimented those members who had proved loyal to the Society over the years. This was particularly significant bearing in mind the strain, before a messenger was employed for delivery and collection, of punctually passing on the books from house to house.

Where distances were short this was no great tax but the obligation was serious when, for instance, a member living at Broomhill had to deliver at the office of another in town; who, in turn, had to convey the books to his own residence in Burngreave and in due course to send them forward to Pitsmoor.

Reported in an article of 31 December 1906, at the Dinner Arthur Wightman was in reminiscent mode. He recalled his first meeting with Thomas Asline Ward, the long serving Secretary and Treasurer of the Society. Wightman was a member of the Sheffield Football Club which played in a field belonging to Ward. The Bishop of Sheffield proposed a toast to the President which was ‘received with musical honours’. Wightman kept his reply brief so that the sale of books and periodicals would not be delayed.

This was the feature of the evening and was entered upon with great zest and enjoyment. The works were distributed to the guests around the table and each in turn offered the book for sale, descanting on its merits, and striving to get the most he could for it. The Centenary Dinner was indeed a ‘very pleasant gathering’.

George Orwell’s Frankfurter: an Early British Fast Food Experience (1939)

By Chris Hopkins

Here’s Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, for another ‘literary food’ blog for Heritage Open Days. But be warned: Chris says this one is perhaps not best enjoyed with a meal.

George Orwell’s just pre-war novel Coming Up for Air (1939) opens with this striking if unusual sentence: ‘The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth’ (Penguin edition, p.5). We then have to read on for another one-hundred-and-nineteen pages before the first-person narrator, George Bowling, tells us what the idea is! He is going to revisit the country village where he grew up, Lower Binfield, not with his wife and children, but on his own, one day when he can take a day of work without them knowing (he has secretly won seventeen pounds on a horse and has been pondering what to spend it on). To be fair, the intervening one-hundred-and-nineteen pages have been usefully occupied with George reflecting on his life so far, and on the next war which he is convinced will be coming soon (he thinks it is probably most likely in 1941). George wants to go back to Lower Binfield because he has been thinking that it represents life as it was before 1914, before he went to the trenches, before he lived in a city suburb, before he became a life-insurance salesman, before, he became, in his own words, ‘fat and forty-five’, before, he thinks, the modern world began.

Before he finally tells the reader about his idea, though, he has a number of present-day experiences which seem to feed into it. Which takes us back to the false teeth (much commoner then in younger people because of the lack of dental care, and because fluoride toothpaste was not invented and marketed until the mid-nineteen-fifties). George has chosen a ‘cheap American dentist’ in London to make him his new false teeth, but arrives early to be fitted with the new set, and decides to fill the time with some food and a coffee. It is not normally the kind of place he goes to (he prefers a pub), but George goes into a modern ‘milk-bar’ and orders a coffee and a couple of frankfurters:

I bit into one of my frankfurters, and – Christ!

I can’t honestly say I’d expected the thing to have a pleasant taste. I’d expected it to taste of nothing, like the roll. But this – well, it was quite an experience. Let me try and describe it to you.

The frankfurter had a rubber skin, of course, and my temporary teeth weren’t much of a fit. I had to do a kind of sawing movement before I could get my teeth through the skin. And then suddenly – pop! The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste […] It was fish. A sausage, something calling itself a frankfurter, was filled with fish! I got straight up and walked out without touching my coffee. God knows what that would have tasted of.

George Orwell, Coming Up for Air, pp. 18-19

Orwell, as so often, is brilliant at using quite ordinary but carefully chosen words and precise rhythms to create the physical detail of George’s disgusting experience, of making the reader identify with what a modern food manufacturer might call the ‘mouth-feel’ of the frankfurter (though not one they would want to create – for an introductory definition of the word and idea, see Mouthfeel – Wikipedia). But more than that, Orwell turns the physical sensation of the frankfurter into something which both literally and symbolically stands for George for everything which he has concluded is wrong with modern life and the modern world:

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else (p.20).

