A few years ago someone asked me whether my mother was a good cook. I was at a loss to know what to say.
They should have asked years earlier. Then, at the height of my Elizabeth David gastro-snob period, I would have said absolutely not. How could she be? Mediterranean vegetables never entered her kitchen, stock was unheard of, little light delicate dishes were not part of her repertoire.
And as final proof I would have pointed to my mother’s own definition of a good cook. The good cook, she said, is the cook who has a hot meal on the table at the appointed time.
Just having food on the table on time? How crass, how unappreciative of a good cook’s taste, discrimination, and skill!
Many years on, and I am much more sympathetic to my mother’s definition. Cooking was her job and it was a relentless one. She had to have breakfast on the table at 9, dinner at 12:30 and tea, the last meal of the day, at 5.
The schedule was dictated by the farm day. My father had a cup of tea and an arrowroot biscuit (cookie) before heading out to meet the farm workers at 7 or 7:30. By breakfast, he’d done a couple of hours of hard physical labor often in raw, unpleasant weather.
So my mother cooked bacon and eggs, or scrambled eggs, or boiled eggs, or sausages, or sometimes kippers or smoked haddock, or liver. She toasted bread under the grill and put it in the toast racks. Then she flipped the seersucker tablecloth washed to faded rusts and greens on the breakfast room table, placed the pot of tea under its green tea cosy, and added the hot water jug and milk jug on the tray by her place at the head of the table. On went the china, cutlery, a butter dish, home-made marmalade, and the toast racks. Half an hour later she cleared the table and washed up.
It was time to start on dinner. Dinner was meat, two vegetables, potatoes, with pudding (in the English sense of substantial sweet course) to follow. She went to the garden to cut or dig the vegetables, the stables to take the potatoes from the sack where they were stored for the winter.
My mother making gravy (years after the period I am describing), though the kitchen had changed little. The door on the left with the roller towel led to the farmyard, the passage behind her to the pantry and breakfast room, the dark shadow on the right is the garden door.
Then she prepared a milk pudding, or a steamed suet pudding, or a fruit pie from fruit she had bottled during the summer. If custard were required, she made an egg custard since my father would take nothing from a packet. She put the potatoes and vegetables on to cook, prepared the roast or shepherd’s pie or chops or stew or meat pie or fish, always with the appropriate gravy or dressing or sauce.
Time to flip the tablecloth and set the table once more, this time adding glasses of water, salt, pepper and hot English mustard (unless we were having lamb). My father came in famished and with just an hour before he had to be outside again. Then she cleared the table and washed up.
Now it was time to start on tea. She pulled out the yellow mixing bowl once more and made a sponge cake or a pound cake or sometimes a fruit cake or small cakes (which would be called muffins in the US). If necessary she made a butter icing.
Then out came the tablecloth, and on went the tea pot and hot water and milk, a couple of kinds of home-made jam, butter, bread, the cakes, and, if the baker’s van had been some buns or a lardy cake or a Battenburg cake. We were all tired, hungry, and cold after a day outside or in unheated houses, schools, and buses. The meal was somewhat more leisurely but once again the table had to be cleared and the washing up done. Then cooking was over until the next morning.
This was during school holidays. During term time, she prepared the cooked breakfast at 7 for us before we caught the bus, and we had lunch at school, returning famished in the afternoon.
Only two occasions provided a break. One was tea with an aunt and uncle (of whom we had a plentiful supply) or a grandmother. Of course, that meant preparing a return, and unusually fancy, tea.
The other was a day out at the sea, collecting fossils, going to a museum, or visiting caves. This meant preparing sandwiches for the road and, invariably on return, omelets in the kitchen for supper.
Nor was cooking all she did. She did most of the cleaning of a house of between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet depending on how many rooms we had open; brought in the wood for the fire that was the only heat in the house, and the coal for the boiler; ran many of the farm errands in the beaten up farm van; dropped us off and picked us up from the bus stop a mile away; took care of the garden; did the washing, wringing it out in a mangle and hanging it in the garden to dry; and then the ironing and mending. From the time I was about four we did have electricity, indoor plumbing, and hot and cold running water which helped.
And some things we associate with cooking she did not do or have. She did not read cookbooks. She had only two, one spiral bound that came with the electric cooker, one that my father gave her when they got married. She consulted them only for Christmas pudding and for toffee we were allowed to make on rainy days. I still have both, pristine except for these two pages.
She did not have electric gadgets: no toaster, no mixer, no nothing.
She did not shop. On Monday she phoned the butcher and the grocer and they delivered the meat and the groceries on Wednesday. On Tuesdays and Fridays the baker’s van arrived, bringing excellent bread, small cakes and buns. Fruit and vegetables came from the garden, milk from our dairy a quarter of a mile down the road, and eggs from the bantams that scratched in the garden.
I., K. and Brunel, Henry Byrd, and hens in the garden
We were never less than seven people (parents, three children, uncle or later grandmother, and live-in girl). Much of the time we were more as school friends, foreign children on exchanges with us, lost souls, or friends of my parents came to stay for days or weeks at a time.
My mother’s task was made easier by the scarcity that limited her choices. Rationing did not end until I was eight. Meals ran on a weekly routine: roasts on Sunday, transformed and planned leftovers for the next couple of days, fish on Fridays. Rules for those meals were laid down in stone: sage and onion stuffing and apple sauce with roast pork, marmalade not jam for breakfast. There were no incentives to experiment with money tight, no enticing supermarkets, and the danger of failing to produce something palatable to the whole family.
My mother’s best items were what you might expect: cakes, pastry, rouxes that never failed for gravy or the family of white sauces (cheese, caper, parsley, etc), excellent jams and marmalades that put the high-priced artisanal ones I’ve encountered in farmer’s markets to shame. And fresh, natural, and local were just the way our meat and vegetables were.
The work never stopped, though. Even had we been able to afford the luxury of eating out, there were no restaurants closer than ten miles away, there was no take out, no delivery. It was three home-cooked meals a day, 375 days a year, for fifteen years. Then things eased a bit in the 1960s as we children went off to college, my uncle and the live-in girl got married, my grandmother died, my parents got a better car, and pubs began serving meals.
My mother’s work was the norm. It was what all the farm wives I knew did. And have done for thousands of years. And there were lots of worse jobs that humans have had. But it was not a job she had any choice about.
So was my mother a good cook? I would now say yes. Never do I remember a meal being late, never do I remember a tough pastry crust or a fallen cake, never do I remember running out of vegetables at the end of winter (though cabbage did play an ever larger role as February pass into March and March into April, the cruelest month). Nor come to that do I remember shoddily laid tables, scratch meals, or dirty dishes in the sink.
To put appetizing food on the table that regularly for that length of time took planning, energy, persistence, and skill. I now realize that when she said getting a meal on the table on time was what made a good cook, she did not mean that it was the only thing that made a good cook. It was that without that, the finest meal in the world was worthless to the people it was her job to feed.
As an adult, I returned time and again to ask myself why the contribution of cooks, their skill and their hard work, received so little recognition. To answer this, I eventually spent years writing Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. I’m just sorry that my mother never lived to see that, nor to hear my apologies for being such a little snot about her cooking.
I was reminded of the question of good cooking by a post on the Rambling Epicure: Mastering the Art of Food Writing Facebook Group a couple of weeks back. One of the two leaders, Jonell Galloway or Elatia Harris, asked whether you could be a great cook without having experienced great cooking, which I understood from the subsequent discussion to be professional cooking. The question comes from a different world from that of my mother and generations of other rural cooks.
There’s also been a slew of articles recently about the history and virtues of home-cooked family meals. That’s again a rather different question.