- Dorothy Peel advised ration-weary home cooks in the years after World War I
- The cookery writer wrote the 1919 Daily Mail Cookery Book
- Her great-great-granddaughter Vicky has adapted the recipes for a book
- She explores how being a domestic goddess has changed in the past 100 years
We could so easily be talking about Mary Berry — but this paean is for a woman who, it could be argued, was ‘the first Mary Berry’. Her name was Dorothy Peel and she was a pioneering domestic goddess at a time when British housewives were struggling.
A hundred years ago, Dorothy — who, as Mrs C. S. Peel, was this newspaper’s cookery writer — wrote the Daily Mail Cookery Book. It was full of economical, nutritious recipes to cheer ration-weary home cooks and their families in the years following World War I.
Leafing through a surviving copy is a fascinating insight into that era. But, having tested some of Dorothy’s recipes to mark the anniversary of the book’s publication, I am quite sure her food is still relevant today.
Vicky Straker (pictured with Rose Prince) recalls the recipes of her great-great grandmother cookery writer, Dorothy Peel
For me as a cookery writer, Dorothy Peel is an extraordinary discovery, not only for the enduring appeal of her culinary creations but because she was so far ahead of her time, campaigning on many food production and cooking issues that preoccupy us today.
Long before any other cookery writer, she was deeply concerned about the suffering of farm animals and advocated meat-free days, just as the ‘Meat-Free Monday’ devotees, such as Beyonce and Chris Martin, do now.
And decades before Elizabeth David introduced the British to Mediterranean cooking, Dorothy published a book of healthy, rustic Italian recipes including polenta, risotto, gnocchi and ravioli stuffed with spinach.
Dorothy, who was comfortably off, wanted to help the poor buy, eat and enjoy good food as much as she did. For this, she was criticised as a personification of the interfering Nanny State, especially when she worked as an adviser for the Ministry of Food.
The revival of interest in Dorothy Peel’s memory is down to her great-great-granddaughter Vicky Straker, who, until six years ago, knew nothing about her but, by coincidence, teaches cookery.
As we sit drinking tea in her Dorset kitchen, 45-year-old Vicky explains how she found out about the person she would come to call ‘Granny Dot’.
‘One day, my mother casually told me she’d left recipes belonging to a relation of ours in my attic. I eventually got around to having a look and I found the 1919 Daily Mail Cookery Book.
‘It made me curious to know who Dorothy Peel was and I began to dig, discovering that she had been a hugely successful author of cookbooks and had written an autobiography.’
Dorothy Peel (pictured) wrote more than 20 books including the Daily Mail Cookery Book 1919 and later The Daily Mail Fruit & Vegetable Book
Straker is now an author herself, having written Bicycles, Bloomers And Great War Rationing Recipes, The Life And Times Of Dorothy Peel (published by Pen & Sword, 2016), which not only tells the story of Dorothy’s life and work but is an account of how Vicky cooked all her ancestor’s recipes to see how they would fare in the 21st century.
Her task was not dissimilar to the storyline of the 2009 film Julie & Julia, in which Amy Adams’s character cooks every one of the great American chef Julia Child’s 524 recipes in Mastering The Art Of French Cooking.
‘I became so involved with Dorothy, it was almost as if she was here with me,’ says” Vicky.
The outcome of her experiments were mixed. Some recipes were too dated — such as the Victoria sandwich made from potato and filled with beetroot jam — but others were strangely delicious.
Vicky’s book collates recipes not only from the Daily Mail Cookery Book but from Peel’s entire oeuvre, after she trawled antiquarian booksellers to find more than 20 of her relative’s books.
Among the recipes is one for salmon (canned, of course) baked with a creamy sauce and cheese on top, which Vicky found very comforting.
I was tempted by Maize Woodcock — in which no birds are harmed — a disc of grilled polenta topped with scrambled eggs and anchovy.
Vicky has made a book collating recipes from the Daily Mail Cookery Book (pictured) and her relative’s other publications, recipes include cheese pufflets and Victoria sandwich
Cheese pufflets — easy-to-make individual cheese soufflés — have also stood the test of time.
