Keeping Food Fresh

Nowadays we don’t have any problems keeping food fresh and safe to eat. We have fridges, freezers, vacuum packs as well as the dried and tinned foods which have been around much longer. Also, everything – even tinned food! – has a sell by/ use by date printed on it. The humble sell-by date actually has a surprisingly short history here in the UK. It was introduced in Marks & Spencer’s storerooms in the 1950s before making its way onto the shelves in 1970. It wasn’t even called a “sell-by-date” until 1973. Like a lot of people who date back to pre-sell-by date years, I still rely on the look, feel and smell of food rather than panicking and throwing food away the day after the date has passed. I appreciate that people who eat meat and fish have to be extra careful and to take no risks.

       

 

       

 

When I was very young, in the early 1950s,  we didn’t have a fridge. I remember the arrival of our first one being so exciting! In the summer, my mum used to hang bottles of milk in a string bag in the stream to stop the milk going off. We had a pantry with a stone slab in it which was meant to keep things cool. It is very easy to tell when milk has turned sour. Bread goes dry, cheese goes mouldy, potatoes go green and start sprouting, some foods start smelling bad. When these sort of foods have been kept too long or have been stored incorrectly the result is obvious. The hidden danger is when food has turned and could be hazardous but there are no obvious signs which is when sell by dates are important.

 

A 1950s kitchen with an early fridge.

UK’s first frozen food product was asparagus made by Smedley’s of Wisbech which is a fact which surprised me as I had assumed the ubiquitous pea would have been the first frozen vegetable. Although frozen food went on sale for the first time in Britain on May 10, 1937, the average UK householder did not have easy access to it until the 1950s and 60s. Home freezers first became popular in the 1970s .  Apparently, the sales of frozen food were boosted during the Second World War as metals for tins were in very short supply but I reckon that would only have been in cities and not in the more rural areas such as where I grew up.

The face of Birds Eye in the UK – Captain Birds Eye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Power

For the past week, we have had a problem in our house with our electricity. It keeps cutting out and it has taken our electrician several visits to determine what is causing the fault. There have been a few evenings when we’ve relied on candles and hot water bottles for light and warmth. Fortunately, my cooker has a gas hob (electric oven) so I have been able to cook in spite of having no oven or grill.

One cold dark evening last week, I found myself thinking ‘This is just like living in the 1940s.’ which made me think that I could turn the experience into a blog post.

It’s amazing how much we take power for granted. When our power was off, I was frustrated by being unable to carry out normal household chores such as laundry, vacuuming, ironing and I was without entertainment, communication and diversion in the evenings as there was no TV, radio or Internet. The heating system and the land lines depend on electricity too.

Although I grew up in a home which had electricity, I knew homes in our area which didn’t. Looking back, the power we had was basic as it was mainly for lighting with a few sockets. We had an electric cooker as there was no gas in our area but in the early 50s you would only really need electricity for lights if you had a gas cooker as many homes in Britain still didn’t have fridges or TVs. I remember us getting our first fridge. Up until then my mum kept food cool on a stone slab in the pantry and in warm weather put milk bottles in the stream. I was ten years old when we first acquired a TV. Our heating was by coal fire with supplementary heating in the bedrooms in the coldest winter weather by paraffin heaters at bedtime and in the morning.

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Bakelite switches and a phone like our first one with a cloth covered cable.

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Before we had a washing machine, clothes were heated in this type of boiler which was basically a giant kettle and wrung out outside by a mangle.

hoover7_Advert_1952_

Then came our first washing machine – exactly like this one.

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The first vacuum cleaner I remember was exactly like this one and lasted for years. It was already old in the 1950s and had been left behind in a house we moved into in 1955 as the previous owners considered it too old to take with them!

s-l300    Rare-Vintage-1950s-Paul-Warma-Paraffin-Oil-Heater

Paraffin heaters like the ones we had in the 1950s to take the chill off the bedrooms at bedtime.

