The lingering effects of Covid are curtailing are usual culinary delights. We are too tired to cook – eating pilchard on toast and a lot of jacket potatoes.
Researching for my next novel, I’ve been struck by mentions of food and shopping from the 50s and 60s
Rationing was in place until 1954 and food choices looked very different compared to how our shops look now. Shopping was local and fresh, a weekly delivery from the grocer, meat from the butcher, and a trip to the market for fish.
Meals then were much more meat and two veg and the veg was seasonal – not a pepper or aubergine in sight.
One woman, writing about married life, aged 16 in the late 50s, recalls the glamour of a Fray Bentos pie in a tin. If they could afford it they’d have frozen peas, her mum scandlized at the extravagance of ready-washed potatoes.
In my lifetime what we eat has changed. Growing up in the 70s we didn’t eat pasta, aubergines, or olives. The height of extravagance was a French stick from Sainsbury’s. I was in my early 20s when I first has brie, and in my late 20s when I first had olives or avocado or hummus.
As a very young mum, struggling alone with two little boys in the early 90s the height of luxury was a 99p ready meal from Marks and Spencer. This consisted of precooked pasta, a sachet of sour cream and pre-sliced mushroom which I would fry off in olive oil bought at the chemists – I’d never seen mushrooms before.
Bought up in a house where food was scarce, and free school meals the only hot dinner in the day, the indulgence of some creamy pasta or indeed a Fray Bentos pie cannot be underestimated.
Much like today, women in the 50s undertook all the shopping and cooking in a time when fridges were a luxury let alone a freezer.
An elderly friend recalls heading out with a jug each day to fetch the milk – a cart arriving at the bottom of the road and the milk ladled into pots you bought yourself. Twice a week she baked for her family, fruit tarts and scones and made her own bread. But on Sundays a Bird’s Eye Dairy Cream Sponge was a treat.
I’ve been seeing lots of advice on how to manage in the current climate, now many of us are struggling with rising food costs, and while the suggestions are often sensible – make a list, check what you have in your cupboard, buy own-brands or cheaper frozen food, check to see which stores have offers and what time they reduce their food – all of these things take up an awful lot of time.
Unlike the 1950s, today most women now work outside of the home as well as in it. I remember learning to drive in my 30s and while it gave me freedom I was dismayed to realise it just meant I had to do more in my day. Shopping before that had been a walk to town and a bus home, taking a whole afternoon. Once I could drive I was expected to fit the shopping in on my way home from work before I picked up the kids and then made the tea.
Following the advice on how to shop smart is great when you’ve time to sit and plan and petrol in the car to travel from shop to shop looking for the best deals, but for many women, time is a luxury they just don’t have.
Never mind the long-term stress of constantly worrying about feeding your family. Never mind that tight feeling as you stand at the checkout wondering if you have enough money, the flare of shame on your cheeks when you ask the cashier to stop when she gets to £30. Never mind loading the conveyer belt with the thing you can leave at the back, conscious of the stares of other shoppers as the cashier clears the rest away. We’ve still got to cook when we get home, organise homework and get everyone settled.
Our food world is changing, never have we had so many choices. Never have we had so many people dependent on food banks. With food prices and inflation soaring, we have people choosing between food and fuel.
A recent article suggested a return to our post-war diet might be the answer. As a nation we were never healthier, cooking from scratch from simple ingredients – but in this 21st century equivalent of a golden age, where is the time and a parent at home to cook it? Who is doing the shopping? Who is rushing in from work to get a cheap filling meal on the table that everyone will eat?
Because trust me here, women’s work is never done.