I’ve always loved food.

 Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Well, almost always, there were a few exceptions. 

The 1970s for example. This was a decade that feasted on the dead corpse of the swinging sixties, like a toothless old man gnaws at the bones of the three day old Christmas turkey who then, when finding that the meat has long gone, vomits up his breakfast in the vain search of protein. Old men without teeth, whose mouths are gaping black maws scented with the sulphurous odours of Hades, should absent themselves from certain activities for the obvious reasons. They should never offer kisses to the Bride. They should keep away from hamsters searching for dark warm places to hibernate, for the hamsters sake. They should only come into the kitchen so that their lips can be used as a seal and their heads then pumped up and down to unblock the kitchen sink after a particularly lively party of teenagers have used all of the vodka and vol au vents in a competitive game of  ‘drink and spew’. 

The 1960’s promised a new era of fashion, of social experiments, and avant-garde art and in certain small parts of London and Liverpool, the decade succeeded in doing so. In Camborne and Redruth, history was much slower to arrive. The Victory at Waterloo of 1815, was announced on horseback at Camborne town clock in 1963, just before the council ruled witch burning could only take place on Wednesdays to provide entertainment in lieu of the trains stopping. There were hippies on the harbour at St Ives for sure, but they all came from ‘up country’.

The 1970’s thought it would carry on the 60’s revolution but forgot that most of the country between 1960 and 1969 was still living as if it was 1945-1955, only without the bombs and the Black Shirts. Rationing of course had officially ended in 1954 but for most it carried on in spirit. We kept calm and sucked the juices out of a marrow bone awaiting the arrival of a prawn cocktail and a Mateus Rosé to enlighten our culinary darkness. Skinny dogs wandered the streets always looking over their shoulders, to avoid becoming Hors d’oeuvres for hungry Miners on Sunday. The fat dogs had already been eaten. ‘Sweetmeats’ meant something quite different back then. 

In Picardy, Alsace and Burgundy, French peasants ate foie gras, terrine de canard au gratin de Provence and Pomme marinière avec crème Gascoigne, accompanied by a dry Chablis or a robust Burgundy. That was just for breakfast. Meanwhile, the English working class rinsed their mouths with a spoonful of dry oats and warm water three times a day and cursed the day the sun rose on their father’s first flush of unleashed priapism. 

Breakfast was lard and white bread. Dinner at midday was lard and white bread and an over boiled pea, and tea time at 6 was a rich tea biscuit, lard and white bread. Supper was a clip around the ear with a coal blacked, hairy back of the hand. This was followed by ‘get to bed, you whining little shit, or I’ll tell your father’. Only the posh on the telly ate ‘supper’ and they confusingly had dinner after tea time! 

Rationing meant half green black eyed potatoes, worm worn carrots and mushrooms growing on two week old cracking, crusty cow dung, if you were lucky and living in the country. In cities it meant lard, potatoes and vinegar bleached placenta.  Root vegetables were also staples and this really meant only barely buttered parsnips and swedes the size of billiard balls. Cabbage boiled to within an inch of evaporation meant that all minerals, vitamins, fibre and taste had dissipated into the air leaving only a green spongiform mass on the plate to take up the space where the meat could have been and to hide the cracks in the ceramic glaze.  The only meat available was on a Sunday. Rabbits were told to run and with good reason. Chicken was as expensive then as a three week luxury cruise in the Caribbean is today. This is because they were still free range, being hand fed corn by diary maids in their spare time. A beef joint was the equivalent of the mortgage on a whole Cotswold village. Pork was available due to the fact that every house had a back garden or yard in which to raise a pig. The pigs had a great life snuffling among the detritus of the brick outhouse and kitchen scraps where the children used to play at skipping and throwing marbles at the cat. It was not unhealthy for them. The ones with weaker dispositions and undeveloped immune systems had already died before their first birthdays, leaving the stronger to grow up endure the rigours of a working class winter eating the leftovers of their fathers’ fish suppers. 

Photo by Andy Wang on Unsplash

Fish and Chips! The absolute height of culinary achievement. Even during rationing fish and chips was still available to the working poor (i.e. everybody). Churchill referred to the dish as “the good companions” as he sipped his port and brandy after a post prandial bash  of pheasant and quail eggs at Chartwell. He was lucky not to have seen the 1970s, for if he had seen what food developed into, he would surely have wished we had lost the Battle of Britain.  We did not fight them on the beaches only to be served food tasting of sand and glue, and with as much visual appeal as the green outpourings of the bile duct. 

I remember eating bowls of porridge for breakfast. It was made with hot milk. So much sugar was added that it melted on the surface and created a sweet semi clear caramelising liquid that would sit around the edges of the bowl until I mixed it all in with a spoon. I ate the equivalent of a whole plantation’s output of sugar in the 1970s, so much that my blood was stickier than the licked surface of a toffee apple and twice as sweet. I might have died of type 2 diabetes if it were not for the protective properties of the oats. Running around wildly shouting my head off and sticking my hands up the skirts of the schoolgirls in the junior school playground at break times was down to the high sugar intake rather than natural high spirits of a pre pubescent boy. That is what I said to the social worker. I don’t know what the headmaster’s excuse was. 

