The Good Food Project

goodfoodcover

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.

introduction

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:ย ‘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.’ย 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?!

january

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.

good food title page

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!

43 comments

  1. I’d be very happy with rabbit for dinner (preferably with Dijon mustard) or even better a rabbit pie. And pigeon was ever so fashionable during the 80s when I used to eat out a lot and got rather tired of it because it was on every menu. Sweetbreads are good too, though I don’t think I’d have the patience these days to pick them over. (I was deeply into fiddly cooking in those days!)
    Does your mum remember roast stuffed hearts? I rather liked them as a child but haven’t had them for years. Could never face the face the smell of tripe though … have to draw the line somewhere! Hope I haven’t put you off your dinner!

    1. Oh Mary, you’re far braver than me!! My mum says her dad used to eat stuffed hearts…she never did. The thought of that makes me gag!!! The whole idea of offal in general is enough to turn me vegetarian!!

    1. Thanks Lee-Anne! I am going to check out those links – thank you! I have a feeling I’m going to become slightly obsessed with the topic of food history!

  2. What an intriguing project, Rachel! It is always interesting to look at food trends through the years. I really enjoyed The Supersizers… tv programmes a few years ago, which looked at diets at various points in history. I can’t wait to see what you cook this year (and I hope you try rabbit – it’s delicious)!

    I do wonder how closely cookbooks reflect the actual eating habits at the time they were published. We have more “cooking for idiots” books now than ever but even those have menus that are more ambitious than the everyday food we see on tables. I am going to guess, for example, that during the Depression not everyone was eating those ‘September oysters’ mentioned on page 23!

    1. Thanks Claire! Oh I loved that show too – some of the eras would have caused me serious indigestion!!

      Yes you are quite right – while this claims to be for the average Joe I’m sure not everyone was eating these foods – I’d have to do some more wide ranging research to see just who was necking oysters and who was eating rabbit stew!

  3. What a great idea – such a fun plan! Rabbit can be very nice, but I don’t like tripe much I must admit. Bon App!

  4. All very ‘Julie & Julia’ though once a month seems much more sensible than a new recipe each day. I suspect you might find buying what were once common ingredients then, harder today because the majority of people don’t really cook from scratch anymore. Rabbit is lovely BBQ kebab food and maybe pigeon turns your stomach because your imagine is of manky london street urchin ones not lovely clean looking plump wood pigeon . We are going to a fund raising dinner for saving the red squirrel and I suspect his grey cousin will be on the menu !

    1. Yes, quite – if I tried to cook a lavish three course meal every day I would collapse with exhaustion! Hahaha how wonderful! I’m sure you’re right – some of the ingredients I don’t even recognise, so I’m going to have to hunt for them! Thankfully I live in the countryside where there are some great local butchers and grocers shops so hopefully I will find the traditional stuff I need!

  5. I love the snapshots of the book, I just wish I could turn the page to continue reading! I can’t wait to see what you rustle up with your 1930s guide, bunny in the pot or no.๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Love, love rabbit and pigeon stew, there was not much else to eat during the war…. just the mention of these 2 ingredients is enough to make my children gag!!!!

  7. I’m so glad you’re going to be trying the recipes & letting us know how they turn out. I’d buy this for the cover alone (how gorgeous is that?) but if I knew the recipes were good too….

  8. As a Portuguese person, I’ve eaten a lot of rabbits. I’ve never had pigeon, but I’d love to try! I love cookbooks, so I’m glad you came across this one so I could read about it. It’s all really interesting and I’m really excited for your tries at cooking 30’s recipes!

  9. As someone who loves to cook, I think your plan sounds fabulous. I’m with you on rabbit–gag!–although we ate it occasionally in my 1960s London childhood. I remember reading the original Peter Rabbit stories to my children and how upset one of them was when we learn that Mrs. McGregor baked Peter’s father in a pie!

    Instead of pigeon, perhaps you could substitute a game hen or a squib.

    1. I meant a squab, of course; although my husband assures me that a squab is nothing but a pigeon that got good culinary press!

    2. Thanks Deb! That’s funny about your kids – there is definitely something very upsetting about a rabbit being put in a pie, especially when it had been so beautifully illustrated on a previous page! I like the idea of a substitute…I shall have to go and have a chat with the butcher and see what he has to offer me!

