Food History, Retro Recipes, Vintage Recipes

BBC Radio Wales, WW2 Ration Book Diet, Post-Brexit Food Woes, Wartime Eggless Recipes.

  • Interesting 1944 film about food rationing which also includes details of Britain’s pre-war reliance on imported food. Seems relevant again now in Post-Brexit Britain.

By the time this book appears I hope many of you will be looking forward to digging up some of your own early vegetables. Those who have “dug for victory” will surely be interested in new ways of cooking and serving their young carrots, their early peas and new potatoes, not to speak of all the wealth of green stuff that will be coming along with the late spring and summer. To those who do not know it, therefore, here is a new and delicious way to cook all vegetables.

(The Stork Wartime Cookery Book by Susan Croft, c.1940, p.52)

On Tuesday 31st May, at the crack of dawn, well 7.55am to be precise, I appeared on BBC Radio Wales to discuss the British diet during World War Two. The interview is available on BBC iPlayer for a few more days, until Thursday 30th June. You will find my interview approximately 1 hour 24 minutes into the programme.

Inspiration for the segment was William Sitwell’s, Eggs Or Anarchy: The remarkable story of the man tasked with the impossible: to feed a nation at war, recently published by Simon & Schuster (UK). Sitwell’s book reveals the heroic tale of how Lord Woolton (1883-1964), Minister for Food, fed Britain during World War Two. Lord Woolton even had a recipe named after him, ‘Lord Woolton Pie’ (printed at end of this article).

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  • Lord Woolton in 1940 reviewing some of the Ministry of Food’s, ‘Kitchen Front’ campaign literature.

It is no surprise to learn, that many Brits in modern times appear to have lost control of their relationship with food. The obesity epidemic (pandemic!) is already upon us, putting a tremendous strain on our already burdened NHS not to mention other public resources.

I recently had to make almost daily visits to my local hospital and was struck by just how bad the obesity problem had actually become. Fat seems to be the new normal. Hospital wards, corridors and communal areas were a veritable parade of lard.

On one heart-stopping occasion, I got into a lift suitable for only 13 persons, it was a stiflingly hot day. We are all crammed in like padded sardines, I looked around and counted 8 heads. There was no room, whatsoever, for a 9th person, let alone another 5! In the immortal words of Private Frazer I thought, “We’re doomed!”.

It is no secret that I have never been a skinny girl. In fact, I have spent most of my adult years either slim, curvy or on occasion, plump. When my scales tip into unacceptable territory, I do something about it, straightaway. My downfall is not junk food, carbs, excessive sugar, fizzy drinks or poor eating habits. In fact, I eat very healthily, rarely get sick, catch a cold or flu, my problem is  lack of exercise. Will the government’s new Sugar Tax stop me putting-on weight? Absolutely not but a free gym membership might.

Those recent hospital visits were a complete eye-opener to me. It wasn’t just visitors and patients carrying too much timber, it was staff as well. A quick visit to the canteen revealed a limited range of ‘healthy’ menu options, perhaps therein lies one reason behind so many overweight staff and visitors? The meals being served to patients were stodgy at best and totally unappetising at worst.

The wards were so understaffed, it is no wonder that meal breaks are probably a luxury rather than a necessity whatever the law otherwise dictates. No medical professional worth their salt is going to abandon a patient in need of assistance just so they can dash-off for their dinner!

Staff need to be given proper rest breaks of a length suitable to be able to sit down and eat a proper meal rather than a ‘grab and go’ snack. Concentrated in one building was a very sad example of how broken down our relationship with food has become. If a hospital cannot set a healthy example then there really is little hope for the rest of us.

So, does revisiting past food trends and models, such as those created by Lord Woolton and his Ministry of Food in World War Two, provide us with possible solutions to our current obesity epidemic? I think the answer is, maybe yes.

William Sitwell is certainly on to something here. He argues that we should declare war on modern dietary habits and bring back a form of food rationing, a revised model that could work in harmony with our busy lives. Let’s take a look at the evidence for this argument. During Britain’s food rationing years (1940-1954):