1950selectricfire        Vintage-Retro-Morphy-Richards-Electric-Heater

In the 1960s each of our bedrooms had an electric fire instead of paraffin. We had two like these.

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1950s home entertainment was via the radio and record player. The radiogram combined both in a ‘stylish’ cabinet. We thought ours was very smart!

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We acquired our first TV in 1961 when I was 10 –  such excitement!! In the mid 1960s my dad bought a reel to reel tape recorder (the same model as this one) which we had loads of fun with.

Vintage-GEC-Electric-Dry-Iron-1950s-1960s-not    Retro-Vintage-Morphy-Richards-Noiseless-HAIR-DRYER-Boxed-_1   s-l500

Early electric iron, kettle and hair dryer like ours in the 1950s.

The Dawn of the Packet Mix.

Another food post! This time I am looking at the instant food mixes which arrived during my childhood and were extensively advertised on TV and in women’s magazines. Preparing food for a family in the 1950s and 60s was hard work and totally dependent on what was available in the current season. Households in Britain at that time didn’t have freezers and many didn’t even have a fridge. Everything was made from scratch and there were no food processors or electric beaters either.The idea that one could produce a tasty dessert by adding milk to a powder and whisking must have seemed like magic. There were the cake mixes – one of our main brands was Green’s. They advertised that all you needed to add was an egg. I believe I have read somewhere ages ago that the manufacturers felt that if egg powder was in the mix so that you only needed to add water, the maker would not have felt as if she (well, it was always a woman!) was doing proper cooking. Adding an egg made it feel more like she was producing a home-made cake.

 

lemon meringuecake mix

I believe you made your own pastry base and meringue topping and the mix was for the lemon filling. The cake mix was usually Green’s. I think this photograph is 1970s.

trifle                 carmelle

The trifle mix contained a few different sponge fingers and dry sachets for making jelly, custard and the fake cream topping. Sprinkles might also have been included. I think you provided your own fruit (tinned). The Carmelle pudding was an instant way of creating a creme brulee style dessert just by heating some milk and opening two sachets.

dream topping     instant whip           ww240569angeldelight.jpeg

Dream Topping gave you a whipped cream topping in an era when you didn’t often have fresh cream available- and in those pre-fridge days it was considered a step up from tinned cream! Before Instant Whip and Angel Delight there was only blancmange which was made by heating milk with cornflour, sugar and colouring. The thickened mix was poured into a mould, allowed to cool then turned out and eaten with fruit and jelly. Instant Whip and Angel Delight, on the other hand, only had to be whisked with cold milk eaten. Also, they were crammed full of chemicals to make them set and to make them taste extra sweet and fruity – so kids loved them.

 

smash    vesta        surprise peas

In the 1960’s instant mashed potato arrived on the scene. We Brits do like our mash and this saves all the peeling, boiling and mashing. Next came Vesta. In the 1960s we were beginning to be aware of food from other countries but few people had access to the real thing. It was the height of cool to be able to serve a curry in your own home! Surprise Peas were amazing at the time. Until the freeze-drying method of preserving peas was invented, the only way of eating fresh garden peas was in the pea growing season. The rest of the year the choice was either tinned peas or dried peas (soaked overnight and when cooked turned into what we know as ‘mushy peas’). Surprise Peas, when added to boiling water and cooked for a few minutes actually tasted exactly like real, fresh peas. Once domestic freezers became a common household object, these peas were superseded by frozen peas and are no longer available here.

The things to remember about the popularity of these early convenience foods are that

  • Preparing and cooking food was a time-consuming business in the 1950s
  • Ingredients were limited to what was available seasonally and grown in this country
  • TV advertising had just burst onto the scene and made these things look sophisticated, trendy and modern so people wanted to try them

Now many people look down on instant food but then it was novel and the height of cool. I remember my mum trying some of them out (probably when we children clamoured for them after seeing the ads!) but she always said that for a family of five on a tight budget things like Smash, Vesta and cake mixes were totally impractical as the portions were small and it worked out more costly than making the food yourself.