Food plays such an important part of our life and there is so
much variety from which to choose. It's possible to eat in luxurious
surroundings and equally as pleasant to sit in the car outside
a fast food shop and enjoy hamburgers and cokes; breakfast at
the pancake and waffle houses; partake of pizza; eat a Chinese
meal; choose a taco or enchilada at the Mexican restaurant, pick
up doughnuts and coffee just about anywhere.
This is in sharp contrast to my childhood when eating was strictly
undertaken in the home. No doubt there were hotels and fine restaurants
where a good meal was available, but not for the people of our
class. There were a few tea shops where afternoon tea was served
and this was mainly tea, toasted tea cakes and fancy cakes. For
the most part we ate at home.
We had plain food but it was good and wholesome. Twice each
week Mother baked a stone (14 lbs) of flour. This made about
11 or 12 loaves and, as bread was one of our staple foods we
ate it all. She mixed her bread in a large earthenware bowl kept
for this purpose called the bread steen. It was glazed yellow
inside and the original red colour outside. This was always put
on the floor in front of the fire, before the flour was tipped
in, whilst she mixed and kneaded it, kneeling down. We had a
cat called Billy who loved to walk in and out of the flour bag
until his fur looked as though the snow had fallen on it. In
and out he went leaving little white paw prints all over the
floor. Mother always tried to send him outside when she was baking,
but Billy was too clever to be caught this way, and always hid
until the paper flour bag was empty. Then off he went again.
Mother would kneel down to knead all this flour and she kept
a jug of warm water on the hearth in case the dough got too hard.
When it was all ready, the dough stayed in the bowl covered with
a clean tea towel, with another cloth over it to keep it warm
until it had risen. It then had to be put into tins, covered
and allowed to rise again, before being put into the oven to
come out as delicious smelling, golden brown loaves.
When Pat was small (she didn't go to school at such an early
age as we did) she always sat opposite Mother and absorbed all
the rituals. One day, Pat and Margaret, a little friend of hers,
were in their usual places when Mother was called to the door,
and these two naughty little girls gathered up handfuls of cinders
scooped from the hearth and decorated the top of the dough with
them. They looked rather nice, they thought and so they put on
more and more until the whole of the dough was covered in cold
dirty cinders. To say Mother was furious was the understatement
of the year! She sent Margaret home post haste, spanked Pat and
then proceeded to try to get out all those horrible cinders.
She pulled and poked, doing the best she could, but it was a
hopeless task and inevitably some of the bread ended up with
little gritty bits in it. Mother told us in no uncertain terms
that it was good for us, and there was to be no grumbling.
There was always plenty of good farm butter to spread on the
bread and Mother was lavish with it. Maybe that's why I like
to see my teeth marks in bread and butter to this day! We ate
rich farmhouse cheese and though salads were not the popular
food they are today, I, recall tomato and beetroot (previously
pickled in vinegar) and eaten with plenty of seasoning. Chip
butties were one of our favourites and when the hot chips melted
the butter on the bread, it was a feast to us all.
Though we ate plain food during the week, with little meat,
Sunday was the day that we, and everyone else then, ate a good
and satisfying meal at dinner time - noon. It was usually beef
or lamb, slowly roasted in the oven with either roast or new
potatoes, according to the season, garden peas or mashed carrots
and turnips, served with lots of butter.
This was always followed with a rice pudding which, too, had
been allowed to cook slowly in the oven. It came to the table
in the large enamel dish in which it had been cooked, with a
thick brown skin on top that we all fought over. The top had
been sprinkled with nutmeg, freshly grated with the large nut
kept specially for the purpose. The nutmeg grater wasn't used
for anything else so as to retain the flavour, and the nut was
kept in a little drawer at the top of the grater. Milk was drunk
or used then straight from the cow, and it was rich in cream
- this made the milk puddings full of goodness.
When a cow had calved her first milk was called 'beastings'
(I don't know why) and this was even richer than the ordinary
milk. Mrs. Jackson, the farmer's wife, always saw to it that
we had some and it made puddings that were like Ambrosia.
No doubt we had our share of cow hairs - milking was done by
hand and the cows were not T.T. tested. I've never tasted milk
like that rich farm milk - none of your homogenised or 2% stuff!
Mother occasionally sent us over to Jackson's farm, which was
called Swanscoe, for cream. We had to walk over Kerridge, through
Thunderwood, past the bluebells, stopping at the spring to cup
our hands and drink the cold crystal water. Mrs. Jackson always
let us go with her into the cold room, with it's flagstone floors,
and deep windows, set well away from the sun. Here on a large
table were the large shallow steins (yellow crockery) in which
the milk had been poured to 'set'. The cream, when it had formed,
was about two inches thick and was skimmed off the top to make
the butter and famous Cheshire cheese. The milk which remained
- today's Low Fat, or Skim - was fed to the pigs.
