Good Food Again
The story of post-war English food told through the arts. Words by Vida Adamczewski and Deirdre Tynan.
There is an opinion which has become something close to an orthodoxy in recent times, that the food of England was grey and dour, boiled and bland until, like the transformation of the gothic castle at the end of Beauty and the Beast, sunbeams shone through the shutters and England’s cuisine was transformed by the pen of Elizabeth David. ‘To this day, it is routinely assumed that David and David alone saved the British from their own dreadful post-war food,’ writes Diane Perkiss, in her new history English Food, before going onto dispute this in very strong terms. Of course, there is actually some truth to the idea: the post-war food of England was a culinary nadir in the history of this country, and undoubtedly David shifted cultural capital from haute-French cuisine to the food of the Mediterranean peasantry — simple food, good ingredients, no malarkey — that has gone onto influence everything from the offal cooking at St. John to every time you see a tomato cut up on a plate with salt and olive oil for £10 (note: this price will be incorrect by the time this article is published).
That strand of history is told so well by Lewis Bassett on the Full English podcast (and do listen to new episodes to keep up with why food inflation is happening) but we must remember that like the 1960s Swinging London revolution, which was mostly confined to a few thousand upper-middle class kids who lived in Chelsea, the Elizabeth David revolution didn’t happen for everyone in the country, and certainly not at the same time. There are other strands of history, ones as Vida Adamczewski writes in today’s newsletter, ‘diverge along lines of class, race, religion, and migration.’ We can all agree that something happened to English food after the war, but it happened for different people, at different speeds and for different reasons.
Over the next few weeks, Vittles will be running a series of essays looking at how food changed after the Second World War, told through different artistic mediums — literature, painting, design — all offering alternate answers to why English food changed. It will also challenge the idea, prevalent among many food writers after the war, that there was something inherently bad about English food culturally rather than it being a victim of economic circumstances. Today’s newsletter is our two parter opener. Please do stick around for a well timed list at the end by Deirdre Tynan. JN
Good Food Again: Culinary Imagination in Post-war English Novels, by Vida Adamczewski
‘There has been talk of cream’ ~ Ambrose Heath, Good Food Again
The government’s response to depleted food stocks during the Second World War was a system of strict rationing, predominantly affecting the working and middle classes living in cities. While the landowning and wealthy classes had access to alternative off-ration food sources, such as game meat and abundant home-grown vegetables, food subsidies and controlled prices meant most people lived off their allotted rations, supplemented with other foodstuffs, many of which had become inaccessibly expensive or needed to be grown at home. Despite this, rationing was still embraced in the war years themselves, but in the period after war ended, people became frustrated and hungry for something more.
Ambrose Heath was a prolific food writer who embraced the challenge of rationing, publishing 29 cookbooks between 1939 and 1945. His book Good Food Again was published in 1950, five years after the manuscript’s completion. When Heath wrote his introduction to the book, rationing in Britain was ongoing, even though the war had ended five years prior (meat would only come off ration in 1954). Yet the book is crammed with affordable, seasonal dishes that would be at home in many recipe books today: a delicious sage-scented turnip soup with cheese; eggs baked in peppery potato nests; a ‘Sailor’s omelette’ with anchovies and cayenne; a beetroot and mint salad. Writing to disheartened middle-class cooks, Heath sought to revive English kitchens with his recipes.
In the introduction to Good Food Again, Heath tells a hopeful story for English bellies. He writes that:
[During the war] feeding, as is right in times of such emergency, took the place of eating and the pleasures of the kitchen had to be abandoned for the pains of the shopping-queue.
He goes on:
By the time the war had done with us […] many had forgotten what they knew about good eating, many more had grown up without an idea about it, and yet never have there been so many intelligent people possessed by an absolute craving for the good things of the table.
Heath’s introduction amounts to a declaration of faith in the ability of English cooks: crucially, he positions bad cooking as a product of the war’s deprivations, rather than our inevitable fate. He is confident that there is an appetite for good food in England – all that is needed is a little culinary imagination. And it is in the novels of the post-war era that this imagination and appetite can be found.
