Throwback Thursday: What did Cork people eat in the 1950s?

Jo Kerrigan compares the food we were accustomed to in Cork in the 1950s and ‘60s with the fast-food, takeaways, and Deliveroos we take for granted today.
Throwback Thursday: What did Cork people eat in the 1950s?

FRESH FARE: The interior of Cork’s English Market, looking towards Grand Parade, in April, 1958

I WAS talking to a friend in the supermarket the other day. She was searching for green peppers, avocados and aubergines, and was fretful because she couldn’t find the extra-virgin olive oil in its usual place.

“What are you having tonight?”

“Can’t make up my mind. Maybe pizza, or those pre-prepared spare ribs. One of these tossed salads. Oh, I must get some parsnip and carrot mix from Lidl. Where the heck have they put the Chinese stir-fries?”

What a change from the groceries available and the meals that were put on the table back in the 1950s.

Vegetables and fruit were bought and consumed when they were in season, not at any time of the year, for one thing. Nobody was going to ship in exotica from far away just so you could enjoy fresh strawberries or new potatoes in December. We didn’t even think of it.

You looked forward eagerly to the coming of the new crops, just dug or picked, and repeated, as you enjoyed them, that age-old Irish good luck wish: “Go mbeirimid beo ar an t’am seo aris” (That we may be alive at this time again).

Your mother wouldn’t have been doing her shopping in a supermarket. Dunne’s only opened the grocery side of its business in the ’60s, and even then at first only sold boxes of fruit, which was expensive and not always easy to find.

The local corner shop or the traditional long-standing establishments on Patrick Street and the side lanes still reigned supreme. This place to have the bacon cut to the thinness you required, that for the bags of sugar and packets of tea, over there for coffee, wine, spirits.

As for bread shops, they were everywhere, many bakeries operating several outlets in different parts of the city. Every housewife had her own preference and the shopkeeper would know her by name (and even deliver if the order was big enough).

Weekly trips were made to the English Market for the meat to feed their families: mince, cheap cuts, a leg of pork or mutton. It wasn’t called lamb back then, it was mutton. Today’s ‘lamb’ has at least two years under its woolly belt, if not more. 

Hens hanging up at Moynihan’s in the English Market weren’t called chickens either, but roasting or boiling fowl. Moynihan’s was (still is) the place to buy buttered eggs too, coated as soon as laid, to keep them extra fresh.

“During the summer, when we were staying down Crosshaven, my mother would cycle up every week to Donovan’s in Princes Street to get the joint of ham,” recalls Anne. “It would last us several days.”

Local shopping at the nearby store (there was one in every street, if not two) was for potatoes (3½ lbs, or a quarter stone, was the usual purchase, weighed on a heavy old scales and tipped into a paper bag) and root vegetables, as well as small amounts of sugar, salt, and other basics. Biscuits were in Jacob’s tins with glass tops, and weighed out to order. Rice was for puddings, not as a side dish to the main meal. The concept of rice with meat would have been puzzling in the ’50s. We hadn’t got round to curries yet; nor had spaghetti and pizza gained the hold they have today.

Fast food was still in the future, unless you counted fish and chips. Many households sent someone down on a bike to Pop’s shop in Drawbridge Street on a Friday night to get the hot food to bring home as a treat. The chips were always wrapped in newspaper so you could catch up on the news while cycling home as fast as you could before the food got cold.

Incidentally, fish and chips were the only thing you could justifiably eat in the street, and even then only at the seaside, where this was acceptable. Consuming anything else in the street was definitely not the thing to do, especially if you were in school uniform. To be spotted misbehaving in such an ungenteel manner would almost inevitably bring a scolding when you got back to school. Someone always ‘told on you’.

Breakfasts back then almost always featured porridge, especially in large families. It filled and warmed you, was reasonably inexpensive, and easy to make (although lumpy porridge was a horror endured by many a child when mother had been distracted from the stirring by something else).

Country households in the ’40s were still using those great old ‘hay boxes’, where the porridge was boiled up the night before and then tucked into the hay to stay warm until morning. Salt was added, to counteract the blandness, but at the table that was then topped with sugar and perhaps a dash of milk.

“We had Odlum’s Triumph Oatmeal,” recalls Jane. “The packet used to feature a picture with the initial letters in capitals: two children sitting on the Os at a table formed by the central T.”

Later, cornflakes became popular summer fare: Kellogg’s of course, but also, does anyone remember Brown & Polson’s? The company, based in Paisley, Scotland, was famous for its cornflour, used to thicken gravies, but surely they did cornflakes too?

Kelloggs, though, had great giveaways printed on their packaging — model railway stations were particularly memorable, as were cut out dolls, fun masks, and even spacemen. That was the first hint of the new age American marketing coming into our innocent world.