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  • People were better educated on diet, roles of vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats;
  • The need to keep healthy was emphasised. No fad diets or use of pretentious, over-priced, ingredients;
  • The government issued information pamphlets and easy-to-follow cookbooks (Hard Time Cookery – 1940 was particularly popular a mix of food education and nutritious recipes) for everyone;
  • Food Advice Centres were set-up everywhere so that anyone had access to free diet and cooking advice for working with restricted ingredients;
  • Many women worked, even married women. So the modern argument of ‘I have no extra capacity to prepare meals, from scratch, for my family as well as working full-time’ really doesn’t fly;
  • Food waste was lower. Nothing was wasted. Leftover food was either recycled or given to domestic pets. Bones, scraps, giblets, gristle went into the stockpot;
  • Rationing was a social leveller. The less well-off ate better and could afford all ingredients and therefore had access to healthy dishes;
  • The British diet contained virtually no fat, very low-levels of dairy, sugar and red meat;
  • Alternatives to sugar included carrots, potatoes and beetroots;
  • Child mortality  was at an all-time low. In 1939 it was 62 in every 1000, in 1944 this figure fell to 45 in every 1000;
  • Average calories contained in a school meal during World War Two was 1,000, as opposed to now where they contain 530 calories and 20 grams of fat;
  • Children were more active and walked or cycled everywhere so easily burned-off their lunchtime calorie intake;
  • Children didn’t consume afterschool processed snacks or fizzy drinks to tied them over until dinner. Most children had either a home-cooked meal in the evening or a healthy tea;
  • Children were well-nourished, taller, sturdier and rates of tooth decay during the 14 years of rationing were extremely low;
  • The Vitamin Welfare Scheme (introduced in December 1941) enabled all children under the age of 2 to receive cheap or free fruit juices and vitamins including cod liver oil;
  • People grew their own vegetables, organic foodstuff is NOT a modern invention, prior to the 1960s, everyone ate organic, unprocessed foods;
  • Hardly any food containing chemicals and preservatives were consumed. Although some tinned goods during the war years did have questionable contents to be sure;
  • People moved more, walked everywhere. Excess calories were burned-off with ease, no expensive gym memberships or ‘fitkit’ was required;
  • Waistlines were smaller and obesity virtually unheard of.
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  • Children eat carrots on sticks, a popular, sweet, wartime snack.

The above does make you think again about bringing back food rationing, doesn’t it? Not quite such a silly idea as it may first appear. Some of the current food trends, specifically those in the ‘free from’ or ‘raw food’ canon, are already doing some of the above.

In 1989, the BBC’s It’s That Meal Again, challenged Southampton families, the Harbers and the Lawrensons, to only eat wartime rations from 1942 for a 6 week period. At the end of this period, participants experienced  a small reduction in weight and a drop in cholesterol blood. This proves, in a relatively unscientific, reality show way, that food rationing does have health benefits in modern times.

Perhaps, we are, inadvertently,  already heading towards a pattern of food consumption based upon the principles of a restrictive diet. The paleo diet, Dukan diet, veganism, vegetarianism, clean-eating, gluten-free, dairy-free, soya based diet are all examples of this. Although, most of these diets are socially divisive, with only the wealthy being able to afford all the ingredients required to participate. I associate these types of dietary  behaviour with under 35s or the hipsters of Hoxton rather than as a leveller across all socio-economic groups.

Highly seasoned foods and drinks, sweet and stimulating, iced or unnatural hot, gave an immediate and fictitious sense of well-being and are very popular. Many of these delights have vanished or are restricted in amount and will become ever more rare as the war goes on. Luckily they are unnecessary and their absence may toughen rather than weaken our fibre and powers of resistance. In spite of many inconveniences, we have suffered no limitations that will undermine health if the foods that are available are suitably combined.

(Violet G. Plimmer, writing in January 1941. Violet was co-author, with RHA Plimmer, of Food, Health, Vitamins published in 1938).

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My ration book feast created for filming V.E. Day 70th Anniversary segments with Solent TV and additionally my You Tube Vlog. ©Viva Blancmange 2015

Education lies at the heart of a wartime food rationing model. First of all the wider public needs to understand what constitutes a balanced diet and more importantly how to cook meals that reflect such a diet. Cost is also key. If you want everyone to eat healthily then all basic ingredients should be sold at an affordable price, one which doesn’t leave a dent in your budget, particularly for anyone living off-of the minimum wage.

As the situation begins to unravel post the EU Referendum and we possibly head towards another recession, budget cookery will be put firmly back on the food trend agenda, like it was in 2008-2011. In this post-Brexit era of uncertainty, purchasing cacao nibs and chia seeds are no longer likely to be top of the Millennials’ shopping list,  as many will now be forced to make their pay-packets stretch further.

I predict that, over time, consumption of luxury, novel foods will soon start to fall by the wayside together with pretentious, fad diets (Huzzah!). There may well be a gap in the healthy-living market and looking back into our more recent past could provide us with an affordable alternative food consumption model. If the likes of Messrs Farage, Corbyn and Johnson can bring a country to its knees, then anything is possible, isn’t it?

