I used to work in my family's restaurant and helped run it. I love good food, and I've cooked family meals for over 60 years.
I Was a War Baby
As a war baby, I was too young to know or understand the problems and food shortages of the Second World War.
My father was in the Territorial Army in the UK and my mother used to travel round with me to be near his camp. She would have been described as a camp follower.
We were stationed in Swindon for a while, and my mother used to help out as a Land Girl, so we lived on what I can only assume was farm produce. I know from what I was told that eggs were hard to come by and were restricted to one per week. Mostly we used yellow powdered egg. I don't know where the chickens were.
Ryvita and Marmite
The earliest food I can recall eating was Ryvita and Marmite.
Everything else is a bit of a blur, but in the war years I don't remember ever actually being hungry.
However a Dutch friend told me that when he was a child in Holland the Dutch people were literally starving, and always anxious, as they didn't know where their next meal was coming from. Years later he still had nightmares and flashbacks about it. I imagine this is how many victims of disaster and war feel today, not to mention people in many countries where they have also lost their jobs and homes because of the current financial crash and political violence.
Ready-Made Meals and Refrigeration
In the 1950s refrigerators were considered to be somewhat a luxury, as most people would have a larder, often with a marble slab shelf, built into a corner on an outside wall. Larders would keep things cool, even in summer. Meat was sometimes sprinkled with salt and wrapped in muslin to stop it going off, and, as milk was delivered daily except on Sundays, it did not have time to turn sour, as we would order only the amount we actually planned to use. By the 1960s, most people had fridges.
No Fridges: No Frozen Meat, Fish, or Ready-Made Meals
Perhaps in the 1950s and '60s women had more time to cook, as they mainly stayed home and didn't have jobs, but certainly more people knew how to cook because it was a necessity. Today, on the other hand, many people live quite happily on packaged food.
And who can blame them? It's so time-saving and easy just to pull out a pack and microwave it for five minutes after a hard day's work and travel. There's no mess, and over the years the quality of ready-made food has improved considerably and much of it is quite palatable. I've even tried vegetarian "meat" products recently, and they are not only very tasty but also hard to distinguish from the real thing.
I was about 15 years old when I had my first Chinese meal, at a new restaurant in Johannesburg. It was a great novelty. It was served in small bowls with chopsticks, so it was quite a messy business, trying to learn how to use chopsticks and not slurp food over our best clothes in public.
In the late 1950s there were a few well-known Chinese restaurants in Central London, but certainly none that I know of in the suburbs, and no Chinese takeaways. Gradually an area in Soho developed into Chinatown, with dozens of Chinese restaurants and shops, and from the 1960s numerous Chinese food places opened all round the UK. The food was wonderful, and cheap too, and you could have a meal out without breaking the piggy bank. Nowadays you can't go anywhere without seeing a Chinese restaurant or takeaway, and it is a staple "English" meal.
I don't remember seeing any Japanese restaurants in the 1950s or even in the '60s, and I would say they have only become popular in the last 15 years as people have become health conscious and more Japanese people have settled in the UK. There are not nearly as many Japanese restaurants as there are Indian or Chinese, but I've noticed that they have started opening up in stations, and for the past few years, sushi is being sold in packets in supermarkets.
I first tasted Thai food only about 15 years ago. There are still very few Thai restaurants around, but I have seen several pubs that serve Thai food, and it is becoming popular.
Food From the Indian Sub-Continent: Curry
When I was a child, Indian foods were hardly on the map.
I was about 10 when I first tasted curry, in 1950. We were living in Africa, and my mother had a friend who had lived in India. Her speciallity when we were invited over for lunch was a delicious curry that included raisins in with the meat and banana slices as a side dish. It was very mild by today's standards,
But I must confess, I have not seen raisins in curry or banana slices as a garnish at any of the curry houses we go to in London.