The sense that the alleged sausage tastes of fish is especially significant for George because for him a quintessentially pre-modern activity in Lower Binfield was fishing – an authentic experience of his boyhood – which he recreates in his memory with a roll-call of the fish which populated its pools (now he fears all drained or polluted):

Roach, rudd, dace, bleak, barbel, bream, gudgeon, pike, chub, carp, tench. They are solid kind of names. The people who made them up hadn’t heard of machine-guns … .

George Orwell, Coming Up for Air, p.54

George has not been fishing since he was sixteen in Lower Binfield. He tried once during the First Word War in a forgotten pond full of fish, but his platoon was ordered to move before he could actually fish, and he tried once on holiday, but failed to convince his wife, Hilda, either that he actually knows how to fish, or that the outlay on a fishing-rod is justified. ‘Fat men of forty-five can’t go fishing’, he concludes pessimistically (p. 164).

It might seem that George’s world view is a simple one: past good, present bad. Actually, though, he is more complex that that, and so is this novel. He knows very well that many things in Lower Binfield were bad: the boys’ cruelty to birds and animals, rural poverty and over-crowding, girls pregnant at the age of fifteen, probably through incest, his parents’ shop going bust, even the horrors of the Boer War, precursors to worse to come. He also quite likes his new false teeth at times, they cheer him up, and they are surely, in developed form, a modern innovation. If you haven’t read Coming Up for Air, I recommend it, not least for the way in which Orwell’s prose makes something quite ordinary, an everyday object, a food-item, a frankfurter, and tasting itself, into a fascinating symbol and experience of the modern world (even though I’m not convinced that frankfurters, or fast-food, and being ‘streamlined’, and fascism, are quite as much the same modern experience as that prose makes you feel they are!).

Follow this link for a frankfurter experience.

The Family Friend or Housekeeper’s Instructor

By Loveday Herridge

In today’s Heritage Open Days blog, we introduce you to Priscilla Haslehurst of Sheffield.

Being a housekeeper in a respectable early nineteenth-century family was certainly not for the faint-hearted. You needed to know how to skin, gut, pluck and kill, to wrestle with a live 30 pound turtle, to thread larks onto a bird spit, to use pigs’ bladders like cling film. You needed strong arms and stamina, to carry large quantities of liquid for boiling, to beat ingredients together ‘for an hour or more’, to work for two days on a single dish. Your knowledge of roasting, boiling, pounding, cutting, frying, stewing, skimming, shredding, rubbing, broiling, fricasséeing, chopping, dressing, scoring, paring and straining must be confident. You needed to be familiar with the anatomy of animals and fish to prepare them for cooking, to have dramatic flair in creating eye-catching scenes for the table – a hen’s nest, a fish pond, Solomon’s Temple, the moon and stars, a floating island – artfully made from moulds with coloured blancmange and jelly, and you must have a deft hand to spin a silver or gold sugar web to cover sweetmeats. In the absence of refrigeration you must be willing to dry, bottle, pot, preserve and pickle, to make mushroom powder and preserved pineapples that would keep several years.

All these skills and more are utilised in a recipe book created by Sheffield’s Priscilla Haslehurst, copies of which can be found in Sheffield’s Central Library’s collections. Her first edition of The Family Friend or Housekeeper’s Instructor, containing a very complete collection of original and approved Receipts, in every branch of cookery, confectionary etc was published in 1802, and printed by James Montgomery, editor of the Sheffield Iris newspaper, and later poet, hymn writer and philanthropist. The second edition was also printed in 1802, this time by John Crome, radical printer, for whom a job like Ms Haslehurst’s might have financed some of his more revolutionary publications. (Crome would probably have been aware that he printed the book following a time of hunger in Sheffield; Sheffield’s first soup kitchens appeared in the severe winter of 1799-1800 after a disastrous harvest.) The book was successful and went into at least eight editions, and was sold in London as well as Sheffield and elsewhere. By the time of its 1814 edition the title of the book was The Family Friend and Young Woman’s Companion or Housekeeper’s Instructor, containing a very complete collection…etc, indicating who properly should be purchasing the book and occupying themselves with the recipes.