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  • London exhibition, organised in March, 1946 by then Minister of Food, Sir Ben Smith (1879-1964). The exhibition informed the population about food rationing during the post-war period.

Brexit will, absolutely, result in a rise in retail food prices, probably before the end of this Summer and certainly by Christmas. This is not scaremongering, it is fact. Taxes are likely to go up following an emergency Autumn budget and wages will stagnate. Interest rates will likely revert to zero, possibly by next year and quantitative easing (QE) could be put in place once more, not seen in Britain since the financial crisis of 2008. That is how the economic model works in these types of extraordinary set of circumstances.

People will have less disposable income, spend less, save less and look to make cuts in the family budget. Food is often one of the first household expenditures to suffer in an economic crisis.  Britain currently relies heavily on food imports particularly from Europe and we only produce 60% of the food we consume. This latter figure will need to go up as we move towards an official Brexit in 2018.  A quick historical fact checking exercise shows:

  • 1914 – we imported 60% of our food. We all know what happened to the nation’s health and nutrition in the First World War, we nearly starved to death!;
  • 1939 – we imported 70% of our food. Thankfully, with the likes of Lord Woolton and the Ministry of Food’s efforts, distribution of food, via rationing, was put in place from the get-go. This strategy avoided the dreadful situation during the First World War.

In both wars but particularly during World War Two, Britons were encouraged not to waste food and ‘dig for victory’. I think we all now need to get better educated about self-sufficiency on the home front. I am not suggesting we all turn into Tom and Barbara Good but the sooner we change our mind-set the quicker we can all ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Let’s put away our swords and quite literally, turn them into ploughshares.

In April this year, Professor Tim Lang (City University, London) and Dr Victoria Schoen (Food Research Collaboration – FRC) published the briefing paper, ‘Food, the UK and the EU: Brexit or Bremain?’. If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend reading Lang and Schoen’s report, it is a sobering read. At the time the report was published, Professor Lang predicted:

It is not simply a choice about farming – the decision will affect the entire UK food system and all of our daily lives. Food prices will almost certainly go up, affected by a weakened sterling.

The UK is in a vulnerable position already with a food trade gap of £21billion in the red – we import far more food than we export. This is particularly important for health, with a heavy reliance on EU fruit and vegetables now exposed.

If the people vote for Brexit, there’ll need to be a ‘dig for victory’ on an unprecedented scale. And this won’t be using the EU labour that currently grows, picks and processes so much British food.

The public has been woefully ill-informed on this subject by politicians, for instance DEFRA has seven times more civil servants, despite massive cuts, than has DG Agri in Brussels. Yet food is perhaps the most immediate link between the EU and ordinary British people.

A few interesting facts contained in Lang and Schoen’s report:

  • 40% of UK’s total food supply of fruit and vegetables comes from the EU;
  • 55% of UK’s supply of pigmeat comes from EU;
  • Diet now accounts for 10.8% of the nation’s total disease burden (tobacco is 10.7%);
  • UK is currently 60% self-sufficient when it comes to food production;
  • UK suffers a huge food trade gap of £21bn. Not only is the UK reliant on the rest of Europe for food but this imbalance is a drain on the national balance of payments;
  • The post-Brexit food world will be characterised by volatility disruption and uncertainty. Food import costs will rise if the price of sterling falls.
  • In World War 2, the UK learned fast that it needed to produce more food itself and ensure it was fairly distributed. It learned the cost of wasting food and taking the short-term view that cheapness is the only important goal in food policy (P.5);

Now, more than ever, we need to support British farmers and buy local produce where possible. It isn’t such a far-fetched idea as it might have been a week ago, to suggest we should all be encouraged to create a vegetable plot in our garden or sign-up for an allotment pitch. If you don’t have a garden then many vegetables do grow well in tubs too.

We will need to be more self-reliant as a nation when it comes to food production, so lets roll-up our sleeves and get on with preparing for the future. We mustn’t waste our time focussing on the dog and pony show that is currently taking place in Westminster. Neither should we be spitting feathers at our friends, family or work colleagues who voted differently from ourselves.

Despite the wish by many for a second referendum, along the same lines as we have just had, it is extremely unlikely to happen. You cannot keep spinning the wheel until you win, we live in a democracy folks. Let’s not talk ourselves into a recession but on the other hand let’s not bury our heads in the sand. Fail to prepare otherwise we should prepare to fail. As a gastronomist, I will be keeping a very close eye on the impact of Brexit on our retail food sector. Watch this space!