In the late 1950s when I came to live in London, I recall just one famous Indian Restaurant, Veeraswamy's, in Central London. It was very posh and expensive. Within a few years the practice of eating curry was widespread throughout the UK, and is now one of the most popular meals.
When I Was a Child, Sweets Were a Rare Treat
I can remember Bassets Licorice Allsorts, Cadbury's Chocolate, Rowntrees Wine Gums and Mars Bars and various sweets in huge bottles on shelves behind the counter in sweet shops, such as orange barley sugar and cough sweets.
Sweets were rare and rationed during the War and I do remember later on in the war that whenever we met an American GI, my older brother told me we have to say "Got any gum, chum?", which would melt their hearts and bring its own rewards.
After the war, people were not accustomed to eating sweets in large quantities like they do now. We didn't have sweets every day, and when we did, it was normally just one or two. When I was aged 11 and went to boarding school in South Africa, we would queue up to be given two sweets as our weekend treat on Saturdays and Sundays. They were the equivalent of fruit chews.
There were pear drops, sherbet lemons, toffees and butterscotch, but I don't remember any boiled sweets with soft, liquid centers. We had Smarties, but not M&M's, Cadbury's Flake or Twix. We did have peppermints, white flat ones and Fox's glacier mints, but certainly not the range of peppermints you see today. We had chewing gum, and bubble gum, but not the dozens of flavors you get now.
After the war years, we didn't see many imported drinks like Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort, Jim Beam or vodka.
The first time I ever saw the American drinks was in 1959, in London, when my prospective father-in-law would produce these marvellously strong, slightly sweet malted spirits, much sweeter and heavier than the English whiskey equivalents. He had a friend who had a friend who used to get them from the local American army base. They were definitely considered to be luxury drinks. Now they are on sale everywhere, from supermarkets to off-licences to pubs.
Sweet alcopops were not around until about the 1980s; neither were already-mixed drinks
There have been sweeping changes in that direction, which are said to account for teenaged drinking and unsocial behaviour.
In my youth, we drank wine only with meals, but cheese and wine parties became popular in the late 1960s, and now many people drink wine at any time, like beer or spirits. I see people knocking back a bottle of wine after work as though it were lemonade.
One only drank sherry or vermouth before a meal, and brandy and port or liqueur after a meal, but that seems to have changed too, and nowadays you see people drinking them at any time.
When I was young, it was considered rude to smoke during a meal. But cigarettes were copious and considered glamorous and many people would smoke upwards of 60 a day.
Film stars were frequently shown with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth, both in films and in advertisements.
It is only in the 21st century that cigarettes have lost their fashionable image, with much bad publicity and laws restricting smoking in public places. For the past few years, most people I know now smoke only outside their house, or next to an open window, and parents make a big effort to protect their children from the harmful effects of smoke inhalation. This was unheard of until recently, and when I was a child, my parents smoked all over me. Regrettably my partner did too, to the extent that I was reluctant to invite friends home, because the lounge stank of cigarettes.
In 2016 a new law in the UK, disputed by manufacturers, stated that all cigarettes should now be sold in plain packages.There are also now stringent rules about advertising.
Smoking has been banned since 2007 in most public places, including public transport. Before that year, children under the age of 16 were not permitted to buy cigarettes or smoke them in public. However, in 2007 the minimum age, as with alcohol, was raised to 18.
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© 2012 Diana Grant
Please comment and share your memories of English food!
billd01603 from Worcester on October 27, 2013:
Very good informative Hub. Thanks for writing
Diana Grant (author) from London on March 31, 2013:
I never had sugar on bread and butter - my mother wouldn't allow that, but I certainly loved Bovril, and very occasionally we had beef dripping on bread or toast, but even in those days my mother was a bit health conscious, so it was a rare treat.
Bev G from Wales, UK on March 24, 2013:
Bovril. Sugar on bread and butter. Beef dripping on toast.... then later my first introduction to exotic food was Vesta Chow Mein :D