Feeding a large family

Imagine us all sitting down to dinner; eight round a pot of stew. It was lentil-stew usually, a heavy brown mash made apparently of plastic studs. Though it smelt of hot stables, we were used to it, and it was filling enough – could you get it. But the size of our family outstripped the size of the pot, so there was never quite enough to go round. (Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie)

I grew up in a large family: the only girl with three younger brothers. Whilst having many siblings brought its fair share of annoyances, there were also many advantages, not least the fact that there was always someone to play with or talk to (it would be an unusual occurrence to fall out with all three siblings simultaneously).

In his childhood memoir Cider with Rosie, first published in 1959, the Gloucestershire writer Laurie Lee tells of growing up in a family with seven siblings. Lee’s mother, Annie, inherited five stepchildren when she married the widowed Reginald Lee, who had employed her as his housekeeper: she went on to bear him four children, one of which died; Laurie was the second youngest child. When Laurie was three his father left, and the family moved from Stroud to the village of Slad, the point at which Cider with Rosie begins. Whilst Reginald visited on the rare occasion, he never lived with the family again, and Annie was left with the unenviable task of raising eight children single-handedly.

Laurie Lee’s childhood home in Slad, from a visit I made in December 2016

Lee devotes a chapter called ‘The Kitchen’ to describing the family set-up and his various siblings, and with a chapter with that title it is no surprise that food makes many an appearance. He notes that the kitchen was the hub of the house: ‘our waking life, and our growing years, were for the most part spent in the kitchen, and until we married, or ran away, it was the common room we shared’. The day would begin with Mother stirring the porridge and Tony, the youngest, ‘carving bread with a ruler’, bread that would be sprinkled with sugar prior to eating. And in the evening, whilst the children chopped wood for the night, the baker delivered eight loaves of bread to the door and Mother stayed inside ‘cooking pancakes, her face aglow from the fire.’

With such a large family, and no father providing financial support, family meals were basic and, as Lee notes in the passage above, did not always go far enough, especially as Mother’s serving technique was rather haphazard: ‘When it came to serving, Mother had no method, not even the law of chance – a dab on each plate in any old order and then every man for himself. No grace, no warning, no starting-gun; but the first to finish what he’d had on his plate could claim what was left in the pot. Mother’s swooping spoon was breathlessly watched – let the lentils fall where they may.’

And Lee notes that his elder full brother, Jack, had eating in the Lee household down to a fine art: ‘But starving Jack had worked it all out, he followed the spoon with his plate. Absentmindedly Mother would give him first dollop, and very often a second, and as soon he got it he swallowed it whole, not using his teeth at all. “More please, I’ve finished” – the bare plate proved it, so he got the pot-scrapings too.’

Lee relates that he usually lost out to Jack, ‘being just that second slower’, and that it scarred him – food-wise – for life: ‘it left me marked with an ugly scar, a twisted, food-crazed nature, so that still I am calling for whole rice puddings and big pots of stew in the night.’

Well, I don’t think I – or any of my siblings – suffered too much food deprivation in our childhood, but Lee’s passage does make me wonder whether my love of food goes back to childhood anxieties that my brothers would eat all the cake before me!

I decided to make the Lee family’s lentil stew to accompany this post. I suspect my version is slightly more sophisticated in its choice of ingredients than the one cooked by Mrs Lee, but no less filling. My version makes enough for 4 – the standard family-size these days – but could easily be doubled – or more – if your family is on the large side!


Ingredients (serves 4):
300g puy lentils
4 rashers of bacon, diced (omit for a vegetarian version)
1 onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, diced
2 sticks of celery, diced
2 handfuls of sun-dried tomatoes, soaked in boiling water to soften and then cut into smaller pieces
3/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
500ml stock – veg or chicken

If you are using the bacon begin by frying it in a large frying pan or saucepan over a medium heat. The bacon should produce enough fat in itself, but if it doesn’t add a small amount of olive or sunflower oil. After a couple of minutes, add the onion, carrots and celery and cook for a further 5 minutes until the vegetables have softened but are not yet brown.
Add the sun-dried tomatoes and stir for a couple of minutes before adding the spices and stock. Cover and continue cooking for 30-40 minutes until the lentils are cooked: puy lentils don’t mush down like ordinary red and green lentils – they remain whole – so you will have to test them by tasting them. Keep an eye on the stew and add water if it is starting to dry out.
Season with salt and pepper to your liking. I followed Nigel Slater’s recommendation and served the stew with a spoonful of crème fraiche on top.
Serve with crusty bread and a glass of red wine.

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