Haslehurst includes this paragraph in the introduction to her collection:

As the information contained in this little volume, is not carelessly copied from any similar work, but is really the fruit of twelve years of valuable experience, as housekeeper in very respectable families, and twenty years of diligent practice, as a confectioner and instructor of young persons in this necessary domestic knowledge in Sheffield, the author humbly hopes, by the accomplishment of her work, to deserve that patronage which has enabled her to lay it before the public, and which she gratefully acknowledges.

By ‘patronage’ Haslehurst means, I think, the subscriptions of the people listed at the end of the book. It was customary that the costs of publishing books were borne by friends of the author, or by people who wished to be seen as associated with the book. In this case there are 306 names listed, for the most part the wives, daughters and sisters of eminent Sheffield families, the wealthy industrialists and professional men who could provide elaborate feasts for their friends, families and colleagues. 

And what a surprising variety of different ingredients are used in the recipes in the book! Many varieties of fish, including anchovies, shellfish and lobster, in a town that is as far from the sea (though close to many rivers) as any in the country. There are many foods likely to have been brought to Yorkshire from milder counties in England (for example, soft fruit like Kentish cherries), as well as foods that are clearly imported – spices (such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, caraway seeds, saffron, mace and peppercorns), macaroni, Parmesan cheese, vermicelli, rice, ginger, Seville oranges, Jordan almonds, Malaga raisins, brandy, wine and lemons. The markets of Sheffield must have been lively and abundant places. Local butchers and dairies presumably produced the copious amounts of meat, butter and cream for Haslehurst’s kitchens. If the garden of the house where these recipes were utilised could not provide the required vegetables, individual local gardeners must have been ready to sell the elder buds, nasturtium buds, herbs, garlic, spinach, celery, carrots, walnuts, penny royal, leeks, raspberries, damsons, tansey, saffron, rosewater, berries, quinces, and so much more, that the recipes required.

Among the family recipes, which Haslehurst hopes will be ‘useful and agreeable, economical and elegant’, both familiar (Beef Steak Pie) and unfamiliar (Pickled Oysters, or Pigeons Compote), is the remarkable Portable Soup for Travellers, the precursor of packet soup and Oxo cubes, and surely one to try.

Take three large legs of veal, and one of beef, the lean part of half a ham, cut them in small pieces; put a quarter of a pound of butter at the bottom of a large cauldron, then lay in the meat and bones, with four ounces of anchovies, two ounces of mace; cut off the green leaves of five or six heads of celery, wash the heads quite clean, cut them small, put them in with three large carrots cut thin, cover the cauldron close and set it over moderate fire; when you find the gravy begins to draw, keep taking it up until you have got it all out; then put water in to cover the meat, set it on the fire again and let it boil slowly for four hours, strain it through a hair sieve into a clean pan and let it boil three parts away, then strain the gravy that you drew from the meat into the pan, let it boil gently and keep scumming the fat off very clean as it rises till it looks like thick glue; you must take great care when it is nearly enough that it does not burn; put in cayenne pepper to your taste, then pour it upon flat earthen dishes a quarter of an inch thick, and let it stand till the next day, and cut it with round tins a little larger than a crown piece, lay the cakes on dishes and set them in the sun to dry: this soup will answer best to be made in frosty weather; when the cakes are dry, put them in a tin box with writing paper, betwixt every cake and keep them in a dry place, this is a very useful soup to be kept in gentlemen’s families, for by pouring a pint of boiling water on one of the cakes, and a little salt, it will make a good basin of broth.  A little boiling water poured on it will make gravy for a turkey or fowls and the longer it is kept the better. N.B.  Remember to keep turning the cakes as they dry.

Reading the Recipes

By Val Hewson

In this Heritage Open Days blog, I find that a vintage recipe book unlocks my memory.

I am no cook. I enjoy food but am not particularly interested in the art of preparing it. There are people who read recipe books just for pleasure. Their favourites are worn – loved? – with wrinkled, stained, torn pages. Recipe cards, cuttings from magazines, scraps of paper fall from them. My recipe books sit, clean and mostly unused, on their shelf. But there is one which, though I don’t have a copy, is a stop on my reading journey: Be-Ro Home Recipes (Thomas Bell & Son Ltd, 1957).

