WW2 Challenge: The £5 Banana

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.

 

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11 Responses to WW2 Challenge: The £5 Banana

  1. Christine says:

    Someone has just blown a hole in your frugal budget for wartime cookery haven\’t they by saying that money was not as issue as the goods weren\’t there to buy? Oops she said laughing. On the other hand he has hit the frugal lifestyle right on the head – it\’s what you buy that counts. In the long run if you don\’t buy food that is going to go to waste or that you aren\’t going to eat or that you don\’t like, then your food budget will be that much more frugal to begin with. And that goes for everything else – if you don\’t want it or need it then you can be more frugal by not buying it.  The consumer society has a lot to answer for – and the pile of goods that cost you money to use don\’t make you any happier in the long run. I can remember all my toys when small because there were so few of them (not there to buy due to rationing) and how much fun I had doing other things that cost nothing.

  2. piper says:

    Exactly. The goods weren\’t there to buy and food prices were controlled anyway. It was a crime to hoard food so you had to make do with what you had that week. You probably would\’t have had access to a bit freezer to freeze stuff either, although you may have been able to store things by other means. Maybe if things get really ridiculous with food price hikes here price controls are something the government could do again. I believe it\’s happening in some countries already. But there also wouldn\’t have been the constant aggressive advertising, whether for food or consumer products, that we are surrounded by now 24/7, making us think we need rubbish that we really don\’t. No doubt most people were concentrating on staying alive in WW2 and hoping for a future with their loved ones, not worrying about whether they should buy the latest gadget or frock.

  3. Christine says:

    I fear that unless we grow our own food and don\’t import any you will have to put up with price hikes as subsidised food prices would come out of the general taxation (i.e. your pocket in another way).  There are already familes around who ownly use locally produced food and nothing imported.

  4. Karen Jennifer says:

    My parents lived through the war and also through the dreadful power cuts and wildcat strikes I remember from my youth. They carried on their learned frugal way of life long after these events had finished because it had become ingrained. I have learned a lot from them and my elderly neighbours:- Always have candles and matches in the house. Newspaper is used for making up fires and we collect sticks and branches from the woods for the fire. Go after a heavy wind and you will find lots of wood just lying around. They always had an allotment and swapped produce with other allotment holders, friends and neighbours so that the diet didn\’t become monotonous. The cat was there to keep down the mice and birds and ate left overs. My parents say there was no such thing as cat and dog food back then, they just ate the same as the family. Clothing was bought from jumbles sales and swapped with neighbours who had similar aged children. My mum was forever knitting for her family and letting down hems of skirts and trousers. We had brightly coloured crotecht blanks on the beds which were great fun to make and cheerful to look at. The wool came from outgrown garments that were unpiked or from garments bought from jumbles sales for the purpose. I use a lot of these frugal ways in my modern life because it is a fond reminder of my childhood and a sensible way to live. used in the

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  6. Ruby says:

    My Father was a prisoner of the Japanese and Boy! was money tight. My mother sold clothing and sweet coupons [illegal, of course] to buy food. She bought old knitwear to pull down to knit socks and mens trousers to make trousers for us kids from jumble sales. My first bathing costume was made out of a \’jumble sale\’ dress. Bones were regularly made into thick soups with lots of home-grown vegetables when there was no money for meat or fish and a 1d packet of broken crisps made very filling sandwiches. Sweets didn\’t come off ration until I had left school and started work and that was in 1953.

  7. brienne says:

    I do n`t know if this is the fair mentioned in the article. but I remember a banana being auctioned in Princes St.Gardens(Edinburgh) in1941,for £5.The banana was then given back to be auctioned again,and once again re-auctioned. I can`t remember which charity benefitted but I do remember being impressed by one banana fetching a total of £15!

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