Oh! What a lovely pre-war: 1920s and 1930s food was about more than stodge and luncheon meat

Christopher Hirst gives us a taste of the past

We tend to look back on the first half of the 20th century as a culinary wasteland of luncheon meat, processed cheese and tinned peaches. However, two recently reissued books may demolish our presumptions about the mediocre quality of pre-war food. First published in 1991, Arabella Boxer's Book of English Food disinters intriguing recipes ranging from garden nectar ("an elegant variation of borscht") to veal with cucumbers, from two-tier lemon pudding to fried-cheese sandwiches ("very good and very unusual").

In her introduction, Boxer points out: "Few people today seem aware that a discreet revolution in food took place in the Twenties and Thirties… The criterion of good food was subtlety of flavour and contrast, combined with that perfection of simplicity, which is the hardest thing to achieve." These carefully balanced dishes were initially enjoyed by "the moneyed upper classes and the intelligentsia", though their influence percolated through other social strata.

Two significant sources for Boxer were Lady Sysonby's Cook Book (1935), written by the wife of a royal courtier, and Simple French Cooking for English Homes (1923) by the restaurateur X Marcel Boulestin. We learn that his "simple, homely" recipes, such as cold fillets of sole with horseradish sauce, were "far removed from the haute cuisine served in his restaurant". The enterprise that bore his name continued until 1994, though in a depressing reversal a Pizza Hut now occupies the site of this temple of gastronomy.

Few recipes have come down from the legion of cooks who staffed the kitchens in homes both stately and suburban. A legendary asparagus ice was made by a Mrs Woodman, who cooked for the aristocratic Mildmay family in Devon, but she refused to divulge the recipe even to the Queen Mother. "Yer husband asked me for that," she said, "but I wouldn't tell him." It remains a tantalising mystery.

I tried one of Boxer's recipes from a less elevated source – a "truly delicious" watercress salad that appears in Dorothy Hartley's Food in England, a charming and authoritative history of our domestic cuisine. Consisting of successive layers of sliced tomato, shredded parsley, cold, sliced potato and young sprigs of watercress, the salad was light and refreshing, but fulfilled Boxer's description of the era's food as "essentially bland in flavour, although accompanying sauces are often sharp, sour or spicy". (In my view, it would have been improved by the inclusion of a few anchovy fillets.) My second sampling, a salad of iced, skinned cherry tomatoes in a creamy horseradish sauce, which originally appeared in a 1936 volume with the unambiguous title Food for the Greedy, was a real discovery, a perfect partner for cold roast beef.

Finally, I tried vermicelli soufflé, a curious lunch dish of unknown provenance ("I have had the recipe for many years but also have forgotten the source"). Containing skinned tomatoes fried in butter, grated Parmesan and a few strands of cooked vermicelli, the result is tasty with an interesting texture from the pasta strands. However, I would be wary of serving it to guests. You would have to spend some time explaining this collision of food cultures. Not quite French and not quite Italian, it seems to be an early example of the English fondness for bastardising foreign dishes. My guess is that it derives from the boho-intellectual end of Boxer's spectrum. One could imagine it being a speciality of a Hampstead bistro illuminated by candles stuck in straw-wrapped Chianti bottles.

Coincidental with the reappearance of Boxer's book, an American reissue does a similar job. First published in 1947, At Home on the Range by Margaret Yardley Potter is a one-woman broadside against the anaemic cuisine of Middle America. Despite being a Philadelphian grandee, Potter was a culinary adventurer half a century before it became fashionable. Her recipes encompass Chesapeake bouillabaisse ("the best fish soup this side of Marseille"), calf's-head cheese (a "grand hot-weather snack"), and calf's brain with black butter.

Potter defies the ingrained American prejudice against British food with steak-and-kidney pie and veal-and-ham pie (from "the chef of a small English liner"). Her recipe for deep-fried tripe is much the same as one in The Complete Nose to Tail by Fergus Henderson, who will doubtless relish her cheery directions for washing tripe: "Cover with fresh water and rub it between your hands just as though scrubbing the bath towel it so much resembles. This is more fun than it sounds."

At the heart of her book are items of Americana including a pre-Civil War recipe for tomato ketchup ("so delightfully different from the bought, bright-red stuff"), bathing-suit sandwiches (lettuce, tomatoes, onion rings and anchovies in rye bread), and hashed brown potatoes, which Potter recalls cooking on the beach during "young summer days" to the accompaniment of "By the Beautiful Sea", a song that evokes the Twenties in Some Like It Hot.

Since recipes are given only in outline as part of the narrative, At Home on the Range is better for reading than using in the kitchen. However, a dozen dishes have been given orthodox recipes by Potter's great-granddaughter Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love (made into a film starring Julia Roberts), who organised the reissue. They include sour-milk muffins, kidney stew (an old Philly favourite requiring "one large or two small beef kidneys"), and a fruitcake of industrial dimensions ("fills eight standard loaf tins").

I tried a 200-year-old recipe for quick tea cookies. These are little, spicy, spongy biscuits best eaten warm. Potter's great-grandmother maintained that they "can be mixed and baked while the kettle is coming to the boil for an unexpected guest's cup of tea and go equally well with a glass of sherry". It was more likely to be the latter with Potter, who was not averse to a drink. Her version of eggnog, which incorporates six egg yolks, sugar, two quarts of milk, one pint of rye whiskey, one tablespoon of brandy and six whipped egg whites, delivers the Jazz Age in a glass.

Quick Tea Cookies

Cream together 2 tablespoons brown sugar and 2 tablespoons softened butter.

Add 1 well-beaten egg, 60g sifted plain flour, one pinch salt and cinnamon, two pinches nutmeg. Beat well.

Drop small, flattened spoonfuls of the mixture well apart on baking parchment. Cook on oven tray for 8 mins at 220C

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor