The Ministry of Food: Rationing remembered

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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6 Responses to The Ministry of Food: Rationing remembered

  1. Flo says:

    The only reason that there was food control in the last war was because it was not possible to import what we did not grow ourselves. Can you see legislation being pushed through both the Commons and the Lords to limit the import of food in peace time? And managing to enforce it? The government would smartly get the very rude two fingered sign from the supermarkets who are in the business of making a profit from selling food imported from anywhere in the world in peace time. You go tell the banana and orange growers for instance that we don\’t want your produce ta. That would send the economies of a few countries into terminal decline which would mean that financial support would be required from elsewhere internationally. We are some 56 years on from the end of rationing and a lot of the population alive now have no concept of not having a plentiful supply of food, heating and clothes. Tell the Primark generation that you are going to cut down and refashion second hand clothes to fit them. Tell the present generation of children that you are going to make clothes for their dolls out of old garments around the house or that you will make them a go kart out of old bike wheels and spare wood for their birthdays. You\’d have an awful lot of calls to Child Line I think. You need a bit shift in thinking to make use of the frugal ideas from the "old days" and I\’m sure that it would be discouraged by government which is keen to rebuild the economy on consumer spending. And you, as a journalist, know how easy it is for the media and bloggers to rouse the public against government edict on anything such as frugality, thrift, saving, not having what we want when we want it.People will only change when they need to do so and see the need for it. There will be very few hair shirt wearers who are willing to be more frugal for any ethical reason (green, good for health) till it con-incides with their finances. Very selfish people can be.

  2. Piper says:

    Ha – I\’m just imagining all those calls to child line…I used to make dolls clothes from socks myself when I was a kid (sadly my sewing/fashion design skills haven\’t really evolved since then). I know we generalise but don\’t think that all kids would be that greedy. There are green groups at at least two of our local primary schools and my neighbours\’ kids are very switched on to saving the planet. I think they could very well show the adults up to be honest.

  3. Kerri says:

    If there was a situation where rationing was imposed again, I dread to think of the number of people who wouldn\’t have a clue what to do – I still recall hearing about a woman in her 30s (or perhaps even 40s) who didn\’t know what to do with a potato! I have taken steps to try and shop more sensibly – thankfully neither myself nor my husband have suffered job losses but the past year (well 18mths, we were in NY in March 2008 when a taxi driver told us of people losing their homes in the souther states….how little we knew then of what was to come!) I do think more carefully about where I spend my money, where my food comes from (particaully in the wake of many programmes about animal welfare) and what I am feeding myself and my husband. I personally would rather pay for a free range chicken, or outdoor bred pork knowing the higher animal welfare standards, but I don\’t want a bigger shopping bill, so I have started to plan meals better. I roasted a chicken the other week which then went to make a bacon and chicken salad for lunch and a huge pot of chicken noodle soup. The carcass is in the freezer ready to make stock with. I acutally think the kids of today are far more aware of green issues and healthy eating than we give them credit for. I think the problem lies more with the 1980\’s generation of success and excess, where microwaves became common place (I still remember my mum having hers installed with a new kitchen and numberous references to the microwave cook book) and ready meals really took off. This is the time when fast food and excess really took hold. For the first time it was commonplace for both parents to work, and ready meals were quick options when there was no time to cook, fast food outlets sprung up all over the place, as did Pop Tarts as an acceptable breakfast! Now the children that were bought up with this are having (or have) children of their own and are passing on the habits that they got given when they were children. It is now the kids of today that are re-educating their parents. Back in the 1980\’s we didn\’t know or think of the consequences that the massive changes in the way we were eating might have, indeed, no one considered bust would follow boom….

