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Finding Scouse: The Decline of a Liverpool Stew
Words by Kirsty Major; Illustration by Christabel Lobo
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There are some devilish quizzes which rely on familiarity with the most arcane knowledge, but harder still are those tests which are disarmingly simple. The entrance exam to All Soul’s College Oxford used to have a round like this pared back to the absolute minimum, where the question was simply one word: ‘water’ ‘novelty’ or ‘blue’ (hello Maggie Nelson). Still, the general section ,which still exists, is still bad enough, with thought experiments like ‘Can terrorism ever be justified?’ or ‘Are boycotts futile?’. One question I’ve always thought should be put on the test is ‘What is British food?’. It’s a question that you could either give a sentence answer to or write a book on, depending on what mood you were in.
On Twitter it sometimes feels like British food is anything that you would defend in a court of law. Whenever Americans quote tweet a picture which contains a particularly sloppy roast dinner, some pies and liquor, a plate of baked beans on toast, and some chips and gravy with “This is what ya’ll eat??? Lmaooo”, against all my suspicion of nationalism I still feel a twinge of annoyance and pride, a feeling which says “you simply don’t get this and you never will”. Others might say that, like our language, British food is simply French food dressed down with some Anglo-Saxon inflections. Some might say that British food, like the scouse discussed in today’s newsletter by Kirsty Major, has its roots in the traditions of other countries, that there is no such thing as purely British food because, despite a mentality that seems (and often is) insular, we have been one of the least insular countries the world has ever seen.
But I am not so interested in the history of dishes, I would much rather discuss the present of them and where they are going. Learning last year that most fish and chip shops in Liverpool are Chinese takeaways was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me in realising that while most British chefs are obsessed with the exoticism of other cuisines, traditional British food is being cooked and sustained by immigrants. You can point to the Jewish-Huguenot roots of fish and chips, but just as important is the wave of Italian, then Cypriot cooks who brought their own frying techniques over. Now it’s almost impossible to find a fish and chip shop that isn’t Cypriot owned in London ─ one particularly good one called ‘Deep Sea’ has just opened near me on Vestry Road run by Turkish Cypriots, offering grilled seabass and calamari along with the usual options. In Liverpool, it was salt and pepper chips that came out of the Chinese stewardship of a British meal, in Glasgow and in London, the caff was rejuvenated by Italians who took greater care with the bacon and added herbs to the bubble.
With new waves of immigration it’s almost impossible to guess where British food will go next. As much as it’s a case of different cuisines being assimilated into the national psyche, it’s also British food playing a part in the story of multiple diasporas as a form of economic survival. If Britain has adopted food from Italy ─ spag bol, pizza ─ then are the pizzerias run by South Asians, offering deep pan tandoori chicken, also a form of British food? Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe someone should write that book.
Finding Scouse: The Decline of a Liverpool Stew, by Kirsty Major
The Beatles’ press officer, Derek Taylor, wryly noted that when the band took LSD in an attempt to expand their creative horizons it ended up being “a case of four Scousers exploring inner space and just finding more and more Scouser down there.” I’ve personally never needed any extra stimulation to locate that place.
The more time I spend away from Liverpool, the closer I feel to it. I miss its warmth and lack of artifice, especially when confronted with London’s pretenses. It’s not that you can taste things in Liverpool that you can’t find in other big cities, at least for the most part. It’s just that the mood is different. Restaurants such as Maray, Mowgli and Pilgrim are made up of diverse groups of diners, young and old, all dressed up to the nines - think crisp shirts, dresses fresh off the hanger and fake eyelashes. This doesn’t make for a stuffy atmosphere; instead it’s part of the ritual and excitement of going out. The same electric mood carries into the night as dinner turns into drinks. If you haven’t danced on a table to the city’s unofficial anthem – Robin S’s ‘You Got to Show Me Love’ – have you even visited?
There is one traditional dish known outside its borders, even if it’s just by reputation: scouse, the stew from which we in Liverpool take our name. There’s no definitive list of ingredients, or an agreed upon cooking method, but there are broadly three characteristics that define the meal: it contains root vegetables, meat (although pedants will point out that there’s a vegetarian version called blind scouse) and it’s made in one pot.
The origins of this stew are as varied as its ingredients. The name scouse is a shortened version of the word, lobscouse - also known as lapskaus in Norway, lapskojs in Sweden, labskaus in northern Germany, and lobsgows in northern Wales. No one knows which country it originated from, but what we do know is that all of these Northern European nations were linked together by trade routes, and that the stew, cooked in huge vats onboard ships, was transported between port cities like Liverpool by itinerant sailors.
You can find scouse served around the city in small cafes, most notably Maggie May’s on Bold Street, but it’s mainly something cooked at home. Both of my parents ate scouse growing up. Ahead of her evening shift as a cleaner my maternal nan would make a pot and leave it sitting on top of the stove for my grandad to serve up as ‘tea’ after he returned from work at the Ford factory. My dad’s mum would dish it up at five o’clock on the dot when her husband returned home from the building site.
