18. We are what we eat (with added sago)

My memories of food during and at the end of WW2 are a bit hazy, but I do know that there was not much of it. Everything was grown in the UK or Britain as we called it then. Every bit of available land was used to grow vegetables. Allotments and market gardens were common.

The shortages made domestic cooking limited. The weekly routine was dominated by the Sunday meal. If there was meat on a Sunday then there was always left-overs on a Monday, usually with chips. The ‘Sunday-joint’ was usually beef, often tough with gristle, and Yorkshire Pudding which mum could do quite well, although she went through a period of adding sultanas, which I didn’t like. The vegetables were peas, carrots, soggy cabbage and ‘mashed’ potatoes. I highlighted ‘mashed’ as for reasons I still cannot understand mum could never get the lumps out and they made me sit there gagging until I finished it. The rest of the week is a blank although I suspect mince and dumplings, pie and peas and fish and chips played their part. Delicacies like tripe, white pudding, black pudding, brawn and potted meat never appealed at the time, but I have tried all since with mixed opinions.

The idea of a three-course meal never occurred to us although we generally had a pudding. Puddings like jam roly-poly and treacle-tart were a delight, but the alternatives still give me nightmares: junket, blancmange, semolina, sago, tapioca and lumpy custard to name a few. Fruit consisted of apples, sometimes pears, but never oranges or bananas until well after the war. Everything was seasonal.

I should have reminded you, dear readers, that everything was ‘rationed’. Each householder had a book with coupons which had to be cut out with scissors. Each coupon entitled you to ‘so much’, bread, flour, sugar, butter, meat, confectionery, and so on. ‘So much’ meant very little.

Gradually of course, things improved with the import of food from abroad. Bananas almost caused riots when they first arrived, of course, beef from Argentina (known as ‘The Argentine’), and lamb from New Zealand. Chickens were for Christmas.

By and large there was no ‘eating out’. There were cafes, but they tended to be in or near railway stations or at the seaside and served mainly tea (not much coffee) and sticky buns. Restaurants had been reserved for the well to do. Take-away did not exist EXCEPT for fish and chip shops. Whether being near a fishing port made a difference or not, we had and still have, more than our fair share of these. ‘Fish and chips’ usually meant Cod and Chips, but Haddock and Rock-salmon were on offer. I believe Rock-salmon was dogfish by a posher name and I admit I have not seen it for some time. Later fish-cakes, pies and sausages appeared, but deep-fried Mars-Bars never took off round here.

Being a port, I suppose, there was always one Chinese Restaurant in the town, but it was not until the late ‘50s that they became common in town and cities, and strictly eat-in at the time. The first burger-bar (Wimpy) arrived at about the same time. Take-aways came later as did Indian restaurants outside major cities.

Gastro-Pubs are an invention of the late 20th century. The profit on drink is not great and particularly since the rise of bargain booze in supermarkets, the traditional pub has been in decline (See ‘Closed pubs’ on my website). Some pubs have sold crisps, nuts, pork scratchings and sometimes pies for a long time, but sit-down meals are fairly recent and hugely profit-making, particularly deserts, and the wine!

The food itself has changed: curry, chilli, strawberries in winter, pizza, king-prawns, farmed salmon, farmed mushrooms especially the exotic ones, gourmet-burgers, pasta, couscous and quinoa are quite new to our restaurants, pubs and even supermarket shelves.

Cooking, with microwaves and pre-prepared meals, along with deep freezing, freeze-drying and the plethora of TV cookery programmes has also changed the way we eat at home.

Drinking at home usually consisted of bottled beer (later cans of beer/lager), sherry (Cyprus and other), port and spirits at Christmas and (up here) New Year. New Year on Tyneside was, back then, but alas no longer, much like Hogmanay over the border. The ‘man of the house’ was sent outside before midnight and knocked to be admitted as THE FIRST FOOT (of the year). He must have with him: a silver coin, for wealth, a piece of coal, for warmth, and a piece of food (usually Christmas cake), for … well food. At that point everybody had a drink and then moved off on foot to visit all their friends and neighbours, who were expected to be well stocked with drink, until the early morning; then home to sleep it off. Everything was closed on New Year’s Day.

When I left Tyneside in 1966 there were very few pubs selling ‘real ale’. The trend was to ‘keg’ beer which was pasteurised in sealed barrels and pumped to the taps using carbon dioxide under pressure. It lasted longer and needed less skill by the publican. Indeed for a time some brewers had vast tanks in the cellar filled by beer-tankers like those delivering petrol to garages. Since it was all we knew, we put up with it. Initially it was brewed locally as the real ale had been, but once pasteurised it could be moved anywhere and national brewers like Whitbread, Worthington, Bass and Scottish and Newcastle, produced brand after brand of almost identical beers. Lagers ‘took off’ at about the same time and created quite a dent in the traditional beer market with their image of continental holidays and louche Australians.

At about this time home-brew became popular and whether there is a connection or not, some brewers began to reinstall traditional hand-pulled ale in their pubs. Initially this seemed to attract the aficionado who knew his fuggles, but now there are pubs with 12 hand-pulls and even the tied pubs offer real-ale among their kegs and lagers.

Beer is only part of the story. Spirits on offer at one time were whisky (blended), gin and rum, vodka came later. They were always more expensive than beer. Ladies, once rare in pubs, were attracted by drinks like Pony, Babycham, Snowballs and Sherries of all degrees of dry/sweetness and fancy stemmed glasses. The men’s bar and the lounge were combined. The modern pub was born with its single-malts, alco-pops, fruit beers, strong lagers, mixers, ‘shots’, over-priced wines, satellite TV, fruit machines, jukeboxes, children, dogs, wi-fi and of course food.

Finally there is coffee. It goes without saying, but that won’t stop me, that ‘proper’ coffee was not available to us and the nearest we got was a substitute liquid called Camp Coffee, before instant coffee reached us. What Camp Coffee was made from is anyone’s guess, but it was an acquired taste. Coffee from the bean is difficult to get right in the home. It involves always having fresh beans, grinding to order, and then dissolving the coffee. Percolators, cafetieres and filters have never proved successful for me. Again in the ‘50s came the ‘coffee bar’; a café which along with a pseudo-American décor, made coffee from a hissing, steaming, stainless-steel magic machine. Believe me that from that moment on coffee has got no better! There has been more twaddle written about coffee than about any drink (except perhaps single-malt whisky). It’s made with ground coffee beans and water: you can add hot milk and froth if you wish to pay for air. That’s it! The proportion of the three constituents can be varied and syrups and cocoa powder added to taste, but that’s it! You pay more than it’s worth and a barista will perform, but it’s just all showbiz and big business.

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