The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.55
WINTER2017

The Rescue Archaeologists: Florence White, Helen Edden, Raymond Postgate & the salvation of British foodways, featuring an excursion to the lost prewar world of Sweden.

1. A good if unlikely man for the job.

Before the advent of TripAdvisor and Yelp, before the Zagats published their Guides , something more remarkable engaged Austerity Britain. No internet allowed for instant communication, telephones did not yet speed the plow and television could not elevate otherwise ordinary talents to celebrity status.

Nor did Britain, or the United States for that matter, then enjoy its surfeit of good restaurants in even the smallest cities and most remote towns. The conditions for their proliferation had not yet been established in Britain by a most unlikely champion. He was a Champagne Socialist called Raymond Postgate and would create the Good Food Guide.

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Postgate would have been a fascinating figure even had he not created the Guide . He probably was bemused if not pleased, at least in a way, that it is his best known legacy.

Initially jailed as a pacifist during the First World War, Postgate redeemed himself by risking his life as an ambulance driver on the Western Front. A founder of the British Communist Party in 1920 but no chump, by 1922 he had broken with his creation when the Comintern decreed that the line from Moscow ran in London as in Rome. Postgate was a journalist, editor (most notably of the socialist weekly Tribune in 1940-42), historian, crime novelist, translator of French and classical Greek, and biographer, of John Wilkes and Robert Emmet, two appropriately radical figures given his political outlook. In all he wrote more than forty books.

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Raymond Postgate

At Tribune he continued his condemnation of Communism and gave “critical support to the National government” by encouraging the war effort. (Calder 79) Casting away his youthful pacifism in a time of existential peril, Postgate joined the Home Guard and ironically given his subsequent foundation of the GFG , signed on as a Civil Servant to administer rationing for eight long years.

His Guide still does what it sounds like it does. It recommends restaurants suitable for the discerning diner. The mechanism is much like its progeny in print and online but with a significant improvement in methodology; diners send reviews to the Guide for publication, as they do for Zagat or “Yelp,” but unlike them, the Guide confirms the accuracy of its members’ reports by sending an anonymous team to each restaurant they review. Nobody gets paid. The Guide embodies one of the last exemplars of the hallowed English amateur tradition.

 

2. Before the Guide there was, for a bright shining moment, a “Register.”

Before Postgate and his Guide there was Florence White, who began her “Good Food Register” in 1934. White and her “Register” were nothing if not ambitious. According to David Bell and Joanne Hollows, the “Register” offers a “utopian vision of finding an English identity through choosing and consuming food, and attempts to synthesize the finding of good food with the achievement of a satisfying national life.” (Bell & Hollows 44) Bell and Hollows do not say so, but good English food, rather than good food more generally, was the goal of the “Register,” as it was of all White’s mature work.

In practical terms, however, priority does not always coincide with influence or success. Like the GFG , her “Good Food Register” sought to steer diners to decent restaurants but like too many of her ventures, the “Register” devolved at speed into ephemeral status.

It was to the GFG in the realm of food as the de Haviland Comet was to the Boeing 707 in the skies of intercontinental travel. From its grassroots in 1951, the Guide evolved to become a national institution that remains indispensible to the discerning diner in Britain. In contrast the “Register” is so rare that most historians of British food have not found a copy.

Postgate, however, did find or at least see an issue of the “Register” before launching his Guide. It remains unclear what influence the “Register” exerted on Postgate. According to Christopher Driver, who succeeded Postgate as editor of the GFG , “it was not explicitly founded on memories of Florence White’s prewar “Good Food Register” even though he had been aware of its existence. (Driver 49, 50n)

 

3. Her role anticipated the Highlanders’ at Dunkirk.

White, however, deserves immense credit for fighting a culinary holding action during the interwar era that facilitated the survival of traditional British foodways. Their survival was by no means foreordained. As White herself wrote, “[w]e had the finest cookery in the world, but it had been nearly lost through neglect.” (White flyleaf) Her family background gave her an unusual insight and capacity for the struggle. She came from the rural gentry which, by the time of her most productive work, had itself very nearly become an endangered species in cultural terms.

