The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was created in Britain in 1917. Young women with a taste for adventure and a strong sense of patriotism were – quite astonishingly for the era – allowed to join the army and go to war. They were sent to France, where they freed up men for fighting by performing all sorts of clerical jobs, but otherwise they lived the military life – wearing uniforms, living in camps, and eating in mess huts.
So, what did they eat in those mess huts? A lovely book called Women and War Work, published in Britain in 1917, tells us that:
“The girls wait on themselves and the food is excellent. They receive in rations the same as the soldiers on lines of communication – that is, four fifths of a fighting man’s ration.”
The book also gave details of a typical week’s meals, “to show how well they are fed”
MONDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, baked mince, jam. Dinner: Cold beef, potatoes, tomatoes, baked apples, custard. Tea: Tea, bread, butter, jam. Supper: Welsh rarebit, bread, butter, jam.
TUESDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, boiled ham, marmalade. Dinner: brown onion stew, potatoes, baked beans, biscuit pudding. Tea: bread, butter, jam, cheese. Supper: Savoury rice, tea, bread.
WEDNESDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, veal loaf. Dinner: Roast mutton, potatoes, marrow, bread pudding. Tea: bread, butter, marmalade, jam. Supper: Rissoles, bread, butter, cheese.
THURSDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, fried bacon. Dinner: Meat pie, potatoes, cabbage, custard and rice. Tea: Supper: Tea, bread, butter, jam. Supper: Soup, bread and jam.
FRIDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, rissoles, marmalade. Dinner: Boiled beef, potatoes and onions, Dundee roll. Tea: tea, bread, butter, jam, slab cake. Supper: Shepherd’s pie, tea, bread, butter.
SATURDAY: Breakfast: Tea, bread, butter, boiled ham, jam,. Dinner: Thick brown stew, poatoes and cabbage, bread pudding. Tea: tea, jam, cheese. Supper: Toad-in-Hole, bread, jam.
SUNDAY: Breakfast: tea, bread, butter, fried bacon. Dinner: Roast beef, potatoes and cabbage, stewed fruit, custard. Tea: tea, bread, butter, jam. Supper: Soup, bread, butter, cheese.
I guess the girls didn’t go hungry, and in fact for most of them it was probably pretty similar to the daily diet of the working class back home in England. A superfluity of calories (all that bread and jam!) but a great dearth of fresh fruit and vegetables.
I did search in vain for a recipe for ‘Dundee Roll', but without success. So today, I give you good old Shepherd’s Pie.
The OED blames it on Scotland (as do a number of other sources), and gives as its first supporting quote a reference from 1877, from Kettner’s Book of the Table. The author (not the famous London restaurateur himself, he only lent his name to the book), says it is basically Irish stew with a crust:
“In Scotland they produce … such a stew, cover it over with a crust, and call it shepherd's pie... The shepherd's pie of Scotland is ...too farinaceous … potatoes within and paste without.”
I am now on a mission to find the first reference to Shepherd’s Pie. As a start, one of today’s recipes is from 1862, but I am sure there will be earlier examples, so please assist!
Nowadays we are more likely to make it from raw minced meat, but it was originally a way of using up leftover cold roast, as the following recipes show:
Take cold dressed meat of any kind, roast or boiled, slice it, break the bones, and put them on with a little boiling water, and a little salt, boil them until you have extracted all the strength from them, and reduced it to very little, and strain it. Season the sliced meat with pepper and salt, lay it in a baking dish, pour in the sauce you strained, and add a little mushroom ketchup. Have some potatoes boiled and nicely mashed, cover the dish with the potatoes, smooth it on the top with a knife, notch it round the edge and mark it on the top the same as paste. Bake it in an oven, or before the fire, until the potatoes are a nice brown.
The Practice of Cookery and Pastry, by I. Williamson, 1862
For shepherd's pie, chop finely some cold meat, season it well with salt and pepper and add enough gravy to moisten. Put into a greased baking dish and cover with an inch layer of potatoes mashed, seasoned and moistened with a few spoonfuls of hot milk. Smooth with a knife, brush with hot milk and brown in a quick oven.
365 Tasty Dishes, (Philadelphia, 1906)
Quotation for the Day.
Digestion is the great secret of life. Characters, talents, virtues, and qualities are profoundly affected by beef, mutton, piecrust, and rich soup.
Mr R. Hyde, of the Industrial Welfare Society, 1929