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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Voices
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

News
i100
Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say

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

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album