Mrs. Jackson took a large, flat, saucer like utensil and carefully
skimmed it along the surface of the cream leaving a wake of 'creases',
and then put the cream into a jug which we had taken for the
purpose, and charged us 6d for about a pint. Maybe she covered
it, I can't remember, but I do know that a few non-too-clean
fingers went into the jug to taste this nectar. Often she would
gather a few raspberries and put them on a rhubarb leaf and send
these "for your Mother". No-one bothered about paper then, I
doubt if we had any. So off home we would go, ready to feast
on the fruit and cream we loved so well.
On Mother's baking days she always made what she called flour
cakes which were like barm cakes. They were baked last of all
and for a special treat she would split one or two open, butter
them and slice a huge piece of mellow Cheshire cheese on top,
pop it back into the oven until the butter and cheese melted
in the hot bread. These were always for Dad's tea. We never had
them, she told us they were indigestible - she probably only
had enough cheese for Dad - as I've said before, she could make
us believe anything!
On her hard-up days (and there were plenty), she would slice
up new bread, buttering it and then liberally shake pepper and
salt on top. These, she made us believe, were a special treat
and we were fortunate to be able to have such good things. Of
course, we enjoyed these 'pepper and salt butties' and they DID
taste specially nice.
Sometimes on Saturdays, Mother would go to Macclesfield on the
bus, returning in time for Dad's dinner. Me, like everyone else,
worked until noon on Saturday. She always brought home some sausages
that she bought from a little shop in Waters Green. This tiny
shop sold only home boiled or roast ham, tongue, sausage and
their own home made potted meat. All the ham was cooked 'on the
bone' and the proprietor had a good selection of knives that
were sharpened to a razor like edge. Carefully with long years
of practice, he would slice the amount of ham, pink with a border
of creamy fat, just as thin or thick as you wanted. The tongue
was equally delicious and both were foods fit for a king.
The sausages, which were unadulterated in the way of bread or
other fillers, hung in long links on a spotless rail above the
counter. There was little decision to be made, pork or beef,
thick or thin, and you left the shop knowing full well that you
were taking home something that would make a tasty dish.
Mother would cook these succulent sausages slowly over a low
heat, taking care that they did not burst open. Whilst these
were cooking she would cut up some cheese on to an enamel plate,
add a few drops of milk and pop this into the oven to toast.
It came out hot and bubbling with a rich brown topping ready
to go on to the plates and with all this we would eat oatcakes,
another Cheshire delicacy. Always this was served with coffee
- the only time I can remember drinking it. Maybe it was that
when Mother passed Burgon's shop in Macclesfield, she couldn't
resist the tempting aroma of fresh coffee that came wafting out.
So much of our food was home made that the ready baked bread
and cakes that were sold in shops were looked on rather contemptuously.
Anyone who bought bread was immediately judged to be a poor housekeeper.
Village people had little room for sympathy, and the fact that
bread may have been bought because of varying circumstances was
never entertained. All was either black or white in those days
- there were no gentle shades of gray.
One Spring Dad took us to Ashton-under-Lyne on Whit Friday to
visit his cousins. The Ashton family were such a jolly crowd.
I still am bemused as to who were family and who were in-laws.
The head of the house, Uncle William, was Granny Oldfield's brother
but he had died before I came to know them. Aunt Fanny was a
tiny lady, full of fun. Then came the family who were all around
Mother and Dad's age and who all seemed to live together or near
to each other. There was a girl around my age whose name, Ennis,
On the appointed day we made the excursion by train, which was
another pleasure. I know Mother didn't go, but the reason escapes
me now. The visit was to give us the opportunity to see the Whit
walks, a great feature of the north of England. There were several
schools taking part in the processions and we dodged from one
vantage point to another. One thing which I couldn't understand
was why, in one crossing over from one part of town to another
we saw another procession and I was amazed to see that all the
little girls were wearing veils. We were hastily whisked away
and told that they were 'the Catholics'. I can't think that we
would have been corrupted had we stood to watch them, but at
that time people were very biased and anything not 'Church' or
'Chapel' was viewed with great suspicion.
We went back to the house and ate a lavish lunch, then spent
the afternoon in Stamford Park where the great treat was a ride
on the motor boat around the lake. At lunch or tea our meal consisted
of tinned salmon, followed by fruit lavishly garnished with Carnation
Cream*. This, plus all the excitement of a good day's outing
had been, alas, my undoing. During the night I was violently
sick. Of course Mother wanted to know what we had eaten and when
she learnt that it was tinned salmon and Carnation cream, she
was very scathing indeed. "No wonder you are sick; eating
all that bought stuff" was her comment. The fact that only
I was sick didn't seem to count - probably I had made a pig of
myself so fierce was her condemnation of Carnation cream that
she turned me against it for a long time.
* evaporated milk
© 1985 Enid Simpson