A subset of my cookbook collection are British cookbooks of a certain vintage. The UK post war economy grew much slower than the US economy, as rationing continued into the 50s, sugar and butter didn’t end until 53 and 54. Frugality in British cookbooks was a selling feature, whereas in post war American cookbooks it is deflected and hidden with words like “efficient” and “economy” – (One day I will do another post on the corrupting influence I think the manufacturer generated cookbooks have been on American cooking.)

Katherine Whitehorn was a British columnist, (she is still alive), her ONE book on bedsitter cooking has been reprinted and revised a few of time. The 1st edition was called Kitchen in a Corner, which was changed for later printings.

Bedsitters had ONE gas ring, which you lit with a match after you turned on the gas by putting a penny in the gas meter. They usually had no running water in the room and certainly no refridgeration available. Cooking well under these circumstances became an artform, like juggling. Dried and preserved foods were kept in tins and jars to avoid pests, in wooden boxes under the bed according to Whitehorn.

One would usually shop everyday or every other day, buying meat for dinner on the day it was cooked. Bacon was popular because being preserved it could be kept unrefridgerated for more than a day. British bacon wasn’t and ISN’T like US bacon, it was drier and kept better. This type of cooking explains the frequency of canned meats, smoked and salted fish in British cooking: Finnan haddie, smoked kippers, dried beef etc. Not only people living in bedsitters had to worry about electricity and gas usage to preserve foods and fridges were expensive, so ice-fueled iceboxes were in use much later than in the US. The beloved electric kettle was not just for making tea, it used them to start the water boiling to save on the gas meter for instance dried kippers were rehydrated and heated in a pitcher by pouring the boiled water over them, avoiding having to use the gas ring at all. Meatless entrees or ‘ragouts’ were popular for the days in between fresh meat purchases. Flavoring small dishes with boullion cubes ‘Oxo”, ‘meat extract’ Bovrill, tomato paste (from a tube), Worcestershire, Prepared mustard, were ways to get a big flavor boost with something from the cupboard. Stacking pans over each other to keep the top one warm is also common.

Bedsitter cookery is vaguely similar to Student cooking, if they didn’t have as many prepared foods, a dorm fridge or a microwave.   But the skills involved with storing, preparing and cleaning up are completely translatable. Cooking with stored and preserved foods is still valuable information.  This is definitely a cookbook I reread on occassion, not just because Whitehorn is hilarious.

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