Incidentally, back in the Depression years of the 1930s, American companies would print patterns on their feed sacks and thrifty housewives would turn the emptied sacks into clothing for their kids. Nowadays these feed sacks fetch high prices in American antique shops.

Does anybody remember the flour bags that were used and re-used in Irish country households? They even made clothes for children out of those, so you could end up with an agricultural logo pasted across the seat of your pants. If anybody has such a flour sack treasured from the old days, do let us know!

These days, we dine in the evening, but back in the middle of the 20th century, dinner was in the middle of the day.

Whatever the meat (or lack of it in penurious times), there were always potatoes, plenty of them, to fill hungry tummies and keep them happy. Carrots or turnips, cooked usually to a pulp, accompanied these. We hadn’t got round to the idea of ‘al dente’ vegetables as yet.

Irish stew could combine all of these in one, and make a filling meal. Often a heavy suet pudding or apple pie with custard to finish. How we all survived the afternoon with that lot inside us, whether at school, at work, or in the home, is a mystery.

Tea came in the evening, perhaps with bacon and eggs if the family budget allowed, certainly with large slices of bread and butter or jam. And always cups of strong tea, from a blackened teapot kept warm at the back of the range. Teabags only came in later and were generally disapproved of by the traditional housewife.

Did your household allow both butter and jam on the same slice or was it one or the other? It depended on how well off you were, or how strict your mother was.

“My mother made all her own jams and jellies,” remembers Eileen. “She would stack them high on shelves, and look at them with pleasure as she went past, seeing them as a reassuring preparation for winter. 

"Strawberries and raspberries came from Rathcooney Fruit Farm. It was a thrilling expedition on a summer evening, going up there and buying the buckets of freshly-picked fruit from Mrs. Grove-White. And then came the boiling up in big pans, the testing on a saucer to see if it was ready, and then filling the warmed jam jars.”

Eileen also remembers her mother preserving eggs. 

“She bought them when they were cheap in summer, and put them in buckets of... was it isinglass? That way, in winter, when eggs were difficult and expensive to come by, she could use the preserved eggs for baking.

“Brown and white hens’ eggs, but also blue, green, white duck eggs, and occasionally huge speckled turkey eggs. I never liked the duck eggs — I thought they smelt fishy!”

Today, most people take a snack or a fast food choice at lunchtime, perhaps a salad, bolted down on a park bench, or at the desk, to save time. Then the main meal comes in the evening. It might be a takeaway from McDonald’s or KFC, or a pizza delivered to the door. All unknowns to our parents and grandparents. They’d have thrown up their hands in horror.

Today’s children will often come home with a hot dog or burger they bought on the way. A ’50s child suffering the pangs of hunger might be given a slice of bread and butter to keep him quiet between meals. Biscuits were kept for social occasions, when visitors came.

Things changed gradually with the ’60s. There was the excitement of new foods appearing in the delicatessens like Maher’s or Maddens. The first capsicums or green peppers (it was some time before we discovered that they also came in red, yellow, orange). Le Gourmet, the first trendy French restaurant, opened on MacCurtain Street in the late 1960s. The Cork pronunciation of its name, predictably, was ‘Lee Gormet’.

Bert Mills, having lived in France, found it exasperating that he couldn’t find ingredients and supplies in West Cork.

“He was always searching for good coffee beans, and coffee filters, tinned asparagus, little salad potatoes, beans for making a cassoulet, pate, French-style sausages like merguez,” says his son Richard. 

“He was delighted when at last, in the late 1960s, a delicatessen opened in Bantry that sold a lot of the things he wanted.”

“My gripe was that I couldn’t get plain potato crisps anywhere,” recalls Katie. “I had tried them in England, but back here it was cheese and onion or nothing. I asked several shops but the answer always was ‘Ah sure, there’s no call for them.’

“In the end I got friends to post packets to me from England and I would keep them in a box under the bed. I would often wake in the middle of the night and hear the mice crunching their way into my stash, and kept an old riding crop next the bed to hit the floor and scare them away!”

Another of Katie’s desires was dark chocolate digestive biscuits. “You could only get the milk chocolate ones here at that time, and they were too sweet and sickly for my tastes.

“Gosh, it wasn’t until the ’90s, I think, that McVitie’s started to appear on the shelves. I was made up!”

Come to think of it, way, way back, even before Tayto (yes, there was a time before Tayto) didn’t we have plain crisps in Cork? With a separate tiny blue bag of salt to shake on? Surely we did.

If you remember those crisps, or indeed the food you best remember from childhood, then do let us know. Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com. Or leave a comment on our Facebook page: (https://www.facebook.com/echolivecork).

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