Granny Robertson’s Cook Book
Begun more than a hundred years ago the book consists of an antiquated accounts ledger consisting of recipes, (cut from womens magazines from the early twenties through to the early seventies), many hand-written, some ‘miracle’ cures, a few old wives tales and up-to-date (sic) product placements (adverts), aimed primarily at the home cook.
It forms the core of a considerable archive collected over the decades.
The earliest dated entry I can find is 1901, though this is by no means definitive.
In 1914, May Byron published a book entitled ‘Pot Luck’ or ‘The British Home Cookery Book’
It advocated a return to the old values of home cooked food to counter the previous century of intensive industrialisation and the drift toward inferior processed/canned foods, such as corned (bully) beef, margerine, condensed milk and jam.
A depressing side effect of this was a desperately unhealthy population.
The decade following the death of Queen Victoria and the First World War (the second Edwardian era) highlighted the enormous gulf between rich and poor.
The average working-class child was five inches shorter than his public school contemporaries while of the recruits who came forward for the Boer War, some 38% were considered too unfit to serve.
With income tax at a mere shilling-in-the-pound (5%) the upper classes established their country estates and lavish town houses, consolidated their holdings and could afford to employ a wide range of servants from the lower orders to pamper their every whim. Indeed, girls from working class families were brought up to believe that a ‘good position in a good household’ was the ideal.
Another side effect of the Industrial Revolution was the shift from country to town. As the rail network developed and goods could be transported ever more easily across country so the towns could quickly expand with their ever growing ability to feed a growing population.
Nevertheless, at the lower end of the scale, a ‘good’ wage of £2 (40 shillings) a week was still considered borderline poverty.
In times of high employment (planting, harvesting) food was plentiful and relatively cheap while ‘pearl barley and water’ at other times was still a reality for many.
But the long slow road towards the emancipation of women was beginning to bear fruit.
A peasant girl began to aspire to better. She was no longer looking at a life of domestic servitude or a ‘good marriage’ as the be-all-and-end-all of her life.
She could choose to work in a mill, a factory or even the ever more popular retail industry where (shock, horror, gasp!) evenings and weekends were free.
The First World War, the war to end all wars, was to change that forever. With the departure of millions of able-bodied men to the front line the job market became open to all comers, including women. Work in munitions factory’s and metal working became so urgent that employers had no choice but to allow female workers into what were previously male-dominated enclaves.
The social structure imploded, forcing unprecedented change. The horrendous loss of life sustained during the conflict underlined that change when so many millions of men failed to return. Ironically, the institution of rationing meant that children under five received a better, more nutritious diet than previously and the death rate in under-fives plummeted from its pre-war level of almost two-in-five to less than one-in-five.
Life would never be the same again.
In the sparse generation before a new conflict arose the world fell into a deep and painful recession. The war had cost dear in more than just lives. National debt spiralled as work and overall job prospects diminished. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots remained wide.
At the end of the Second World War, the decimation of the male population for the second time in thirty years, underlined the need for a more egalitarian society. Earlier concepts of a male dominated workforce declined almost overnight.
Meanwhile, life went on.
Rationing lasted well into the early fifties, but what followed was a revolution in the way people thought about food.
In the seventies, supermarkets arrived. Products travelled the shrinking globe to supply an ever growing demand for the new and unusual, as flying times between continents grew shorter and shorter.
Fridges and freezers became available to a larger segment of the market. Cheaper clothing, textiles and furnishings began to appear, threatening the life-blood of the small shopkeeper and indented artisan. The ever more out-moded butcher, baker and candlestick maker went into, possibly terminal, decline in the face of such universal convenience.
As technology has advanced in leaps and bounds the skills of the housewife have diminished perceptibly. Long gone are the days of the stay-at-home-housewife and, to my mind, the days of the proficient home-cook.
The provision of such a wide range of products that even a small supermarket can deliver would have bemused my Grandmother. Cakes and biscuits that she would have laboured over on a Sunday afternoon can now be bought for pennies.
The milkman, the greengrocer, the butcher and the baker are having to fight hard just to make a living.
Right or wrong, I don’t believe we will see the like again.
Only time will tell.