Food played an important part in relieving the monotony of everyday life in days gone by, just as it does today, and there were few high days, holidays or festivals that didn't have special food to mark the occasion. In the third part of this series on Food, elderly people remember some of the meals that accompanied important days in the year, such as Christmas Day, a birthday, Rushbearing or a funeral.
The food that families living in the big houses enjoyed was very different from the sort of food that their cooks and maids ate at home. It was nothing for big families and their guests to sit down to seven courses every evening; and sometimes local suppliers couldn't be trusted for a really important party, and catering was sent by train from London. Many a parlourmaid was flummoxed by shopping lists for such delicacies as mock turtle; yet although they became skilled at cooking grand food, few ordinary folk experimented at home with French cuisine. Instead, they stuck to the traditional old recipes, and Christmas wasn't complete without a goose:
"We had mincepies and rich food and Sweet Pie, which was terrible, and the main meal was goose, stuffed with sage and onions, and you'd have apple sauce, sprouts, turnips and potatoes, then plum puddings and lovely rum sauce."
Outdoor activities all had traditional refreshments of their own. A cake was provided for the children on their annual Sunday School outing, but one little boy found it had so much soda in it, he couldn't eat it:
"The Vicar asked us if we'd all had one cake...and it had so much soda in it you couldn't eat it; and my brother, who'd been naughty,didn't like to leave it on his plate because the Vicar would say, 'Why haven't you eaten it?', so he put it in the teapot!"
Food for picnics usually consisted of sandwiches and fruit or currant loaves, and haymakers in summer drank quantities of thirst-quenching cold tea or Botanic Beer; but luncheon for the nobility at Grasmere Sports or shooting parties up on the fells had to be more elaborate, and transported up to little shooting lodges with staff to serve it :
"It was lovely at Grasmere Sports to watch all the lunches laid out, all beautiful lunches, roasted pheasants and that.Of course there was a shoot at Rydal Hall then, and Lord Lonsdale used to come to the shoot then. My brother had all the lunches to take up in the cart to a little shooting box of his as you go up Fairfield - walk up past Hart Head and follow the road straight up Fairfield Bottom and there's a little shooting box on the left hand side, he used to take all the meals up there."
Childrens' birthday parties were certainly not the occasions they are today for specialist infant catering. Food was plain and unadorned; party fare was bread and jam, and a fruit or currant loaf instead of cake. However, children often enjoyed an unexpected treat in Ambleside, when somebody would arrive with a horse and cart, or a basket:
"Old Tommy Dowker used to come round with his gingerbread and black puddings, and a lady called Mrs Clark used to make the most delicious gingerbread, people used to come for squares of gingerbread. Then there was Miss Dixon at Wansfell Tower - her niece used to come round with muffins in a basket. Then there was Mr. Wilson from Hawkshead came with a cart and horse... and he brought Hawkshead Whigs. They're tea cakes with carraway seed in."
It was traditional to make Rum Butter for a Christening in a great big bowl, and funerals usually ended with a meal of cold ham, cold beef, pickles and bread and butter, if the family could afford it. Favourite old recipes were sometimes used for a funeral tea:
"The old fashioned way at a funeral was a cold fowl, or something like that, and the tea would be held at the house where the death had been, where the funeral had gone from. There would be a talk, a get-together, and there were a few old recipes Grandfather used to like...Feg Sow, I think it was Fig Soup. Whether it was made with figs or not, I don't know. And mulled ale, beer, warmed up, with some spices on top. Those were old dishes."
One of the most memorable things about Ambleside Rushbearing was the tea, served in individual bags from a big swill:
"One of the things I remember about the Rushbearing tea was you got it in bags, which I thought was marvellous.And in this bag you got a piece of teacake and a sugar bun, which was also marvellous. It was really blown up and on the top of it was big lumps of sugar stuck in and Gascoyne's used to make them. We used to call them Bath buns, and then there would be a cake in, and you got your bag, and then they gave you tea."
Few people were disappointed by hotel food, and those who could afford just one shilling and sixpence for afternoon tea at Brotherilkeld went away well satisfied:
"One and six for tea, and you got tea, bread and butter, scones, cakes, rum butter and jam... and half a crown for ham and eggs! And currant pasty- that was a great thing. Weren't they good!"