National Baking Week: Mass Observation and the Rise of Celebrity Chefs

03 January 2014

Cultural Studies | History | War and Conflict

It’s National Baking Week, and all things foodie are on my mind. With bumper autumn crops allowing me to indulge my old-fashioned passion for making jams and chutney, and The Great British Bake Off gracing our screens, I am in cookery heaven. In these times of financial austerity, we’re all looking to save money on our food bills and filling the store cupboard with foraged tasty treats gives you such a glorious feeling of preparedness. Like a squirrel with a particularly sumptuous hoard of nuts.

Jam making
Our TV chefs are also capitalizing on this mood of culinary retrenchment. Jamie Oliver has been showing us how to save money, fill our freezers and waste less food, and the Hairy Bikers have been knocking up gourmet feasts for next to nothing. I watch them all, and often scribble down recipes, but this kind of celebrity advice on economical eating is not a new phenomenon, as the Mass Observation archives show.
In April 1940 the BBC trialled a radio show called “Feed the Brute” after the 6 o'clock news, featuring popular variety performers Gert and Daisy (aka Elsie and Doris Waters). Mass Observation was asked to investigate and report on the public response to the new format. The show was a hit, reaching millions of housewives with important Ministry of Food information and useful, practical recipes. Requests for the recipes poured in, and when Mass Observation interviewed listeners they concluded that “this experimental series was an undoubted success, and revealed a new method of giving out serious educational instruction to millions”. Furthermore, by using colloquialisms, regional accents and common dialect, Gert and Daisy “identified themselves and their problems with the genuine housewife”.

With less than one third of the produce used by Britons at the start of world war two actually produced in this country, rationing not only removed many of the ingredients wartime cooks had been used to, but also presented them with the challenge of ‘making do’. Great ingenuity was required to eke out the rations, which might include only two ounces of butter, one egg, one ounce of cheese and two ounces of tea per person per week. BBC radio shows like “Feed the Brute” and “The Kitchen Front” offered valuable support and ideas for home cooks forced to operate with ‘mock’ ingredients, less money and (after 1940) the shadowy threat of prison sentences for wasting food.
Weekly rations
Modern TV chefs like Jamie Oliver, Si King and Dave Myers consequently owe a debt of gratitude to Gert and Daisy’s humble cookery show, for the blend of friendly, down to earth humour and practical tips that was experimental 70 years ago still remains a winning formula today. Though our modern store cupboards may be full, wasting less, using seasonal ingredients and saving money are still hot topics, and so in honour of National Baking Week, the recent appearance of suet pastry on Bake Off, and Gert and Daisy’s winning formula for celebrity chefs, I leave you with a wartime suet pastry recipe to try – ‘mock’ of course.  Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood are unlikely to be impressed, and I doubt you’ll win star baker, but I wish you luck.
On your marks, get set, bake!
Wartime Suet Pastry Recipe
For more details about rationing, wartime cookery and Ministry of Information recipes, please see our Mass Observation Online resource.

About the Author

Sue Alway

During my time in Editorial I have worked on many fascinating collections, including Mass Observation Online and Popular Culture in Britain and America. I love working with historical documents, bringing individual lives into focus and finding the personal stories behind the facts.