Have you noticed, when reading old children’s stories, that they often have the most amazing food described in them? The Secret Seven have lemonade and rock buns in their secret meetings, The Magic Faraway Tree’s inhabitants have enchanted toffee-shocks and pop biscuits, Winnie the Pooh has stacks of ‘hunny’, and Milly-Molly-Mandy has muffins delivered to her house by the muffin man. I don’t know whether my love of food (particularly baked goods) comes from reading about delicious tea parties in books, or from my mum, who is a food and travel writer (and who took me as her official sweets taster, to try all the pastries and cakes for her. I consider myself a bit of a hot chocolate expert, after sampling all the best hot chocolates in Paris for her). Probably a bit of both. This love of old-fashioned food is one of the reasons I loved Just William by Richmal Crompton.
William is a rather mischievous boy. First published in a magazine in 1917, and collated in the first William book in 1922, William has been around for a long time. Despite his age (the edition I borrowed from the library, states ‘still naughty at ninety!’ on the cover), William, I think, is still enchanting. He is like a boy version of the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories (except he is a lot cheekier), which I read and loved when I was younger. To William, food is of great importance. Dinner (which takes place at lunchtime) involves William having to brush his hair, which he rather dislikes. On half-holidays, he and his friends ‘The Outlaws’ all steal delicious goodies from the pantry to celebrate in their secret hideout (William brings along ‘liquorice water’, which is water that has had liquorice sitting in it for a few days – I’m not so sure about how delectable that might be). William’s mother is dismayed to find the steak and kidney pie that was for tomorrows supper has disappeared, as William used it to feed is newly acquired dog Jumbles. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of a story in Just William that does not have food in it.
However, the most foodie (and my favourite) of all the stories is when William, through a series of foruntate events, is looking after the sweet shop for the owner. This, of course, delights William, who promptly helps himself to practically everything in the store. As a sweet-tooth myself, it had me practically dribbling.
‘William discovered a wholly new sweetmeat called Cokernut Kisses. Its only drawback was its instability. It melted away in the mouth at once. So much so that almost before William was aware of it he was confronted by the empty box. He returned to the more solid charms of the Pineapple Crisp.’
The variety of sweets he samples! There are Butter Balls, Liquorice Allsorts, Nutty Footballs, Mixed Dew Drops, Toasted Squares, Fruity Bits… Note that William uses a capital letter for all of them.
William, of course, starts to feel rather ill after gorging himself on all these sweets, and I feel rather sorry for him. I would probably be the same in his position.
The thing I love about all these old-fashioned stories’ food is the old-fashionedness of the food. Although children seem to eat a lot of baked goods, it is all made from scratch (apart from sweets, which are bought from the specialty sweet store), by mother or the cook, and therefore doesn’t seem to be that bad for them. This is what I tell myself when I bake a cake… it’s from scratch, and the secret seven had homemade cake at every meeting, and look how amazing they were!
This weekend I have stocked up on disgustingly healthy food for lunches for the week, making pumpkin falafel, roasted chickpeas and homemade muesli bars, but last weekend, for no reason other than I wanted to, I made pork and fennel sausage rolls from scratch – not just the filling, but the actual pastry. This was rather more time consuming than I anticipated, but turned out delicious.
Old-fashioned food, like old-fashioned stories, are full of flavour and comfort. There is nothing like snuggling up to a book with a slice of freshly baked chocolate cake or a glass of homemade lemonade. I just can’t wait for it to be summer properly, so I can make some homemade strawberry jam again, and feel like William or Milly-Molly-Mandy tucking into a muffin slathered with warm jam.