Vicky says: ‘Sometimes you make something, having little idea of the outcome, then when you taste it, it’s so delicious you almost squeal with delight.’
Peel was born Constance Dorothy Bayliff in Ganarew, Herefordshire, in 1868 to an upper-middle-class family — her grandfather’s cousin had been Prime Minister Robert Peel — of limited means.
Even so, at an early age she learnt to care about others whose struggle was even greater.
Her parents ran a soup kitchen for the needy and 12-year-old Dorothy, the seventh of nine children (four died in infancy), helped out. ‘We children were proud to act as servers,’ she wrote in her memoir, Life’s Enchanted Cup, in 1933.
Dorothy hoped to marry a man who would support her but in the end, she didn’t. ‘There are so few dukes and so many girls who want to marry them,’ she quipped.
She then fell for her second cousin Charles Peel, an electrical engineer, and decided that if they were to marry, she needed a job — a rare decision, back then, for a girl from her class.
‘She wanted to earn enough to keep herself in a manner she would like to become accustomed to,’ says Vicky.
Dorothy dashed off a fashion article for a competition in Woman magazine and won it, kick-starting a career in journalism.
Vicky (pictured with Rose) tried out her great-grandmother’s method for clarifying fat after roasting beef and discovered that it produced a light texture when used in pastry
Her income enabled the couple to marry, which was when Mrs Peel’s career took off. Struggling to run a home for their two daughters, even with the help of a manservant, maid, cook and nurse, she started to write about managing a household budget, which inspired her first books. Their aim was to show how a middle-class family and servants could be fed on ten shillings a week.
Ironically, this proto-feminist did not join the Suffrage movement because she was working so hard!
Her early recipe books were published before the outbreak of war in 1914. They included Still Room Cookery (1905), on preserving, and Entrées Made Easy (1905), perhaps the first quick ’n’ easy cookbook. The Eat Less Meat Book (1915) was her first wartime waste-not-want-not manual.
In 1917, the Ministry of Food hired Dorothy as food prices soared and people — especially the poor — faced long queues to buy anything.
Her brief was to encourage voluntary rationing, and she toured the country lecturing in factories, pubs, clubs and music halls on home economy: tasty substitutes for scarce ingredients, how to use leftovers and how to save both fuel and every scrap of fat.
For her book, Vicky tried out her great-grandmother’s method for clarifying fat after roasting beef: ‘I put it [the dripping] in a clean bowl and added boiling water, then left it to cool and removed the cake of fat…” She then used it in pastry and found it produced a lighter texture.
Many of Dorothy’s rationing recipes became famous.
Vicky’s (pictured with Rose) great-great grandmother Dorothy, experienced hostility from members of the public who were struggling to keep their families fed
Wheat flour was in short supply but not so maize flour, so ‘maize potato bread’ and ‘maize batter pudding’ — like golden, sweet Yorkshire pudding — were created. Then there was ‘War Galantine’, a meatloaf with little meat but a lot of red lentils.
Ministry officials also asked Dorothy and other cookery experts to tackle the problem of a high use of fuel for cooking in urban areas. Their solution was to set up The Public Kitchen, a place that provided cooked food at affordable prices.
Queen Mary was a fan of these kitchens and would occasionally turn up to serve and sell the food herself, to amazed customers.
Dorothy Peel’s role attracted great attention and some hostility from members of the public who were struggling to keep their families fed.
Like Nigella Lawson today, Dorothy never concealed the fact that she liked to eat as well as cook, and in her memoir recalls a man rising after one of her speeches to say: ‘They shouldn’t send such a well-fed-looking lady as you talking food economy.’ She admitted he had a point.
It took bravery to be an unpopular messenger to a weary nation, yet Dorothy stuck it out — unlike the Minister of Food, who resigned, unable to cope with the resentment his ministry attracted.
In 1918, Dorothy was invited by Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of The Daily Mail and also Director of Propaganda for the Government, to join the newspaper. The Daily Mail Food Bureau was launched on March 4 of that year, just as rationing became compulsory. It aimed to advise housewives on how to manage their meagre rations.
