Lunch in the 1950’s when I was a little child, was, for most working people, the main meal of the day. It would be two courses, during the week, a main meal and a dessert.
In our family we didn’t completely follow the pattern of roast on Sunday, cold on Monday, shepherd’s pie on Tuesday, rissoles on Wednesday… but we did have all those things. Cold meat (mutton, beef or pork – chicken was a treat) would be served with jacket potatoes or mashed potatoes, or at the right time of year, new potatoes and sometimes we might have chipped potatoes (not chips.)
Shepherd’s pie – and we always called it shepherd’s pie even if technically it was cottage pie, was the cold beef or mutton minced with a hand mincer, carrots, onion and left over gravy, with a dash of tomato sauce or Worcester sauce stirred into the mix. It was put in a deep dish and topped with mashed potato; there was no cheese or crumb sprinkled on it, nor sliced tomato. It was cooked in the oven so there was a crispy top and served with vegetables, anything seasonal from the garden or tinned peas and carrots if there was nothing else. We didn’t have cooked mince as such; I only came across that sloppy goo for school dinners.
Rissoles are not burgers; they are made with minced cooked meat and a little finely chopped carrot and onion and a dollop of tomato sauce. They are coated in seasoned flour so they have a wonderful crisp outside and the most delicious centre – a particular flavour all of its own.
Sometimes we would have pork or lamb chops. The pork chops would be cut thick with a deep layer of fat round the outside which ensured that the meat when cooked was soft and delicious. Often there would be kidneys attached and as my sister didn’t like them, I sometimes had hers as well. Lamb or mutton chops were much cheaper than they are now and were a delicious treat.
We often had casseroles – stews of beef in a thick gravy, probably consisting of gravy left over from the roast with the addition of Bisto and a little water or milk. The meat would be cheaper cuts of beef, skirt, or shin, and kidney, and sometimes neck of mutton; the vegetables would be carrot and onion; we didn’t use garlic although my grandmother did when my father was a boy. Maybe garlic wasn’t available in the 50’s, or maybe we just didn’t have it. An OXO stock cube or two would be crumbled in, there were only red OXOs in those days which came in tins – or maybe that is a misremembery from another age, something left over from my grandparents’ time.
As well as stews, we ate pies; my mother was the world’s finest pastry cook, savoury or sweet she had a delicate hand and her pastry was crisp and light and irresistible. We regularly had steak and kidney pie, or chicken pie with bacon. She made steak and kidney puddings with beef suet pastry and when the glorious shiny pud was cut open, a flood of aromatic specky gravy spread across the plate. Why the gravy in the puddings was specky I have no idea, maybe it was the kidney, but it was delicious. Sometimes we would have sausages and mash – with thick gravy at lunch time; sometimes we would have toad in the hole – with beautiful crisp, crunchy batter surrounding Powter’s’ sausages.
Liver was always fried crisp on the outside, perhaps a little well done to my taste now and served with gravy and vegetables. It was never cooked in the gravy or stewed to a grey slab of grainy rubber; to us that was repulsive! We occasionally had heart although I am not sure what beast it came from, probably lamb or pig… we had ox heart at school. My dad would cook tripe in milk with onions and a couple of cloves and lots and lots of pepper. However, that wasn’t a lunchtime dish, that was for eating when he came home from the pub, in a bowl with a nice hunk of crusty bread.
Macaroni cheese was about the only pasta we had in the fifties, although gradually spaghetti appeared – not because it was unknown but because, I suppose it was not available. There was of course Heinz tinned spaghetti in tomato sauce, served on toast and at tea-times rather than lunch times. I don’t remember rationing, although it was still happening when I was a small child. Macaroni cheese as far as I can remember was uncooked macaroni, milk, butter, cheese and seasoning. Sometimes there would be slice tomatoes on the top, and a dusting of pepper. With meals like macaroni cheese and shepherd’s pie, one of the delicious treats was the crispy stuff stuck round the sides of the dish.
We used to have egg and bacon flan, no such thing as a quiches which to my mind is just the French name for a traditional English dish. My mum’’s crisp short crust pastry base, a filling of bacon and beaten eggs, seasoned well with salt and pepper… It didn’t seem to matter how salty food naturally was, it was always well-seasoned when cooked and there was a salt-cellar on the table to be spooned into a tiny pile on the edge of your plate.
We would sometimes have fried fish, not very often, because my father had a horror of smelly fish so it had to be fresh. He didn’t like river fish although he was a great fisherman and had been since his childhood; river fish tasted muddy, he said. Fried fish would be simply dusted in seasoned flour, herring, dabs, the occasional plaice, the very occasional brown trout, far more delicious than the rainbow variety. Kippers were a breakfast treat, or in the evenings at tea time. We would eat smoked haddock with butter; once my cousins and I stayed with my widowed grandfather and he served us haddock with a poached egg on top which was delicious and strange. When we next had haddock at home and I asked for a poached egg I was told not to be greedy.
Cambridge was a country town in those days and it was not uncommon to have pheasant for lunch; we did not have rabbit because my father didn’t like the soapy flavour, but we did occasionally have hare. We didn’t have partridge or other game birds, although I member a brace of ducks brought home, but don’t remembered whether I enjoyed them or what they tasted like. Venison was not common in our parts, and I did not taste it until I was in Heidelberg in 1964!