FOOD - Part One

"I think when you've got pigs, and you've got kids, then you've a lot of food in the place; where nowadays they'd run to the shop for a tin of beans or a tin of spam or sausage or something, the old fashioned people in these valleys had this stuff hanging up for them on crooks."

Country people with a little plot of land, a cow, a pig, a sheep or two and some hens were virtually self-sufficient in food. The food they ate depended on what they could rear and grow. Inevitably our eating habits have changed dramatically in the last sixty or seventy years, and this month "The Way We Were" concerns food, a subject dear to all our hearts and stomachs. With the help of good memories we will be recalling the sort of food our grandparents and great grandparents ate and enjoyed, how they shopped and cooked, how much they ate and some of their favourite dishes and recipes.

There's no doubt about it that convenience food, fridges, freezers and foreign food have done for traditional Westmorland eating what television and video did to traditional live entertainment - if not killed them off completely, have certainly made them into quaint country customs. Car ownership has brought the supermarket shelves into easy reach; standardised mass food production means we all eat the same processed brands from Penzance to Penrith, while advertising encourages uniformity even further. Fewer women stay at home looking after their families full time, and working mothers have much less time for food preparation than their grandmothers had; and social factors like immigration and the popularity of foreign holidays have brought a strong taste for the cosmopolitan even as far north as Cumbria.

Food is such a mundane,everyday subject which we all take for granted, history is perhaps in danger of forgetting just what our families used to eat a generation or two back. Books will tell us the exact day that War broke out, but wouldn't bother to mention what people are likely to have eaten for lunch or tea that day. To help complete the picture, elderly people this week recall for us what family meals consisted of over half a century ago. Is it true, for example, that people ate more in those days?

"Of course, nineteen or twenty loaves was never enough for us in a week because we ate more then than we do now, we were always eating I think. And I think we just about ate them out of house and home. I often wonder when I sit down now how on earth they managed in those days."

This gentleman was one of five children living with his parents in a small town, and although unable to grow their food, his mother still did all her own baking rather than buy loaves and cakes.

We used to have a joint every Sunday and roast potatoes and so many vegetables, then we had fruit or something after - we had a real blow out, you know. But people seemed to have more heavy meals then all the time ... there was nothing left virtually, by the time we'd had a go - and we're big eaters."

On Monday, more vegetables were added to what was left, and the family never sat down to a dinner without half a stone of potatoes; Tuesday was Shepherds Pie, "beautiful and crisp on top, not soggy, a simple meal and comparatively cheap." Wednesday was often liver and onions, a big pan full, although warm summer weather brought lighter salad meals for a change. But the baking went on regardless:

"Mother used to have two proper baking days, Tuesday and Friday, when she baked ten loaves of bread both times, which was never enough, and also on Sunday, after she'd done the roast she used to put cakes in again. Of course, she put cakes in after through the week, when the fire was on, Tuesday and Friday; and the mixing, measurements, just worked out about ten loaves, big ones, she had all ready, mixed up, one thing after another. There'd be two large trays of scones, the farmhouse type of scones which were gorgeous, and then there'd be a big cake made which had plenty of fats and everything in it, a big plain cake, sometimes it had sultanas in. We'd a tin she used to do them in, a big square tin, and you cut the cake in squares like gingerbread, and perhaps Sunday she made a vinegar cake or just a sultana and fruit cake. And she also made jam pasties with fingers on, there was always plenty of stuff like that when she'd the fire on."

A ten stone bag of flour often lasted a family no more than a month, and quantities of oats were also widely used, to make haver bread or oatcakes. The link between good diet and health was treated as obvious good, common sense and whilst home-made butter and cream and home grown fat bacon and pork probably bumped up the cholesterol levels,children thrived on such simple dishes as porridge. In Langdale the school doctor, a Scot, never bothered with routine questions about child health:

"I don't think he examined us or anything, but he always used to say, 'Did you have your porridge this morning?' and 'Tomorrow morning you can say to your mother, can I have two plates of porridge?' Of course, being a Scot, he was fairly certain about the porridge!"