The Ploughmans Lunch myth
The ‘ploughmans lunch’ was as a cohesive peice of faux history popularised by the ‘milk marketing board’ to increase cheese sales in the 1960’s, and highlighted to publicans the Idea of serving a marketed plate of food at lunchtimes, hitherto a haphazardly catered for need, which thankfully to some extent can be thought responsible for kicking off the whole ‘pub food revolution’. Prior to this pubs might well have been able, if they could be troubled to, knock you up the odd cheese sandwich, and would often have the odd jar of pickled eggs or onions and sometimes some cold meats or pies on offer, but these snacks in most pubs in the 1930’s were a token gesture towards serving food, to sustain workmen who might otherwise not get a proper meal, but in these days ‘Beer’ was by labourers considered as important as food, and to some extent drink was also perceived as sustaining in a way than it is not today, Beer in itself being high in calories. Really the Ploughmans Lunch was a formalising and coalescing of the cold food ingredients that might well have already been in a pubs serving vocabulary, into a named plate of food that could be served like a meal to the patrons of the public house in a marketable way, which up until this point food in a pub had been a casual arrangement whose extent and quality was at the publicans discretion, In a way things were charmingly relaxed as in there was no formalisation of food being served, but if you had voiced your requirement of vittels to the publican, he would often have something to offer, sometimes even what he himself would be having for supper if you were lucky, but what it was and how it came, was most often pot luck, rarely would people think to the need of a choice, nor complain as to what was offered. A ploughmans was the first widely marketed meal in a pub, when done well is surprisingly satisfying – even today. Remember during war all such pre war pub food culture that did exist had been firmly limited for the duration of the war, and its recommencement was probably slow and limited due to extended rationing, to some extent the “ploughmans” was an attempt to formalise those bits that remained and increase cheese sales.
Traditionally consisting of :
Initially a cold dish of Hunks of Cheese or sliced Cold meats or if luxurient both, always accompanied by Hunks of bread or long rustic rolls with pats of butter and essentially pickles most often a spreading style pickle, or a couple of pickled onions or both, and latterly token salad elements – sliced tomatoes, lettuce possibly a cold boiled egg and very often apple slices etc. but can also include pork pie, grapes, celery, carrot, pâté, hard boiled egg, beetroot etc, but to be honest these as referenced to the ingredients pubs had at hand throughout the country before the formalistion of the title by the MMB, a ploughmans could vary quite a bit the main things that remained the core of the dish, were the bread the cheese and the pickle in some form or another whether onion or chutney or both, most important is the rustic nature of the dish that means that most of the items served in a ploughmans must be with little fuss or short preparation in the dish itself as there was often little time in between serving customers to allow its preparation. The ‘ploughmans lunch’ in its pre war unformalised era might have been called the “The ploughboys lunch”. But the marvelous thing about a ploughmans is how they vary depending on where you are, it enables each pub to put its own twist on the idea, but with a central trinity that remains. In the case of informal history there is no doubt in my imagination that field labourers, ploughman etc throughout the century’s could call when convenient on a nearby hostelry or ale house and get some form of food provided, this is quite obviously logical especially with a mainly male and sometimes migratory field labour force, its just that no one ever thought to formalise the process, as the original purpose was as a ‘house of ale’, this its primary function and food secondary and available but less documented or considered in the equation, certainly so, in small country village pubs where the ploughmans was to find it’s birth.
Basically the contents of a couple large hearty sandwiches unmade. This being very simple for publicans to knock up with little need for a cook etc. In the 1970’s pubs which had never really served food in a formal sense, soon started by offering simple cold plates like this and then progressed to deep fried food in baskets and then increasingly complex menus, and onward into a situation in which very few pubs indeed, now … could get away without serving food of some sort that requires a chef or a cook to prepare.
Essentialy in the 1970’s allot of people were marketed into imagining this was a dish traditionally made for a ‘ploughman’, though its heritage is foggier than the marketed dishes name, from a pub serving perspective, also the meal served in the field to labourers mid day may well have consisted of these elements in a homemade rustic picnic form.
If you come across an old pub with a run down interior and lots of local characters, sometimes they may still only offer a cheese sandwich or pickles, and this is remnant perhaps of a pub that has never got fully drawn into the food provision game, this might might well be an original survivor pub, whose mainly drinking custom has always and until the modern day been enough to sustain it, these pubs are very rare today. Sadly a very large number of historic pubs have been ruined by modernisation and the ubiquitous and obscenely appended Thai restaurant. Pubs really have to offer food now as the consistency of post work drinking patterns and the family mealtime has to some extent evaporated, and this pub provision of food, has probably had its greatest impact on late opening simple cafes surviving in the smaller towns and larger villages, though expendable income to be spent on eating out since the 1930’s versus eating at home has greatly increased. And Pubs that don’t serve food may find it difficult to draw enough passing trade.