  10. Won’t this be a delicious project, Rachel? I will be curious to read about what you make. The 30’s were the Great Depression here and my parents, especially my mother, would tell of some unusual concoctions they would eat when times were hard. This will be an interesting endeavor.

  11. Hello Rachel, Happy New Year to you.Love this idea so much.I cook a lot but I feel faint at the idea of most older recipes, I’m afraid.They all seem so very complicated in comparison with the ones around today.Have you read Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll, at all? Might be a bit early for you but it is a very good read (1920s, I think?).It’s published by Persephone.Xsue

    1. Hi Sue, Happy New Year to you too! I know the feeling…it’s going to be a challenge but I hope I’ll have some fun with it. No, I haven’t – I shall check it out. Thank you!

  12. This sounds wonderful fun! You might also be interested in Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England – first published in 1954 and recently reprinted. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/dec/14/bee-wilson-rereading-food-england-hartley
    It is a weighty tome of social history, but also full of practical techniques and recipes. I had a lot of parsnips left over from Christmas so I made her recipe for parsnip cakes – and the whole meal she suggested:
    ‘For a really good winter-evening supper, take a couple of brown and creamy parsnip cakes, a couple of fried tomotoes, hot brown gravy, and brussels sprouts.’
    She was right, it was really good!

    1. Thanks Erica – Parsnip cake sounds intriguing! That meal also sounds delicious – I am a real vegetable lover so that definitely appeals. I’ll hunt that down, thank you!

  13. You find the best books, Rachel! The woodcut illustrations are delightful and I wouldn’t have left this book behind in the shop for anything. When Coal House at War was playing on our laptop I was cheering on the people barring entry to the rabbit hutch. I would rather scrounge for berries and mushrooms and probably end up dead through poisoning. Looking forward to your recipe endeavours though but oh please give me a warning if there’s to be an expired bunny in a post *sniff*.

    1. I am lucky, Darlene! I know, the illustrations are almost as good as the recipes!! Yes, me too – I’m not sure I’m going to be brave enough to cook a rabbit!!

  14. You should have a look at Arabella Boxer’s book of English Food as well. It’s an interesting read and would make a good companion to Heath. It’s very much about the food smart bohemians would have eaten in the 30’s and might surprise you. Curry has quite a long history in this country so you may well find your self a good ’30’s inspired one as well.

  15. What a fascinating project! I look forward to finding out how your endeavours go… and if you end up trying rabbit or pidgeon eventually.๐Ÿ˜€

  16. Good show, starting the education of the “discriminating housewife” so you are prepared. One should always be prepared, to avoid unnecessary and disquieting surprises.

    I’m rather fond of this amusing old English stuff, more so when it accommodates bachelor chaps with single ring burners and ladies of similarly limited means.

    And by golly, I believe the chap rings true – we are indeed, are we not, in a piano mood for this month??

    Lovely gentle ruminations R, as always.

    PS: we used to have rabbit stew and never thought much about it. I suppose it was cheap. As a vegetarian now I do differentiate between cuddly fluffy family things and heavy farmyard creatures…but the arbitrary difference has a different poignancy.

    PPS: yep, curry, pizza, pasta.

    1. I can’t see myself ever being a discriminating housewife!๐Ÿ˜‰

      Thanks James – glad you are of the same persuasion as me when it comes to food! I would quite happily be vegetarian though I do have a penchant for burgers…I think bunnies might be beyond me!

  17. What an awesome idea! Looking forward to reading your posts and vicariously enjoying your no-doubt delicious meals.

    (And rabbit’s quite good – have had it frequently in the past – even raised meat rabbits long, long ago, but decided after a few years that I couldn’t cope with the “ending” bit – they are quite sweet to work with, and I did get overly attached, even while continually telling myself firmly that they were destined for the stewpot! After being quite happily carnivorous all my life – we farm, which includes the raising of livestock for sale and personal consumption – the older I get the more appealing at least a modified form of vegetarianism seems to me. So whatever you decide re: cooking “bunny”, I’m right there behind you!)๐Ÿ™‚

  18. Brilliant idea Rachel, I have decided with my Persephone Project that when it comes to the recipe books instead of just reviewing the book as a book, which would be hard compared to fiction, some of the recipes will be cooked (more by my other half than me as he is a trained chef) and they will feature too. Look forward to seeing what you come up with!

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