When I spotted a 1932 first edition of Ambrose Heath’s Good Food, illustrated by Eric Ravilious‘ good friend Edward Bawden, I knew it had to come home with me. I’m not the sort of person who is especially excited by cook books; I enjoy cooking and baking, but the faff of finding recipes, cobbling together all of the ingredients, fiddling about with various pots and pans and then doing the colossal amounts of washing up afterwards often puts me off. When I cook, I like to keep things simple. I can’t be doing with foams and purees and jus; the likes of Heston Blumenthal have their place, I’m sure, but it’s certainly not in my kitchen! As such, Ambrose Heath endeared himself to me from the very first lines of Good Food; his mentions of ‘easy’ and ‘discerning amateur’ let me know that I was on safe ground. When I saw that recipes were arranged seasonally according to which ingredients were available during each month, I was sold. With the world being a much smaller place these days than in 1932 and most foods being available all year round, it’s difficult to know what is in season when, and I do prefer to eat locally sourced food where possible. Ambrose tackles this problem by giving a handy list at the start of each month, including ‘Empire Imported Fresh Fruit’, which is a lovely period touch.
When I got Good Food home, my initial intention was merely to read it and enjoy it from a social history perspective. I was intrigued to find out what sorts of foods were popular in the 1930s, what kinds of cooking equipment people had, and what a typical dinner menu of the period would be. I wasn’t disappointed; Heath has a wonderfully engaging and enthusiastic writing style, and reading Good Food feels more like reading something along the lines of the Diary of a Provincial Lady: ‘I feel confident that this slight collection of recipes gathered from so many diverse sources will interest and be useful to at least two sorts of people, if it comes, which I hope it will, into their hands. The first are those whom our present distress has forced to take, shall we say, a more active interest in the affairs of the kitchen. They will perhaps be surprised and delighted to find that some of their old friends are still within culinary reach.’ There are plenty of references throughout to limited means and people having to learn to cook thanks to no longer having servants, living alone, or living in flats with only ‘one ring burner’, etc, and I thought that it was both refreshing to hear this candour as well as illuminating to understand just how everyday-life-changing the societal changes after WWI were. I was mostly, however, surprised by how alien so many of the recipes were to me. Casserole of Pigeons, anyone? Maybe some Eggs a la Tripe? Or perhaps I could tempt you with Rabbit a l’americaine accompanied by a brown hash of potatoes?!
Good Food contains very few recipes for meals that I recognise. The sauces, types of meat and combinations of ingredients feel largely like reading a foreign language. However, showing the book to my mum was a different story. She grew up in the 50s and 60s in a low income home where there were a lot of mouths to feed (she’s one of seven) and she said that rabbit cooked in various ways was a staple of their diet, along with cuts of offal that I would gag at now, plus the sorts of rice and egg dishes that Heath is very fond of. My dad reported the same childhood food history, plus, at his grandad’s in the country, he would regularly be given pigeon pie to eat. Isn’t it fascinating how much our diets have changed in just a couple of generations? I know plenty of people still do eat rabbit and game, and you can buy them in the village butcher’s shop here, but they are considered more of an eccentricity than a central part of our everyday diet. Why is this? Perhaps we have become too divorced from the origin of our foods, living so much in urban areas, and what was once the staple diet of country families is now unpalatable to city types who see birds as vermin and rabbits as pets. Or perhaps it’s the influence of foreign travel? I know when I think of what I normally eat for dinner, it’s usually not British in origin, and I particularly enjoy curries, pasta and pizza, none of which would have been common in British kitchens in the 1930s. The only real foreign influence in Heath’s recipes is that of the classical French variety, and yet even most of these recipes would not be attempted by cooks today.
The more recipes I read, the more I became intrigued by what these rather odd sounding meals would actually taste like and what kind of sensory experiences the 1930s diner would have had. Were their plates full of colour and textural variety? Were foods usually eaten dry or with a sauce? Was there a lot of spice to food or were most meals rather bland? The only way to find out, of course, is to actually try cooking some of Heath’s recipes. As much as my stomach turned over at the thought of pigeon casserole, others have tantalised my tastebuds. January’s recipes contain, amongst plenty of others, chicken pancakes, spinach souffle, lyonnaise potatoes and apples with cinnamon, all of which I’d be perfectly happy to eat. So, I have decided to set myself a little challenge. Once a month, for the whole of 2013, I am going to turn to Ambrose’s monthly recipes and cook a seasonal 1930s meal. I want to experience a taste of the past, widen my cooking repertoire and improve my understanding of seasonal ingredients. I also want to allow myself to become a little more adventurous in the kitchen and not be so afraid of foods I am unused to. Perhaps I’ll even try a rabbit…we’ll see!
So, stay tuned for January’s instalment of The Good Food Project…and enjoy the beautiful Edward Bawden woodcuts that adorn each month. I think I’ve just found another artist to become obsessed with!