A literary compendium of 20th century English food

I don’t usually reread modern fiction – classics are quite a different matter – but this week I’ve been rereading Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life.

My reason for rereading her 2013 Costa Award winning novel was a pragmatic one. Having bought her latest novel, A God in Ruins, the central character of which, Teddy Todd, is the younger brother of Ursula, the protagonist of Life after Life, I realized my memories of the latter novel were rather fuzzy. Whilst the blurb of A God in Ruins says the novel ‘stands fully on its own’, I thought it would be frustrating to only half-remember characters and events from Atkinson’s earlier novel.

Whilst I greatly enjoyed rediscovering Life after Life what struck me on this reading was the vast array of food that is served up throughout.

The key idea running through Life after Life is the possibility of living a life again and again until eventually you get it right. Ursula is born on a snowy night in February 1910. The snowfall prevents the midwife, Mrs Haddock, reaching the bedside of Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, and the baby, born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, dies without taking a breath. But then in the following chapter, Dr Fellowes arrives in time to cut the cord around the baby’s neck and Ursula survives. And at the end of the novel the birth narrative is repeated for a third time; whilst there are no medical staff in attendance, this time Sylvie is able to save her newborn baby daughter by copying the actions of Dr Fellowes from the previous life: ‘Snip, snip. Practice makes perfect.’ And throughout the novel scenarios and events are repeated each time with a different outcome: characters die – or by a few seconds avoid death; relationships are formed – or never come to fruition. And the big question lying behind the narrative is whether – if one could have foreseen the events of the Second World War, and in particular the actions of Hitler – would it have been possible to halt him in his tracks.

But back to food.

Life after Life spans more than 50 years, from Ursula’s birth in 1910 to her death in 1967. The narrative darts back and forth in time, with a focus on the two World Wars and the inter-war period. In nearly every chapter characters are mentioned as eating – I counted 59 episodes – and barely any food references appear more than once (one exception is the cook, Mrs Glover’s, almost inedible veal cutlets a la Russe – of which more in a future post). With these food references, Atkinson’s novel recreates the early 20th century eating habits of the English middle-classes: she cites well-known dishes such as ‘toad in the hole’, ‘Bakewell tart’ and ‘jam roly-poly’ but also lesser known dishes to 21st century readers which sent me to Google to investigate: ‘cabinet pudding’, ‘milk fadge’, ‘sole veronique’, ‘Brown Windsor’ soup and the previously cited ‘veal cutlets a la Russe’.

With one narrative thread set in Germany German dishes are also referenced: ‘Pfannkuchen’ (pancakes), ‘Knackebrot’ (crispbread) and ‘Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte’ (Black Forest Gateau) amongst others.

Towards the end of rereading Life after Life I tweeted that there was so much food in it that I thought I should write a cookery book based just on this one novel.  When a friend liked my idea, it got me thinking.

So, I’ve set myself a summer challenge to recreate as many of the dishes in Life after Life as possible as a starting point for my new-look blog. I’ll be back with the first dish soon!


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