Mary Norreen Hart (b.1928): Food – Writing Lives

Mary Norreen Hart (b.1928): Food

‘I can never remember being hungry, but I am sure Mama and Dada often denied themselves so that Ron and I could eat’

Women would often be the ones to cook for the family. Advertisement would often depict these gendered

Food is particularly important during the interwar years, especially for those who had little money. This was no different for Mary Hart’s family. However, the author mentions that the family ‘ate reasonably well in spite of [their] circumstances’ (16). This is intriguing and Mary explains that this was the result of sticking with the same foods each week and ‘buying homegrown vegetables from unemployed men who worked on allotments’ (16). Mary sheds light on how the community would help each other in times of hardship through benefitting from each other’s labour.

Mary delves into how the family would prepare and cook meals during the interwar years. She explains that ‘there were no cookery books, so recipes were passed on from one generation to the other’ (16). There is a large assertion on family and family traditions, which is a running theme in the memoir. This is something we have lost touch with during this decade, as we have taken the concept of food and cooking for granted. The idea that recipes stay in the family provide the meals with a more personal feel to them.

A table of the family’s weekly meals

On the note of home cooked meals, Mary acknowledges; ‘we did not eat in restaurants (they were not available, and we did not have the money’ (16). She also uses modern ideas to reflect on what she didn’t have as a child and what was not available in the 20th century. This enables the reader to look at how society has progressed over time.

Family & Meals

Interestingly, most members of the family are encouraged to partake with the meals, as ‘we all had to take our turn to wash the dishes’ (16). This shows the strong input on preparing children for manual labour and to be included in the family chores. But it also shows how meal times were important in terms of bringing the family together. 

Some aspects of the memoir make it apparent that the family’s financial circumstances impacted their meals and eating habits. With meat, in particular, the author mentions; ‘once a year we had a roast chicken donated by our grandfather (…) I did not enjoy helping to feather the bird’ (16). This is interesting as looking at how in the 21st century, most produce is handled for us before we buy it. Also, the suggestion that they would only eat chicken once a year is remarkable, as most households now will have it once a day!

Stephen Constantine states that ‘wives tended to cut back on their own consumption of food in order to feed children’ (Constantine, 2006, 40). These words echo Mary’s in which she states ‘I am sure Mama and Dada have often denied themselves so that Ron and I could eat’ (18). I have mentioned this passage in previous blogs, but I think it’s important to make a note of it again as it’s so poignant. Although Mary believed the family ate reasonably well, she believed that this was at the suffering of her parents. Constantine highlights that this was a common factor in working-class households. I wonder if Mary was aware of this?

Where does the food come from?

Stone Butchers, Aberfan

On the mention of food, Mary spends most of this detailing where the food would come from. She says; ‘on a Saturday I would go to the butcher and buy a piece of meat for sixpence’ (…) the milkman delivered our milk by horse and cart’ (17). Both show the traditional methods of how the food was brought to the homes. Very rarely do we see milkmen now, and the need for butchers is in decline (Tapper, 2019). These methods are dying due to consumerism and the popularity of supermarkets. The consideration for transport is intriguing as very rarely do we think about modes of transport during this period. As Mary suggests, horse and cart was the most efficient way around.

Mary often concentrates on things that are easily accessible today and compare this with 20th-century life. She notes that they ‘did not have any imported fruits in the 1930s but ate the seasonal fruits’ (17). Again this constant fixation on what they ‘didn’t’ have instead of what they ‘did’ have suggests that Mary’s life during the 21st century has been considerably less restrictive. Food and meals are possibly one of the biggest things that have changed in terms of culture from the 20th to the 21st century. I’m glad that Mary recognises this and educates us on meals during her childhood.

Proof read by Zoe and Shauna


HART, Mary Norreen, ’ (privately printed, 2011), pp.63. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel University Library. Special Collections, Vol.4.

Constantine, Stephen. Social Conditions in Britain 1918-1939. (London: Routledge, 2006).

Tapper, James. ‘Can Britain’s butchers survive the vegan boom?’ The Observer. 19 January 2019. Web. Accessed 15 April 2019.

Images Cited

‘How Much Do You Really Know About 20th Century Food Culture?’ WordPress. N.d. Web. Accessed 4 April 2019.

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