It’s 70 years since the government introduced rationing during World War Two. To mark the anniversary, the Imperial War Museum in London has just opened an exhibition about it and the Dig for Victory campaign called the Ministry of Food. Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, mother of Hugh and a successful writer and gardener in her own right (with two Chelsea gold medals) has published a book accompanying the exhibition – The Ministry of Food: Thrifty wartime ways to feed your family today (not to be confused with Jamie Oliver’s book of the same title). I am halfway through it and can’t recommend it enough. It is a fascinating combination of history, recipes, advice on growing your own and reducing kitchen waste from the time, peppered with anecdotes from people who lived through the era. I caught up with Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall this week for a chat about what we can learn from the resourcefulness of wartime Britain.
As Jane was born in 1939, she grew up knowing nothing but rationing. “Rationing went on until 1954, so I was a teenager by the time it finished,” she tells me. “Those were my formative years and I have a great fondness for food of that time. To write the book I had wonderful source material from the IMW archives and diaries from Mass Observation. The diaries bring everything so vividly to life.”
What comes across in the book is how different life was for families in the 1940s compared to now and how much has changed. “The lives of women were really difficult because their men were away fighting,” Jane explains. “Plus day to day domestic life was much tougher. They didn’t have our electric gadgets, so it was a life of drudgery and there was also the danger of being bombed out of your home. Getting a meal onto the table was very difficult. There were no supermarkets and shopping involved queuing for hours everywhere. But they met the challenges with great heart.”
There was a sharp contrast, too, between the generous supply of food in the countryside and that in the towns where certain foods could be scarce. “People in the countryside were generally better off than those in the towns,” she says. “I was brought up there. Our grandparents had a farm and we went to live there. Country people had local produce and wild food [to supplement the rations]. People learned to eat rabbit. But there were more people having the countryside experience of wartime because so many children were evacuated there.”
Rationing also had its plus points. “One of the benefits of rationing was that it was even-handed,” she says. “The average school child was healthier and taller than before the war. This is because they were getting the same basic rations as everybody else. Health improved but the diet was monotonous. If you cook some of the recipes now they seem very bland, but it’s just a matter of adding garlic, herbs or replacing the water with stock. Before the war, we didn’t have a high standard of cooking in Britain. It was a lot later when we started importing food and [tastes changed following] Constance Spry’s book and Elizabeth David’s.”
Jane’s favourite recipe from the book is for mock fish pie. “It’s made with Jerusalem artichokes which I love but the taste is nothing to do with fish,” she says. “It’s a kind of gratin.” She also enjoyed recreating a trifle which “used to be a big treat” when she was a child.
So, what lessons can we learn from wartime Britain? “In post-credit crunch Britain, you can feed your family well on a low budget,” she argues. “It’s about using ingredients in an imaginative way. We’ve become used to eating meat or fish at every meal, but during the war people would have a joint on a Sunday and make the leftovers last. Then they would eat cauliflower cheese etc. for other meals – something more economical but just as healthy. The Dig for Victory campaign also resonates today. People are queuing up for allotments and enjoying the seasonality of food. There’s a different attitude now.”
I told her that I find it amazing how positively people responded to the Ministry of Food’s propaganda, telling them what to eat. “People didn’t mind because they felt they were fighting the war in their own way, so the rationing system worked,” she says. “In those days we didn’t have television or blogs, so people were not so savvy. Now we would feel more independent. We wouldn’t put up with the government telling us what to eat. There would have to be a grave crisis for there to be compulsory food control. But then again, we have been responding to the government’s ‘eat five a day’ campaign.”
Should we bring back rationing? Would it help reduce obesity and help us lead healthier lives or would it be unnecessary government interference? Do you think wartime frugal tips could help us through the credit crunch? Leave a message and let me know.
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