The novels of Barbara Pym, H. E. Bates, Muriel Spark and Sam Selvon are full of food. English food. In an article for the TLS, Laura Freeman calls these books ‘Hungry Novels’, characterised by the attention their authors pay to the food characters eat. Freeman notes the wistfulness of these novels; within that wistfulness, I see the remembrance of good food, the savouring of it, and the desire for it again. These stories understand what it means to eat well.
Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952) brims with culinary curiosity and discernment. Even very plain meals are described precisely, with attention paid to the interaction of flavours and textures. Pym wasn’t an especially talented or adventurous cook herself (her diaries document her daily shopping lists and menus) and, similarly, her characters often eat simply. But Pym’s novels, by applying analytic acuity to cookery, and taking note of their characters’ tastes and palates, dignify the daily fare of post-war middle-class English kitchens. It is this typicality that calls Laura Shapiro to note: ‘to read [Pym’s] novels… is to discover a revisionist history of mid-century British cooking’ (What She Ate, 2018).
In Excellent Women, Mildred makes a salad for Rocky, the dashing man from the flat downstairs:
I washed a lettuce and dressed it with a little of my hoarded olive oil and some salt. I also had a camembert cheese, a fresh loaf and a bowl of greengages for dessert. It seemed an idyllic sort of meal that ought to have been eaten in the open air, with a bottle of wine and what is known as ‘good’ conversation.
Excellent Women was published three years before Elizabeth David chastised English cooks for ‘drowning [salads] in vinegar and chemical dressings’ in her book Summer Cooking (1955). But Mildred’s supper is subtle. By basking in each of her simple and savoured ingredients, Mildred transcends austerity and conjures a bucolic and sophisticated scene for herself and her guest. Unlocking this sensuality with a sparse larder is the essence of culinary imagination.
In Pym’s first novel Some Tame Gazelle (1950), Harriet and Belinda eat thoughtfully, too. Through them (or rather, through Pym), typical beige English fare is reframed, its blandness transposed to delicacy. Take this passage, in which Belinda muses on the ‘established ritual’ of serving ‘boiled chicken smothered in white sauce’ to the new young curate:
The coldness, the whiteness, the muffling with sauce, perhaps even the sharpness added by the slices of lemon, there was something appropriate here, even if Belinda could not see exactly what it was.
This is the first meal in the novel and, as it is eaten, the dynamics between the spinster sisters are made clear. Harriet, ever excitable and ‘especially given to cherishing young clergy’, gives the curate ‘all the best white meat’. Belinda, the ruminative and disapproving older sister, flinches as her sister demonstrates for the curate how to gnaw a chicken bone, the ‘white sauce… beginning to smear itself on her face’ as she does so.
Food is such a central aspect of Pym’s writing that Honor Wyatt and Barbara’s sister, Hilary Pym, compiled a cookery book entitled À La Pym (1988), consisting of recipes for the meals served or mentioned in her novels; the book even includes some of Barbara’s own recipes. One of these, for ‘Maschler pudding’ – a weakly flavoured milk jelly – is pointedly named after Pym’s editor, Thomas Maschler, who had turned down one of her novels. For John Bayley, this pudding is a rare moment of culinary ‘sharpness’ in Pym’s personal diaries, though her novels consistently use food to undercut and send up English middle-class manners.
When bad cooks appear in the post-war novels, particularly those of Bates and Pym, they do not represent a moral failing, nor a national or cultural trait, but instead reveal an abstemious or puritanical character. In Some Tame Gazelle, Pym writes dubiously of a dinner at the archdeacon’s home which features ‘stringy cabbage’; in Excellent Women, Mildred, going for dinner at the vicarage, observes that
Julian and Winifred, as is often the way with good, unworldly people, hardly noticed what they ate or drank, so that a meal with them was a doubtful pleasure. Mrs Jubb, who might have been quite a good cook with any encouragement, must have lost heart long ago.
