Living on wartime rations isn’t easy – I’ve already poisoned myself with one simple recipe! So in an effort to learn more, I caught up with Terry Charman, senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, this week and picked his extensive brains about diet and food in wartime Britain.
He was amused by my experiment. “It’s interesting that when recession looms people look back to the war period,” he told me. “What we can learn from wartime Britain is not to waste food. Back then everything was turned into something else. People used up food scraps and even made imitation food – such as mock goose – to capitalise on what was available. It was a very different world and people living now would find it difficult to go back.”
We often consider World War Two as a time of privation, but the Ministry of Food went to great lengths to ensure everyone ate healthily. “The wartime diet was extremely healthy because you didn’t have the fatty foods and there was the Dig for Victory campaign, which encouraged people to grow their own vegetables,” Terry explains. “You wanted a fighting fit nation. Bacon, ham, meat, sugar and butter were all rationed and things like potatoes were seen as big fillers.”
But the food was boring. “You could live quite well on the wartime ration, but you would find it monotonous and the lack of oranges and bananas difficult,” he says. “At the museum we have photos from a fair during the war where they auctioned off a banana for £5. That’s the length people went to [for fresh fruit]! What is so difficult to convey is the enormous choice we have now, but then they had to put up with what was at the butchers or bakers. Nobody went hungry but people couldn’t have what they wanted.”
Leftover meat would be recycled. “Meat was rationed at 6p, which would buy an individual two lamb chops,” Terry explains. “But the housewife would buy the family meat ration in one go – a leg of pork or a shoulder of lamb – serve it for Sunday dinner, and then it would continue to put in an appearance until the Tuesday as rissoles, cottage pie etc. Only meat was rationed in monetary terms, everything else was rationed in weight.”
But not everything was rationed. “Chicken, turkey and game weren’t rationed, and neither were fruit and vegetables, although bananas, oranges and lemons almost disappeared as shipping space was needed for munitions,” he says. “Restaurants were ordered to serve meals costing no more than five shillings, although luxury ones got away with charging for extras, such as the band. People were encouraged to keep rabbits and pigs in a pig club. Offal wasn’t rationed, but a lot of people turned their noses up at it. People didn’t drink much coffee then either. Nobody even thought of rationing coffee.”
I admitted I found some wartime recipes uninspiring. “People’s tastes were blander then,” Terry points out. “They hadn’t done the foreign travel we have. If they had a takeaway it would be fish and chips.”
Ironically, Terry says money wasn’t an issue then. “What could you spend the money on? Consumer goods had more or less gone and food prices were controlled. Entertainment was the main thing. Books flourished in the long hours of the blackout and people went to the cinema.”
Difficult for consumers to bear was the continuation of rationing nine years after the war ended. “Rationing went on until 1954,” Terry points out. “Meat was the last thing that went off ration. People couldn’t understand. We’d won the war and defeated countries were no longer on rationing. But rationing actually increased after the war, with bread going on ration for three years. There is a mindset that people would accept this in wartime, but during more intangible things, like economic downturns, it is much more difficult to rally the troops.”
Could you stand to live on World War Two food? What do you think could we learn from the wartime Britain’s diet and approach to food? Leave a comment and let me know.