Cooking up the past: The meals my grandfather longed for as a prisoner of war

As a prisoner of war, Alice Marshall's grandfather kept a notebook listing the foods he missed. So she decided to remember him by creating the meals of his dreams.

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

When Alice Marshall discovered a notebook that belonged to her grandfather, she was transported to his dreams during one of the darkest episodes of the Second World War. Daniel Ernest Baker was among thousands of Allied prisoners of war who, in 1945, were forcibly marched west from their camps to flee the Soviet offensive. For 31 days, he walked 400 miles through one of the harshest winters for decades. Starving and bruised, he thought of two things: his young wife; and the food he wished he were eating.

"Hot pork pie with chips and HP Sauce... Milk puddings with jam... Spaghetti and tomatoes on toast." Baker had scrawled a wish-list of dozens of dishes, the childlike fantasies of a malnourished man. But for more than 65 years, the pages remained locked in a case at his home in Derbyshire. After Baker's death at age 92, his family opened the case. For Marshall, 29, the notebook offered a new insight into the life of the man she knew as Granddad. But it was also an invitation. She decided to remember him by cooking the meals of his dreams.

"A lot of people ask if he ever got to eat all the dishes when he got home after the war," Marshall says in a friend's kitchen near her home in Brighton. "I don't know the answer, but I like to think he did. He wasn't dreaming about anything exotic, just the sort of things he liked for his dinner."

Tripe and onions is the first dish Baker listed under "suppers", in the section of his notebook headed: "Good scoffs that I intend to appreciate in the near future." On later pages, he offers more detail, including scrawled "tit-bit recipes" for chocolate porridge, stuffed onion, and roasted cheese potatoes. For Marshall, who has recruited her friend Jez Slater as sous-chef to her wartime cooking project, tripe was one of the less appetising items on the menu. "I don't think we deliberately shied away from it," she says. "But we started with the dishes we knew we could do." Slater adds: "We're also quite poor."

Marshall, a library cataloguer, paid £1.68 for 420g of ox tripe from Lancashire (via Morrisons, and a bovine stomach). It now sits, unsheathed and rinsed, on the kitchen table, glistening and wobbling under the lights. To make it edible, it will need to be simmered in milk with onions for almost an hour.

The food on the table today, which also includes the ingredients for mash and red cabbage, as well as jam roly-poly with Bird's Custard, would have been hard to imagine for Baker. Elsewhere in his notebook, the army glider pilot detailed some of the hardships of the notorious 1945 marches. Around 80,000 prisoners were evacuated from camps in modern-day Poland and the Czech Republic to western Germany. More than 2,000 men walked with Baker from Stalag VIII-C camp in Sagan (now Zagan in Poland) to Stalag IX-B in Bad Orb, a spa town in central Germany. His notes show they sometimes clocked up 18 miles a day, sleeping in forests, barns and factory yards. Temperatures that winter dropped to as low as -25C and inmates were offered only threadbare army coats for warmth. In total, as many as 3,500 inmates are believed to have died.

Below the log, Baker noted his rations for the entire march. Occupying just five lines of the page, the list includes eight biscuits, 4.5lb of sausage, and an ounce of lard. "He once told me he sneaked into a cowshed one night and ate the rotten cabbage they had been given, just to keep going," recalls Jill Tivey, Baker's daughter and Marshall's aunt. "I think he wrote the lists because he was so hungry that all he could think about was food."

The tripe simmering and thickening, and with the potatoes on the boil, Marshall starts mixing the dough for the roly-poly. Slater juggles pans of vegetables and the slowly reducing mass of milky offal. Marshall grew up in Brighton and saw her grandfather only infrequently before he died of pneumonia just before Christmas 2010. She remembers him as a man of simple tastes. "He could be a little bit grumpy," she recalls, laughing. "What he really liked doing was taking the dog for a walk, giving his grandchildren humbugs, and going down to the Legion for a pint of Guinness with his mates."

Tivey remembers dinners during her childhood in the village of Melbourne, about eight miles south of Derby. Before and after the war, Baker worked there, at a factory making nighties and bed sheets. "We were quite old-fashioned and always ate English food – just meat and two veg," says Tivey, who first discovered the notebook.

Baker had to learn to live alone for the 16 years after his wife, Helena Tivey, died. "Dad loved his tripe and onions and when Mum died he asked me how to make it, so I showed him," Tivey says. The couple had met in 1941, when Baker was learning to fly army gliders at the former Burnaston Airfield near Melbourne. Baker would impress her by flying over the pub next to her house and, family lore goes, dropping hankies carrying messages. It won him free beers at the pub, and Helena's hand. They married a year later when Baker was on weekend leave.

Baker was captured at the Battle of Arnhem in 1944. He had landed his giant Horsa glider, which could carry up to 30 troops, but was later injured by shrapnel, and eventually taken to Sagan. Days later, Helena received a telegram with the news that Baker was missing. After two months in which she feared the worst, a letter arrived carrying a transcript of a message from Baker which had been broadcast on German radio. Tivey discovered it alongside Baker's notebook. "My own darling wife," it reads. "Fit and well. Thinking of you every moment, dearest. Keep smiling. Remember me to all. Love and kisses sweetheart DON [Dan]".

"He didn't use to say things like that," says Marshall, who is now laying the table after putting her roly-poly into the oven. "But maybe he was thinking them." Slater, also 29, who met Marshall at university in London, is tending to the red cabbage. The friends began their cookery project not long after Baker's death, starting with a bacon-and-egg pie ("a bit salty") and a chocolate bread-and-butter pudding. Marshall admits to having been a keen if not proficient cook. Her project has taught her about more than just her grandfather. "I've got a rolling pin but I used it to prop the window open," she says. "But now I can make really nice pies."

The tripe has taken on a sufficiently gloopy form to be spooned on to our plates, alongside the mash and the cabbage. It's only now Marshall and Slater admit to having done a trial run a few days earlier. "We cheated and got pizza before in case it was disgusting," Slater says, adding: "It was." We look at each other, fill our forks, and eat...

"Mmm," Marshall says. "It's nice!" She apologises to Slater for sounding so surprised. He, being today's cook, is modest. "It tastes like squid cooked in bread sauce but with an odd, fatty texture," he says, chewing. There's something of the sea about a cow's stomach, it turns out. The strips of almost translucent meat have little texture after their hot milk bath and, with the mashed potatoes, it's almost like eating a rather nice fish pie.

Our plates empty; it's roly-poly time. Despite its slightly seal-pup-like deformity (the dough had stuck as Marshall tried to roll it) it is a sweet triumph of stodge with crispy edges, bound with custard. There's little wonder Baker craved food such as this. "There's something about reading his notebook for the first time that gets you," Slater says. "I think it means quite a lot to be able to fulfil his wishes." Marshall plans to invite her mother, Janet, and Aunt Jill for her next meal, cooked in her grandfather's honour. In the meantime, we raise a glass to Daniel Ernest Baker, survivor, devoted husband, and hungry dreamer. "Thanks, Granddad," Marshall says.

Comments