I’ve always been fascinated by the Home Front, the enlistment of every man, woman and child in the British Isles in an effort to beat Hitler through food rationing, making do and mending, salvage, growing your own and basically making the most of scarce resources with elbow grease and endless ingenuity. I’ve just read Eggs or Anarchy by William Sitwell, a biography of Lord Woolton who was the Minister of Food for much of the Second World War. He was in charge of ensuring everyone got fed, and improving nutritional standards was one of his aims. It’s unusual to get the ‘behind-the-scenes’ view, and the political situation wasn’t as united as may appear from our rose-tinted histories.
Now I’ve moved on to A Green and Pleasant Land by Ursula Buchan, which is about the role of Britain’s gardeners during WW2. Apparently they had to do without the benefit of weather forecasts on the radio – they were stopped at the beginning of the war due to fears they might help the Germans!
Obviously I am a firm believer in Digging For Victory, although I would have found the list of acceptable crops very restrictive! The neighbours would no doubt have muttered about the weird (and not always very productive) things growing in the garden, although they would have been very jealous of the mammoth onions I’ve grown this year 🙂
Anyway, I keep meaning to experiment a little bit with wartime cooking, although at this point in time I’m not intending to try and live on rations for a while. But I did think it would be illuminating to see how far away from normal eating that would be. Of course, we eat very differently now than they did in 1940. We eat a fair amount of rice, but I think back then it would have been mostly used for rice pudding. And I doubt people ate much pasta at all, let alone taco shells….
The ration varied over time, depending on the availability of foods. Later in the war a points system was introduced, which gave people mix-and-match access to a variety of things (usually things with a long shelf life). But in 1940 the basic ration for a week was this:
Now the meat ration is a bit tricky to work out. Meat was rationed by price – 1s 2d per person, per week. I’ve seen suggestions that it equates to 350-400g per person, and to half that. The two of us would also be entitled to 1lb of jam and 700g sweets/chocs per month.
We don’t eat a lot of jam, so that would be fine. We don’t buy much confectionery as part of the grocery shopping. Ryan has a meal deal from the sandwich shop every day, which includes crisps or a chocolate bar. He would definitely find a sweetie ration more onerous than I would! But he doesn’t touch the actual sugar; I use that for tea, and for baking. I think we’d be fine on the rationed amount.
A tea bag is about 2g tea (I’ve weighed one!), so that’s 25 cups per person, per week! I drink tea, but not that much, and some of my cups are herbal. Ryan rarely drinks tea, so we’d be swapping his ration for something else. (Neither of us drinks coffee.)
If we talk about ham in terms of cooked meat, then we probably do average about 100g a week. The cheese would be more problematic. We tend to have herby baked feta once a week, and that’s 200g cheese. We don’t use too much hard cheese, but I would feel deprived without the occasional chunk of halloumi, or my beloved buffalo mozzarella.
For fats…. We buy butter in 250g packets, which would be over a fortnight’s worth. But we bought 2 at the end of July and have both left (because we’re still finishing off the previous lot – I like to have it in stock in case of emergency baking). I use more spreadable butter, for my lunches, and if we class that as margarine (don’t like proper margarine, horrible stuff) then we do go through about 250g/month – not far off the ration.
Most people these days don’t use solid cooking fat on a daily basis, as they would have in 1940. 200g sunflower oil is apparently around 200ml. I’ve never tried to quantify how much we use in a week (and we use a mix of sunflower and olive oils, depending on what’s cooking), but that seems like a reasonable amount. We’re not big on deep frying.
Which leaves the meat ration. This week we’ve had beef mince tacos twice , chicken casserole twice, bean feast twice (with enough leftover for another dinner) and fish once. The sausages in the bean feast weren’t rationed, but were in short supply, and the same would be true of the fish. We actively try and reduce our meat consumption by using smaller portions and bulking them out with pulses and vegetables, so I don’t think we do too badly. But I’m sure that sticking to the ration would involve some meat-free days (not a big issue, but we do need to expand our veggie meal options). We don’t go through many eggs, although of course they are all fresh.
Ryan’s lunches are a different matter altogether, but if we make-believe that he eats then in a British Restaurant then they don’t count towards his ration! (I eat mine at home.)
The war time diet was, by all accounts, monotonous. Although people were fed and guaranteed a nutritious diet, they probably felt hungry a lot of the time. For people who were used to having a cooked breakfast, things would have been tough – a slice or two of bread with jam or margarine would have had to do. (We tend to have cereals – porridge for me, muesli for Ryan).
Looking at it, I don’t think we would do too badly on the ration. I’m sure there are plenty of people for whom it would be a significant drop in consumption, but the main issue would be the things that we’re used to now that just wouldn’t be available – or only sporadically. I’m not sure how the Ministry of Food would have dealt with Ryan’s Diet Coke and our sugar-free squash, but I suspect they would have shut down the factories and turned them over to the war effort! Along with the crisp factory….
So I will be checking out some meat-free options from my wartime recipe collection (although neither of us like parsnips, and Ryan is dead set on a turnip ban). In the meantime, how do you think you would cope on the wartime ration? What would you miss most? Bananas, avocados, chia-kale smoothies? 😉
This blog post was written by Emma Cooper and was published on The Unconventional Gardener website. If you're reading it elsewhere you may want to navigate away from plagiarised content.