A Taste of History – Travelling back in time through recipes and Mass Observation

By Dr Stella Sims

In this video project I recreate recipes taken from, or inspired by 1941 food diaries held at the Mass Observation Archive, going back in time to a moment in history to cook and taste what someone said they were eating on a particular day.  Earlier in the summer of this very strange year, during the 1st Covid lockdown and many subsequent weeks spent indoors, I was able to travel vicariously through food.  I’ve rediscovered recipe books that had gathered dust on the shelf for too long, trying new recipes, and recreating meals that reminded me of comfortable memories, family and foreign holidays.  Like smell, taste can conjure up a memory and give us a sensory leap back to a past moment in our lives.  This project expands this idea to take an imaginative journey back in time where we join a specific person on a specific day in the past to cook and eat what they ate.  With more time this year to cook and to think, the idea for ‘A Taste Of History’ arose as a perfect way to combine the pleasure of cooking with my love of bringing history to life. 

Image of Dr Stella Sims in her kitchen
Dr Stella Sims in her kitchen

I did a PhD at the University of Sussex some time ago, and I’ve used the incredible collection at Mass Observation for my academic work – I could spend hours poring over these vivid fragments and insights into everyday lives.  In more recent years I have worked in the media researching and producing history documentaries and series such as BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are?  One of the things I find unique about Mass Observation material is the personal and detailed nature of much of their collection, comprising as it does of diaries, overheard conversations, personal anecdotes and daily minutiae sent in by ordinary people.  The collection often features very idiosyncratic voices – I’ve often been pleasantly diverted off topic while reading the diary, report or comments of a particularly funny or opinionated person. 

Image of Stella cutting into a Woolton pie
Stella’s Woolton pie

I wondered what kind of research had been done on food, and if Mass Observation writers had shared any recipes in their diaries, or other interesting insights to do with food.  Of course, I discovered Mass Observation had an absolute abundance of writing related to food, spanning both the earlier project as well as the newer correspondence since the 1980s.  As I browsed through various topic collections I found there was an awful lot to distract a greedy historian.  In the end, I decided to focus on a huge collection of food diaries sent in by individuals during the early years of the Second World War.  A short history series was never going to cover everything in this fascinating collection, but I managed to narrow down my focus to five peoples’ menus.  I selected these based on the fact that they were particularly interesting writers or menus which illustrated certain broader points of historical interest on food during the war: the rationing of key foods like meat, butter and sugar; the role of the Ministry of Food; famous wartime recipes like ‘Woolton Pie’ and meat-free substitutes; import problems; and campaigns such as Dig For Victory.  But what I love most about this project is how it puts the ordinary men and women at the centre of these big moments in history and shines a spotlight on these ‘unofficial histories’, particularly women’s stories.  The voices that come through are opinionated, quirky and very human, their experiences vary according to place, income and class.  In particular I enjoyed discovering the occasional very emotional response to taste, such as the woman who wrote with joy in October 1941 that she was served “two awfully good cakes with cream and jam, light, scrunchy pastry!”  These rare treats were few and far between during wartime.

Image of macaroni pudding and chocolate mould
Anyone for macaroni pudding or chocolate mould?

I was grateful for the excellent archive help from Mass Observation’s Senior Archive Assistant, Jessica Scantlebury, who provided me with a wealth of primary documents.  I’ve not only used diaries in the project: almost every document you see in the videos is held in the wartime collections at Mass Observation.  This is just a snapshot of a rich collection of wartime ephemera including newspaper clippings, advertisements, Ministry of Food pamphlets, posters for  wartime cookery classes, food catalogues from posh stores like Harrods and Selfridges, and sample menus from all sorts of places from provincial hotels to Claridge’s.  In some ways this was an ideal ‘lockdown project’ – just me in my kitchen experimenting with food.  Fortunately, I’ve got a huge collection of old recipe books and books about food history, so I was able to do plenty of research in the confines of my own home.  A lot of the time, the 1941 food diaries just mentioned a meal, not a recipe, so I was able to research or adapt authentic recipes from the time to create an approximation of what they would have eaten.  The simplicity that was forced on the filming was in some ways a plus – it meant less faffing or worrying about perfection and more just getting on with it; I was lucky to be living with a partner who valiantly (and patiently) assisted on camera and sound.  I’m certainly more used to being behind the camera, but hopefully people enjoy watching me having a go at cooking 1940s-style, and finding out if these recipes were a success or failure when they are recreated in the here and now.

Image of Stella tucking into a salad inspired by an MO recipe
A stellar salad – based on the recipe of Mrs Clayton of South London

To me, the history of cooking illustrates a very social history: seeing what ingredients were available at what time; what expectations people had about food; who does the cooking; and what methods were open to them.  During Covid, Britain has again faced food supply challenges: queues at supermarkets, supply issues, stockpiling and pressure on incomes meaning people are having to do more with less.  Politically, myths of the Second World War are often called upon to serve the present – the ‘Blitz spirit’ and so on, which often go too far and miss the specific context and huge differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’.  Even during this pandemic, 21st century Britain is a land of plenty compared to Britain in 1941.  However, there are still surprising and useful lessons we can learn from those wartime days of rationing such as not to waste food, how to make the most of what you have, and the nutritious possibilities of a meat-free diet.  It’s been brilliant to take a trip back in time to see how creative people were with food during the war, though one thing I’ve definitely learned is that I think Woolton Pie should probably remain in the history books.

Watch all 5 videos of Taste of history on the Mass Observation YouTube channel

Dr Stella Sims is a cultural historian, researcher and history documentary producer with a love of museums, archives and vintage recipe books.  She can be reached on Twitter @stellastar80 or via stellasims@gmail.com.

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Posted in MO (Mass Observation), Special Collections, The Keep

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