Memoir Contest Winner: Honorable Mention for Fairy Cakes, A Magical Journey by Mairi Neil

by Matilda Butler on June 17, 2010

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #42 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Kendra and I are pleased to publish Mairi Neil’s story and recipe that received an honorable mention in our March Memoir Contest–KitchenScraps Category. Congratulations Mairi.

On July 1, we’ll publish the final honorable mention from the March contest. On June 15, we will publish the First Place Winner from our April Women’s Memoir Contest.

Fairy Cakes – A Magical Journey
Mairi Neil

On July 4th 1954, Scotland celebrated – not independence but the end of fourteen years of food rationing introduced at the start of World War II.

‘Making do’ typified Mum’s adult life and the early years of her marriage. Years of creatively adapting recipes, registering, queuing for food, and coping with food shortages and irregular supplies became second nature. The frugality of those rationing years ensured Mum’s mantra ‘waste not want not’ applied for life.

Born the ‘Indian’ summer of August 1953, I was child number four in a household that toasted stale bread and crusts (‘enders’), or transformed slices into breadcrumbs, perhaps bread and butter pudding. Leftover vegetables were added to pies, stews, and soups.

Sweets were a rarity except for birthdays, visitors, Halloween or Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve). Then Mum’s flurry of baking produced fairy cakes, jelly (set in bowls placed in shallow cold water in the bath), a sponge or two, plus griddle pancakes and scones. These vivid memories of the collective effort to produce these tasty treats have become a magical journey to the warmth of a childhood where life seemed simpler, slower, and safer.


The phrase ‘patience of a saint’ could have been coined for Mum as she included us in the baking activities. One child with a wooden spoon and large bowl resting between the legs or on the lap creamed Fairy Cooking Margarine (the name made them magical cakes!) and sugar. Another sibling whisked eggs with a hand beater while another sifted the flour into a bowl using sieve and tablespoon. Older sister, Catriona, read the recipe, found ingredients, poured milk, and with Mum supervised as they were combined. Meanwhile, the youngest child placed paper cupcakes on a tray ready for the turns taken spooning the mixture.


While the cakes browned and filled the house with mouth-watering aromas, we cleared the dishes. No one escaped this very important part of baking but it never seemed a chore as we ‘plootered’ (played) with the soapy water bubbles, the dish mop and scrubber. We even rearranged the cupboard where the baking dishes lived. Licking bowls, spoons, and beaters (especially of cream) added to the delight. We didn’t mind the scolding that accompanied the inevitable struggle over whose turn it was to add the cochineal (red food coloring) to the icing. Post-box red icing tasted yummy, as did sticky fingers if the alternative jam and coconut were used!

It was dark when Mum rose to prepare the household for the day, the blush of sunrise struggling to highlight the heather-clad hills that gave Braeside its name. She may have risen with Dad as he set off to drive the first train scheduled at 5:00 AM or perhaps he had finished the night shift, walked the five miles home and Mum remained awake while he went to bed. (Later as a sleep deprived young mother, I reflected and marvelled how Mum functioned for years on so little sleep!)

Summer or winter, she carried coal from the bunker in the back lobby, filled scuttles either side of the hearth in the lounge room after cleaning the fire grate and emptying ash and cinders outside. The winter ground was icy hard with a sharp wind from the River Clyde cutting like a knife. In summer, the breeze still biting until the sun settled in the sky.

Each morning Mum ensured a warm living room embraced us. A light sleeper, I remember tiptoeing down the stairs to help roll old newspapers, twisting them into coils like coffee scrolls. The coils limited the amount of kindling required before the lumps of coal caught fire. Sometimes I could select a long coloured taper of balsa wood from a decorated sandalwood container. Mum set it alight with a match and as the sweet perfume mixed with the phosphorous I lit the tips of the paper and watched the coal’s blue pungent smoke drift up the chimney.

Mum’s floral apron pocket bulged slightly with a packet of five Woodbine – a cigarette and morning cuppa her only luxury in the relentless busyness of mothering six children under ten. Later I’d share a dollop of pink Barrier Cream from the jar on the kitchen windowsill, enjoying the distinctive lanolin smell. The light grease protected Mum’s hands from damage inflicted by the daily chores performed without today’s press-button luxuries.

Our underclothes for the day were folded in the airing cupboard that housed the boiler for the hot water pipes heating the upper rooms. Outer garments hung over the fireguard or furniture in front of the fire in the living room. We jostled to be near the flickering flames to dress. Warmed clothes welcome when a hushed and white world lay outside windows already patterned with ice beginning to melt and drip, as the house grew hotter. I imagined the windows crying because of the cold — an experience I knew well with the half-hour trek to school only an adventure in summer, not in sleet or snow.

We sat at the mottled grey Formica table in the kitchen for our breakfast of porridge, toast spread with homemade bramble (blackberry) jam, and a cup of hot chocolate or tea. Any cereal had hot milk because ‘something warm in your stomach’ was Mum’s non-negotiable rule.

Staring out the window on winter evenings, I saw thick fog and disembodied shadows of workers journeying home: their tackety boots an eerie drumbeat. The yellow pinprick glow of street lamps became penetrating eyes of creatures I imagined lurked in the gloom. However, fears vanished when I slipped between flannelette sheets heated by stone or rubber hot water bottles and burrowed beneath blankets to avoid the cold night air freezing exposed skin and making sleep elusive.

I drifted off to sleep as voices murmured from below: The Archers on BBC radio, Coronation Street, Mum’s favourite television show, or the dulcet tones of Bing Crosby on a 78 rpm record spinning on the radiogram. No doubt Mum’s respite would be short, the peace accompanied by darning or ironing. Not far from her mind the following day’s meals.

memoir-writing-fairy-cakesFairy Cakes
8 oz Fairy Cooking Margarine (or butter)
One cup of Caster sugar
3 eggs beaten
3 cups of self-raising flour
pinch salt
1/2 – 3/4 cup milk

Cream margarine and sugar, add the eggs and flour mixture in alternate measures, mix in the milk until the mixture can be easily spooned into prepared paper cupcakes. Cook in a moderate oven for 15-20 minutes. Ice when cooled.

© Mairi Neil 2010

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