Food and Diet

Half a century and more ago the food people consumed was much simpler than it is now and people’s dietary requirements were more basic. As Robert McConnell put it, ‘If you got a boiled egg for your tea you thought you were going well’. When asked what his typical meal was John Cushinan replied, ‘Plenty of potatoes and a big plate of champ and a dab of butter’. Homemade soup and porridge were among the answers given to the question on favourite foods. Cahal Boyd’s favourite meal as a child was yellow Indian porridge last thing at night, while for Gerry McCann it was eels fried in the pan. Leith Burgess also enjoyed eels which his father brought home from Cogry dam – ‘an innovative change to our diet’. Frankie Dale’s mother made a type of white stew with potatoes and onions – ‘lovely, you couldn’t stop eating it’.

Rabbit meat was once very popular. Leith Burgess remembers that rabbits provided more than half of the meat they ate. His father had nets and snares for rabbits; they also had a lurcher called Midas which caught rabbits. Frankie Dale remembered the ‘lovely rabbit stew’ that he enjoyed as a boy. Tom Andrew also remembered rabbit meat being widely eaten and that people went out with ferrets to catch rabbits. The spread of maximatosis in the 1950s largely put an end to eating wild rabbits.

A high proportion of the food consumed by the interviewees was produced at home. Most people had their own vegetable garden and a large number kept a few hens and even pigs for their own use. For those living on farms that grew cereals, there was a ready supply of meal for baking.

Roisin McLernon recalls where her family’s food came from

We were sort of self-sufficient because we had eggs … and we grew all our own vegetables, we had potatoes, and we seldom ate red meat because we always had chickens, and maybe killed a pig and had that.

Greta Milliken talks about meal for baking

We had our own wheatmeal, we had our own oatmeal, which was from our own crops, and then that was put into a big bin and we were able to use that during the year. You would get maybe 2-hundredweights at the time and that lasted you right through the year to do all the baking.

Some of those interviewed remembered their mother baking nearly every day. The Gribbin brothers recalled that their mother made wheaten bread in the open fire using an oven pot with coals placed on its lid; a long knitting needle was used to test if the bread was ready. Graham Andrew remembers that his mother was a good baker who made her own fadge, sodas, bread etc, using a griddle. In Derek Lorimer’s home there was an open fire with ovens built into the walls. Annie Hill recalls her mother making fruit scones which were a special treat on a Sunday night.

Judging by the diet of some of those interviewed, the secret of a long life would seem to be a hearty fry. According to 96-year-old John Cushinan, ‘The fry was well thought of.’ Likewise the Gribbin brothers indicated their enjoyment when children of fried bacon, eggs and bread. Robert Chesney recalls that the men who worked on his father’s farm received a cooked breakfast every morning. If she wanted it, Annie Hill had a fry in the morning before school or else porridge or cereal. Hanni Reinhardt commented that coming from Denmark to Whitehead the Ulster fry was a novelty to her, but one that she enjoyed. For most people eating out was a luxury that was rarely, if ever, enjoyed. The only ‘fast food’ was provided by the fish and chip shops in Whitehead or, for the people of Doagh, in Ballyclare, while Chinese and Indian restaurants were unheard of.

What we now take for granted was for many of our forebears a real delicacy, even a luxury. As a child growing up in the 1920s, Roisin McLernon remembers that a white loaf was a ‘great treat’ and was only for special occasions. She and her brother would have shared a slice and they competed for the half with the ‘straight’ (crust). Robert McConnell remembered that every Wednesday during the summer a man would call at Fourmileburn in a pony and trap, one stop in a journey from Ballymena that took in Parkgate and Doagh. There was a ‘fridge’ on the trap for ice-cream. A slider cost one old penny, but even this was more than he could have afforded. William Andrew Turkington’s mother-in-law, Mrs Bell, had her own business in Mill Row making toffee apples. ‘They were good, he remembers, ‘they didnae last 5 minutes’.
South Antrim Living Memories Project wishes to acknowledge the assistance of: