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From veggie fritters to fish ice-cream: 200 years of Guardian food

·5-min read

On the front page of the first Guardian was an advert for the first vegetarian cookbook: “A NEW system of VEGETABLE COOKERY with an INTRODUCTION recommending abstinence from ANIMAL FOOD AND INTOXICATING LIQUORS.” The book was written anonymously by Martha Brotherton, wife of the campaigning minister of the Bible Christian Church, Joseph Brotherton, Salford’s first MP. They were later to become leading figures in the Vegetarian Society, which had its inaugural annual meeting in Manchester in 1848.

The Guardian attended the Vegetarian Society’s 1850 banquet and soiree, reporting in detail on the spread of mushroom pies, fritters, “omelets” and moulded sago, the floral arrangements, the philosophical beliefs of the guests that meat-eating led to aggression, and their disgust at the diseased meat on sale in London, Manchester, Oldham and Bolton. The 1874 soiree sounded lively, with a guest ranting about “blood lickers” and demanding to know where everyone stood on eggs and fish.

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Mainly, though, the Guardian’s coverage of food in the 19th century was about hunger and malnutrition. The first recipes did not appear until 1913, sent by “a correspondent … as being a little out of the common”. One was for pilau of fowl, with “foie gras to taste”; the other for a “savoury nut pie”.

Through much of the 20th century, the focus was on economy and utility. French Country Cookery by Elizabeth David, a writer now revered for enlivening the miserable post-second world war British palate, was dismissed as extravagant, excessive and impractical by our reviewer.

There were recipes for hotpot in the 1920s, and occasional joyful flourishes: an Italian garnish for soup (“paste can be bought in the shape of little shells ready curled and serrated which give a seaside air to the soup, especially if narrow strips of bay leaf or sorrel reminiscent of seaweed be added too”) and high praise for the “bread of the tropics”, bananas: “The person who cannot eat bananas for fear of the consequences is rarely to be found.”

Food was confined to the “Mainly for Women” pages in that period. In 1938, next to an appreciation of house ferns and advice about squeaking shoes, a short recipe entitled “Suet Without Tears” advised baking instead of boiling fruit puddings. “It is unfortunate for mothers that most children make a fuss about eating suet. Yet suet is good for them, especially in the winter months.” Attribution was not the closely scrutinised matter it has now become; the byline was simply “C”.

Related: From the archive, 21 April 1903: British public spurns strange new fruits

The page also featured an early example of a Guardian reader callout: an invitation to submit, by letter within five days, “a Bill of Fare for an Ideal Five-Course Dinner”. The winning menu featured roast duckling with tangerine salad. Second prize went to a “Dinner for a Lancashire Working Man (Sunday only)”. The leg of pork, mashed swede and turnips, and lancashire cheese with apple pie was to be followed by “Beer-a Smoke-Mr Middleton (2pm)-a Sleep”. C H Middleton was the first celebrity gardener – most of the country listened to his BBC radio talks, which became part of the wartime Dig for Victory campaign.

In 1958, the cookery writer Ambrose Heath shared recipes for tinned tuna, an affordable alternative to salmon. “There is romance in the name of tunny,” he wrote. He recommended it made into fishcakes, layered with rice and mushrooms in a pie, or accompanied by a sauce of tomatoes, garlic and olives.

In 1980, the restaurateur Prue Leith joined as cookery editor, beginning with a series on nouvelle cuisine. “Home cooking … is in a rut,” she wrote. “Restaurant food is undergoing a genuine revolution.” But revolutions never go smoothly. When the restaurant inspector Drew Smith went tieless to the London outpost of feted Paris institution Maxim’s in 1983, he balked at being asked to choose from a handful of spares with the words: “Which public school would you like to have gone to, Sir?” The prices didn’t go down well, either. The headline was: “Sunshine, at £18, I’ll eat it stark naked with chopsticks if I like.”

Related: How to cook brains - archive, 27 December 1934

Leith soon noted with distaste the word “foodies” used rudely for keen cooks. Finally, in October 1984, when no one could miss the scent of basil and cardamom, the Guardian got a weekly food and drink page “cut loose from women”, the first in a national paper. In late 1987, a visit to the “outrageously brilliant restaurant” of 25-year-old Marco Pierre White raved that it “catches the transformation in our national cooking”. Finalists in a competition to find Britain’s best young chef included Gary Rhodes and Antony Worrall Thompson.

Food wasn’t just a job for professionals or a chore for parents any more. Editors realised it could be a passion and a hobby. When Weekend magazine launched in 1988, it served up extra helpings. Matthew Fort, now a Great British Menu judge, ate out and digested all the changes in the food scene, observing that we now spent more time watching people cook on TV than we did cooking and eating. Remember, this was a time when bagels were still “a New York cult munch”. Heston Blumenthal, “the Willy Wonka of modern British cooking”, started offering readers recipes for fish ice-cream, to appalled and delighted responses on the letters page.

In 2006, Yotam Ottolenghi arrived as “the new vegetarian”, bearing a tomato and bread salad with sumac, and started blowing Britain’s tastebuds with his global flavour bombs. There’s a new vegan now, too, while Felicity Cloake has become the home cook’s best friend over the past decade, perfecting dishes by testing multiple recipes so that you don’t have to.

In 1972, there were 183 recipes in the Guardian. In 2002 there were 644. In 2020, there were 860 on theguardian.com, from our weekly recipe book Feast, the features desk, Observer magazine and Food Monthly, and our Australian website. After all this time, there are still ways to improve the vegetarian fritter.