My mum had a copy of the Be-Ro book when I was a small child. Where it came from, I don’t know. It was one of the few books in the house, perhaps one of the first I ever saw, and I suppose this is why it is so clear in my mind. The solid Be-Ro logo. The recipe titles in a font that mimics handwriting. Black and white illustrations of cakes, biscuits and pies. Line drawings of women pouring, mixing, beating (and, I see, the only man to feature, shown sitting back, relaxing, as his wife or girlfriend unpacks a picnic basket). Clearest of all to me, the cover photo of a young woman, smiling in her blue blouse and red and white checked apron. Her pose is awkward, half-turning, the Be-Ro book in her left hand and a mixing bowl, measuring jug, cake tin, eggs and, of course, Be-Ro flour on the table in front of her.

Thomas Bell & Son was a Newcastle firm, and this somehow made it special to me as a Geordie. The name came about from a shortening of ‘Bells Royal’, the original name for the company’s self-raising flour and baking powder. In the 1920s, Bells produced the first of their recipe books and distributed them free. This proved to be a brilliant way to establish the brand. There have been about 40 editions over the last hundred years – with updated ingredients and recipes but similar in format – and the name Be-Ro is still familiar.

At least, in my experience, the name is familiar in the north of England and in the Midlands but much less so in the south. When I mentioned it to my Sheffield neighbours, all of a certain age, all northerners, they nodded.

Be-Ro!

I’ve still got a Be-Ro book.  

It helped me learn the basics – making pastry or a sponge cake and that sort of thing. Techniques. And then you could make other things.

Regulo. Do you remember Regulo? My grandkids don’t know what I mean. They laugh.

My mum was a very good cook, who served an excellent Sunday lunch and had a light hand with cakes and pies. She made the best egg custard I’ve ever tasted. But she was not a great one for cookery books. Be-Ro is the only one I remember. My dad liked the food he had always known so there was little call for innovation or experiment. My mum’s skill came from long practice, handed on from her mother or elder sisters. At least, I suppose they taught her. She never said and I never asked.

I do know that our Christmas Cake recipe came from Be-Ro, although my mum always added extra cherries, because I loved them. She never iced the cake, which Be-Ro suggested, as none of us liked icing much. Once made, the cake was put away in a tin until Christmas. A second cake was usually made for my birthday a few months later. Plain fruit cake, perhaps with a slice of cheese, is still my cake of choice.  

Christmas Cake

12 ozs Be-Ro self-raising flour

One teaspoonful mixed spice

4 ozs ground almonds

8 ozs currants

8 ozs sultanas

8 ozs raisins (optional)

4 ozs cherries (halved)

4 ozs peel (chopped)

8 ozs butter

8 ozs caster sugar

4 eggs, beaten with

8 tablespoonsfuls milk

1.   Clean and mix the fruit.

2.   Mix flour, spice and ground almonds.

3.   Beat butter and sugar to a cream in a warm bowl.

4.   Beat eggs and milk together.

5.   Stir in (alternately a little at a time) the flour mixture and eggs and milk, with the butter and sugar.

6.   Add the fruit last.

7.   Mix thoroughly. If a darker cake is desired, add one teaspoonful of gravy browning.

8.   Use a large round cake tin (8” in diameter) lined with greased paper.

9.   Bake about 4 hours, the first hour in a moderate oven (350°-375° F. Regulo 3-4) and then a slow oven (250°-300° F. Regulo 1-2)

Be-Ro Home Recipes (1957)

As I turn the pages, other recipes from 1957 look familiar: scones, drop scones, girdle cakes (‘griddle cakes’ in our house), ginger cakes, sly cake, jam tarts, mince pies, rock cakes, custard tarts and maids of honour. Until I started reading, I had forgotten that my mum used to make all of these. With changing fashions, most of them have disappeared from more recent editions, replaced by carrot cake, lemon drizzle cake and banoffee pancakes.

When she was baking, I was usually allowed to press down the edge of the pastry on the tart my mum was making and to make neat airholes with a fork. She used to let me have some pastry to play with. Kneeling on a chair to reach the table, I would roll the pastry out and turn it and roll it and turn it, until it was grey and sticky. It would be a ‘cake for the birds’, we pretended.

