This month’s column is my tribute to one of the nation’s best known and loved Home Economists, Marguerite Patten. Hilda Elsie Marguerite Patten CBE was born in Bath on the 4th November 1915, today would have been her 100th Birthday. She sadly passed away on the 4th June of this year, exactly 5 months short of making her centenary. Held in such regard, The Guild of Food Writers are marking this occasion by holding a “cookalong”, encouraging people to recreate her recipes and post pictures on social media using #Marguerite100 hashtag.
As a Senior Home Economist, she landed her first food job as an electrical appliance demonstrator. When she first started, the recipes and ingredients she used were very lavish, but after the war broke out these recipes became obsolete. In 1940 using a combination of the Ministry of Food Fact leaflets and her own knowledge, her attention turned to advising families on how to eat well, cooperating and working with the local authority in Lincoln.
In 1942 she went to work in Cambridge for the Ministry of Food as part of a team of Home Economists. This involved travelling all over East Anglia, to village halls, outpatient departments even visiting expectant Mothers, aiming to get the food advice out to as many people as possible. Covering a largely rural area, Marguerite found herself in charge of several Food Preservation Centres. These were set up in areas where there was an abundance of fruit available, which needed to be harvested and preserved. It was Marguerites job to ensure that the jam was made to the strict M of F recipes, using 60% sugar so it would keep well. I think she must have been a very strong minded young woman to manage a group of older experienced cooks. Especially those who wanted to use their own jam recipes and surely couldn’t have taken kindly to being told how to make jam by some whippersnapper of a girl!
In 1942 she was loaned to the scientific division of the Ministry of Food to test how nutritious the newly introduced school dinners were. School dinners were brought in during the war to ensure that children got one good hot meal a day, as many mothers were out all day working for the war effort. I bet she didn’t see any Turkey Twizzlers on the menu back then!
She must have proved she was very capable of doing the job well, as in 1943 she was promoted to the Ministry of Food Advice Bureau at Harrods. This was a far more high profile and prestigious role, negating the need to travel. Her new role involved doing two demos a day, Monday to Friday and one on a Saturday morning for ladies, that in some cases had never cooked before and had always employed professional chefs. It must have been exhausting coming up with new ideas and all the preparation needed to do so many demos in a week and that’s not even taking into the account the added danger and undoubtedly sleepless nights with being in London rather than the country. Also during that time, many listeners remember Marguerite from her BBC Kitchen Front radio programmes which were broadcast early in the morning, offering inventive and nutritious ways to use your rations.
In 1947 she presented a BBC cookery programme as one of the earliest “TV chefs”, a label she vehemently disagreed with, saying that “I am NOT! To the day I die I’ll be a home economist.” However much she disapproved of the title “ TV chef”, it did make her a household name; she even did a world tour of cookery demonstrations, long before the days of world travel being the norm.
Those war years and post war rationing up to 1954 had changed the tastes of the nation forever. People had been exposed to food from different countries and cultures; women had become used to working away from the home, all of these changed how and what people wanted to eat. Marguerite through her books, TV and radio continued to be a constant steady guide through so much change. What many people may not realise is that even through the emotional and physical stress of the war, the health of the nation during that time was surprisingly good. Infant mortality decreased and the average life expectancy from natural causes increased. The diet which had been imposed upon the nation and that Marguerite was an ambassador for, was actually a healthy one and in line with current nutritional advice that still holds strong today.
I have a wonderful copy of her “Cookery in Colour” book, which was published by Paul Hamyln in 1961. Described as “A picture encyclopaedia for every occasion!” The colour bit of the title being a big selling point back then, as previous cook books had largely consisted of black and white photography with the odd colour picture. This book was a psychedelic leap of colour use, those of you who have a copy or seen one, will be familiar with the lime green, bright orange and pink pages! Her follow up “Everyday Cook Book in Colour”, had sold over a million copies by 1969 and since then an astonishing 17 million copies of the 170 books she wrote and contributed to have sold across the world. In 1995 she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Guild of Food Writers, well deserved I’d say.
In 1991 she was awarded an OBE for services to the “Art of Cookery “and she was subsequently elevated to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2010 Birthday Honours. With the exception of a few years off when she was in her seventies, Marguerite continued to work well into her nineties. When I am out and about doing talks about my cook books, it is her name that is always mentioned with great fondness and her legendary jam recipes! She will be remembered for guiding housewives through the dark war years, for being an influential cookery book writer and as a Home Economist who was an unwavering authority on the best of English cooking. The cooking ethos she lived by can teach us a lot now, her focus was on cooking and eating good quality unprocessed produce, preserving food wisely and using food cleverly to minimise waste. All ideals that are very much at the heart of many of today’s chefs and home cooks.
I’ve chosen a recipe based on one that appears in “Cookery in Colour”. I hope that Marguerite would have approved, I have gone for a dish that is easy to make, uses good nutritious ingredients and is economical, qualities that she strived for in her cooking.
Baked Corn Potatoes
Baking Tray, Baking Parchment, Fork, whisk, serrated bread knife, spoon, clean tea towel, chopping board, tin opener, big spoon, couple of medium bowls and a sieve
4 large Lincolnshire Baking Potatoes
75 – 100g Butter
2 Local free range eggs, yolks and whites separated
170g (drained weight) can sweetcorn (the little size tin.)
100g hard cheese of your choice, I used extra mature cheddar.
Preheat your oven to 180c fan
Prick your potatoes all over with a fork and rub with rapeseed oil and sprinkle some salt over, put on your baking tray and bake on the centre shelf for an hour and a quarter, maybe longer depending on how big your potatoes are.
When they are tender all the way through, pop them onto a chopping board and using your clean tea towel to hold them, cut them in half. I find the best knife to use is a serrated bread knife for a nice clean cut.
Then using your tea towel to hold the potato, use a large spoon to carefully scoop the pulp out into a good size bowl, making sure you keep the skins intact.
Add your butter and seasoning to taste and mash
Add your egg yolks and strained sweetcorn and mix in
Whisk your egg whites until very stiff and fold into the potato mixture
Pile the mixture back into your potato skins and bake for 20min at 180c fan
Take out of the oven and sprinkle with the grated cheese, if you want to crisp the cheese up, pop them back in the oven for a few minutes until browned. I don’t do this as I just like the cheese melted and not crispy.
These are absolutely delicious, served with just a good dollop of sour cream and chive dip or as part of a meal with some proper Lincolnshire Sausages, peas and brown sauce!
Sadie Hirst is a multi-award winning baker and a member of Select Lincolnshire and the British Society of Baking. She is often invited to speak to local organisations with her talk “Off the Beeton Track,” which is about the importance of preserving local food heritage and looking at cook book authors from the past. If you would like to see any of Sadie’s previous Target column recipes, they can be found at www.rjhirstfamilybutchers.co.uk You can follow Sadie on Twitter Sadie Hirst@RJHirstButchers