“My first efforts at cooking were to open a tin of soup and a tin of baked beans and combine them. I called it STEWP” Chrys is laughing her head off, listing her first forays into cooking in early 1970’s Southport, northern England.
“Then I found out you could get spaghetti in packets. I’d only ever seen it in tins. I boiled it up not realising you had to do anything with it. It tasted of nothing”. She tells me about the time she discovered green peppers, finding them in a cornershop and chopping them raw to serve on plain spaghetti. Or the time she first tasted fresh parsley (it had a very strong flavour) because parsley sauce usually came in packets or the time her vegetarian boyfriend came round for the family Sunday roast; “he was given the same meal but instead of the gravy and meat he had a huge square of cheese with the rest of the roast dinner around it”.
I’m fascinated by Chrys’ stories who for the record is a great cook and a friend of my mum’s. Her memory is impressive and her early curiosity for experimentation even more so. She’s telling me these stories in her kitchen in springtime south Wales while making potato cakes; a legacy of her nan’s, she says, who like everyone up North, always had mashed potato leftover. She scoops out a dollop of the potato into a bowl and sprinkles over just enough flour and a little salt, bashing it all together into a firm dough.
“It was post-war Britain then, everyone had struggled and suddenly convenience foods came in. I remember jars of cheese paste to put on bread to toast. It wasn’t really more convenient but convenience was for those with money and my dad was doing well”.
The state of the British plate was shifting rapidly in the decades after World War Two with the ugly traumas of rationing still weighing heavy on people’s minds and palettes. Lavishly illustrated cookbooks became popular, showing off ‘artfully’ decorated feasts for weekend entertaining, luridly moulded into weird, un-food-like shapes. Recipes like Salmon Bisque, Moulded Asparagus Salad and Tuna Eggplant Poseidon promised to make it easy for women in the kitchen at the same time as finding new, time-consuming ways to keep them there. These cookbooks were symbols of a new postwar nation, promising plenty and progress, a chance to dream. “Chef’s square shaped soups in square shaped boxes”, Chrys recalls a popular TV ad at the time and colourful tins all promising luxurious convenience. They sold a lifestyle far removed from the depressing thrift of previous decades, and who wouldn’t have wanted that?
“My nannie didn’t cook with all the new convenience. She was so thrifty.” Chrys shows me a thin, paper recipe book from the 1950’s that her church-going grandma had put together to fundraise for a local hostel. It’s not soufflés and biquees but short instructions for everyday recipes, like tomato paste (to preserve tomatoes and eat on bread and butter), liver a la francaise, meat cakes, ‘Nicely Cooked Veal’, and her Aunty Nelly’s Wartime chocolate cake with no chocolate other than 1oz of cocoa.
“I remember her picking the bones of our Easter roast chicken and anything that didn’t go into a pie, all the tiny bits she made into a paste for sandwiches, then all the bones went into a big pot with a carrot and an onion to make into stock. Even now, I always always cook a chicken whole and use it all, and I taught my children to do the same”.
Chrys’ grandma and aunts lived in Liverpool on the same few rows of terraced houses where she also grew up until the age of seven. They’d go to her grandma’s for lunchtime, piling around the table with bags of fish and chips from the shop, passing around the sauce to dollop onto salty hot chips. “We were very much a family who grew up with the sauce bottle on the table but when we moved to Southport that wasn’t considered very proper”.
If it wasn’t fish and chips on her nan’s table, Chrys remembers corn beef hash served on each plate in a big mountain shape, which her and her brother would hollow out to make volcanos; “my brother would fill his with tomato sauce and mash it till it went pink. I didn’t like tomato sauce, I liked peas, so I’d put in peas and then mash it up so the peas got lost in there”.
Mashed potato came with everything, with beef mince, with the Sunday roast, to top pies, to make into ‘meat cakes’. Mash (never roast) potato was the norm, a daily affair, which inevitably meant leftovers became potato cakes (just like Chrys is doing now) fried in a hot pan until golden and piping hot through. “My son used to like these. If I was making these for grown-ups, I’d get adventurous and put mustard seeds in it”.
We eat them standing at the counter with butter spread on top. They’re moreish and hot and delicious. Scroll down for a (very simple) potato cakes recipe.
Chrys’ potato cakes
Combine leftover mashed potato and a generous sprinkling of flour (you want about half and half potato to flour) and a pinch of salt with a potato masher. Keep going, adding more flour if needed until it comes together into a dough. Pat it out on a flour-dusted surface until about 1 to 2 cm thick, then use a knife to slice into triangles. Fry in a drizzle of oil in a heavy-based frying pan, turning when golden. Eat hot with lots of butter.