Pym found food revealing of character, but didn’t judge her protagonists for eating badly. Although it is true that Pym’s characters sometimes eat half a tin of baked beans, undressed tomatoes or unseasoned cod, these lonely meals are not necessarily signs of poor cooking. The meals are described wryly, and often follow some heartbreak or disappointment. In Excellent Women, Mildred muses that while she likes food, she finds it ‘a bother cooking just for [herself]’, hinting at her larger loneliness, and thinks dejectedly of the ‘half-used tin of baked beans; no doubt [she will] be seeing that again tomorrow.’ I notice that the food I eat alone starkly reflects my self-worth, too: heartbroken at university, I retreated to my room to nibble dry Weetabix and drink weak tea brewed with water from the hot tap. Even good cooks make meals that are soggy, bland and unsatisfying when they feel it is apt. It seems to me that, if your mood plays out in your meals, it is not a sign of bad taste, but of an intimate and personal relationship with eating. We might give more credit to Pym’s excellent women.
Post-war literature also produced one of England’s most famous cooks: Ma Larkin. As readers of Bates’ The Darling Buds of May (1958) – or viewers of the two popular TV series based on his books – will know, Ma’s table is laden with mountainous portions of unpretentious English dishes such as fish and chips, kippers, roast beef and sticky buns. Plates (and glasses) are refreshed at every hour of the day and night, so no one ever wants for nothing. Preparing a Sunday roast, Ma asks her sprawling family: ‘What sort of vegetables do you fancy? Asparagus? I got green peas and new potatoes but shout if you want anything different.’ Her children cheerfully request brown braised onions, Yorkshire pudding, baked potatoes. ‘Fair enough,’ Ma says, ‘as long as we know.’ When the family is not eating, their time is spent revelling in the countryside, making love and charming tax inspectors. Everything is just ‘perfick’.
Ma Larkin’s kitchen is a fantasy. Even post-rationing, her lashings of Jersey cream and untapped access to meat, butter, sugar and eggs are a far cry from the skimpy ingredients that most people could afford. Even as landowners with a farm from which food could be sourced, no family in England would have as much grub as this. But the Larkin novels are not to be read as historical fact; Bates instead captures a fantasy of hunger being sated and cooking being easy, and in doing so shows that the English know what it takes to make food good if they have the resources. Ma’s bacchanalian feasts and their enduring popularity are enthusiastic evidence of, and fuel for, that culinary imagination that Ambrose Heath spoke of. The Larkins are the epitome of life lived in pursuit of pleasure rather than duty: an attractive proposition to a society recovering from the self-sacrifice of war. As Bates surmised, ‘the Larkins’ secret is in fact that they live as many of us would like to live if only we had the guts and nerve to flout the conventions.’
There are notable exceptions to the ‘Hungry Novel’ that deal with hunger and appetite in different ways. In the decades following the war, many middle-class people became ashamed of their appetite, mistaking hunger for gluttony. Having endured the privations of war, it seemed right that their bodies ought to be put under physical stress – to be denied pleasure – in order to be worthy. Propaganda around rationing had played on the concept of the ‘citizen-consumer’, whose purchases reflected their politics. The campaigns invoked patriotism and self-sacrifice, presenting moral succour as an alternative to actual food. In Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington (1988), Mrs Hawkins embarks on a diet that is triggered by a sense of inadequacy, perhaps a sense that she has not suffered enough in the war. Set in 1954, much of this novel is based on Spark’s own experiences of publishing in the 50s, and the fad diets that characterised the 60s and ensuing decades. We see Mrs Hawkins gaze around her office and notice that everyone has an affliction of some kind, including war wounds. She resolves that her affliction must be her ‘Rubens quality of flesh’ and begins an ‘eat half’ diet. She takes pride in her hunger pangs, and feels superior when she ‘[sneaks] a glance at the amount everyone else [is] eating’, which seems ‘enormous’. In this attitude, Mrs Hawkins speaks to the psychology of a generation of middle-class women who felt it was impressive to be thin.
