Food and cooking and childhood

There are foods which take me straight back to childhood: meat and potato pie, cheese and onion pie, shepherds' pie. Now I realise that these were foods for the poor, ways of making a small amount of protein go a long way, and not the treats I thought them as a child but these dishes are still to me redolent of comfort and good cooking. My mother made great pastry and loves to taste and stir and experiment. Sometimes I would go to a friend's house for tea and find that their version of meat and potato pie was all grey: grey cardboard pastry, grey meat with gristly lumps, grey potatoes, indistinguishable from the grey gravy. I would do my best to eat it, except for the gristly lumps which could be stealthily hidden under the knife, but always felt so sorry for my friend. How could she bear it, when the pastry should be crisp and golden, the meat cooked long and slow into tastiness, the potatoes just firm enough to be a distinct mouthful in the bubbling gravy.

I loved to come home from school to the smell of chicken soup filling the kitchen and steaming up the windows. This would be the fourth day that the chicken had fed a family of five and the broth heating the kitchen was full of onion and potato and carrot from my grandfather's garden, handfuls of pearl barley and chopped fresh herbs. I loved it with a thick slice of white bread from my grandparents' bakery thickly spread with butter. If my mother had been baking there would be Eccles cake for afters, the trimmings of pastry rolled together and filled with currants and sugar before being rolled flat and brushed with egg, or rhubarb and apple crumble, appearing as if by magic just when you had decided maybe it wasn't a pudding day today.

These foods never leave you. I can cook all of the foods of my childhood without a recipe. My mother loved cooking and had a massive Good Housekeeping cookery book which she had as a wedding present when she married in 1953. Smiling immaculate women in New Look skirts and high heels look out from its pages. Shiny formica and spindly legged chairs showed a world that certainly wasn't ours. This was for special occasion food but she didn't consult it for tea time cooking. That just happened somehow and I absorbed how to make everyday things through hanging around in the kitchen, peeling and chopping as I got older, being asked to taste and stir and decide if something needed more pepper. Some of the dishes have stayed with me for years and some I rarely cook now. I have added more staples of my own as I raised my own children: flapjack, chicken casserole, fish pie, things I can make on automatic pilot and stretch to feed five or fifteen.

I was surprised when staying at my younger daughter's the other week when she said she had made a Somerset apple cake, a long time favourite, without a recipe.

"How did you manage?" I asked her.

"Well I thought I probably knew it all" she said and out she came with the ingredients and the amounts, all just there in her head. The recipe is in an old and tatty book called Farmhouse Kitchen which I bought from a second hand bookstall at a primary school summer fair twenty years ago.

There is a Somerset apple cake in the oven now, the sugar covered top turning golden. We brought the last of the apples in from the workshop after lunch, discarding the ones which had gone over the top and dividing the others into two great shopping bags of "better do something with these now" and another two of "these will hang on for another week or two". It is amazing at the end of April still to be cooking with the huge apples from the Howgate Wonder tree, as big as a baby's head.

I should make more herb jellies and apple and ginger and jam. Ian has instructions from Maddy as to how to make dried apple slices so he will do that with some more and some of the "cook these now" will go with me this evening to Ian's father who will make cartons of stewed apple for his freezer. I like to see cooking and making things passing on down the generations. Let's hope there aren't too many people buying ready meals or deciding to be adventurous with Delia and buying frozen mashed potato (what for? how difficult is it and how long does it take to peel a potato?). Let's hope there are still children shaking a jam jar for their mother with the ingredients of a salad dressing in it, creaming butter and sugar together for a cake and pinching a bit before the egg goes in, making the toppings for their own pizza, just being around in the kitchen learning to love food and to make it, leaving home with some scruffy notes about to make their favourite things, becoming the next generation of cooks.


  1. Oh EM thank you for your blog - it brought back happy memories of my own childhood and cooking with my Mum. She too made gorgeous pastry . . .mine is more rocklike, but Wildchild appears to have inherited the 'light touch' and makes mince pies for us at Xmas when she comes to visit.

    I can remember that we had a 'safe' and not a fridge - so food had to be bought fresh and cooked and eaten.

  2. Nothing beats Mum's home-made cooking! :D

  3. I have no idea how my mum used to make and bake the lightest puff pastry in a little black oven by an open fire ...wonder how Delia would cope with that!
    Lovely blog!

  4. ah, yes, this is lovely. i can smell the apple cake baking, elizabeth!

    my mother is an excellent cook, too, though after so many years of cooking for so many she now prides herself on never cooking. it's too bad. but i have learned some of her recipes by heart--oxtail soup, and turkey dressing, and apple crisp.

    they will not be forgotten. every time i make them, i am transported to that dining room on east fourth street...

  5. Oooh, Somerset apple pie sounds delicious - do share the secret, Elizabeth. Yes, like you I have certain 'staples' that I knock up on autopilot without recourse to a recipe book or scales. I also remember one of my mum's economy dishes - corned beef hash - which I used to love as a child, but you never see corned beef now. H tells me it sounds disgusting and my memory must be playing tricks, but I'm not so sure...

