One of the major differences between the United Kingdom and here in Perth, Western Australia, is that houses in Leeds and most of Britain are expected to last, whereas here in Perth they are regularly demolished, removed and more modern designs built on the same block of land. In inner city suburbs there is also a move to higher density with maybe two large, two-storey houses being built with small gardens, to replace the bungalow with a large garden. In the UK, many suburbs were built either between the two World Wars or soon after the second, and, as a result, the designs met the way that the world was at the time. This was the case for both of the houses that we lived in. Lawrence Avenue was a two bedroom semi-detached and Gipton Wood Crescent was a three-bedroom semi. Cars were few and far between and so most had no driveways or garages. The other noticeable feature was that kitchens in both of these houses were very small. My father referred to our kitchen as a kitchenette and it barely had room for a sink and cupboard, a cooker and the pulley airer. Below the pulley, as we called it, was a tiny table and that was the total. There was a small pantry that fitted in a gap under the stairs that shared the space with the outside coal store. The kitchen was so small that there was only ever room enough for one person to fit in and do any cooking. Most of the work was done on the side of the sink on the drainer and directly behind it was a window looking out onto the garden.
I can’t remember too much about the Lawrence Avenue kitchen, but the Gipton Wood one is firmly etched in my mind. It was the scene of many of the struggles that my mother had preparing food for a family of five and I can now understand why she would be so frustrated and angered by us passing through, on the way in or out to play. I know that at first, in the late 1950s, there was no fridge, no electric kettle, no washing machine, no microwave, no extractor fan, but milk was delivered every day. My grandmother’s house in Chapel Allerton, even though it was a smaller terrace house, in Regent Terrace, was better provided as it had a cellar with a meat safe on the steps to keep meat, butter, milk and cheese cool and safe from mice and rats, and in the cellar was a variety of washing machines, from the original dolly-tub to an electric upright washer with a hand-cranked mangle. The kitchen itself was more spacious, as it was the second of the two downstairs rooms.
In my mother’s kitchen the architects must have been laughing when it was designed as it was so small. Shopping was a daily occurrence and small loads of food were bought that would either last a day or possibly two, or were able to be stored in tins or packets. Perishable food would be bought on an as-needs basis, so as to avoid wastage. The other major difference was that food arrived in its natural state, and so peas came in pods, potatoes had soil on them, overseas fruit was almost unheard of, but apples, though often blemished were full of flavour. Most foods had seasons and new potatoes were a real favourite, boiled with their thin skins on and served with lashings of butter. I can still taste them now. Soft fruits had a short season and I have mentioned in another tale my experience with eating Victoria plums whilst watching men play bowls on the green at Chapel Allerton Park. My older brother, my grandma and I were tucking in when my grandma saw a maggot in hers. Unfortunately, I had eaten most of mine.
Hence the joke: What is worse than seeing a maggot in your apple? Finding half a maggot.
Grandma made us spit out what was still in our mouths. Despite this memorable experience, the food had a flavour that has been bred out in the pursuit of greater yields and uniformity. Rhubarb, cooking apples, peas, gooseberries, plums, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries and many others had relatively short seasons and you enjoyed them when they were available and waited another year for them to return to the shelves. How different is that to today, when any exotic, or more mundane fruits and vegetables are available all year round, as they are imported into countries, often stored for months and treated to ensure no pesky maggot would ever make an appearance.
In the late fifties, nature played a bigger role in our eating. Food could be kept longer, but that tended to be processed by canning, pickling, curing or turning into jams, preserves or relishes. But when I was a little older, we got a strange contraption for storing milk and dairy products. It was a small box-like thing, made of plaster of Paris, and with a door. It was about eighteen inches cubed and on the top was a hollow basin-shaped depression. Water was poured into it and the plaster became damp. The science made sense, as when the water evaporated, heat energy was removed from the plaster and the food inside would be cooled. It works on the principal that evaporative air conditioning does in Australia, but unlike here in Australia, the evaporation would have been less due to the cooler temperatures. Anyway, the science said that it should work and possibly it did, but it was never very efficient and was soon got rid of. The replacement was a proper refrigerator. Unfortunately, this was a second hand one, from a family friend, Mrs Flathers, who lived near us originally, in Lawrence Avenue, but whose husband became more successful and they had a large house on the Ring Road near the Wellington Hill roundabout, near Red Hall. The passing down of items became a bone of contention in future years as my mother felt indebted to taking what was offered, rather than her wanting them, and resented paying the prices asked.