Vicky’s (pictured with Rose) great-great grandmother Dorothy, edited the Mail’s woman’s page until her death in 1934
In 1919 Dorothy published the Daily Mail Cookery Book and later The Daily Mail Fruit & Vegetable Book. Rationing would continue into the 1920s.
At the height of her fame, letters poured in from all over the world to Mrs C.S. Peel, including some from British PoWs still being held in camps in Germany.
‘They asked for help to cook their scanty rations in such ways as would make them more palatable and nourishing,’ Dorothy explained.
She was awarded an OBE in 1918 and continued to write — editing the Mail’s woman’s page — until diabetes and angina slowed her and condemned her to a diet of cabbage, milk and soda water. She died in 1934, aged 66.
Mrs Peel, we salute you!
How do her recipes taste today?
Serves 3-4 as a main course
For the suet paste:
- 50g suet
- Pinch of salt
- ¼ tsp baking powder
- 110g plain flour, sifted
- Ice-cold water
For the filling:
- 110g lean bacon
- 2 medium potatoes, finely diced
- ½ onion, finely chopped
- 1 tsp each chopped fresh parsley, (fresh or dried) sage and marjoram
1. Using your hands, mix together all the suet paste ingredients in a bowl with the cold water to make a slightly sticky, workable paste.
2. Dust the worktop with flour, place the paste on it, add more flour, then roll out thinly to a rectangle 20 x 30cm (8 x12in). If the pastry breaks, you can pinch it together with your fingers.
3. Scatter the filling ingredients over the surface, then, with the longer side facing you, roll it up like a Swiss roll. Place on a sheet of buttered baking paper, then roll up and secure the ends with string, as for a cracker. Wrap in foil.
4. Preheat the oven to 180c, place the pudding on a baking sheet lined with baking paper, then bake for 40 minutes — it will be lightly browned.
5. Cut into slices and serve. Excellent with piccalilli.
Rose’s verdict: An economical recipe that is totally comforting and so delicious — I’d make this any day. Crisp on the outside and juicy in the centre — better than the best sausage roll. Dorothy Peel steamed her pudding before baking but this quick version works beautifully, just needing a little more time to swell.
Vicky Straker thinks the Daily Mail shortbread recipe (pictured) is among the best
Ground Rice Custard Pudding
- Butter for the dish
- 600ml full-fat milk
- 1 bay leaf
- 55g ground rice or semolina
- 25g sugar
- 1 free-range egg, beaten
1. Preheat the oven to 140c and butter an ovenproof dish, 12 x 24cm (4 x 6in)
2. In a pan, bring the milk to the boil with the bay leaf, then, stirring constantly, sprinkle in the ground rice.
3. Add the sugar, then simmer, stirring until the mixture thickens.
4. Remove from the heat, cool a little, then stir in the egg. The mixture will thicken more.
5. Pour into the dish, then bake for 30-40 minutes until just set.
6. Serve with Granny Dot’s blackberry jam from The Daily Mail Fruit & Vegetable Book: simmer 350g blackberries, then pass through a sieve. Boil the juice with 200g sugar until it reaches setting point.
Rose’s verdict: A lovely old-fashioned dessert, tasting like a smooth-textured rice pudding and greatly enhanced by the flavour of bay and the excellent seasonal jam.
Daily Mail Shortbread
Makes 6 large biscuits
- 110g butter, at room temperature
- 25g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
- 170g plain flour
- Pinch of salt
1. Preheat the oven to 180c
2. Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until light and fluffy.
3. Add the flour gradually, beating in after each addition.
4. Squeeze the mixture together, roll out and use a pastry cutter to make six round biscuits. Place on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment.
5. Prick with a fork, then bake for 20 minutes until lightly browned at the edges. Lift with a palette knife onto a rack, then immediately sprinkle with more sugar. Allow to cool.
Rose’s verdict: Vicky Straker thinks this shortbread to be among the best and I agree — light, crisp and so buttery.