I don’t know what happened to my mum’s Be-Ro. Perhaps it fell apart with use and was thrown out. Or it got lost when she moved house. In her later years, she no longer cooked much, and in any case, after so long, she must have had the recipes by heart.  

Perhaps I should have a go.

Three Rules for Pastry Making

1. Handle it lightly.

2. Keep it cool.

3. Bake it in a HOT oven.

Cool hands, a cool slap, and water as cold as possible help you to produce the best results. Use the finger-tips, as they are the coolest part of the hands. Always mix with a knife. Add the water gradually, using as little as possible, as the pastry should be very stiff. After adding water, avoid adding more flour, as this spoils pastry.

Pastry requires a HOT OVEN. Bake on the top shelf, as this part is the hottest. 

Be-Ro Home Recipes (1957)

Thanks to Lizz Tuckerman for lending me the Be-Ro book, which you can see on display during September at Sheffield Central Library in our Heritage At Home exhibition. The Be-Ro story can be found here.

Fresh from a WW1 Field Kitchen: a Palatable Recipe from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1928)

By Chris Hopkins

For our fourth Heritage Open Days blog, Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, looks at food in a German novel which was tremendously popular in Britain.


Dust-wrapper from Putnam’s Cheap Edition, 1930, scanned by the author from copy in his collection.
 

Erich Remarque’s novel about the trenches was first published as a newspaper serial in Germany in 1928 and grabbed public attention both because it remembered a war which many people did not wish to talk about openly at this point, and because it was seen as vehemently opposed to war (leading to the work being denounced by Nazi newspapers, and later being banned and burnt when the Nazis came to power). It very soon appeared as a book, quickly became a best-seller in Germany, and was translated swiftly into some twenty-two languages. The English version by A W Wheen was published in 1929, with the German title, Im Westen nichtes Neues translated as All Quiet on the Western Front (rather than the more literal, ‘Nothing New in the West’.) This equally became an immediate best-seller both in Britain and the USA. Many readers and critics (though by no means all) who were veterans of the trenches saw it as capturing trench warfare for the ordinary infantryman with astonishing accuracy, often leading to a sense that whichever side one had fought on, the war was a shared experience of futile agony. The American film-version (directed by Lewis Milestone, produced by Universal Studios, 1930) was also a critical and public success, and both novel and film have been written about extensively ever since.

Still from the 1930 film: central character Paul Bäumer with a French woman (actress uncredited), when his platoon is behind the lines, and with his ‘gift’ of bread and sausage prominent. Though in both novel and film, this incident is relatively romanticised, the relationship is clearly in the nature of an exchange of scarce food for sex. Image from the Realart Pictures theatrical re-release of the film between 1948 and 1966 (scanned by the author from his collection).

Food might not seem the most central topic in a war book, but in fact there is a great deal of reference to food in All Quiet on the Western Front and it plays an important part in the book. The young men in the trenches (most schoolboys only months before) are hungry nearly all the time, and food is one of their few sources of pleasure and comfort, but ‘our provisions are generally bad’ (Vintage kindle edition, translated by Brian Murdoch, 1993, location 1272). A German veteran, Karl von Clemm, interviewed in Episode 2 of the excellent ‘People’s Century’ documentary, The Killing Fields: 1914, (BBC 1, first broadcast in the UK September 1995) recalls that they were often issued with soup made of dried vegetables, which was nicknamed ‘barbed wire’, because it was so hard and tasteless, unless you could find some meat to add. He says that a horse freshly killed by gunfire would be quickly stripped completely of its flesh by passing infantry so they could improve their meals (a YouTube copy covers French, British and German trench provisions from16.55 to 18.36 minutes in: People’s Century Part 02 1914 Killing Fields – YouTube). Poor food was common in British trenches too, and of course, delivery of hot, varied and nutritious food to the front-line was difficult, but the German situation became increasingly bad as the allied blockade of German ports had a major impact on food supplies for both civilians and soldiers.

All Quiet begins with a meal. It is the first thing the central character, Paul Bäumer, tells us about:

We are in camp five miles behind the line. Yesterday our relief arrived; now our bellies are full of bully beef and beans, we’ve had enough to eat and we’re well satisfied. We were even able to fill up a mess-tin for later, every one of us, and there are double rations of sausage and bread as well – that will keep us going. We haven’t had a stroke of luck like this for ages.