While many of the post-war novels long for rationed foods, like cream and real butter, the British citizens who arrived from the Caribbean and elsewhere to help rebuild Britain dreamt of food that tasted like home. When Pym and Bates were writing their rural novels, Windrush novelists like Sam Selvon and George Lamming were describing their experiences of post-war London. The city is captured vividly through the food that was available to Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners (1956). In a new and often hostile city for migrants, the culinary imaginations of his characters lead them to foods that remind them of the Caribbean:
Before Jamaicans start to invade Brit’n, it was a hell of a thing to pick up a piece of saltfish anywhere, or to get thing like pepper sauce or dasheen or even garlic. It had a continental shop in one of the back streets in Soho, and that was the only place in the whole of London that you could have pick up a piece of fish. But now, papa! Shop all about start to take in stocks of foodstuffs what West Indians like, and today is no trouble at all to get saltfish and rice. This test who had the grocery… he find out what sort of things they like to eat, and he stock up with a lot of things like blackeye peas and red beans and pepper sauce, and tinned breadfruit and ochro and smoke herring…
England, and its culinary landscape, was changing. In her article ‘The Lonely Londoners: a new way of reading and writing the city’, Susheila Nasta argues that with his use of creolised dialect and lyrical observation, Selvon ‘forged a shift in perspective which would not only change the way the city was seen, but “Englishness” itself.’ Leaving the Caribbean, arriving in London, missing home: Selvon’s Lonely Londoners are in a state of constant yearning. Food, the places they buy and eat it, becomes a kind of third place – neither here nor there, but home, where they are safe, seen and satisfied.
It is impossible to describe a whole nation’s appetite succinctly – it always diverges along lines of class, race, religion, and migration. But contrary to the prejudice, famously espoused by Julia Child, that English people can’t, and have no desire to, cook, what I see in the post-war novels is a fascination with food, a deep yearning for accessible and economical dishes, and a culinary imagination that is still alive and kicking. Ambrose Heath was right – cooks living in Britain only needed a little ‘venturesomeness’. And they got it: from new ingredients and dishes introduced by migrant communities; from quality seasonal recipes; from garlic; and from giving simple meals a bit of thought. This is the lesson from Good Food Again to be taken into today’s kitchens: ‘bad’ food does not indicate a lack of taste or desire. Convenience food is not a sin. Eating under-nourishing food, or not enjoying the food you have access to, or in other ways not eating ‘well’ enough, is usually a symptom of hungry cooks making do in measly times, not hopeless ones.
Every mention of food and drink in Brideshead Revisited in chronological order, by Deirdre Tynan
In Evelyn Waugh’s preface to the 1959 edition of Brideshead Revisited – fourteen years after the novel first published – he revealed that the flow of food and beverages in the book was a serving of hedonism to contrast with his experiences of World War Two, and his sense of loss for the interwar years.
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.
Waugh said the book was a ‘souvenir of the Second War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties, with which it ostensibly deals.’ Yet, with the success of the TV series, Brideshead Revisited is also an icon of the 1980s that retains contemporary relevance by presenting a very British understanding of food, booze, and nostalgia.
The book’s food diary begins with beans, and after a parade of plenty, it ends with sandwiches thrown in a disused fountain and a cup of tea. The complete list of food and drink from the novel reads like a poem, or a dare to reconstruct a menu. In compiling the list, which is not a ranking but rather a record of the thread that runs through the story, I’ve allowed myself to make mistakes. ‘Soya beans and Basic English’ has rhythm when read aloud, but ‘Basic English’ in Waugh’s world refers to a style of communication not, as I had initially thought, a breakfast.