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  • A few words on Brexit’s fall-out from The Good Life’s Tom and Barbara Good and neighbour Margo. 1970s, BBC comedy at it’s finest. Never more apt than now.

Below are a few excellent guides, produced by the BBC, covering a range of topics regarding cooking on a budget and thrifty kitchen management. These guides make some of the above points relevant in modern times:

What did Britons eat during World War Two?

In 1939, nearly half the people of Britain were suffering with some degree of malnutrition. Recently, there has been an increase in cases of scurvy and rickets amongst schoolchildren due to over-consumption of foods containing little or no nutritional value, in other words junk and refined products.

A typical diet in wartime Britain was low in sugar, red meat, fat and dairy but high in fibre and carbohydrates. Hearty stews and soups containing vegetables, pulses and offcuts of meat. Cakes were flatter, less sweet and lacking in rise. However, many housewives tended to wait until they had enough ingredients for a decent cake rather than create recipes issued by the Ministry of Food’s pamphlets from the get-go.

Fresh eggs were available but severely restricted hence the infamous and sulphurous powdered egg. Milk was rationed and dry, skimmed milk  often used in its absence. Bread, from 1942, was a National Loaf, legally adulterated with chalk to aid calcium intake. Overall, to a modern palate, wartime food could be bland and stodgy. Spices were available, such as nutmeg, cloves, mace, caraway, dill, pimento, allspice, cinnamon, paprika, red peppers, curry powder and chilli pepper but not in plentiful supply.

Potatoes and carrots were two of the most popular vegetables in wartime. The government’s food propaganda campaign featuring Dr Carrot (‘the children’s best friend’)and Potato Pete was very successful at promoting these versatile vegetables. Carrots on sticks were provided as a sweet alternative to lollipops. Onions were a rare sight and fruits such as bananas, oranges and lemons, virtually non-existent. Offal and tripe also appeared regularly on the dinner table as neither were ‘on the ration’.

Which wartime dishes have been left behind?

Until quite recently, I would have added offal and rabbits to this list but slowly these ingredients are coming back into fashion. Margarine is no longer popular in baking or for buttering sandwiches. Suet-based recipes, either savoury or sweet, are still thought of as comfort foods which require quite a lot of treadmill pounding to burn-off extra calories consumed. Macaroni is still eaten but we are not quite as in love with this type of pasta as the previous generations of cooks once were (or indeed the Americans still are).

Tapioca, semolina and sago puddings have also fallen out of favour, neither do we currently relish in eating rooks or squirrels. The last time I visited Starbucks, I don’t recall drinking ground acorn coffee! Nettles, chestnuts, bloater paste and herrings are no longer staple foods but are still eaten. Interestingly, many wartime foods which were once associated with lower socio-economic groups (e.g. herrings, nettles, squirrels, offal and chestnuts) can now be found on plates in high-end restaurants.

What wartime food trends should we bring back?

I would like to see offal products more widely available in not only farm shops and butchers but in a greater number of supermarkets. Edible flowers such as nasturtiums and dandelions should be used more in salads and not just as decoration. A wartime delicacy which is actually quite tasty is sardines wrapped in dandelion leaves. Sardines and pilchards are still readily available in all major supermarkets and are very cheap, -don’t be put-off by the smell, both are delicious grilled on toast in fresh tomato sauce,

Growing your own fruit and vegetables is growing in popularity with waiting lists for Council allotments at an all time post-war high. However, more must be done to encourage those who live in properties without the benefit of a garden to grow their own produce. Vegetables can be grown in tubs, plastic/hessian sacks or hanging baskets. Some vegetables can be grown indoors. Herbs like the warmth of a kitchen windowsill.

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Many culinary techniques, long forgotten, are worth reviving. For example eggless cookery offers some interesting egg substitutes. Eggless mayonnaise containing baked potatoes, mustard, salt, vinegar and salad oil. Eggless salad dressing containing evaporated milk, olive oil, salt, pepper, mustard, lemon juice and vinegar. (More recipes can be found below).

Fuel less cookery is a terrific invention. I wrote about low energy cooking, some years ago, on my social history blog, Come Step Back In Time. During wartime, this cooking method came into its own particularly when saving fuel was a priority. The hay-box was a popular option, a portable version could be made from a gas-mask carrier. Have a go at making your own hay-box.