  4. Bill says:

    I love me microwave, it is me only means, complete with electric kettle.Yes it does re-heat TV dinners, only at half price on the sell by date. It is extreme handy fers a quick snack when a bachelor boy is in a hurry.Over 90% of me cooking is clean fresh porridge almost every morning, sometimes a real bacon butty, on peanut butter, with fresh chopped herbs fers lunch, all in the m/w.When I have just 10 minutes ter chop fresh veg in the steam/pressure cooker, I cook offal or mince, also wet or smoked fish, including fresh roe, some times lamb leg chops, or pork loin steaks, again all in the m/w. I also use it ter freshen stale bread & scones. It is also fine ter warm a can of beans, or spaghetti, fers a can of tuna or sardines, complete with fresh chopped herbs.I also steam or bake spuds, & sometmes make a large pot of steamed rice, or fresh pasta, the leftovers of which end up in French dressing or home made mayo, in the frigde, ter make a nice packed lunch. I oft use leftover steamed spud, or even baked spud fers a packed lunch, just add some sliced ham, or a can of fish. Sometimes I use steamed or poached cod/haddock/plaice or even fresh tuna in a packed lunch. Three cheers fers m/w.On rare occassions I make a sweet, or even savoury bread pud, it helps ter clean the garbage from the fridge, all in the m/w.I now have a full size 25kilo gas bottle with ring in me van. That gives me fresh porridge fers breaky, & also fills me flask much better, more oft, & cheaper. I can also scramble poach & boil eggs, strictly Free Range. I can also cook fresh veg, rissotto, pasta, etc, time permitting. Clean fresh home-made farmhouse food is exteremly compatible with both gas ring in back of van, as also with any decent m/w.Yes, I was born & bred with rationing, & I love good food, & I also hate waste. I have seen so much poverty & destitution in the MId East, India, Indo-China, Mainland China, Soviet & E. Block, also Scotland Wales & many back-streets in England.There is no need ter waste valuable food, it should be a criminal offense. In the past 5 years I have met so many illiterate of every generation within a 10 mile radius of B\’ham city centre, they are not only devoid of email & internet research, they do not even have any hope of a driving test.So many of \’em cannot even bake a spud, by any means, they would be far too dangerous with any form of chip pan. I can easily give \’em driving, also cooking & First-Aid lessons, but their literacy/numeracy needs ter be dealt with fust. Without literacy/numeracy I am simply wasting me time.Obviously they also have horrendous Benefit problems, due to literacy/numeracy. The "Welfare State" completely ignor this vital problem, these people are simply written off, on the bare minimum Benefit, or even less. some do not even qualify fers Benefit, they simply attempt ter live on fresh air.My own brother is a lousy cook, living on fresh air, without his paper round, @ £2/day, in his mid fifties, he would be serving a custodial sentence fers poll-tax. He is medically unfit fers any serious work, & would lose his home as he does not qualify fers any form of Benefit, not even poll-tax Benefit.I currently have at least a dozen hard core students spread over 2 Social Clubs. They appear every week, as possible, fers 2 hours/wk., & learn a completey new alphabet (BSL/ISL) fers Deaf Sign in only one week. It is taking \’em only one week ter learn their nos. up ter 99, another week up ter a billion.The oldest is 85, the youngest is mid twens, with some form of degree. Their progress is only possible because they are fully literate. One is an ex sales manager (engineer) in a large department store. She is heading toward full time Youth Work & needs BSL on her CV. Another mid aged is heading into full time Creche, she needs school hrs., & needs BSL on her CV fers "special needs".Last week I gave \’em another new alphabet, fers Deaf/Blind, it only takes em one week for the conversion. They are all fully literate/numerate, & good cooks. In a completely informal atmosphere, it has taken only 2 months fer \’em ter complete a 1 year college course, although they do need ter slow down & tidy it all up. They are always begging fers more homework, I have a problem keeping pace as their volunteer tutor. I am only L1 NVQ me\’sen. I hope ter do L2 NVQ in college next September, fers a teaching quali. It depends on me other commitments. I will never be a school teacher or creche me\’sen, but will hopefully help others into it. I will also be employing some "work Experience" & teenie delinquents, some with "special needs". Everyday Deaf & Deaf/Blind communication will be vital ter me.

  5. Bill says:

    Many iliterate/innumerate on Benefit soon end up devoid of heat, light, & water, as they simply turn to boooze & nicotine as a solution to their problems. As a result they have no hope of washing or cooking, & even less hope of any decent food. They are consistenly ripped off in small local shops, where most prices are double the supermarket, which they cannot reach, as they have no wheels, not even a driving license, & cannot afford a bus pass. Ter make the cash stretch, they buy only the cheapest possible booze & nicotine, which is their basic staple diet.If the Benefit office were to issue Wartime style ration books/coupons for the large supermarkets, instead of cash, the diet would automatically change to fresh raw fruit & veg, also wet & canned fish, with a little canned fruit & veg. The Benefit office would automaticaly use the rationing ter control the diet, including the necessary culinary education. The Benefit office could also sell the heat, light, & water by means of ration coupons. This would improve the living standard of many singles, also of many famillies & young school age. It would certainly improve their deit, & indirectly their entire education. Some would benefit even moreso from a Military style survival course, which could include boot-camp style literacy & numeracy. The entire system would take weeks, not light years, & would be an extremely good use of taxpayer\’s cash.Sadly fer these people, it will never happen as long as we have a party political system.

  6. Piper says:

    Good for you on the cooking front, Kerri. And I agree with you re kids today and the way we looked at things in the 1980s. It gives me hope! I often think how crazy it is that we only really started recycling on a local scale recently. Think of all those things we\’ve thrown away over the years.

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