FT Foodies: Marguerite Patten

Marguerite Patten, CBE, is author of 170 cookery books. Among many posts, she worked at Frigidaire and at the Ministry of Food during the second world war. Now 95, she presented her first cookery show in 1947, on the BBC.

Who taught you to cook?

My mother did to a degree – but she was a very busy lady. She was widowed with three children, and she taught English.

If I was too much in the kitchen, she’d ask me, “have you done your French homework?”. Typical of British cooking in the 1920s, we had a roast joint on Sunday, and then on Monday you had it cold. And then you either had a cottage or shepherd’s pie on Tuesday. On Wednesday we started again with offal – liver, kidneys, stuffed hearts.

Who gave you your first job in food?

I started with the North Metropolitan Electric Power Supply Company. I was a junior home economist – and, in those days, if you bought a new cooker a home economist would come and help you cook your first meal. People often planned a big dinner party, and you had to clear it up afterwards. In about 1937-38, the electric cooker was getting very popular. It had a grill, a grill-boiler and two rings. We used to say to customers “this will take a 25-tonne turkey”. I still laugh about it.

What was your career like during the war?

When war was declared I started to do wartime cookery demonstrations, and then I went to be a senior food adviser at the Ministry of Food, one of many all over Britain. We were the frontline troops who met the public and did our best to help them through rationing.

Does today’s idea of “austerity” seem exaggerated?

I can only say that if people don’t cook well today, and they don’t eat well, they are really being unforgivable. There is so much good food about.

Was there a recipe from rationing that you grew to like?

We had to have a lot of corned beef, because our meat ration was worst of all. A corned beef hash is very good. It wasn’t until the Americans came and said how they liked it that we thought, “If they think it’s good, it must be good”.

What do you think about food culture today?

I think we have wonderful television programmes. I’m not sure that all of them are ideal for a housewife or man cooking – they’re too glamorous and expensive but they give good ideas. I deplore the fondness for convenience food.

What do you consider bad table manners?

Not to eat your food and to leap up and down from the table. And you must be generous with your thanks – food may not come from a celebrity chef, but people have worked hard to give you something.

For details on Marguerite Patten’s cookbooks go to www.grubstreet.co.uk

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