Everyday meals for the working classes, in the early 20th century England
By the webmaster’s mother, 1906-2002
All the food that we ate when I was a child in the early years of the 20th Century were wholesome and filling, and all the cooking was done on the coal-fired cooking range. Menus were largely dictated by the day of the week, but there was scope for some variety. I explain what the traditional meals were like to eat and how they were made, which is the next best thing to detailing their recipes..
I really loved the meat pudding of my childhood. It was always made before I went to school in the morning. My mother would make the suet dough; line a basin with it; cut the meat into pieces; dust them with a mixture of flour and gravy powder; put them into the basin; add salt, pepper and water; put a thick crust of dough on top; secure a thin piece of white material over it with string; then draw the four corners of the material together into a knot to form a handle.
Then the pudding would be boiled in water for three to four hours, so that it was ready when we children came home for dinner at mid-day. By this time, the pudding was very hot, and the makeshift knotted handle saved my mother from getting burnt when she came to serve up.
The richness and thickness of the gravy were superb. Try as I will, I never achieve the same results. It could have been the quality of the meat or perhaps the pudding needed to be of a certain size.
Pigs fry, also known as 'tripe and onions' was made in a large dish. The ingredients were sliced potatoes laid alternately with onion and pigs offal or tripe. Meat or vegetable stock from a previous cooking was poured over and the dish was left to simmer. It was served with other vegetables.
Tripe, which is the lining of pig's stomach, is almost white with a cell-like structure and is an acquired taste. Few people actually like it; in fact the word 'tripe' is a colloquial work for 'rubbish'.
What tripe is like to eat
Eating tripe is like chewing rubber.
Vegetable soup was another meal that could be left on the hob for hours to cook. This was a meal in itself. It was not just thin liquid. There were lots of pieces of vegetable and sometimes pieces of meat where any was left over from the roast. If there was no left-over meat, women would buy bones to flavour the soup.
Rice pudding, 1900s style
I loved my mother's rice puddings. She put rice and water into a large enamel dish with some sugar, a knob of butter and some grated nutmeg. Then the whole thing simmered for hours and by the time we children came home from school, it was thick and creamy. Also a skin developed which I really liked, although not many people did.
There were of course no electric toasters. So to make toast, the bread always had to be toasted in front of a real fire, which for our family meant against the bars of the kitchen range in the kitchen.
There were special toasting forks for the purpose with long handles, so that our hands didn't get too close to the fire. Some of these toasting forks were rather decorative affairs made of brass. They usually had a design like a crest on them for a particular holiday resort or something similar. Better-off families brought them back from holidays as souvenirs, just as less affluent families brought back sticks of rock with the name of the resort marked throughout. Consequently better-off families tended to accumulate toasting forks which was how they found their way down to the likes of us. Ours was used constantly.
The bread of course had to be toasted one side at a time and one slice at a time, and it relied on hot glowing coals. So the lumps of coal were turned over with the poker or tongs to expose the inner glowing sides from the heart of the fire. This also got the bread away from the smoke of the fire.
By the time that several slices of toast had been made, the first slices were getting cold. So toast tended to be a snack for one or two people rather than a family meal. It was particularly good with the dripping from the Sunday roast.