Marguerite Patten, Food Economist. Born November 4th 1915. Died June 4th 2015. She was 99 years old.
I come from a generation who were raised on Marguerite Patten’s wartime recipes. Her meals were shaped - as we were - by food rationing, shortages and some unusual additions to our diet like dried egg, spam, whale steaks and that ghastly canned fish - snoek. We are the generation that still remembers, not always fondly, tripe and trotters, scrag end and sago and worse of all - tapioca known as “frog spawn “ by the millions of kids obliged to eat it
Although she had hoped to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to train as an actor Marguerite Patten was put off by the sight of “poor hungry girls with holes in their shoes” hanging around theatrical agents. Instead, she trained as a cookery adviser with the Northern Metropolitan Electricity Supply Company, assisting at cookery demonstrations and showing women how to use refrigerators and pressure cookers. In 1942 she and hundreds of other young home economists were enlisted by the newly established Ministry of Food to educate Britain’s housewives in imaginative ways of making the best of the food ration. From an increasingly short list of ingredients Marguerite and her pioneering colleagues created such delights as ‘Mock Duck’ made from sausage meat and cooking apples, Prune Roly-Poly, (My Uncle Tom said “It kept you going - and certainly it kept you going!”), eggless sponge cake and Woolton Pie (made from carrots and other vegetables.)
From 1943 Marguerite managed a ‘food bureau’ at Harrods, running cookery demonstrations twice a day for women who rarely shopped for food and cooked even less but were still bound by the disciplines of the ration book. Marguerite said that it was as much an education for her as it was for them…
“We had to give a lot of time and thought to cooking because we had such a poor and monotonous range of ingredients… It was a task.”
There is evidence that as a nation we were healthier on the meagre wartime diet than we have ever been since. Certainly Marguerite thought so…
“The children born then grew up strong and healthy. I’m not at all sure that they will be as strong and as healthy today and I think that’s iniquitous when you think of the range of food available.”
The shortage of sugar, fats, meat, processed foods, white bread, the increased consumption of fruit and vegetables and generally smaller portions resulted in the kind of diet that nutritionists are advising us to eat today. That, and the more active lifestyles we were obliged to follow, kept us fighting fit or as the propagandists had it - fit to fight!
Marguerite’s skills were still in demand after the war. Although the fighting ended in 1945 food restrictions continued until July 1954 when meat and bacon were finally lifted off the ration. In those days of austerity the public wanted to know how to make the best out of what little was available and Marguerite Patten was happy to show them…
“I love haute cuisine and can talk about it and cook it as well as anyone. But this is not what the mainstream needs or wants. I believe that my audience is those who must cook but don’t necessarily like doing it. They want positive straightforward advice, a feeling that someone understands they would like to cook and serve delicious food.”
She became the very first ‘celebrity chef’ - a term she absolutely hated - years before Philip Harben, Fanny Cradock or Elizabeth David. She was also a prolific writer and produced over 165 cookery books, selling some 17 million copies. She won Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Guild of Food Writers in 1995, from the trustees of the Andre Simon Award in 1996, and from the BBC Good Food Awards in 1998. She was appointed OBE in 1991 for “services to the art of cookery” and CBE in 2010. For all this she was a modest and unpretentious woman. She loved Jamie Oliver but was generally scornful of many of today’s cookery writers who assume specialised knowledge and employ ingredients most people could neither afford nor obtain.
“In terms of food today, the nation divides into three groups: those wedded to convenience foods, the gourmet lot who irritate me beyond words, and the middle ground which Delia Smith and I represent.”
Marguerite Patten has gone now and so have many of the meals that I remember as a child - bacon roly-poly made from the bits that fell off the bacon slicer, boiled silverside and carrots, bloaters, brawn (made from a pig’s head), assorted offal and tripe of various hues and the grey and unappetising National Loaf. Most of all I remember those happy moments when my Mum would bring out a potato and a grater and make Potato Floddies - the wartime equivalent of hash browns or potato latkes. Thanks Mum - and Marguerite!
POTATO FLODDY - 1940 Recipe
Grate a raw potato into a bowl. You can also add grated carrot. Sprinkle with flour and add milk made from powder or milk from your ration until a batter is made. Spoon into a hot frying pan and cook in lard until golden turning halfway through.
These can then be served warm with sugar for a sweet snack or as they are for a warming and sustaining lunch.
1940 film about Baked Potato dish presented by Wilma Vanne
– from Martyn Day