Marguerite Patten: Domestic Goddess of the Austerity Era

I’ve been using the term ‘Domestic Goddess’ to mean a whole range of attributes from skill in the home; through a connection with ‘old fashioned’ tasks and activities; to the patina of accomplishment and polish which the likes of Nigella seem to have lent to it. I suspect that’s what many other people who use the term do too, pulling out a positive or a negative angle as suits them. But on any of those more positive measures, Marguerite Patten, who died this month, more than fits the bill.

Marguerite Patten presenting the BBC programme ‘Can You Cook?’ in 1950. Image source, BBC.

Patten was for a time an actress, before becoming a Senior Home Economist for Frigidaire. She is best known, however, for her work during the Second World War, when she was employed as a Senior Home Economist by the Ministry of Food, and after the war, for Harrods department store. Her job was to publicise information about rationing, and to provide demonstrations and talks about what could be done with the limited food on offer. She was undoubtedly accomplished in the arts of cookery, offering a huge repertoire of dishes to her followers, many of whom she realised were regulars and so needed a constant supply of new ideas. At one stage she was giving 11 demonstrations per week in Harrods. But for me, what makes her a positive role model as a Domestic Goddess was her attitude to food and celebration in a time of shortage.

The attitude comes across very clearly in a long interview she recorded in 1996 for the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive. Her approach, she says, was not to apologise for the shortage and monotony of ingredients (rations were two ounces of butter, four ounces of margarine or other fats two ounces of cheese, and a tuppenny worth of meat for a week. You could expect to get one single egg per week ‘if you were lucky’, and half a pound of sugar) but instead to cheerfully present her dishes as tasty and wholesome. She also realised that people still needed celebratory food and treats in their lives – possibly more than ever. Christmas was a difficult time, but she says ‘we were determined to celebrate’ – cue recipes for marzipan which substituted soya flour or semolina for the missing ground almonds. She popularised an eggless, tea-soaked fruit cake which used little sugar and no fat, and published countless other recipes for austerity cakes which required little in the way of the prized sugar and butter. She even did her best with dried eggs which were a bit of a Marmite of their time: ‘Some people loved dried eggs. “Oooh, I wish we could have them back”, they say. Other people say “oh, that ghastly dried eggs.” She realised that the trick to palatability was in making sure that they were made up with the correct proportion of water; too much powder and they tasted sulphurous (some said that scrambled powdered eggs also bounced when dropped!). After the war, things (eventually) became easier, and she remembered cooking ‘more frivolous things’ in her demonstrations, like puff pastry and continental buns.

Image source: amazon

But lest we think that Domestic Goddessery is all about promoting women’s subjugation in the kitchen (which certainly isn’t how I used the term),  we should note that Patten was also a prominent and well-loved broadcaster as well as a taste-leader. She appeared on the second day of Woman’s Hour in 1946, and was a regular voice on that program. She also took part in the famous short ‘Kitchen Front’ broadcasts on weekday mornings alongside Dr Charles Hill ‘the Radio Doctor’, whom she remembered with some fondness: ‘He was like Winston Churchill in that it wasn’t what he said sometimes, but how he said it.’ Her more than 170 cookbooks (of which Cookery in Colour published in 1961 stood out in an era of black and white photography) were hugely popular, and she was one of the first cooks to appear on television. She was both an OBE and later a CBE, and in 2007 was awarded the Woman of the Year Elior Lifetime Achievement Award.

Marguerite Patten retired in her seventies but returned to broadcasting in her nineties. Fittingly, Woman’s Hour broadcast an episode-length tribute to her on her death which showed her humour and expertise still as sharp as ever, although she was no longer able to stand to cook comfortably.

The Imperial War Museum interview can be heard here.

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