On the Joint

From Chapter Eight, “The Joint”, of English Cooking: A New Approach by Rupert Croft-Cooke (London, 1960), pp. 98-100 & 107:

The last decline of English cooking which was once respected in Europe, dates from the time when we ceased to roast our meat and started to bake it in the oven.  We did not change the name so that to several generations a roast leg of lamb, for instance, means a joint which has been for a time in a small metal enclosure heated by gas jets or electricity.  Yet as late as 1887 Richard Jefferies wrote of a leg of mutton, “It was cooked to a turn, and had been done at a wood fire on a hearth; no oven taste, no taint of coal gas or carbon; the pure flame of wood had browned it.  Such emanations as there may be from burning logs are odorous of the woodland, of the sunshine, of the fields and fresh air; the wood simply gives out as it burns the sweetness it has imbibed through its leaves from the atmosphere which floats above grass and flowers.  Essences of this order, if they do penetrate the fibres of the meat, add to its flavour a delicate aroma.  Grass-fed meat, cooked at a wood fire, for me.  Wonderful it is that wealthy people can endure to have their meat cooked over coal or in a shut-up iron box, where it kills itself with its own steam, which ought to escape”.  The meat he describes as “dark brown, as mutton should be, for if it is the least bit white it is sure to be poor; the grain was short and ate like bread and butter, firm, yet almost crumbling to the touch; it was full of juicy red gravy, and cut pleasantly, the knife went through it nicely”.  It was Henry Fielding, most English of our novelists, who hailed the Roast Beef of Old England, little dreaming that it was soon to become the baked beef of New Zealand or the chilled, pressure-cooked beef of Argentina.  [. . .]
I do not require to be told that times have changed.  I am only surprised and thankful that the name “roast” persists and that though it refers to joints cooked in the oven, they are joints and have some resemblance to the real thing.  The general trend in other countries is more and more to buy small bits of meat which can be fried, grilled, stewed, cooked in a casserole or—curious misnomer—“pot roast”.  Since the end of rationing we have tended to return to joints and not be put off with boned and hamstrung pieces of indistinguishable meat which are the nearest many people abroad get to a leg of mutton or sirloin of beef.
It is futile, I know, to regret our better days and foolish to expect a busy housewife to bother with “all that” or a restaurateur with staff problems enough already to add to them for the sake of a nebulous quality in his food which few of his customers, bred to lesser things, would now recognize.  But I cannot write of English cooking without this lament for what was once its chief glory.
There is one faint consolation in modern life, its changes are so swift that no one can anticipate the social possibilities of tomorrow.  In 1914 middle-class life without domestic servants was inconceivable; in the twenties and thirties no one anticipated the revival in staying at home and family life which television has brought; only a few years ago the expresso bar was unheard-of.  If you had told someone a decade back that interest in cooking would not only revive but absorb both sexes, they would have laughed.  I cannot, I admit, see by what social revolution we can ever return to the days of a great joint roasting by an open fire, but that is not to say it is impossible.  We have pulled back other things from the past like Edwardian costume, restoration drama and square dancing.  We keep alive other arts and pastimes which have been superannuated by modern methods like sailing, tapestry-weaving, archery.  Why should we not one day, in some now unimaginable conditions, begin again to cook where our forefathers left off when they learned easier and less conscientious ways?  [. . .]
But [mankind] has begun, startlingly enough, to realise what it has lost in the Roast and to repair some of the damage.  The Americans who were the first to be rid of the kitchen range and coal fire have found, in less than half a century, that they need a means of roasting in their centrally-heated, air-conditioned homes.  So amid all the magnificent plumbing and the strip lighting and infinity of electrical gadgets, there has appeared—the barbecue.  The very word belongs to the Conquistadores (barbacoa) and the thing is as ancient as cooking.  To the American hostess who installs it, in a highly polished form, in her apartment it is—or was at first—a novelty, something smart and up-to-date.  But that is how we fumble our way back to essentials.  It was from their English ancestors the Americans inherited the art of roasting meat and consciously or not they felt the need of it.  [. . .]
In Edwardian middle-class families like mine the main course of the meal was “the joint”, not the roast or the remove or anything like that, and it was usually the only predecessor to “the sweet”.  The word, significantly, does not occur in the refined language of the table, even when English terms are used.  But in the far more lively language of the people it is heard often enough—“he was bringing home the joint”, “the Sunday joint was ruined”, “they had a small joint to themselves”.  It is a good word and keeps alive a good tradition, the Englishman’s devotion to the family table at which as often as not it is carved.  There are people, and greedier than we are, who think there is something gross, something almost obscene, in the English bourgeois custom of setting a cooked but recognizable part of some large quadruped on the dining table in front of [a] paterfamilias who proceeds to sharpen his carver and dissever it, handing portions of it to his wife and children.  These critics would prefer that the dissection be done in an operating theatre discreetly out of sight.  That too, is the modern way but rather, I feel, among people who would not, in any case, speak of “the joint”.