Cameron-Highlander-dunkirk.jpgA Highlander before Dunkirk

 

Stephen Mennell has observed that the comparatively primitive economy of France, along with the nation’s relatively inward outlook, enabled its agrarian landholders and their country cooking to survive beyond the Second World War. As Britain expanded its trade, industry and empire from the eighteenth century onward, its elites in contrast became correspondingly cosmopolitan. All manner of exotica became fashionable, not least foreign foodways.

 

4. Family values.

The White family resisted this tide, and she claimed in 1938 that its recipes had been handed down through generations since the sixteenth century. (Mennell 221-22) White herself may have been a traditionalist but also took a cosmopolitan view. “She was not,” in Driver’s words, “an untutored patriot: she spent several years in Paris, wrote a history of the French Revolution, frequented cookery schools, and had an extensive French acquaintance.” (Driver 8-9) This exposure to the culinary culture of France gave her the insight to recognize that while the French had systematically recorded, even codified their national foodways, the English, in another of their fits of absent-mindedness, had done no such thing.

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Contingency is the engine of history, and the fusion of ancestry with experience put White in pole position to embark on her life’s work. Driver has coined the evocative phrase “rescue archeology” to describe the result of her comprehensive research. (Driver 10) Her exposure to French country cooking and innate curiosity led White to wonder whether other families shared her ancestral experience, so she traveled the country to speak with domestic cooks about techniques, scour their kitchen manuscripts and catalog their recipes in search of authenticity.

 

5. British food in America, if not in Britain.

White found the authenticity she had anticipated in spades, even if she had not quite found what she sought. According to Driver,

“she reached the unexpected but defensible conclusion that ‘our kitchen has more in common with America than any other country…. This is natural, as the foundations of both the English and American kitchens were the same up to 1620.’” (Driver 9, 9n; White 11)

She and Driver himself might have understood that those foundations remained common until a lot later than 1620--British cookbooks dominated the American market well into the nineteenth century--but their concept of Anglo-American foodways is sound in historical terms as far as it goes. It was only some three centuries after the landing at Plimoth that American culinary mores began their sharp turn away from the British model just before White’s own time.

White conceded that “some gastronomic histories have been compiled by careful study of contemporary documents” but maintained that they were “more or less ‘museum pieces’ with little guidance for the average cook.” White complains, for example, that “the famous Mrs. Glasse,” whose Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy from 1747 was the bestselling book of the eighteenth century, “is not very explicit” in her recipes.

In contrast White wanted to compile “an everyday book.” Her aim is neither antiquarian nor nostalgic but rather to revive the widespread cooking of English food.

White did a lot more than scour old sources, although she adapted recipes from lots of them in addition to Mrs. Glasse. In anticipation of Elizabeth David, Eliza Acton is a particular and particularly well chosen favorite. White notes that “Miss Acton’s book,” Modern Cookery for Private Families from 1845, “is extremely good even after all these years.” Other superb sources include Dr. Kitchiner, Colonel Arthur Kenney-Herbert and Sir Henry Thompson.

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White hit the road as well as the library. Speaking of herself in coy terms:

“A practical cook trained in historical research has travelled from county to county, talking to every one who appeared interested, stirring up their memories, and inspiring them to hunt up written and printed records. Articles have been written [again, by White herself] to defray the expenses of this direct research; letters have been published in The Times and advertisements inserted; some money prizes have been offered.” (White 9)

So widespread was the disdain for traditional food that the task sometimes required a measure of gentle persuasion:

“It was delightful to see how everyone was interested when once the veneer of fashion for foreign cookery and modern fads was chipped. At first some simple country folk would be shy or apologetic: ‘we must go with the times, those things are out of date.’” (White 9)

The depth of the English culinary tradition astonished her. “By 1928 I found I had struck a rich line of research.” (White flyleaf)

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The result of her tireless travel was Good Things in England , “an attempt to capture the charm of England’s cookery before it is completely crushed out of existence.” (White 9) Good Things remains a timeless inspiration to anyone interested in cooking (and eating) British food.

