How We Lived Then

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When I look back at the food of my 1970s childhood, it all seems as brightly coloured as a pair of toe-socks or a brand new Space Hopper. It was a neon feast of packets and powders, stuff dehydrated, canned or frozen solid. A typical supper was Alphabetti Spaghetti and fish fingers accompanied by the happy glug of tomato ketchup; then a pudding of butterscotch Angel Delight (just add milk) with a squeeze from a tube of chocolate-flavoured sauce. Flavours were fantastical combinations of chemicals and ideas (remember ‘hedgehog’ crisps?).

One summer, around 1974, my mother, inspired by Richard Mabey’s Food for Free (see SF no.23) made us forage for horseradish, churn butter in jam-jars and make yoghurt in the airing cupboard; we enthusiastically embraced the chicken brick. But we were only playing at it: as long as there was a sachet of instant whip in the cupboard and a Spar down the road, we were at some safe distance from self-sufficiency. Real food, with blood, guts and hard graft behind it, the kind that every generation before us would have taken for granted, was frankly rather alarming.

 Which is why Dorothy Hartley’s 700-page Food in England, first published in 1954, when Britain was on the brink of a revolution in its eating habits, is so fascinating, such a celebratory masterpiece of how we have lived – and by contrast how we live now. Much more than a cookbook – though there are many recipes in it – Food in England is a culinary epic celebrating two millennia of change, accrued knowledge and the skills of survival.

Threading all the way through is Hartley’s own experience – not only her astonishingly vivid memories but the practical interest she took in implements, craftsmanship and ingenuity. An intrepid, gipsy-like delight in self-sufficiency pervades her writing. Never married, Hartley was an art student and then a schoolteacher but

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About the contributor

Lucy Lethbridge’s most recent book is Spit and Polish: Old-fashioned Ways to Banish Dirt, Dust and Decay. Her researches left her awestruck by the domestic labours of the past – and by the unsung heroes who gave us rubber gloves and Formica work-surfaces.

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