Seventy years ago, Britain introduced food rationing and for the first time, everyone had enough to eat.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the introduction of food rationing in the UK, and what a shock to find that Marguerite Patten, doyenne of cookery writers, is still alive and kicking. I’ve got a couple of her cookery books.
My parents both served in the war, but for those in civilian life, food rationing is one of the things they remember with the least fondness. Bad enough having bombs dropped on you, your kids sent away for safety, your spouse training in some army camp, without food itself being difficult to obtain.
Well, that’s the received opinion, but in my family, it’s taken with a pinch of salt. One reason that food rationing was introduced, let us remember, was that when the general mobilisation took place, so many men were found to be unfit for service due to malnutrition.
The pale, spavined, rickety product of a 10-year economic depression – a time when many people suffered from anaemia due to lack of meat, there was no NHS so ailments went untreated, and most people did grinding manual labour – came as a shock to the authorities.
They instantly instituted a rationing programme to bring Britain UP to standard, as well as prevent waste and food hoarding. For my family, as for many other working families, they had never eaten so WELL.
Certainly the diet was boring. Without our massive empire to exploit, Britons suddenly had to grow our own food instead of nicking it from people we’d conquered, and we’d halfway forgotten how to do it. We learned quickly, though, and God bless the Ministry of Food’s efficiency in ensuring its fair distribution and that the population didn’t starve to death.
I searched online for articles about the subject yesterday and found a few of those gosh-wow-how-DID-they-manage-without-microwaves? type features so beloved of the tabloids as if we all slept on swansdown. In this kind of feature, people follow the wartime diet for a week, suffer the ghastly pangs of Diet Coke withdrawal and end by wondering how on earth people coped without mooli and garangal.
Well, they didn’t all live on powdered egg and Spam, I tell you what. A lot of them did what my family did: they poached, they kept chickens on any spare bit of ground, or a pig out the back; they planted potatoes; they learned to stretch meat; they grew their own herbs, they made bread pudding and Poor Knights of Windsor. In fact, that’s how I grew up too, in the 60s and 70s, eating pheasant full of buckshot, jugged hare poached by my dad’s workmates and fish caught by the local Jehovah’s Witnesses (don’t ask me why – they had their own boat).
One writer, eating a Woolton pie (a kind of shepherd’s pie with root veg instead of meat, shown at top left) proclaimed it as tasting like cheesy slime. No it bloody doesn’t. A properly cooked Woolton pie is really tasty, but you have to know how to cook, not just take the top off an M&S ready meal. Ye gods. Have Britons really turned into such a bunch of wimps? Two rashers of bacon a week? A bar of chocolate a week? That’s all we eat in this house to this day.
Oh well, enough rant. It seems a far cry from then to Good New Days of today, when we chuck a third of our food in bins and leave it to rot. So much cleverer than our ancestors, drowning in a sea of our own plenty…