The recipes are simple and practical, arranged for the convenient use of beginners as well as a speedy reference for “the accomplish’t cook,” (White 9) this last a wry reference to Robert May’s seventeenth century title of the same name, itself a comprehensive catalog of early modern foodways.

Driver’s description of Good Things is hard to beat. It does, he explains, nothing less than

“illustrate a thoroughly English, unsystematic, but in detail precise continuity, from the pre-technological practice of the Georgian and early Victorian homes to country house and farmhouse cookery between the wars.” (Driver 9)

The origin of White’s thoroughly English dishes ranges from 1399 all the way to the eve of Good Things’ publication in 1932. They include many of the usual suspects; potted shrimp, Scotch broth, Soyer’s Reform sauce, dressed crab, an entire chapter devoted to “The Roast Meat of Old England,” Eliza Acton’s beefsteak or mutton pudding with oysters (but no kidney; authentic), a variety of plum puddings, the essential savory, a devilled marrow bone (“Where,” White has a Mr. Lucas ask “pathetically,” “is that ancient nocturnal amenity the devilled bone?--and, indeed, where are the bones fit to devil?”) (White 10)

She stocks some surprises, too. “An early 18th Century Worcester cook’s recipe” for herb soup reminiscent of the New Orleanian gumbo z’herbes with the superior addition of veal stock is among them, along with a series of seventeenth century sauces; a beguiling recipe for cucumber ketchup; “A Very Good Irish Sauce” based on melted butter (itself the most traditional of English sauces) and spiked with anchovy, horseradish, onion, herbs and spices; two ways to roast a cygnet, each with a stuffing based on beef and sauced with Port; another recipe from the ‘early 18th Century Worcester cook,’ for “Young Chickens in a Blanket,” a sort of smothered dish or fricassee laced with lemon juice and zest, cayenne and nutmeg, for service on toast; fried celery in Riesling batter; “Curious, but very good” donkey, an oatmeal and suet pudding flavored with onion.

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White got her donkey from a Mrs. Burnet in Fifeshire, who remembered it from childhood and still served it with cold meat in 1932. “It is,” as White maintains, “distinctive dishes of this sort that never appear in ordinary cookery books that are so useful and interesting.”

Driver believes that none of the work White and her contemporaries undertook, exemplary as it was, succeeded in replacing the faux French culinary landscape of Britain, because their “stirrings of cultural patriotism or catholicity exerted little or no influence on metropolitan cooking” where the “kitchens of London hotels and restaurants were still dominated by French and more particularly Italian” cooks. (Driver 9, 10)

 

6. Other keepers of the flame.

In another instance of irony, this putatively outward gaze reflected a profound upper and increasingly middle class insularity stemming from the steady stratification of British society. As the Victorians kicked away the chutes and ladders of economic mobility that had supported the vertical social architecture of the long eighteenth century to create a society stratified along more rigid class lines, the lives and culture of the ‘lower orders’ receded from their consciousness.

Other than in the country houses of gentry families like the Whites, Driver appears to locate the repository of traditional British foodways during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the houses of the working class. From this we may infer that during the interwar years the laboring classes did not have it so bad as has been supposed, at least not outside the worst sort of urban slums which were, however, legion.

Even there, as Driver infers, traditional foodways might survive. Even in the slums, it seems the English cooked English food when they could, and not unwillingly or at the level of subsistence alone. The pattern should not be unexpected, because people of modest means historically cherish communal traditions including foodways, and in any event lack access to the fashionable dainties and exotica of the rich.

The career of Florence Petty illustrates the point. Petty, who recently has been rescued from undeserved oblivion by Blake Perkins, arguably was the most effective of many reformers attempting to teach the working poor to cook in their own nearly inadequate kitchens. She was the first to realize that charitable cooking schools set up on behalf of these people were tantamount to useless because their kitchens lacked the equipment at the schools and the recipes taught were beyond their skill or means.

