A Foodie Childhood?

When I was a small girl in London food was a big part of my life.  I don’t mean eating, but shopping for food and cooking it – I’d made my first Christmas cake when I was four after all.  It’s possible I had some help.  And I certainly licked the bowl.

This Sainsbury in 1950’s Streatham is a close cousin of the one we visited in Victoria (sainsburyarchive.org.uk)

Because my mother taught all week, weekends meant a Saturday morning trip to Sainsbury’s in Victoria. I would watch as the shop girls reduced large yellow slabs of butter to half pound blocks using large wooden butter paddles – look, we still have some domestic-sized ones –

while others weighed sugar into dark blue paper bags. I looked on impressed as the man on the bacon counter turned the whining, shining wheel of his slicing machine – ‘Thick or thin madam?’.   After she’d bought all we needed, my mother joined the queue for the cashier’s window and fumbled in her purse to find the right change.

This is the kind of sight that greeted us as we shopped for groceries – counter service only (sainsburyarchive.org.uk)

It was the greengrocer’s stall on the market next.  I liked collecting the decorated tissue squares that oranges and tangerines were wrapped in.

This is a market stall in Cádiz 2020, not London in 1950-something. But you get the idea.

 I liked helping to choose the weekly vegetables, and learnt when to expect the different apples coming into season.  Discoveries came first, even before the autumn term started. Then James Grieve, Worcester Pearmain, Laxtons (Supreme and Superb), and round about Bonfire Night, the brown-skinned Russett.  Oranges and tangerines were for Christmas time.  I always hoped that there might be enough money left to buy a seasonal treat – perhaps a single peach.

Best of all  was the delicatessen.  This shop wasn’t at all the preserve of the moneyed middle classes, reviving holiday memories by buying exotic food stuffs.  Instead it was a refuge for the stateless, rather rudderless foreign populations of shabby 1950s Britain.  There were huge numbers of Poles who’d served out the war in the UK  –  my father was one; Italian ex POWs;  Hungarian Jews –  all the flotsam of Europe.

A cheese counter, probably in present-day Germany. (Waldemar Brandt Unsplash)

Here we’d buy Polish boiling ring, cooked simply in water and eaten with buttery mashed potatoes and sauerkraut or cabbage. I loved the wizened dried sticks of kabanos, a thin sausage that my school friends assured me was made from donkey meat.  There was Polish rye bread, speckled with caraway.  It was at the delicatessen that my mother learnt about pasta. We started eating spaghetti bolognese in about 1954, long before it became a British standard.  We bought Samsoe from Denmark which makes the best toasted cheese in the whole world. My school friends found our food odd.  That was alright.  I found theirs odd too.

A selection of sausage, quite possibly from Argentina (Edi Libedinski, Unsplash)

Very occasionally on Saturday afternoon  we would catch the tube all the way to Trafalgar Square and walk into Soho and the Italian store there.  Those impossibly long packets of spaghetti!  Those solid piles of Italian sausage:  pink fat-studded mortadella; Neapolitan salamis the colour of dried blood!  A great wheel of parmesan from which some cheery Italian with lots of smiles but little English would hack crumbly fragrant slices with a seriously stout and heavy knife! Aromatic roasted coffee beans clattered into special scales used for nothing but weighing coffee! And Italian voices, laughing, chatting, shouting and thoroughly at home. I don’t think we ever bought a great deal here.  We were there for a spot of sensory overload, and a few small treats.

Impossibly exotic in the 1950s: pasta neither hoop-shaped nor in a tin with tomato gloop (Markus Spiske, Unsplash)

Many of my childhood memories centre around preparing the food that we bought.  But that’s a story for another day.

47 thoughts on “A Foodie Childhood?”

  1. What a fascinating post, Margaret! I don’t have half so good a memory, but yours certainly take me back. Our local grocers, Knights, was very similar to the Sainsburys in your photo, and the smells are one of the things that stay with me. Though my Dad was Polish we never ate Polish food at home. He was thoroughly Anglicised by my English family, but you can imagine his delight when he finally returned to his homeland. I’m sure he thought ‘this is what real food tastes like’. 🙂 🙂 I’ve never been one for the greasier sausages, but I do love kielbasa. Thanks for taking me back!

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    1. I was thinking of you of course, Jo, as I wrote this post, and wondered what our similarities might be. I guess you had less access to Polish goodies – to this day, Plums in Chocolate (Sliwka w czekodadzie) is an essential part of Christmas. I don’t find the typical Polish sausage to be greasy – dry, if anything, And did you have a Polish maiden name? My parents changed to my mother’s name when I was about 8 to make life easier for me. I never forgave them. Rzepecka was so much more romantic!

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      1. I rather like yours. 🤣🤣 Mine was Szustakiewicz so a bit more of a handful. Bradley was a bit of a come down really. Took him a while to learn to spell it. Never had any Polish food till we went to meet the family. My loss! It’s the texture of the sausage I don’t like and I can’t abide the herring in mustard sauce 😟💕

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      2. In all honesty, I don’t find their food that exciting, though it’s tasty and filling. I’m OK with herring and mustard, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it

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  2. Oh, wonderful! I have always been a foodie…apparently my father said to my mother when they got married “whatever you do, don’t stint on the food” All very well, but they didn’t have loads of money! So mum was very good at making tasty meals with what she had to hand. And I remember her buying an Elizabeth David book in the 1960s, and Potage Bonne Femme (I think I’ve spelt it right) was the first thing she tried. We never looked back!

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  3. I love this kind of post–food is so central to our cultures and my childhood memories are full of different but equally evocative memories. You’ve really captured some moments in time and space!

