As I have become more interested in food I've thought about the way my parents and grandparents would have eaten years before. My interpretation was that it was all potatoes and stew, but really: What were people in Ulster eating? Especially in times when fast food wasn't really a thing, and restaurants and chippies were still luxuries?
Books, articles and websites a plenty deal with 'traditional Irish cooking' and/or more modern variants of old-time classics, many of which can be found in my local Easons or Waterstones. But as someone trained in historiographical research I can’t help but prefer a contemporary source if possible. The first thing I did was chat with my mum in the kitchen one day over a cup of tea and asked her these questions. ‘Well, there were a lot of potatoes. Roasted, mashed, boiled. My granddad would make a soup on Sunday night and we’d have it on the Monday. Sometimes we’d maybe have a chippy on a Friday, maybe once a fortnight on payday.’ Saturday breakfasts were usually frys – never mind potatoes, the Ulster Fry is a fundamental component of the Northern Irish diet. So really, I wasn’t far wrong when I thought it was all potatoes and stew…
A few weeks later with these thoughts still occasionally popping up, I came across two cook books in a second-hand book store tucked away in a side street in Belfast. I was just flicking through some boxes, mostly pamphlets of old Belfast societies and the like but the discovery made me think it might be a potential blog post. The two books originate from Co. Derry: The Benbradagh Cookery Book published by the The Countryside Press, Dungiven in 1949 in association with Dungiven Presbyterian Church. The second, the Cookery Book, published in Coleraine for the Second Limavady Presbyterian Church, is undated but we can assume it’s from a similar period.
Both were compiled for women by women from across the province of Ulster at the behest the respective Presbyterian Ladies’ Committees (or more specifically in the case of The Benbradagh, the Bazaar cake stall organisers). The Limavady Cookery Book states in the introduction by M. G. Evans (who we can assume to be the then-minister of the church) that the aim of the book ‘is to provide the Housewife with a variety of answers to the question: What’s for Dinner?'
As I began to read out a few of the recipes to my mum I realised that perhaps these housewives weren’t your typical Ulster women. Admittedly the aim of the books was to introduce new and exciting recipes into the 1940s/1950s Ulster home, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised to find such diversity.
They begin with soups that I imagined typical of 1940s/1950s Ulster: Scotch broth, vegetable, potato and cream of tomato soups. These were hearty soups that used basic vegetables but would yield a great result; carrots, parsnip, cabbage and onions. The Benbradagh offers a few more than Cookery Book, including an ‘old school’ thick pea soup submitted by Mrs. A Buchanan from Magheramore. Buchanan recommended 1 pint of canned peas, 1-quart milk, 1tbsp butter and 2 tbsp of flour. While the milk is on the boil the peas are drained, and then the flour and the butter are mixed together separately before being added to the boiling soup. Soups, especially an Irish vegetable soup, remain a staple in Irish cooking for all occasions.
Now onto something a bit different…
Of course, the books contain recipes with which we’re all still familiar: sausage rolls, ‘American hamburgers,’ chicken casserole and various ways to cook beef. Fish, especially salmon, appears to be a bit of a favourite. But The Benbradagh and the Cookery Book include several recipes for a dish that that I can only describe as, what the hell? I’m talking about an aspic. The first time that I came across an aspic was watching Julie & Julia, the attempted making of which brought Amy Adams (who played Julie) to have a meltdown. She vowed “to transform [herself] into a better human being.” If only all cooking led to such epiphanies.
Anyway an aspic is, remarkably, a type of jelly meat; that’s putting it bluntly and not quite accurately. An aspic is various ingredients set into a mould with gelatin made from meat stock; but just Google image it and, well, yeah… I can see why Julie was more than a bit hesitant to recreate this aspect of Julie Child’s culinary work. A few online articles have commented that an aspic dying art yet there are many modern recipes available. Buzzfeed did 17 Horrifyingly Disgusting Retro Gelatin Recipes that leaves little to the imagination. It could be considered an esoteric practice within Anglo-American cooking but it still has its international variants: in Norway it’s known as kabaret, aladåb in Sweden and kocsonya in Hungary.
M. McKee from the somewhat sleepy enclave of Ballynahinch in County Down submitted a recipe to the Limavady Cookbook for, wait for it, Jellied Meat Mould! Yum! The combination of ½ lb cold cooked meat, ¼ lb cooked ham or bacon, a hard boiled egg, ½ oz. gelatine, and “any nice cold cooked vegetables” with one pint of clear vegetable stock will make this delicacy come true. The “jellied” aspect of the dish is created by pouring in some of the melted gelatine into a cake tin and allowing it to set. Once there is this initial layer, you add in the vegetables followed by more stock and let it set again before arranging in the meat. A final layer of stock is poured into the tin to let it set, or more vegetables and meat until the tin is full. McKee recommends that the final product be garnished with lettuce, tomato and sprigs of parsley. Interesting, no?
Yeoman Lowbrow wrote a short photo essay a few years ago on 1950s aspics, a phenomenon they described as the world going ‘gelatin-beserk.’ It seems that after WWII housewives became obsessed with jellied meat mould foods. My mother, on the other hand, looked positively repulsed at the thought so I can’t imagine my grandmother ever cooked it. Maybe I should put out a Facebook post to see how many people have heard of/eaten/like this dish? Admittedly, the photos and the semantics of the method (and Amy Adam’s marvellous mushy masterpiece) make it a somewhat off putting venture.
Aside from the jelly meat, another surprising dish appears in Limavady Cookery is Jambalaya submitted by S. Black from Portstewart. The dish has its roots in Louisiana – bit of a journey from the north coast of Ireland! Traditionally there are both Creole and Cajun methods of making it, the crux being tomatoes (the Creole version has tomatoes, as opposed to the Cajun). It seems that it was an evolutionary process:
Like so many great things, jambalaya started with a problem. The problem? There was no saffron in south Louisiana in the 1700s, which meant Spanish colonists were unable to make their beloved paella.
Necessity was the mother of invention, and jambalaya was the result of attempts to make a variation of paella using ingredients available locally.
The main ingredients are rice, meat (usually including sausages) and vegetables. Black’s recipe is 4 oz. rice, 4 oz. cooked ham, salmon or tongue, suggesting that the meat be seasoned before being added to the rice and served with lettuce and tomato. I don’t think this recipe would be as full of flavour as Louisianan variants, which include seafood – crawfish, shrimp and oysters – and peppers etc. But bear in mind that the recipe is found in a post-war cookery book, so the average kitchen in Ulster wouldn’t be bursting with the same sort of seasonings or other kinds of meat. It is nevertheless interesting that this dish makes it way into a post-war Irish cookery book.
Preexisting research into jambalaya informs us that it first appeared as a recipe in an English language cookbook in 1878 published by the Methodist Episcopal Church. It’s a versatile recipe that can be made quite quickly thus its potential appeal. So, pretty cosmopolitan for a Louisianan recipe to be in post-war Ulster? I’d love to find out how it made its way into Black’s kitchen…
I have to say that my discovery of these cook books didn’t exactly help me understand what the average person in post-war Ulster was eating. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t found some gems, though. The books were published in part to raise funds, but also for women to share their recipes with one another in the hopes of inspiring others to introduce some variety into their kitchens. Who knows how influenced people were and how far these recipes reached?