Dad had to collect the fridge, and he had had to do some preparation in the pantry, removing the bottom shelves so that the fridge could fit in. None of us knew, but transporting the fridge should have been done with the fridge being upright so that the gases stay where they should be in the condenser. The fridge arrived, white, heavy and quite big, but it fitted in and dad pushed it into place and turned it on. The sound suggested it was working and it began to cool. The problem was that the ice box never froze properly and it was always an issue. We discovered the cause of the problem, but initially my mum thought she had been deliberately sold a faulty machine.
The fridge did have benefits and its arrival matched the first little supermarket opening on Easterly Road. This new concept meant that larger purchases could be done. Shopping became a once a week process, with a few bits when required. The orders would be put in boxes and were delivered by boys riding around on bicycles with large baskets on the front. I remember being amazed how they managed to balance, and get up and down hills whilst being so clearly overloaded. This became less of a feature over the years as more people got cars, and much larger supermarkets, such as Grandways at Harehills, appeared. People would drive, do their shopping, use the trolleys to take the shopping to their cars and then drive home. The even larger supermarkets, like ASDA, made this more of an outing with a major range of goods, beyond just food and cleaning products. This was a nail in the coffin for the smaller supermarkets, as their prices were undercut, but many maintained local trade, for elderly customers and for locals who just need something quickly.
My mother was not a great cook, and she never enjoyed it. It was a chore and a frustration for her, but we never minded. As young boys we would eat anything put in front of us. To this day, I don’t eat for great pleasure, and tend to wolf food down. I think there were two major reasons for that: at school lunches, if you finished you could either go out to play quicker, or you could be first for seconds. Our meals would often be mince with mashed potatoes, gravy and peas; sausages with mashed potatoes and peas; meat pie with mashed potatoes, or chips and peas; fish fingers and chips, with peas. For variation, the Sunday evening meal was normally a salad. I think this was to relieve the stress to my mother before she went to work on the Monday. Salad was: half a sausage roll, a piece of lettuce and half a tomato. As this wouldn’t fill us, we would have slices of bread with butter.
Now certain innovations helped my mother and if they made life easier, she would take to them with gusto. Who can forget Fray Bentos meat pies? Flaky pastry pies in a tin. There were also steak and kidney puddings in a tin. A special opener would be used to puncture the tin to allow steam to escape and when finished, the top would be cut off to reveal the pudding in all its fairly soggy glory. The thing was, despite its sad appearance, it tasted divine! Frozen food was another success and when finally the fridge was replaced with one that worked properly, fish fingers appeared. I have often joked that I grew up thinking that fish had hands, as I always ate fish fingers. Now you may be wondering how my mother produced peas with everything. Well, her special was tinned peas, and I can say that I loved them. These were later mainly replaced by frozen peas: almost instant to cook, and even my mother couldn’t do wrong with them. She was a master of the frozen peas. Cod in butter sauce, in a bag was another treat. Quick to boil in the bag, they were easy and fairly nutritious. The real hit for my mother was the new invention of instant mashed potatoes. Cadbury’s Smash, who can forget the robot adverts? Aliens falling over laughing at how humans cooked potatoes before Smash was invented, but Smash was not my favourite.
We were used to desserts, and Instant Whip became a regular, followed by Ambrosia Creamed Rice Pudding, and then by my all time love, Heinz treacle sponge pudding, or chocolate sponge pudding, cooked in a tin and served with custard.
There was a move into the exotic when Vesta meals appeared. These were very small helpings of Chop Suey with Crispy Noodles or Chicken Supreme with Rice. These boxed meals had dried pieces of what was supposed to be chicken but, as Mr Spock in Star Trek would say, ‘Chicken but not as we know it, Captain.’ Each meal was supposed to feed four, but never in my world. One meal was just about sufficient for one.
As a family, we embraced the fast food culture, and the giant super-markets. The local specialty shops suffered and eventually many disappeared. I remember well, the butchers down at Oakwood parade with pheasants and rabbits hanging outside from hooks, the lolling cows’ tongues, artery blocking lard buckets and horrific tripe. It was a place of nightmares for my squeamish nature. I like my meat to look as if it had never walked the earth or swum the seas, and by choice I would be a vegetarian, but unfortunately, I love meat. One thing that I never took to was Spam. This tinned creation was repulsive to look at and the jelly that came with it, along with the jelly around a pork pie, was enough to put me off for life.