Heritage At Home

By Val Hewson

It’s been a while since our last post, and the reason for the silence is that we’ve been working on an exhibition for the 2021 Heritage Open Days festival. The theme this year is ‘Edible England’ and so our exhibition is of vintage recipe books. Sheffield Libraries and Archives have been kind enough to host it for us (and to contribute three wonderful books). The exhibition can be visited at any time during opening hours in the Central Lending Library on Surrey Street until 1 October.

Our Heritage At Home exhibition of recipe books illustrates the everyday, private and individual heritage we all have. A heritage which is easily overlooked but which, when we examine it, makes us each think about what we carry from the past into the future.

Many of the books were collected simply by asking around in Sheffield. Some came from local charity shops, and a few via eBay. Most people we spoke to – even those who claimed to be uninterested in cooking – turned out to have recipe books tucked away. Enthusiasts had whole bookcases. We didn’t set out to find classics or to cover different cuisines or periods. We wanted random, not representative. What had survived? How and why?

The variety is surprising. Most of the books are dated between about 1890 and 1970. There are instruction manuals for stoves; booklets given away by food manufacturers promoting their products or as gimmicks by newspapers; domestic encyclopaedias of the sort presented to brides; and books by the Delias and Nigellas of their day, now almost forgotten. (The exception is Mrs Beeton – her book turned up more often than any other, in reprint editions.) Perhaps most interesting are the homemade books, in which recipes have been handwritten or typed or cut from magazines or food packaging.    


Many of the books are worn – a few almost to destruction – and this may be not so much the effect of time as of use. There are mysterious stains where something has dripped or overflowed and pages still gritty with flour, sugar, salt. Occasionally scraps of paper are tucked inside, presumably snatched up to mark a page and then forgotten. In the margins there are handwritten reminders, explanations, comments. And there is the personal – names and addresses and sometimes inscriptions, for example, from the husband who gave his wife a Mrs Beeton: ‘’To my wife on this final sign of our getting a home. 1.10.27. LHS.‘

The books tell us about the societies which produced them. They all address themselves to women, whose vocation is unquestionably homemaking. Men appear only occasionally in illustrations, happily consuming delicious food. Class is apparent too: the books range, in terms of style, ingredients and price, from the humble, through the aspirational, to the superior.    

And there are fashions in food. The older a book, the more pudding recipes it seems to have. The 1950s was clearly a time for fantastically decorated ‘occasion cakes’ (calling for skill and time), while in the 1960s food becomes more ‘adventurous’. Ingredients too change over time: lard is a staple; sugar and salt are liberally used; and fruit and vegetables are both traditional and seasonal.

There are some recipes for curry and spaghetti, but on the whole cuisines from other countries do not feature. There is only one vegetarian recipe book, dating from the 1930s and using the somehow unattractive term ‘non-flesh cookery’.    

The design of the books is revealing too: Arts Nouveau and Deco; the decorous 1950s and the bolder 1960s; line drawings giving way to indistinct black and white photography and then often garish colour plates, which are the beginnings of ‘food styling’. 

What we cannot see in the books are the memories they bear. Hand a few books round a group and they readily recall tastes, smells, textures – and then incidents and people. When we collected books from people’s homes, we were sometimes told that they are still used, and sometimes that they just sit on shelves, but either way in memory of a life that is past.

When you visit Heritage At Home, you’ll find cards on which you can leave a favourite recipe or a memory about food.

During the Heritage Open Days festival, from 10 to 19 September, we will be posting blogs about food in books – in the work of Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and P G Wodehouse, in school stories with midnight feasts every term and in detective stories where you really cannot be sure what is in your dinner. And we will tell you about the very special recipe books of Priscilla Haslehurst and the Countesses of Arundel and Kent.

In the meantime, here is a recipe from Over 120 Ways of Using Bread for Tasty and Delightful Dishes (Millers’ Mutual Association, 1934).

4 thoughts on “Heritage At Home

  1. What a wealth you’ve tapped into here! You make little reference to UK wartime recipe books and more general advice to cooks from the period. We still have some of my mother’s, a newly wed in wartime. I expect they’ll feature well in the exhibition though.

    I too have the Bero book shown here, plus several more editions of it from other years. They are still my reach-for books for the many items they cover when, for anything else, I search first on the internet, bypassing my rows of 60s – 2000s books.

    A shame the exhibition is only till beginning October. It deserves longer and much publicity.

    Every success!

    • Thank you for this. The books on show are what we found and the war didn’t come up much. We did find a Ministry of Food ABC of Cookery book, but I just couldn’t cram it inside the cabinet so decided not to show it. I do write off and on about cookery and domestic books so will probably feature it then. We did include, though it’s not shown here, a book called Living on the Country. This was published in Lagos and shows how to substitute local ingredients for all the familiar ones impossible to get from the UK in wartime and post-war rationing.

      There are four Be-Ro books in the exhibition. I was interested to see that Be-Ro seems very familiar in the North and Midlands but less so in the South. I remember my mother having the one shown in the blog and when I showed the four to some neighbours, they all said how they were so good at teaching you basic techniques which you could then apply to different cakes, pies etc.

  2. This exhibition sounds well worth the voyage! The richness of the associations must have been very impressive to the organisers. My mother started to copy recipes into her own hardback exercise book on her marriage and we still like the Christmas cake recipe that allowed for a shortage of dried fruit in wartime and substituted carrot. Our author, Angela Thirkell, only shows limited interest in food in her novels: for a dinner party (cooked by a family member rather than Cook) “the minced and steamed cock was turned out of its basin and covered with a very professional sauce, the beans, well tossed in butter, were dished up” and there is “chopped parsley on the young potatoes”. However the amateur cooks have previously eaten sausages “toasted at the kitchen fire, letting their juice fall into a pan” which is then used to frizzle pieces of bread till they are crisp. There are quite frequent references to sherry, wine and port, though: maybe not a good idea for a future exhibition in the current climate?

    • The Heritage At Home exhibition has been a joy to put together. I am not a cook but have found so much in the books we collected about social attitudes, design, diet and much more. The handwritten, personal recipe books like your mother’s were particularly interesting, as were the comments and notes – like ‘NO! Do not use!’ and ‘Good with a bottle of red wine’ – written in the printed books.

      My mum’s Christmas cake recipe came from the Be-Ro book shown in the blog, and seeing the book brought back memories for me. And one of the books I’ve not yet shown on the blog is a wartime volume published in Lagos and including very familiar British recipes made with local ingredients because of difficulty in getting stores from ‘Home’.

      It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Angela Thirkell was not much interested in cooking!

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