Soya beans and Basic English
Chapter 1: Claret cup and cucumber sandwiches – wine – basket of strawberries and a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey… the sweet golden wine – a very heavy meal of honey buns, anchovy toast and Fuller’s walnut cake – sherry – mulled claret – a plover’s egg – lobster Newburg – Cointreau – eggs and bacon, pickled walnuts and cheese… beer – champagne
Chapter 2: A glass of champagne – catch a fish – liquors – iced black coffees and charcoal biscuits – the spirit they mix with the pure grape of the Douro – crumpets – aperitif – Rhine wine – Four Alexandra cocktails (sweet creamy) – sherry – an omelette and a peach and a bottle of Vichy water – glass of hock – old Burgundy – coffee and liqueurs – green Chartreuse – Mavro-daphne Trifle – soda water – scrambled eggs and bitter marmalade
Chapter 3: Whiskey – nursery snacks – rusks, glasses of milk, bananas and so forth – lobsters – a white tasteless soup, over fried fillets of sole with a pink sauce, lamb cutlets propped against a cone of mashed potato, stewed pears in jelly standing on a kind of sponge cake – a three-course dinner was middle-class – a single chop – soup and three courses… fish, meat and savoury… meat, sweet, savoury – lobsters – the herring pond – the dishes were ornamental in appearance and regularly alternated in colour between red and white. They and the wine were equally tasteless – a glass of barley water – yeast – white raspberries – gin and vermouth – champagne – a peach – port
Chapter 4: The fruit always ripe – kitchen gardens in search of alpine strawberries and warm figs – Muscat grapes – a vast store of wine… vintages fifty years old – Bath Oliver biscuits [passage on wine tasting] – wine – beer and whiskey – wine – wine – lunch at Foyot’s – coffee and bread – garlic sausage, bread and a flask of Orvieto – the smell of garlic was overwhelming – Italian sweets – to Florian’s for coffee – I was drowning in honey, stingless – scampi – melon and prosciutto – hot cheese sandwiches and champagne cocktails at Harry’s bar
Chapter 5: Drinks a coffee in the morning at the Cardena café… drinks cocoa in the evening – a bottle of champagne – some wine – a jeroboam – a plate of eggs and bacon – tea – scrambled eggs and crumpet – among the rum bottles – a grog tray – a cocktail tray – gin and vermouth – whiskey – a glass of hot whiskey [for a cold] – tea and bread and butter – half a bottle of whiskey – a glass of port when we have guests
Chapter 1: Supper – cocktails – no sign of the cocktail tray – curious dishes of goat and sheep’s’ eyes – champagne – whiskey – port and the decanter was at once taken from the room – whiskey – my third glass of port… that hospitable tray in the library – eggs – scrambled eggs – port – Ciro’s…Paillard’s – soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in a white wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé… caviar aux blinis… a bottle of 1906 Montrachet… and with the duck, a Clos de Beze of 1904 – cognac – blinis – pigeon pie – cream and hot butter… caviar – a bit of chopped onion – the soup was delicious after the rich blinis, hot, thin, bitter, frothy – sole… simple and unobtrusive… thin slices of breast – first glass of the Clos de Beze – I rejoiced in the Burgundy… [in the intervening years it offered]… the same words of hope – cognac – after the duck came a salad of watercress and chicory in a faint mist of chives – soufflé – then came the cognac… clear and pale… a very thin tulip glass of modest size… brandy… a balloon the size of his head… stuff he put soda in at home… wheeled out the vast and mouldy bottle… treacly concoction
Chapter 2: The second magnum, and the fourth cigar – bread-and-milk – lunch at the Ritz
Chapter 3: Tall glasses of lager – the staple of France, Dubonnet – scented with cloves – two beer bottles – brandy – cognac – coffee – the Ritz Grill – meringues
Chapter 1: Iced water – sweets – a cocktail party – the morning orange juice – a whiskey and soda, not iced – whiskey and two jugs, one of iced water, the other of boiling water – a cup of hot chocolate – the life-sized effigy of a swan, moulded in ice and filled with caviar – glassy titbits – potted shrimp – an impoverished bar – toast – little balls of crumb – pools of spilt wine – some brandy drinking in the smoking-room – salmon kedgeree and cold Bradenham ham – Muscat grapes and cantaloupe – whisky and tepid water… a nip of champagne – wine – champagne – wine – some tea or something – beef steak – cocktails – trays of glasses
Chapter 2: Luncheon – smell of gin and cigarette-ends
Chapter 3: Lime-scented evening – brandy-butter and the Carlsbad plums – port
Chapter 4: Hot oil and garlic and stale wine
Chapter 5: Champagne
Sandwiches – tea
Vida Adamczewski is a writer from Peckham whose writing has appeared in Ambit Magazine, Document Journal, Fem Zine and The Byline Times. She received the UEA New Forms Award 2022 from the National Centre for Writing for her lyric play, Amphibian.
Deirdre Tynan is a writer based in Jaén, Spain. She posts lists at:
Vittles is edited by Jonathan Nunn, Rebecca May Johnson, and Sharanya Deepak, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.
Looking forward to the investigation into the influence of America, fast food and supermarkets which never made the cut for this piece
Fascinating! My hackles go up when anyone disparages English food. Reframing it in the context of post-war healing, yearning and relearning is very interesting.