Sunday, July 31, 2011

Boarding-House Custard for Blitzed Britons

Bombed out of a boarding room in Kensington and thus forced to take up residence in the sleepy suburban town of Thames Lockdon, Miss Roach – the thirty-nine year old beak-nosed  narrator of Patrick Hamilton's 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude – inhabits a small, pink room on the top floor of a tea house turned boarding house under conditions "of intense war, intense winter and intense blackout in the month of December."

Miss Roach's daily suburban life varies but little. She works as a secretary in a London publishing firm. Each evening she rides the 6:30 train from Paddington to Thames Lockdon, where "wedged between a half-hearted toy-shop on one side, and an antique shop on the other" stands her present digs. Around eight the proprietress pettily rings a "tinny Oriental gong," and she and the other boarders descend to dinner in a room in which once hungry vacationers – "exhausted families," "sweating fathers shyly rebuking their children," "cyclists with packs," and "young men with open collars and a look of sunburned eczema" – enjoyed sweet breads and tea. Now only a small collection of displaced Londoners sit two or three to a table, silent and weary over the evening meal.

Indeed it is the proprietress's "system of separate tables, well meant as it may have been," that serve to add "yet another hellish touch to the hellish melancholy prevailing," as Miss Roach observes. "For, in the small space of the room, a word could not be uttered, a little cough could not be made, a hairpin could not be dropped at one table without being heard at all the others." Such disturbances engender "general self-consciousness" among the tenants and smite "the room with silence, a conversational torpor, and finally a complete apathy from which it could not stir itself."

The reader may well wonder what kind of meal Miss Roach consumed under such circumstances. She tells us it was an equally drab wartime dish of spam and mashed potatoes followed by "plates of steamed pudding and custard."  Should you feel inclined to host a melancholy boarding room–style repast, then try Leicestershire Library's recipe for wartime steamed custard, which despite its simplicity is guaranteed to lurch the most intransigent palate from its blitz-induced ennui.


Steamed Custard

4 eggs
1 pint milk
1-2 level tablespoons sugar
Flavouring

METHOD – Beat the eggs and sugar very thoroughly. Heat the milk and, when boiling, pour it very gradually on to the eggs, stirring well all the time. Add the flavouring and pour into a greased cup or mould. Steam in a saucepan until set.

7 comments:

  1. It's a fascinating way of life, and one that is almost entirely gone. But for generations, boarding houses were part of every town, and most men could expect to spend at least part of their bachelorhood in a boarding house.

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  2. So true, especially in U.S. immigrant communities. And so many of the women either took in boarders (if married) or (if single) worked in boarding houses. That's how my teenage Slovenian American grandmother met my grandfather, I'm told.

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  3. Four eggs ? They were rationed. You'd be lucky to get four eggs a month, let alone at one meal. The custard was much more likely to have been made with custard powderi.e cornstarch. Bird's was a popular brand.

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  4. Four eggs ? That's nonsense. Eggs were rationed during the war. You'd be lucky to get four eggs in a month, let alone one meal. The custard will have been made from custard powder ie cornstarch.

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  5. I agree. Does seem excessive for war-time fare. Perhaps the Leicestershire Library meant powdered eggs -- unless, of course, Leicestershire was holding out on eggs during the war!

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  6. A lot of people actually kept chickens outside the cities - bred specifically for eggs; and when the chickens got too old to lay they went into the soup pot! So it isn't unreasonable to assume that 4 eggs were actually used!

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  7. I love Bird's Custard to this very day!

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