Preserved in aspic
Delving into a record of postwar family meals
You might think that someone who meticulously documents every meal they eat, and every wine they drink with it, must be a child of the social media era, a typical Instagram narcissist. In that case my great-grandparents were ahead of their time: my uncle recently discovered four “dinner books” (the words are printed on the cover), looking a little like old-fashioned visitors’ books, in which someone has written down the menu, the wines and the guests at every meal from 1953 to 1968. My great-grandfather, George Ivon Woodham-Smith — universally known as “Woodham” — was a solicitor, and one of his company’s main clients was the Rank Organisation. As he was disabled, he often had business meetings at home. My great-grandmother, Cecil Woodham-Smith, was a popular historian, author of The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Great Hunger, on the Irish famine. They entertained a lot, and you can play a snooping game, trawling through the guests, for the occasional tantalising name, either from the British film industry (Mr and Mrs M. Powell, Miss V. Hobson), or writers and historians (Rosamond Lehmann and “Mr Trevor-Roper” in 1954).
They had a butler and a cook, and we think the books were written and used by them. There’s no suggestion that any outside person saw this stuff. But the purpose of writing it all down can’t have been to avoid repetition. What springs out most from these volumes is the sheer repetitiveness of the food, although it’s possible that the lists are not presenting it to the best advantage. Flipping through the pages, you see the same dishes again and again: braised celery, cheese soufflé, eggs au gratin, endless roast chicken (in one week somehow they had it three times), roast lamb, potatoes, potatoes and more potatoes. There is an echo of the classic food of London clubs. The Woodhams (as they’re always called in these books) eat a lot of grilled sole, lamb cutlets and stuffed eggs, here given the rather more elegant name “eggs mimosa”. They eat pheasant, and occasionally woodcock, but no other game; by anyone’s standards they seem to eat a lot of meat, and sometimes both fish and meat in one meal. The cuts are always high-end but there’s little sense of anything different in the manner of cooking from one meal to the next, and you have to look hard to see any culinary progress. For example, “Miss K. Hepburn” had dinner with Mr & Mrs Woodham (as they’re always listed) on March 9, 1954. The menu was troncon de saumon cuit à la vapeur, poulet de grain, chou fleur, céleri, pommes de terre “à l’eau”, Crême coffee (sic) — steamed salmon, grain-fed chicken, cauliflower, celery, boiled potato, coffee cream. The wine was Montrachet 1949. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be very good, assuming the ingredients were good and the cook was good, but is it not a bit beige-sounding? A 1960 lunch consists of asperge — sauce beurre fondu — saumon cuit à la vapeur — Pommes nouvelles. Petit pois. Groseilles à maquereau. Asparagus with butter sauce, steamed salmon, new potatoes, peas, gooseberries.
They were certainly limited by seasonality of produce, and for a few items, such as cheese, the after-effects of rationing. For the first couple of years, the cheese they eat after practically every meal (post-pudding, the English order) is totally generic — just listed as “Cheese” — the famous “government cheddar”, the only cheese produced in the UK during and just after the war. It’s only in the late 1950s that the menus get cheeses which actually have names, and often they are French (gruyère, camembert).
But the Woodhams (or rather their cooks) make the most of produce when it’s around. For example, in June 1957, when strawberries are in season, they eat them at every recorded meal. On July 4, they switch to raspberries, with very occasional peaches, and then in August to compote of pears. In May 1954 they eat asparagus at every opportunity. The idea of this seems incredibly luxurious — even today strawberries and asparagus are not exactly cheap. The wines, too, by today’s standards are far too expensive for everyday drinking. They have a lot of Meursault, which to me seems bonkers: a cheap Meursault today is around £30 a bottle. They also like the now-unfashionable Beaujolais, as well as Montrachet, Ch. Montrose and Chambertin. They drink both Meursault and Ch. Lafitte when Sir Michael and Lady Balcon come round — along with cheese straws, the ubiquitous steamed salmon, roast duck, peas, broad beans, new potatoes, followed by raspberries and cream. Occasionally, there is a cheaper choice — in summer they have a lot of Tavel, i.e. rosé. But this is the rosé from the rosé-only domaine — a far cry from Jacob’s Creek or Blossom Hill.
I’ve been told so many times that Elizabeth David changed British food in the 1950s that I look for any trace of her influence, but in vain. For several years they clearly have a French cook, who writes down everything in French, down to “sauce pane” — bread sauce to have with the “faisan rôti”. But her French recipes are along the lines of canard à l’orange, crême caramel, blanquette de veau (veal in white sauce), chocolate soufflé — classics, no Provençal peasant influence, and absolutely nothing Italian. As a test, I looked through a much more boring cookbook of the era than Elizabeth David — the 1955 Collins Pocket Guide to Good Cooking — subtitled Recipes for the Discriminating Housewife, Bachelor and Bride. There are similarities with the greatgrandparents’ diets, but even here there are more adventurous (or at least less Anglo) recipes which just don’t appear in the great-grandparents’ Dinner Books — schnitzel, gnocchi, fritto misto.
The modern foods which do creep in are, predictably, avocado pears and prawn cocktail (according to my mother, always served in a wine glass). A first isolated avocado shows up in about 1958, and they get practically routine in the next decade. But if anything the menus get less appetising as we get into the 1960s — eggs in aspic (argh!), cold lamb tongue (yikes!), stuffed marrow (fine! whatever! I suppose I’d eat it if I had to), and in 1964, gulls’ eggs, which I honestly assumed were illegal, but appear not to be. Perhaps they were limited by their cooks’ repertoire, perhaps by their own taste. The whole thing probably tasted perfectly good but it’s an odd combination of luxury and repetition. It makes you crave a plate of spaghetti.