When Food Was Crude

Somebody sent me a mail circular the other day (she knows who she is) – one of those humorous lists such as turned up with daily regularity back in our Usenet days. This particular one was referencing our eating habits in the 1950s. Much of the list I recognised, though I disagreed with quite a few points. This is probably due to an age difference in the writer and myself – I was born in 1953 so my Fifties’ memories will be late Fifties… say 1957 onward. I think perhaps the originator of the list is a few years older than myself and may recall the early years of the decade when I was a mere twinkle in my old dad’s eye.

It’s a long list, so it and my comments are behind the cut. (My, there’s another old-timer’s habit)

Do, please leave your memories and comments. I’d love to read them.


Pasta had not been invented.

Frankly, stuff and nonsense, we certainly ate proper dried spaghetti when we were small, as well as cans of the Heinz variety. Macaroni had been around for donkey’s years, of course but was used in strange and wondrous ways. This point caused a discussion with Mr L about the merit of Macaroni Pudding. I never saw the point in it. It was awful stuff. I was reminded about this today when I saw tins of Ambrosia Macaroni Pudding over at Approved Foods. I shuddered.

Curry was an unknown entity.

If only that were true. We suffered a childhood of curried-everything. Speciality of the house: Curried Tinned Corned Beef. Of course curry in those days featured diced apple and sultanas, and was made with Schwartz Curry Powder… and that only came in a single strength and variety.

Olive oil was kept in the medicine cabinet

Absolutely bang on the nose, that one. Olive Oil bore the legend “B.P.” It was for earaches. (Why?) I recall my mother saying in later years “Olive Oil makes me gag” – she was not a ready convert to Mediterranean cooking, I think.

It was also  for making Palmolive Soap. I used to dread standing next to anybody in Assembly who had washed with Palmolive. The smell was vile, and it stuck. I guess Olive Oil made me gag too.

Spices came from the Middle East where we believed that they were used for embalming

Tommy rot! Of course we only used Pepper (ground, white), Mixed Spice, and Ginger back then. I do not recall Cinnamon being a feature of my early life, but steamed ginger pudding made an altogether frequent inconvenience on my horizon. Spice was also something else.

 Herbs were used to make rather dodgy medicine.

Grandma and Grandad had a cup of Senna Pod Tea every Saturday night, religiously. We also had Mixed Herbs in use, of course, and parsley decorated the fishmonger’s window and was given free with wet fish purchases (to make the inevitable parsley sauce.)

A takeaway was a mathematical problem.

That, and a Fish and Chip lunch every Saturday.

A pizza was something to do with a leaning tower.

I’ll give them that one

Bananas and oranges only appeared at Christmas time.

This is the giveaway that the originator of the list was growing up in the early Fifties and most likely born in the late Forties. They probably have 5 or 10 years on me. I always had an orange in my pillow case at Christmas, to be sure, but we saw them at other times too.

The only vegetables known to us were spuds, peas, carrots and cabbage, anything else was regarded as being a bit suspicious.

This one depended on whether anyone in the family had an allotment, I guess. Sprouts parsnips and turnips should be added to that list, and maybe leeks, certainly onions. All vegetables were boiled into submission and timed just like the spuds – 20 minutes fast boiling regardless of whether it was a tender shredded cabbage or a big chunk of Swede. Spuds were always peeled. Cabbage water was drained off, seasoned with white pepper and drunk with your dinner. All vegetables were salted.

Peas came in cans or dried. People were posh if they had Garden Peas in preference to Marrowfat Peas in their chosen can – both were slushily disgusting and we had a long wait until Findus captured that tender wee pod-popping moment – in the Fifties, where peas were concerned, the Bigga the betta. Generally root vegetables were down to earth but anything leafier than a Spring Cabbage was certainly suspect. Broccoli and Kohl Rabi were certainly not around. Sadly, dried Butter beans were. Ugh.

All crisps were plain; the only choice we had was whether to put the salt on or not.

Bang on the money. Usually the salt in the twist of blue waxed paper was one wet lump and could not be scattered on the crisps anyway. Smiths made crisps. Other brands came later.

Condiments consisted of salt, pepper, vinegar and brown sauce if we were lucky.

There was Ketchup too, and Colman’s Mustard. Mint Sauce, Worcestershire Sauce and Henderson’s Yorkshire Relish usually  featured on the chip shop counter too

Soft drinks were called pop.

and the pop man delivered – glass bottles with rubber screw stoppers in wooden crates. The deposit on the bottles and crate were returnable but the rag and bone man would exchange them for a goldfish if you were lucky. Then you got a clout from your mother. A small glass of Tizer could be had in the local caff  for 3d.

Rice was a milk pudding, and never, ever part of our dinner.

Rice certainly was a milk pudding (yuk) but it also appeared on my childhood plate with my curry.

A Big Mac was what we wore when it was raining.

I don’t know about the originator of this list, but I wore my school Gaberdine when out in the rain. I didn’t have a Mac.

Brown bread was something only poor people ate.