The 1970’s descent into the culinary abyss and nutritional deprivation was started by Margaret Thatcher, for so it was in 1971 that the rot really set in. 

It was a cold rainy Wednesday in Margate sea front, when Mrs Thatcher came upon a mother sitting on a bench breast-feeding a newborn. The babe was suckling happily while Mum thought of the myriad ways of stabbing her husband in the face for making her pregnant for the sixth time. Thatcher came up close from behind her and with a swipe of the hand smacked away the breast from the babe’s mouth depriving it of sustenance. The mother looked incredulously upon the milk now spurting sporadically from the bare nipple into the baby’s face, but being working class, deferred to the better judgment of the Tory Education Minister who, in the mother’s eyes must have known best. Thatcher ran away laughing, high on her success, “I’m so happy, I could sit on Dennis’ face”, was the Daily Mail’s front page headline the next day.  

This moment must have stuck in Thatcher’s mind, for a little later she decreed that all milk for ever and ever should be removed from schools. The driving force for the action was to weaken the working class into submission through starvation, to break the powers of the Unions whose members would in time be skeletal wrecks of their former selves and only just able to carry out the work allocated to them. The preface to the ‘Milk Deprivation Bill 1971’ began with “Start with the children” she wrote “Starve the little fuckers until they beg for mercy”. The real reason for the defeat of the miners 14 years later was that most of them were either products of this earlier privation or had kids so weak from malnutrition they could not really afford to be on strike. During the 70’s working class miner’s kids prayed for death in order to ease them out of their starving misery as they searched gutters for apple cores and the worm infested remains of pork pies. There were no slow or lame pets in towns like Workington.  Old favourites like Lancashire Hot Pot often included Hettie the hamster. Many an old woman in rain soaked brick terraces cried herself to sleep lamenting the disappearance of her cat, unaware that just next door the street urchins were placing pussy in the pot. 

Surely, you cry, the 1970’s was not all bad on the food front and surely the working class was not so weak as to succumb? 

You do not know of Thatcher’s Grand Plan. The milk was just the beginning. The theory was that well fed working people might start having thoughts for themselves and so come to unite in order to lose nothing but their chains. Napoleon, no less, stated that armies marched on their stomachs. Cornish tin miners without their pasties was as unthinkable as Tom without Jerry, Laurel without Hardy or Jesus without Judas. 

My recollection of the 1970’s included ‘shop bought’ pasties which if eaten resulted in a negative nutritional state, they actually made us worse of in terms of minerals and vitamins. Each greasy mouthful leached the micro nutrients from your stomach lining and deposited a thick layer of fat. Thus they contributed to the making of the cardiovascular and obesity epidemic that continues to this day. We were served barely cooked, unseasoned, garlic and herb free mince and onions swimming in a weak gravy of piss. And school dinners so rancid they ought to have been defined as child abuse. Sailors in Nelson’s Navy having been at sea for weeks without landfall and thus reduced to eating the worms in a ship’s biscuit, licking the tar from between the decking and collecting fluff from their belly buttons until they had enough to make a soup, would have baulked at what passed for a school dinner. The mash potato was so thin it tasted of wallpaper paste, the beetroot was so acidic as to induce vomiting and the custard so thick and glutinous it could double up as cement. We were forced to eat it or be sent to the headmaster’s office for a thorough thrashing on our naked buttocks. He liked to use canes made of birch wood with little nicks cut into them for that authentic ‘cat o’ nine tails’ look. Thus were the seeds sown for Operation Yew Tree later on. 

None of this mattered of course to the Governing class. The working class ever since the Civil war was as expendable as a dock leaf as an arse wipe, and to be blown away into oblivion much like a match lit fart. The war had taught us that a diet of lard and broken biscuits was sufficient to build ships, mine coal and for throwing ourselves onto bayonets. While Generals, Bishops, and Foreign Secretaries dined on  ‘haute cuisine’ washed down with gallons of Claret, we were left to scavenge for the remains of a chicken’s gizzard and a lightly soiled turnip. 

Alcohol was the saviour. Without beer, gin and cider the country would not have functioned. As we all know booze provides calories, as well as bonhomie, bawdiness, babies and brawls. The Chapel frowned upon such matters of course, and we were treated to biblical jeremiads about the perils of booze. Sitting in the pew, we nodding sagely when the vicar, priest or parson, berated us for indulging in the sin of drinking. After the service, it was straight into the pub. Drink was the only antidote to the unremitting working class culinary desert that was the 1970’s. Drink or a War, the latter we had tried recently and found that it hurt. 

The 1970’s. 

Happy Days. 

Published by Lance Goodman

Freelance writer, bon vivant and all-round good oeuf.

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