All Quiet on the Western Front, location 30.

The great stroke of luck the company has had is that they have been sent huge quantities of food – enough to satisfy even their hunger. It is, though, as Paul, says all a mistake (‘the Army is never that good to us’). When they were sent into the front trenches, there were one-hundred-and fifty men, but a British artillery barrage has caught the company badly, and seventy men have been killed. This is the good luck – Paul and his comrades have been sent seventy extra meals, which they do their best to eat. Of course, part of the point of this opening incident is to make clear, without ever having to state it, how much the war has desensitised these boys, has made the grossly abnormal, normal: they have no time, nor will, to think about seventy dead men, but are glad to eat their fill. The extra food is still at least a bodily and mental comfort, whatever outrage delivered it to them.

There are dozens of references to food in the novel – mainly to beans, potatoes, turnips, bread and beef, which are the most common rations (the beef is usually bully beef, and Paul says that when they can, they take enemy corned beef from captured trenches because it is so much better tasting). The turnips are fine as turnips, but have bad associations because the overall German food situation is so bad that the authorities have had to resort to ersatz foods. A new recruit reports, perhaps sarcastically, on his food in the barracks before being sent to the trenches: ‘Bread made out of turnips for breakfast, turnips for lunch, and turnip cutlets with turnip salad in the evening’ (location 392). They seem rarely to be given other vegetables (not even dried), but they do crave them (‘we want fresh vegetables’, location 2456) and they steal potatoes, peas, carrots and cauliflowers from the farmers’ fields when they can. We get a few references to Army meals: in the barracks there is ‘a watery rice soup’ (location 2015) with miniscule strips of beef, and there is one reference to luxurious sausages with red cabbage being served in the hospital, but the staples seem to be hashes or stews of corned beef cooked with potatoes or with beans, the last being most popular with the men.

German soldiers at a field kitchen in World War One (F7PHM6) (copyright History World Archive/Alamy Images and reproduced with their kind permission).

Sometimes, the men think of favourite meals from home (‘buckwheat pancakes with bacon’ in one case), but ironically in fact such meals have disappeared: food for the Army is prioritised and the civilians are starving. When Paul goes home, he is given by his mother the great treat of potato pancakes with cranberries, but this is now a rare thing. Anticipating the situation, he has managed illicitly to obtain some army supplies for his family, and empties from his pack: ‘a whole Edam cheese … two Army-issue loaves, three-quarters of a pound of butter, two cans of liver sausage, a pound of lard and a bag of rice’ (location 1720). When his mother asks him if he has enough to eat ‘out there’, he says they manage. One night at the front, when the men are occupying a ruined factory and have nothing to eat, and cannot sleep for hunger, the character Tjaden (unhelpfully?),

Describes his local specialty, broad beans cooked with bacon. He is scathing about people who try to cook it without the right chopped herbs. But the main thing is that the ingredients all have to be cooked together – the potatoes, beans and bacon must not, for God’s sake, be cooked separately. Somebody grumbles that he will chop Tjaden into the right herbs if he doesn’t shut up at once.

All Quiet on the Western Front, location 424.

I am not saying that other dishes named in the novel might not be worth trying (those buckwheat pancakes, and no doubt miracles can be done with corned beef and potatoes, though not keen on the horse-meat …), but Tjaden’s favourite recipe is actually one I recognise and have often cooked and eaten, so it is my suggestion if you would like to try some food craved by these trench-dwellers, if not actually produced by a field kitchen. The dish is usually called Hanoverian Hot-pot and the way I make it is to fry onions, bacon and potatoes in rapeseed oil, then add stock and sliced carrots, and a sliced cooking apple. When the potatoes and carrots are not quite done, add broad beans, and green beans. Also add at this point two bay leaves, a bouquet garni, and chopped fresh dill (or dried if necessary) – which I can only hope are the right herbs according to Tjaden. Cook until the vegetables are all done and the apple has collapsed into the stock, thickening and flavouring it (if you like quantities and more precise timings here is a more professional recipe, with some minor variations from my method: Hanovarian bacon hotpot recipe | Schwartz). I hope it is palatable – a meatless version is good too – enjoy!