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  4. Oh goodness all those fab cheeses. Did you used to queue up at the bakery counter in Sainsbury’s for a bag of broken biscuits? I did. I have a vivid memory with my Grandma at the St Albans branch. It was a treat as my father, an early adopter type, had already moved to supermarket shopping and refused to do ‘counter’ shopping.

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    1. Oh yes, I remember broken biscuits. But we never had shop biscuits, broken or otherwise. Such a treat to eat them at friends’ houses. And I also remember seeing the first local supermarket – a Tesco. But we didn’t like it. It was quite gaunt and unappetising, a bit like the more recent Kwik-Save (remember those?).

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      1. My mother never liked Tesco’s, but it was my father who controlled the purse strings. All receipts were given to him and every penny was to be accounted for so no deviation. What a strange existence.

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  5. What a delightful post! Such a cosmopolitan and multi-cultural childhood and what a memory you have! I can recall our Sainsburys shopfront looking like this and I remember a long counter within but it wasn’t long before the shop moved from its high street position to the new larger site with a layout much more familiar to us now. Thinking about it, I must have been at least 7 then, knowing when we moved to that town. My sister still lives there and its scarcely recognisable to me now. I’m hoping that final sentence hints at a follow-up post?

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  6. A lovely and evocative post Margaret. Makes me think back to when almost all food when bought was neatly wrapped in paper. Those small shops where the shopkeepers and assistants knew the customers so well, and often by name, are mostly long gone. The anonymity and convenience of supermarkets may make for greater efficiency but something has been lost. And now of course grocery stores are daunting places to be negotiated with hand sanitizers, face masks and social distancing.

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    1. We still have one or two shops where we’re on really friendly terms, as are all the customers. I hope such shops will survive – they have very loyal customers, and rightly so.

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  7. Great memories. I can remember a Sainsbury’s just like that in Lewisham close to where my grandparents lived in Catford.
    I grew up in Rugby and the only remotely exotic shop there was ‘International Stores’

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    1. Ah well, I think Sainsbury’s will have changed location now. I go shopping for my son’s family – they live in Hither Green, and there are Sainsbury’s big and small all over the place.

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      1. Hither Green, thanks for another memory nudge. In the early 1960s my grandparents had a telephone, an old classic black bakerlite. The number was Hither Green 6515, I always remember that and the 4 volumes of London a-Z telephone directory kept next to it.
        Thanks for making me smile!

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      2. You’ve reminded me. When we lived in Victoria, our phone number was the unforgettable TATe Gallery 2921. Who remembers strings of numbers?

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  8. A very evocative post which prompts memories from my 1960s childhood, including collecting fruit wrappers from the market! My mum was an early convert to supermarkets but as soon as I started to explore the town on my own I was drawn to the sights and smells of the local delicatessen.

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  9. Wow! This takes me back. What a fabulous post. I lived oop north and don’t recollect any Sainsbury stores (possibly in Leeds?) but shopping with my mother on a Saturday was compulsory as that was when there was a market in Wakefield, but I didn’t mind as she always bought me a huge peach (not those golf ball sized ones you see today in the supermarket) or a cream cake. The local shop was where I was sent to buy the eggs, bacon, bread etc as you describe. My mother never owned a cookery book as far as I am aware, she was a plain cook – meat and two veg + potatoes. Apple pie. I was much more adventurous and remember those long packs of pasta! Though I never did get mum to eat it! How exciting to have access to all those foreign foods. I first saw an avocado in London when I was 16!

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    1. Wakefield Market? That used to be part of my life during the early 70s. I wonder if it still thrives? Leeds Market, which used to be wonderful, is a sad shadow of its former self. Those really long packs of pasta seem to have disappeared, don’t they? I miss them!

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  10. Thanks for the memories Margaret. I grew up in a farming and orchard area outside of Melbourne. In those days it was the countryside about 90 mins by train to the city. These days, well, it’s an outer suburb really. But back in the 50’s Apple packing was a school subject because we all had to pitch in at home and the fruit was wrapped in those little squares of tissue. The local grocer dressed in a grey coat and climbed a ladder to get to the higher goods in the shop and the delicatessen was also known as the ham and beef shop. Though to my memory his goods were less exotic than Mum’s pantry. Thankfully food was in abundance and my parents were foodies. Being post war the district was a mix of nationalities and Mum was always first to ask what new residents cooked. Perhaps Mum’s most interesting creation was a high proof home made advokaat served to the pickers on a hot day. A nice cup of tea may have been safer.

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    1. Oh, those pickers must have started to fall of the ladders! What memories eh? I was a post-war child in rural Yorkshire, and on school afternoons sometimes we used to have to go and pick rosehips for Delrosa, the rosehip syrup manufacturers ( Vitamin C for-the-use-of). If you picked enough, you got a tin badge. I was only 5, so I didn’t pick enough. No badge. No nothing.

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  11. Fantastic post, Margaret! My mother has always been a very good cook and if my father hadn’t been such a fussy eater she would have been much more adventurous. No delicatessens for us until I was well into my teens and they began to appear in Bromley. My father wouldn’t touch pasta until he was in his 50’s. Mum had to rename foreign dishes with prosaic English names to get him to eat them. It worked, surprisingly! I also remember our very first phone number KIPling 4395 but not our second which was a RAVensbourne number. That was soon changed when the letters disappeared and we got the seven numbers.

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  12. Wonderful memories and sensory experiences. Is Samsoe, cheese? (I know it is an island in Dk.) It must have been wonderful growing up with such a multicultural dinner menu. For back in the 60s, food in Australia was often bangers and mash and peas. Or worse still, silverside and the next night silverside fritters. I really did not like them.
    The shops with the food in bulk storage is a concept they should bring back! The smaller amounts of food packaged up at the supermarkets with 2 for $- deals contributes to so much more packaging waste.

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