Instead of this boney broth rich with slow-cooked meat and vegetables, the food of my own childhood had the tang of everywhere and nowhere: ultra-processed carbs and reconstituted meat. Food came on toast, from the freezer, from the chippy – which always double as Chinese takeaways in Liverpool, or McDonald’s. Somewhere between my nans making pots of stew and my mum shaking out chicken nuggets onto a tinfoil-lined baking tray, my food heritage got lost.
When I asked my parents why they never cooked scouse the answer was “time”. “Time’s too short now, so you’re looking for a quick fix,” says my dad. “Years ago they used to leave it on for a couple of hours and put a lamb neck in to create the flavour, a good scouse is all about flavour.” Looking back, a Sunday roast was the only dish we cooked from scratch during my childhood. Not because it was the most delicious or culturally significant dish but because it was the only one we found the time to make. Sunday was the one day of the week everything stopped.
The vanishing of regional working class food culture isn’t unique to my family, or to Liverpool: it’s a national story. One in eight adults no longer cook, with 46% citing a lack of time. This is in part due to shifting gender dynamics in the home. From 1975 onwards the proportion of women in the workforce increased from 57% in 1975 to 78% in 2017, with the biggest changes being more women moving into full time work and more staying on after starting a family. At the same time little provision was made to alleviate work in the home, creating a dual burden overwhelmingly falling on the shoulders of working class women.
Since the Seventies, feminists such as Selma James have highlighted the way in which capitalism requires current workers to nurture future ones but is too shortsighted to extend its priorities further than the next financial quarter. Childcare – which includes preparing food – has always been seen as a private matter rather than a public good worth paying extra taxes for. It wasn’t until the 1990s and New Labour that childcare was even considered a political issue.
With no support from employers or the government, families turned to easy-to-prepare processed foods. As Bee Wilson recounts, “if you want to bond with someone who was a child in 1970s Britain, mention that you have childhood memories of being given Findus Crispy Pancakes and spaghetti hoops followed by Angel Delight for tea.”
The situation was exacerbated as the post-war trend for shorter working weeks ended. The 1980s saw previously decreasing working hours flatline due to labour market deregulation and the demise in trade union activity under Conservative governments. By the time my mum was in work she’d drop my sister and I off at my grandparents’ house at 7am and pick us up at 7pm, leaving no time to shop for ingredients and cook.
Now, UK households spend almost twice as much as Germans and three times more than Italians on pre-prepared foods. As a result we eat too much salt, red meat, saturated fat and sugar. The government tells us obesity is up 20% over all income groups, but levels are highest for those on low incomes. Following the financial crisis, this grouping expanded with the longest period of wage stagnation since the Napoleonic wars and increasing precarity with the rise of zero hour contracts. As Jack Monroe astutely points out, when living from paycheck to paycheck, it’s better to buy one pre-made shepherds pie than all the ingredients, including that bottle of Worcestershire sauce, of which you’ll only use a teaspoon.
Under Boris Johnson’s personal drive to tackle obesity, junk food advertisements, multibuy offers and the absence of calories on restaurant menus have been blamed for the health issues related to it. The government has taken aim at individuals first, and supermarkets and restaurants second, while absolving itself of any responsibility. The thinking is that by removing environmental prompts (or introducing them in the case of menu calories) people will be guided away from high calorie foods. Having bodged the coronavirus response, it seems the Nudge Unit have been redeployed to have another go, this time at changing the way we eat.
Framing the health issues related to obesity as an individual problem requiring individual behavioural changes doesn’t address the structural issue we face: a dysfunctional labour market with working class people – especially women – bearing the brunt of its injustices. Exhaustion from long hours at work, with more tasks to follow at home, and stress from low and insecure pay are the real environmental factors causing people to reach for prepared meals or comforting snacks. Shorter working hours, higher wages, job security, better provision for childcare and more equitable division of work in the home would mean more time available for working families to cook healthier meals together.
I sadly never had the chance to learn how to cook scouse from my grandmothers before they passed away. I could look up a recipe, but it would have as little emotional significance to me as any other pulled from the pages of a cookbook. It’s not so much the loss of this recipe that makes me sad, but what it represents: the wearing effects of government policies that erode working class culture over time. Without the dignity of decent working conditions and pay, we run the risk of losing more of the dishes and traditions that belong to and represent Britain’s diverse working class, and of finding them replaced with the faux-familiarity of generic branded foods. Cities like Liverpool are made of a patchwork of thousands of working families sitting around dinner tables. When they cook together, they’re not only sustaining themselves, but their identities.
Kirsty Major is a writer and editor, you can find her at @kirsty_maj0r on Twitter.
The illustration is by Christabel Lobo, a freelance illustrator and writer based between Mysore, India and Washington, DC. You can find more of her work at https://www.christabel.co as well as on Instagram @christabeldraws
Both Kirsty and Christabel were paid for this newsletter.