I’m not sure if Tjaden would approve of either of these versions of his dish (I do not cook everything together quite, and the apple seems essential and distinctive to me). I realise that my blog has had a slight change of gear towards the end, turning from lit crit to cookery, but the serious point about All Quiet on the Western Front remains. Food is important in the novel partly because it satisfies (for a while) a craving for the comfort of body and mind, but also at the same time shows that the lives of these soldiers are reduced to the basics. If they can sleep and find food, and stay alive, they can, in this abandonment of all other ambition, ask no more. Food in the novel is strongly linked to theft and lawlessness – the odd ‘lucky’ slaughter of comrades apart, it is the only way to get good food – but also to self-reliance: it is one of the few things the men can influence themselves and use their skills, knowledge and ingenuity on. They care nothing now for the nation-state they are supposedly fighting for, or for any larger social structure: they are set down in a world which makes little sense, and they must make their own way in it. The novel somehow simultaneously lets us understand the losses (including notable moral losses) brought about by being reduced to the basics, but also lets us appreciate how important those basics are. The comrade Paul most admires is Katczinsky, known as Kat, largely because of his food-gathering skills. The night when they cannot sleep for hunger in the ruined factory, and after Tjarden shares his recipe, Kat saves them by actually delivering real food:

Kat appears … he is carrying two loaves under his arm, and a blood-stained sandbag full of horsemeat in his hand …Kat has the knack of cooking horse-meat so it is really tender. You mustn’t put it straight into the pan or it will be too tough. It has to be parboiled in a little water beforehand. We sit around in a circle with our knives, and fill our bellies.

That’s Kat … he can find anything – camp stoves and firewood when it is cold, hay and straw, tables, chairs – but above all he can find food. No one understands how he does it … his masterpiece was four cans of lobster. Mind you, we would really have preferred dripping instead.

All Quiet on the Western Front, location 439.

What most satisfying and sustaining – sophistication or the most basic things? Depends on your situation. Lobster or dripping for you?

The Recipe Books of the Countesses of Arundel and Kent

By Lisa Hopkins

For our third heritage Open Days / Edible England blog, Lisa Hopkins, Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, has written about two 17th century recipe books. Throughout September, you can see a facsimile of these books in our Heritage At Home exhibition in Sheffield Central Library.

A Choice Manual of Rare and Select Secrets (1653) and Natura Exenterata (1655) are both collections of recipes and remedies with a special connection to Sheffield. A Choice Manual proudly announced that it was the household book of Elizabeth Talbot Grey, countess of Kent. For Natura Exenterata no author is named, but there is a portrait of Alethea Talbot Howard, countess of Arundel, opposite the title page, and it appears under her name in the Arundel Castle library. There is also a small piece of internal evidence for her authorship, for one of the recipes, for ‘a Water called Maids-milk’, observes that ‘This Water is good to make the skin nesh’, a word I had never heard until we moved to Sheffield in 1990. There were not many female aristocratic authors who were equally at home transcribing Latin and calling things nesh, but Elizabeth and Alethea were two of the three daughters of Mary Cavendish Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury, whose mother was Bess of Hardwick. They grew up in Sheffield, and since they had no brothers their father’s vast possessions in the city passed to Alethea’s husband, Thomas Howard, whose family name and titles of earl of Arundel and Surrey (and later Duke of Norfolk) are all remembered in the names of streets and squares. 

Elizabeth (née Talbot), Countess of Kent after Unknown artist
line engraving, mid 17th century, 2 7/8 in. x 2 in. (72 mm x 50 mm) paper size
Given by the daughter of compiler William Fleming MD, Mary Elizabeth Stopford (née Fleming), 1931
Reference Collection
NPG D22796
Aletheia Talbot, Countess of Arundel, by Wenceslaus Hollar, after Sir Anthony van Dyck
etching, 1626. 10 1/2 in. x 7 3/4 in. (267 mm x 198 mm) plate size; 10 3/4 in. x 8 in. (272 mm x 203 mm) paper size
Purchased with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Pilgrim Trust, 1966
Reference Collection
NPG D18366

The sisters’ two books were among the earliest household manuals published, though they had been written even earlier, around three decades before. The reader of A choice manual is assured that ‘it may be justly deemed as a rich magazene of experience’; ‘magazine’ has a different tonality in the seventeenth century – the sisters’ cousin Jane Cavendish called her great-grandmother Bess of Hardwick ‘the very magazine of rich’, and Jane’s stepmother Margaret Cavendish called her own brain ‘a Magazine’ –  but Lady Kent’s book does indeed have something of the feel of a modern lifestyle magazine, offering us privileged glimpses into her lovely kitchen and enviable life. Some of the ingredients are decidedly exotic, including ‘English Tobacco’ , spermaceti, and ‘Tutty of Alexandria’ (zinc oxide). ‘A Medicine for the falling Sickness’ requires a pennyweight of gold, six pennyweights each of pearl, amber and coral, eight grains of a bezoar, half an ounce of peony seeds, ‘some pouder of dead mans scull that hath been an Anatomie’ (if the intended recipient is female; if he is male it needs to be a woman’s skull), and endive water. The first of two ‘Receipts for Bruises, approved by the Lady of Arundell’ requires pulverised jet, and ‘An approved Medicine for the Plague, called the Philosophers Egge’ starts innocuously enough with ‘Take a new laid Egg’ but then demands ‘five or six simples of Unicorns horn’, though it does concede that hartshorn will do as a substitute. In this surely lay the appeal of the book at the time of its publication. Even if you had been able to obtain a substance that you called unicorn horn before the Civil War broke out, you would not have been able to do so once it had started – the royalist garrison at Pendennis Castle in Cornwall was reported to be eating horseflesh – or, if you were royalist, after it had finished, since so many of the king’s supporters were living in poverty and exile. Elizabeth’s book peddles a fantasy, offering poignant reminders of a time when people had leisure and energy to trouble themselves about trivia such as cutting Florentines in the shape of virginal keys and never using anything but silver dishes to dry peaches on.

It would certainly have been safer to use the books as aids to nostalgia rather than practical cooking manuals. In Lady Kent’s book, the preface ‘To the reader’ warns that

if any, or perchance many unlook’d for mistaks, for want of a due application, bids thee entertain contrary thoughts, the effect not answering thy curious expectation, upon a more serious reflex, know, that nothing is absolutely perfect, and withall, that the richest and most soveraign Antidote may be often missapplied.

The cautionary note is justified, because some of the recipes are frankly terrifying. A recipe ‘For hot Eyes and red’ begins uncompromisingly ‘Take slugs’ and ‘A Receipt for the Plurisie’ advises ‘Take three round Balls of Horse-dung, boil them in a pint of white Wine till half be consumed, then strain it out, and sweeten it with a little Sugar’ (sugar is a major ingredient in both sisters’ books: a recipe for boiling a duck enjoins the cook to add ‘as much Sugar as will lye upon it’). In Alethea’s book, the advice ‘For a Strein’ orders starkly ‘Take Pisse’, and ‘For the Jaundice’, ‘Take in the morning fasting if it be a man, lice out of a females head, and drink them with white Wine and Sugar, and a little Nutmeg.  And take in the evening pouder of wormes as much as will lye upon a groat’. A recipe for ‘A Vomit to cleanse the stomach’ begins ‘Take three roots of yellow Daffadillies’, which could lead to serious poisoning. Some of the remedies in particular show that even an aristocratic lifestyle was not always glamorous: for cataracts, ‘Take two or three Lice out of ones head’, and the instructions for making ‘a slipcoat Cheese’ include ‘if you find any Mouse turd wipe it off’. There is also a recipe for ‘Pills for the Gonorraeha’ and one for viper wine contributed by family friend Sir Kenelm Digby, who had made it for his wife to cure her headaches (she died, though possibly of a brain haemorrhage rather than of the wine). The two sisters’ books, then, allow us to glimpse a number of things about their world: the interconnectedness of aristocratic families and the value they placed on hospitality and domestic ceremony, but also the shock of the Civil War and the pains and perplexities to which even the most privileged households might be subject, along with a belief that appropriate recipes and remedies could alleviate those.