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
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

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    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...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?