A meat stew would be cooked on the stove for 30 minutes and left in the hay-box, to finish cooking, for 3 and 1/2 hours. Boiled suet pudding took 30 minutes on the stove, followed by 2 and 1/2 hours in the hay-box. Pressure cookers were also widely used and are excellent for boiling bones to make stock.

One of the most charming methods of low energy cookery from this period that I have come across in my research is ‘cosy’ cookery. In my collection I have a copy of The Bickton Cooks’ Book by Margaret Hussey (1947). Ms Hussey, food writer and educational advisor on domestic science subjects to Essex Education Committee from 1925-1943, lived at Bickton House, Fordingbridge Hampshire. She ran her guest house at Fordingbridge during the post-war rationing years and was expert at dealing with providing nutritious meals on limited rations. Her thoughts on cosy cookery:

A good many foods of fairly light texture, e.g., potatoes, fruit, oatmeal, do not really need to have heat supplied to them underneath for the whole time of cooking, they will cook in most cases in the same length of time if the heat supplied to them by preliminary cooking can be retained all round and wastage prevented…It seems that the small amount of heat provided underneath the pan during ordinary cooking only replaces that which passes off into the air from its sides and top. The time of cooking in this way, after the pan has been removed from the stove should be the same as usual, so that Vitamin C is not reduced but the fuel consumption is.

Not necessarily new, but the thicker the better-felt, cloth, blanket, rugs or mats, curtains or carpet, or old tea cosies or felt hats. If the material used is very old or worn, it should be double and interlined with newspaper.

(The Bickton Cooks’ Book by Margaret Hussey, 1947, p.16)

Lord Woolton Pie

Ingredients: 450g each of: diced potatoes, cauliflower, swedes and carrots; 3 or 4 spring onions; 5 ml vegetable extract; 5 ml oatmeal; a little chopped parsley; 225g cooked, sliced potatoes or wholemeal pastry for topping.

  1. Place the diced vegetables, spring onions, vegetable extract and oatmeal into a saucepan;
  2. Add just enough water to cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally;
  3. Allow to cool;
  4. Put mixture into a pie dish and sprinkle with parsley;
  5. Cover with the crust of potatoes or wholemeal pastry;
  6. Bake in a moderate oven until the topping is nicely brown and serve hot with gravy.

Eggless Pancakes

Ingredients: 30 ml flour; pinch each of salt and sugar; milk and water to bind; lard or dripping.

  1. Mix the flour, salt and sugar with some milk and water to make a thick batter;
  2. Heat the lard or dripping until smoking hot;
  3. Drop in about 1 tablespoon of the mixture and cook until brown;
  4. Turn the pancake over and brown the other side;
  5. Eat with jam, treacle, orange or lemon juice.

Eggless Mayonnaise

Ingredients: 1 small baked potato; 1 teaspoon mustard; salt; a little vinegar; 1/4 pint salad oil.

  1. Peel and mash the potato, stir in the mustard and salt;
  2. Add the vinegar gradually, beating well;
  3. Last of all, beat in the salad oil slowly, mixing well.

Eggless Salad Dressing

Ingredients: 3 tablespoons evaporated milk; 2 tablespoons olive oil; 1/2 teaspoon salt; pepper; a little mustard; 1 tablespoon lemon juice; 2 teaspoons vinegar.

  1. Whip the evaporated milk until frothy;
  2. Add the oil very slowly beating hard all the time;
  3. Continue to beat until the sauce thickens;
  4. Add the seasonings, mustard, lemon juice and vinegar and blend thoroughly.

Eggless, Fatless Walnut Cake

Ingredients: 4 cups flour; 1 cup chopped walnuts; 1 good cup milk; 1 cup sugar; 4 teaspoons baking powder; 1 good pinch of salt.

  1. Mix flour, sugar and chopped walnuts together;
  2. Add salt and baking powder, and then the milk;
  3. It should be slightly wetter than an ordinary cake mixture;
  4. Poor into a greased cake tin and leave to rise for 10 minutes;
  5. Bake in a slow oven until risen and brown.

Eggless Soda Cake

Ingredients: 1/2 lb plain flour, 3 ozs beef dripping, 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda; 1/4 lb brown sugar; 1/4 lb fruit (sultanas and currants), 1/4 pt. milk.

  1. Add soda to milk and leave to dissolve;
  2. Rub fat into flour, then add fruit and sugar, mix to a stiff dough with warmest milk;
  3. Put into a greased tin, scooping the mixture away from the middle;
  4. Bake in a moderate oven for 3/4 to 1 and 1/2 hours, according to size.
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