Petty therefore taught her charges in their own kitchens; this innovation was so successful that Petty became a national celebrity known as “The Pudding Lady” (named by the children of her charges, who welcomed her visits) and the most popular BBC radio personality of the 1920s. Her cookbook for the working classes became a longtime bestseller that enjoyed multiple editions throughout the Twenties, Thirties and beyond. She assures her readers that they need not master difficult technique nor muster myriad exotics to keep their food appealing and even creative--and all this within a recognizably English idiom, as her nickname might attest. (Perkins, “An Appreciation”)

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In The Pudding Lady’s Recipe Book we will find traditional, and irresistible, suet puddings including the classic steak and kidney along with lots of sweet ones for dessert; sea pie; batter puddings including toad in the hole and celery with cheese; rabbit pie; pease pudding; lots of salads; and many other stalwarts of the traditional English kitchen. Nothing in The Pudding Lady’s book rises to the level of sophistication found in White’s work, but even so the humbler dishes do maintain an aspect of the national tradition.

These traditional foodways never siphoned up the social scale:

“The British middle class on a whole knew little about the diet of the laboring masses…. Professional and mercantile families drew their servants from working-class homes” but “seldom entered homes of this kind themselves unless they had a professional or voluntaristic reason for doing so, and would have been no more likely to enquire the intimate details of domestic economy in the households their Sallys or Bridgets dwelt in when off duty.” (Driver 11; see Perkins, “An Appreciation”)

So if White and company failed to sway the lesser and greater elite to change its dining habits between the wars, in a sense their accomplishment is all the more remarkable and has been all the more enduring. Referring to the privileged segment of British society, Driver believes

“in a country and class which regarded serious interest in food as a slightly vulgar eccentricity, it is possible to look back with the hindsight of the kitchen-mad 1980s and pay tribute to the ‘rescue archaeology’ which all those enterprising women did during the Twenties and Thirties on the Englishness of English food.” (Driver 10)

 

7. Forgotten conservationists.

Driver’s reference to “enterprising women” in addition to White unfortunately amounts to a tease, for he neglects to identify any of them. If he is referring to her sources rather than other interwar researchers, he ought to have included men because they also supplied White with material:

“Men and women still living have come forward and helped to compile the present collection. They have written of good things they remember eating in days gone by, and of things made in their own homes to-day from recipes that have been in their families for over a century.” (White 9)

If Driver is referring to other researchers, it is a shame he has overlooked them, because culinary contemporaries of White also did much to save English foodways from oblivion and have much to teach us today. In addition to Petty, one of them was Helen Edden, whose delightful County Recipes of Old England predates Good Things by four years. Unlike White, who has eminent champions in Driver, Mennell and others, Edden has been forgotten, and does not even get an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

County Recipes is considerably less comprehensive than its successor, although Edden did use a similar if less elaborate methodology and like White had noticed the dearth of contemporary sources for British preparations:

“Although cookery books abound in great variety, I do not know of one which deals with the recipes of the dishes which are characteristic of the many parts of the United Kingdom, so I have collected these recipes of specialities from some very old cookery books in my possession, and have carefully edited them. Some of the recipes have been given to me by the country people and dwellers in those districts noted for some particular dish.” (Edden v)

Edden’s style is less scholarly than White’s, and her tone more playful than fervent, as reflected by the whimsical drawings by Tony Burge that decorate the text. The instructions in County Recipes match the standard of Good Things , and its standard is high.

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Frontispiece to County Recipes of Old England

According to White, the recipes she received from her contacts were “so many and so varied” that Good Things “is merely a small instalment of our kitchen and stillroom riches. England does not know her wealth.” (White 9) The difference in content between her book and County Recipes indicates that White’s judgment is sound.

County Recipes , once again the shorter of the two compilations, includes much that is absent from Good Things. In the category of pies, only County Recipes includes recipes for fish pie (made with herrings or mackerel), leek and pilchard pie, medley pie, North Country sweet pie (strange and good; mutton, raisins, sugar, rum, candied peel, lots of lemon juice, cinnamon), spare rib pie and Yorkshire Christmas pie.