    Lovely blog.

  6. Lovely blog, about one of my fave subjects!!! Apple cake, yum!

    Off to the kitchen now!

  7. Love the sound of the Applecake, I think I may have the same recipe book, I shall look it up!

    I bought myself a Howgate Wonder whip last autumn, having tried the fruit at the Wisley autumn show. It'll be a few years before it fruits, but it is a wonderful apple,

  8. Great blog Elizabeth-
    That brought back wonderful memories for me too-used to bake such a lot with my Nan. And of course I am well familiar with the cheaper cuts of meat-heart/kidneys/liver/breast of lamb etc. My boys (nor husband) would look at them!

    I still bake most weeks and both my boys enjoy helping-even Idle Jack!! Helped me since they were very small.

    I've actually been quite outraged personally at Delias latest marketing of How to Cheate. However I concede it is a sad reflection of the fast pace and changing lifestyles-maybe it wouldn't appear quite so outrageous if I still worked full time in the bank??

    Looking forward to see you Thursday

  9. I am very envious. Everything I bake turns out like a little round, black ice hockey puck. And my mother never even attempted it as far as I can remember!

  10. This reminded me so much of my childhood and Mum's cooking - all the old favourites. She cooked mainly without recipes but she had the Good Housekeeping cookery book - I've still got it, plus I've also got the Farmhouse Kitchen by Mary Norwak - is that the one? Both books are full of lovely recipes and photos.

    What is Delia doing? I used to like her programmes and books, but this latest one is so odd!

  11. I can just smell the cooking reading your blog, I can also feel a corned-beef hash and an apple cake coming on. Mine has no recipe - just a feeling for how it should be, brown sugar, apples, soft sponge and a crumbly top.
    Lovely blog - very nostalgic.

  12. Elizabeth I have just read this and the previous blog and they are both beautiful. The one about not wanting to leave home rings so many bells for me - I have to be forcibly removed from mine sometimes! I love to potter and get back to feeling the garden and the rooms of the house if I have been away for even a day.

    All you say about cooking is also the same for me; the watching and absorbing what took place in my mother's kitchen even though she never had time to teach me any of the things she did; the familiar recipes and meals I can still smell to this day, all bringing a sense of home to mind. Isabella cooks with me everyday woith her little apron tied firmly and wooden spoon to hand - I wonder what she will remember? xx

  13. I love this blog entry, Elizabeth.

    When I was a young woman, just out on my own, I remember calling my mother and writing favorite recipes on cards to put into a file. I still have those, but so many of them I never have to pull out any longer.

    One of those is a raw apple nut cake from my childhood. Delicious.

    I also got a good housekeeping cookbook when I married, but it is from 1986. I think it's the best cookbook in the world. It's illustrated with lovely photos of finished dishes and has lists and drawings of useful things, such as how to poach an egg or what to substitue for buttermilk in a pinch. I think every homemaker should have one.

  14. Great blog, and somehow I was coming in with you to those steamed up windows and the chicken soup and that lovely thick slice of bread. People just don't cook like that nowadays, its a shame.

  15. I had a Good HouseKeeping Cookbook too - it taught the basics and while not very inspiring the recipes have proved to be a good foundation for future exploration. It also had a lady on the front who looked like the scary Mrs Steel, my maths mistress.

    Do make more jellies - your quince jelly (just licked the last out of the jar!) is a Gold Medal Winner.

  16. It's grand isn't it when one's children start cooking properly. Elder Daughter rustled up the most perfect pasta dish the other day from scratch - spaghetti, cheese, scraps of bacon, herbs, cream.

    One of my favourite 'peasant' dishes - and so easy to cook - is potatoes and haricots verts sauteed with garlic and butter. Wonderful.

  17. oh, have just come from elizd's blog where SHE made me feel starving, straight to this - big mistake, am now salivating. Am sure we had that Good Housekeeping book - was it yellow (or white?) but textured, definitely textured. And teh Readers Digest one (featuring a most delicious sponge pudding I most definitely made with my forgetful father). Although, much as I like the odd cook book - it's the promise of success, maybe - I tend to be a make it up as you go along sort of person which can cause an undoing hence the need to make this request, being do you have a foolproof flapjack recipe you can pass it on? I used to be queen of flapjack and, really, what's to go wrong?? But something does go wrong these days and try as I might they go brittle. I'm really rather good at cooking (and so attractively modest, too!) so to be stumped by something as prosaic as a flapjack is irksome. I like them soft - any thoughts?? thanks v much.

  18. oh a lovely post! It's sooo important to have a mum that cooks isn't it? my mum was the same, proper grub, cooked from scratch.

    I love letting my children lick out the bowl (even the allergic one thanks to eggless cooking!)and to see them scampering around with chocolate goo smudged all over their faces.

    Your description of your mum's meals was heartwarming, as was reading about your anticipation of pudding!

  19. All my childhood memories came flooding back as I read about your mother's cooking! Yes those were the days!!!!!
    That grey pastry & gristle neatly had me gagging!

  20. I love it! Very creative!That's actually really cool.



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