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

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