Pies filled with bilberries, fig, ling, pumpkin, red gooseberries, salmon, shrimp and woodcock appear in Good Things but not County Recipes . Good Things alone provides instruction for collier’s pie made with cheese and onion, and a mock pork pie made with bacon and herbs, curious of course because bacon is pork.

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The disparity in dishes does not extend to pies alone, but rather crosses all the culinary boundaries in the books. Edden has a unique white gingerbread from Grasmere; White a beer cake. Her steak and oyster pudding is absent from Edden’s work, and Edden’s Manchester pudding from White’s.

 

8. The architect of conflagration…

Edden and White kept the flame flickering; Postgate fanned the fire to achieve what they had not, a revolution in the quality of British restaurants and the subsequent, related, revival of interest in British dishes.

If Postgate was a socialist, and he was an ardent one, he practiced his politics with a warm heart and cold eye. What Tim Hayward has called his “gently egalitarian politics” could not countenance Ministry of Food austerity absent the peril of war. (Hayward) The humblest worker deserved much more than subsistence. As Fred Inglis has explained, Postgate “had a Hampstead Garden Suburb set of convictions about the good life and part of the good life was eating out well.” (Kendall)

 

9… takes a detour to Scandinavia and finds disillusionment…

Drinking well too, and a visit to Sweden in 1938 left him aghast. Postgate had anticipated the workers’ paradise but found a society where the authorities bedeviled drinkers. It was not Prohibition on the American model; it was more prohibitive than that in holding out the hollow promise of a legal drink.

The ‘Art of Getting a Drink in Sweden’ was, he thought, a perverse game:

“The game is rather like Snakes and Ladders. You think you are near home and you are suddenly sent right back to base. There are short cuts, but you are not likely to find them. Some highly experienced people have taken their passports to the Central Spirits Bureau and got a sort of temporary ticket, but that is neither usual nor easy.” (“Journey”)

This and other stratagems proved essential because Sweden imposed tight controls on drinking, controls as severe as the baleful Patriot Act imposes on visitors to the United States. In a sense the ridiculous questions that the American immigration authority asks of foreign airline passengers (“Are you a member of the Nazi Party? Of a terrorist organization?” Perhaps their intent is an unstated and elliptical one, to deny entry to idiots.) are less burdensome, because if a traveler does manage to gain entrance she is free to drink as she pleases.

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Not in Sweden before the war. If a Swedish citizen submitted to an interview, answered any number of intrusive questions, including “why you want to be allowed to drink,” in the required manner, then a government functionary would determine how much to allow you to drink and grudgingly grant you a “drink book” setting your quota.

Drink books required periodic renewal, and would not be renewed “if you have misbehaved.” Bad behavior included unpaid taxes; Postgate found the entire procedure so puerile that he “forgot to ask if you also are made to stand in the corner.” (“Journey”)

The drink book also determined when you might drink, and the intervals at which you could order your drinks. Worse, no public houses or bars existed; drinks must have been ordered in restaurants and never without food, so drinking becomes prohibitively expensive. Neither British French nor Thai food will do: Preservation of the national culture apparently had become paramount.

“The ordinary man has to obey the rule that he cannot have a drink without ordering a meal, and a Swedish meal at that. Then he may have a thimbleful…; if he wants more, he must have half a thimbleful, and then no more. If he waits till three o’clock he can have another. After six o’clock, he can have another still.” (“Journey”)

Like all proscriptions on behavior that involves no victim, disobedience became something of an art form, and a pervasive one at that. Postgate’s careful usage of ‘ordinary man’ (unimaginative might have been the better adjective) hints at the practice: “Not all drinking, you may imagine, is done according to drink book rules.” (“Journey”)

The press led the way, as it so often does in undermining societal strictures. “Newspapermen, of course, have the matter most efficiently and easily organized. Special allowances are made by officialdom for birthdays, celebrations, and entertainments.” Phantom ‘entertainments,’ especially involving people difficult for the government to trace, therefore became routine. “‘We just have a foreign delegation to entertain once a month,’ explained the city editor of one daily” to Postgate. “‘It always consists of between 17 and 23 persons. Everything is quite simple.’” (“Journey”)

Surveillance had not yet reached NSA levels in prewar Sweden, and those unlucky enough not to engage in journalism developed their own stratagems. It was helpful to know a hotelier, headwaiter or austere friend. “The drink sold in any hotel has to correspond to the meals served. But there are a good number of teetotalers who don’t take a drink at all. You understand. Even more people have abstemious friends whom they persuade to take out a drink book and let them drink on it.” (“Journey”)

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After all this effort, the prize was nearly if not quite worth the contest. “Wine in theory you can buy, but you don’t.” Instead the same scowling people who ration the drink books distill what passes for booze, something called ‘snaps,’ that “takes the place of whisky or gin,” which in terms of quality, however, it does not nearly do. Postgate suspects “it is made of wood pulp, it tastes as if artificial silk stockings had been soaked in it, and though there are various names on the bottles it is all made by one State-controlled corporation.” (“Journey”)

Once again the drinker must attempt to be resourceful, and once again snake and ladder impede the effort. Speaking of this eau de bois, Postgate complains that the “only way to make it tolerable is to chase it immediately by a beer. But here the Government catches you out. You cannot get beer at all in Sweden. Class II beer, which they will sell you without shame, is actually what Americans call near-beer.” (“Journey”)

The functionaries who imposed these disabilities on the hapless Swedes were not content to destroy life as we know it within their own borders. They hoped their punitive regime “would shortly be imitated by all other countries,” as awful reformers always will. (“Journey”)

Happily enough that never happened except in Mormon Utah, where a similar and equally ridiculous set of regulations attempted to impede the barfly, right down to the requirement to eat with drink, absence of bars (‘private’ clubs with minimalist membership requirements proliferated instead) and ‘near-beer.’ But even there the dystopian dream failed, first in the secular oasis of Park City where the law was flouted for years and then across the state, when the influx of foreigners to the 2002 winter Olympic games put paid to the practice.

 

10… then goes home to save the day and future decades with his Good Food Guide .

Navigating a British restaurant during the middle of the twentieth century was in its way not so different from scoring a drink in Sweden before the outbreak of hostilities. Postgate likened it to war. The “Rules for Eating Out” published in the first Guide , from 1951-52, refer to restaurant staff as “the Enemy” and recommend battle tactics. Consider, for example, the “Fifth Rule:”

“Take a long time reading the bill of fare, and see that your wife decides what she wants first. If the Enemy hears one of you say: ‘I’ll have whatever you do, dear’, he immediately decides he has no serious foe to encounter. What you want to impress on the establishment is that it has to deal with a pair of people who know exactly what they want, and are implacable.” ( GFG 19)

While diners and waiters were engaged in conflict, rules of war did apply, and the encounter should be civil even if it was not yet civilized. “You wish to give the impression not that you are angry with this particular restaurant, but that you are suspicious, after a lifetime of suffering.” ( GFG 19)

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The Guide had become necessary because the suffering had lasted longer even than the lifetime of many GFG users: “For fifty years now complaints have been made against British cooking, and no improvement has resulted.” ( GFG 7)

Improvement was the goal of the Guide , but Postgate understood that victory would be a long time coming. Although the first issue recommended six hundred places to eat, “the standard,” as Paul Kendall reports, “was not high.” In Postgate’s words, inclusion in the guide meant ‘any place where food could be eaten without nausea, where the helpings were not derisively tiny and the staff not directly rude.’” (Kendall)

Kendall is not quite right. The exception was London, where from the outset recommended restaurants would be “exceptional in the proper sense of that word--that is to say, they have a definitely individual character and are succeeding in providing food which differs appreciably from the run-of-the-mill menus outside.” True to Postgate’s tolerantly catholic taste, they would be a diverse lot. “Some are very small, some are noticeably cheap, two at least are very dear,” ( GFG 12-13)

 

The Guide itself emerged from Postgate’s “Good Food Club,” which in turn developed out of a series of essays he had written in The Leader , a left-leaning BBC periodical, and the literary magazine Lilliput , which tapped the countercultural ethos of Fitzrovia. All of them evince Postgate’s characteristic touch of comic outrage; one of them, “The Rape of Cabbage,” described restaurant food as “soggy, sour, slimey, stale or saccharin;” another, in 1949, advocated a “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Food.” (Hayward)

 

11. The virtual reality of 1950.

A year later Postgate announced that the fictitious society for the prevention of cruelty would become the genuine “Good Food Club.” He explained that it would be “a curious organization” that “consists of a large number of people (how large is not known)” and describes it in the first Guide ,

“It has no club premises or meeting place, no subscription, no funds, no list of members, practically no officers, and no staff at all…. There are no cards of membership, nor any subscription, because those things are not needed.” ( GFG 3, 4)

The club, Postgate recognized, “would probably be described, in the new and rather odious phrase, as a ‘notional’ organization. But that does not mean it is not a very real and live thing.” ( GFG 3)

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 The “double purpose” of this eerily prescient virtual community, to use a later new and rather odious phrase, was “to improve British cooking and service and to communicate to each other information about places where the cooking, cellar and courtesy come up to proper standards.” ( GFG 3) Postgate distinguished between ‘inactive’ club members, who simply purchased the Guide , and ‘active’ members who furnished its reviews. ( GFG 4) The GFG updated these communications on an annual cycle.

To allay any concern that the GFG “may become a racket” rigged to cheat its members, the club operated under five “strict rules” not to be confused with its tactical “Rules of Eating Out.” It accepted no advertising; prohibited members from accepting free food; nobody could agree with a restauranteur to withhold a bad review; restauranteurs themselves could make no recommendations, and they could not pay to get them. ( GFG 9-10)

 

12. The people will show the way.

Postgate applied his gentle politics of easygoing socialism to eating out. He sought to ‘democratize’ dining in two respects. Before the Second World War and during the early postwar period working and even middle class people seldom ate in restaurants as recreation; they were the preserve of the privileged or the purgatory of the itinerant. Postgate wanted to change that and taking the guesswork out of eating in a restaurant was the crucial first step in encouraging more people to do so, which in turn would create the conditions for more and better places to go.

He sought to give ordinary people not only the power to cooperate in rendering judgment but also the courage to incite change. Before the advent of the Guide , British diners had been reticent, even docile in speaking up for themselves.

Driver believes two forces united to cause this entrenched attitude.

“The very refusal of the British to complain vigorously in restaurants which rob them of the quality of the cooking they are entitled to expect for the price they pay does not derive only from native reserve… but from bourgeois fear of being branded as hagglers by open-handed aristocrats…. [I]t is not good form, on the nursery slopes of social climbing, to question value for money too closely, or demand accurate itemised bills.” (Driver 175)

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That had to change, and Postgate’s project was designed to make diners militant. His explicit advice; if “the food and service is vile, refuse to eat it and refuse to pay.” ( GFG 20)

Confrontation could be, he insisted, the lesser evil encountered in a bad restaurant. Postgate concedes that for British people of his era “this is difficult; and that anger causes indigestion,” but goes on to ask

“which anger is worse, and which causes most indigestion? The anger which exhales itself in open fury, and in the words ‘This is uneatable; I am going’? Or the anger which simmers throughout the meal, and through the paying of the bill, and rumbles all the way home in the bus or train--frustrated, humiliated, and causing heartburn?” ( GFG 20)

This was radical as well as difficult but Postgate was confident in the members of his club.

Hayward characterizes Postgate’s commonsense faith in the reliability of ordinary people with this illustration: “If a chap is travelling across country and needs a place to stop for a bite, he can trust the recommendations of other chaps.” The genius of the Guide lay with Postgate’s “faith in the collective actions of real diners. As he put it, ‘You can corrupt one man. You cannot bribe an Army.’” (Hayward) Mennell estimates that by 1954 the army already had grown to between ten and fifteen thousand troops. (Mennell 288)

The grassroots ‘Mass Observation’ movement Postgate envisaged would become self-perpetuating and create a cycle of virtue. Implicit in all this was the anonymity of club members. As Mennell explains, citing Postgate himself:

“With Club members travelling around and 20-30,000 eyes watching them, restauranteurs newly entering a trade could become widely known for their good food much more quickly than before. Perhaps more important, ‘an hotelier whose service and cooking is [sic] going down can never be at his ease. He can never be sure which quiet customer is watching him on behalf of the Club.’” (Mennell 288)

Notwithstanding the rules and Postgate’s confidence in the reliability of his amateurs, trust in one or two members of the club was not enough. Postgate assembled “a network of inspectors--made up of contributors who had impressed him with their critical faculties--and these were sent to confirm or deny various reports.” (Kendall)

 

13. Anonymous illuminati.

The Good Food Club would become an inspirational phenomenon and national institution. Nobody, it seems, wanted to be left out. Fred Inglis, member of the Fabian Society and four time Labour candidate for Parliament, has described “a faint, agreeable air of secret service with which members went to work.” (Bell & Hollows 46)

Among the ‘active’ members who contributed reviews were Kingsley Amis; John Arlott, the beloved BBC cricket commentator; Roy Jenkins, Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of three founders of the Social Democratic Party; William Rodgers, a Member of Parliament and another founder of the SDP; Margaret Costa, whose epochal Four Seasons Cookbook appeared in 1970 and remains a standard; “three world famous English conductors, a great painter, a socialist bishop, and… the most famous military historian.” (Bell & Hollows 46)

Postgate shared with White and Edden a “personal taste for decent indigenous food, stripped of pretension,” and so, as Hayward has written, “gave us a uniquely British food guide.” (Hayward) Other cuisines are by no means absent from the inaugural Guide , but praise for “good English cooking” and in particular “sound plain Scottish cooking,” “excellent cooking in the Scots high tea tradition,” and “the Best Scottish food” permeates the text.

 the-Antelope-pub-london.jpg

Recommendations for British food in London range from the inexpensive Antelope, an appealing public house still serving reliable food, to the Goring Hotel, which has maintained its high standard of pricey food in the English tradition throughout the intervening decades. In an indication of the Guide’s indifference to prestige or reputation, however, other supposed bastions of British cooking did not make the grade. Rules, the Savoy Grill, Simpsons-in-the-Strand

Scotland would appear overrepresented. Perhaps the quality of its restaurants in 1950, when rationing still applied to many ingredients--it finally was phased out only in 1954--may stem from the abundance of game and fish, which never entered the ration books, north of the Border.

It was early days, however, and Elizabeth David set about extinguishing traditional British cuisine with Mediterranean Food the same year the first Guide appeared. In the ensuing decades recommended GFG restaurants serving noticeably British food would decline to nearly nothing until the Great Revival of the 1980s. Then Postgate’s progeny would begin to extoll the quality of British food with the enthusiasm of decades past. The Guide abides.

 

Sources:

David Bell & Joannne Hollows (ed.s), Historicizing Lifestyle: Mediating Taste, Consumption and Identity from the 1900s to 1970s (Farnham, Surrey 2006)

Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz (London 1991)

Christopher Driver, The British at Table 1940-1980 (London 1983)

Helen Edden, County Recipes of Old England (London 1928)

Tim Hayward, “A new alliance for the ‘Good Food Guide,’” The Financial Times (14 March 2014)

Paul Kendall, “The Good Food Guide: celebrating 60 years of a national institution,” The Telegraph (21 September 2010)

Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (Oxford 2005)

Derek Oddy, From Plain Fare to Fusion Food: British Diet from the 1890s to the 1990s (Martlesham, Suffolk 2003)

Blake Perkins, “An Appreciation of the Pudding Lady, embedding commentary on recent books by Maggie Andrews & Ellen Ross,” www.britishfoodinamerica.com No. 37 (Summer 2013)

Blake Perkins, “Petty, Florence, 1871-1948,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online (accessed 25 December 2014)

Florence Petty, The Pudding Lady’s Recipe Book (London, 13th ed., 1928)

Raymond Postgate, “Journey to Sweden,” The New Statesman (9 April 1938)