Now, this one is interesting. Certainly my mother made us eat brown bread because it was “better for you.” Only it wasn’t. Brown bread was white bread, coloured with caramel. Hovis was better for you, being Wholemeal. White bread had been aspirational since… oh, forever, and the British People took badly to the National Loaf in the Second World War and following years. It was introduced in 1942 to minimise waste and to make full use of a scarce ingredient. The loaves were supplemented with Calcium and Vitamins. Importantly, the price of the National Loaf was fixed. According to Wikipedia, production of the National Loaf ceased in 1956. Almost certainly the only people choosing to eat it in the latter years were those looking to benefit from the price. So yes, there is some truth in the claim that only poor people ate brown bread – but Hovis was ever a premium product.

Oil was for lubricating your bike not for cooking, fat was for cooking

Dripping! Saved from the Sunday roast. There was probably some Lard involved at the very beginning, but each week the dripping pot was emptied onto the roast and refilled with the hot fat after cooking. If you had airs, you kept the fats separate and had a pot for Pork Dripping and another for Beef, as my mother did. If you were more down to earth, like my Gran, it all went in the same pot. It was not just for cooking, though…

Bread and dripping – food of the Gods! I favoured Pork over Beef but even better than my mum’s Pork was my Gran’s generic dripping. We would call in at her house on the way home from school and she would furnish us each with a slice of white bread, topped thickly with lovely brown dripping and salt.

Back then you could call in at the butchers and buy dripping by the pound. Commercially-packed beef dripping in paper was for cooking chips but the local Pork Butcher had huge trays of real pork dripping, from his cooked meats, sitting in white and amber layered glory and weighed out onto sheets of greaseproof paper to take home. He also had Pork Scraps, left from rendering down his lard. I loved a big bag of scraps, and the inevitable pot of salt. They were nothing like the things that you buy today.

Bread and jam was a treat.

Bread and jam was our daily meal. We had one cooked meal a week at home, with school dinners through the week, Fish and Chips on Saturdays, and bread and jam for tea every day. We collected the Gollies.

 Tea was made in a teapot using tea leaves, not bags.

The tea cosy was the forerunner of all the energy saving devices that we hear so much about today.

Tea had only one colour, black. Green tea was not British.

Teapots were dark brown glazed china, probably sourced from Woolworths or the local market, and wore woolly tea cosies. Sometimes metal infusing balls were involved, but mainly you need a tea strainer. The strained leaves were oft dried on a saucer on the window sill and then used again. After the second use, they went in the plant pots. Tea was brown, not black – black tea came later, with Chinese restaurants.

Coffee was only drunk when we had no tea….. and then it was Camp, and came in a bottle.

Not true, by my time. Coffee was a choice in our household and came in instant powdered form in 2 or 4 ounce tins, from Nescafé. Interestingly, coffee then was normally a milk drink. Maxwell House was also available. We did not drink Camp generally in our household, as according to Mrs Airs & Graces “It’s not real coffee” but Dad kept a bottle for filling his Thermos flask when he fancied coffee rather than tea.

Camp still comes in a bottle, though today it is a plastic one. It still contains only 4% coffee but I happen to enjoy a Coffee/Chicory blend. It’s handy for baking and it makes great iced coffee in a hurry.

Cubed sugar was regarded as posh.

Yes. Brown sugar was considered posh too… as for brown cubes, well!

Sugar came white, granulated and from the Co-op, weighed into heavy blue paper bags. Cubed sugar came from the doctor, loaded with polio vaccine syrup.

Figs and dates appeared every Christmas, but no one ever ate them.

Despite the fact that the Dates had Eat Me! written on the box lid. 🙂 (N.B. when searching illustrative items for use in  blog, “Eat Me” is definitely not a work-safe search term.)

We would have Christmas dates always, rarely figs, but the dates certainly got eaten by the end of February and I chipped a tooth or two on the stones.

Sweets and confectionery were called toffees.

Sweets and confectionary were called Spice, and came in a two ounce paper cone bag when you got your Saturday pocket money.

Look, this list is HUMONGOUS. Shall we have part 2 tomorrow?


  1. January 19, 2013

    Did you regularly get dosed with syrup of figs? 🙂

    • January 19, 2013

      No – but with something called Honeyjel, or alternatively with a Malt Extract & Cod Liver Oil. And don’t forget the Welfare Orange Juice.

  2. January 19, 2013

    We used to get a spoonful of Rosehip syrup as well. I’m too young to remember the Welfare Orange Juice! 🙂

    • January 19, 2013

      Ha! I think you are stretching that a bit… we were still getting Welfare orange juice when my daughter was a baby.

      I can recall Rosehip Syrup in the house when my little sister (6 years younger) came along, but do not recall having it before then.

      • January 20, 2013

        I must have lived in the wrong part of Bristol for Welfare orange juice! 🙂

  3. January 20, 2013

    Well, I could be wrong, but I am pretty confident that the NHS had managed to reach even Bristolians in those dim and distant days 😉

    • January 20, 2013

      I think they had, but they probably regarded our bit as too posh! I’ll have to ask Mum. 🙂

      Did it come in small milk bottles (like you got as school)? I have a dim memory of those.

      • January 20, 2013

        I believe all families were regarded as equal and it was not means-tested – though it may have been free for some and extremely cheap (pennies) for others. I think you are recalling the dilute stuff that some milkmen carried in bottles such as school milk came in – an object of great interest and desire for me as a child. The Welfare OJ was highly concentrated and came in a medicine- type screw-top bottle.

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