With every passing day the way we live our lives is forever changing. The way we work, the way we travel and even our pastimes are unfathomable even 50 years ago. One thing that has never changed is the way we eat. While what we eat has certainly seen change over the years, recipes and the way we obtain ingredients is very similar to what it was centuries ago. But what about when we are faced with a war so colossal that we are forced to revert to old ways of living?
“No weapon ever invented is more deadly than hunger; it can spike guns, destroy courage, and break the will of the most resolute peoples. The finest armies in the world, courageous enough in the face of bombs or bullets, can be reduced by it to helplessness and surrender." - Ministry of Information
On the 1st of September 1939, millions around the world feared what was to come after France and Britain announced their declaration of war against Hitler’s Germany. This came only two days after Germany invaded Poland and every country surrounding those involved would come to be affected for years to come. One thing in particular that changed over this time would be the way we eat…
Prior to the Second World War, Britain imported approximately 55 million tons of food a year. The country primarily focused on using its available land on livestock and with that, the high value products that came from it (beef, dairy, wool etc.). Right up until the post war years British agriculture was incredibly inefficient, it was stuck in the past and until the war, there wasn’t a decent enough justification to alter the way we farmed. Many farms still had relatively dated farm patterns, of which were not farmed by tractors but instead heavily relied on manual labour. It is for this reason that we imported so much food; we simply could not produce low value food at an affordable price.
In the run up to the war, it became very clear that the way we lived would have to change and living on an island left us very vulnerable to being starved of our imported goods. Knowing the Nazis would attempt to blockade Britain, the government mandated that beef herds should be culled and that the land is to be converted to grain. Not all cattle were victim to culling though as dairy herds were left untouched due to children requiring milk as part of their recommended and healthy diets. These changes did make a big difference in a short space of time, by the end of 1939, the 55 million tons we imported was reduced to 12 million tons. Although that’s a preferable figure, Britain was never close to being self-sufficient. So much so that rationing in the country didn’t end until 1954, nearly an entire decade after the war ended.
Freeing land to plant food on seems good and well but when there’s an entire nation to feed in unprecedented times, it’s simply not enough. Regardless of everyone’s efforts, producing enough food to feed the masses would prove to be tricky. The world had already suffered a great loss during World War 1, and as a result would have been taught many ways to survive during wartime. During WWI governments encouraged people to plant “victory gardens”, this wouldn’t only give them more food but it also boosted morale. For those unable to fight, it gave a sense of purpose and allowed them to help in their own way. “Digging for Victory” is a phrase that would often be seen on posters to encourage people to plant food wherever they could, such as on railway edges, lawns, waste ground and ornamental gardens, with that, golf courses and sports fields were requisitioned for farming or vegetable growing. This encouragement was continued throughout WWII, on a much greater scale. By 1943, the number of allotments had doubled to 1.4 million! To put emphasis on just how big the Ministry for Agriculture’s initiative was, even the grounds in the Tower of London were made into allotments.
Something very interesting happened during the war; Britain was forced not only to adapt and evolve to survive but also to revisit past ways of living. Foraging for some during the 1930s was commonplace but after decades of mass production, building strong trade routes and perfecting the art of food preservation, foraging and eating from the land became more and more of a rarity. That was of course until the people of Britain found themselves having to ration and improvise. Much like today, people would have found the concept of foraging to be quite an odd one but it would soon once again find its place in our lives.
Rosehips were one of the most sought after and useful foraged ingredients during the war. Their high vitamin C content paired with their versatility to be used in syrup, jelly and cordials meant that not only could foraging them help people healthwise but they could also earn people a bit of money, so much as 3d (threepence) per a pound of them. Foraging didn’t only become a means of survival but it also became a hobby and interest for many. It gave people the ability to experiment with ingredients they wouldn’t necessarily have used prior to the war and a man called Ambrose Heath had a big part to play in this.
Heath is well known for his cookbooks, many of which were published on the cusp of and during the Second World War. With very traditionalist views of food and cooking, he was very vocal about his pro-seasonal cooking ways. “Good things that are out of season are but a ghost of their true selves.” While many rejoiced at the availability of out of season fruit and veg, some still believed that food grown in season always tastes better. It wasn’t until wartime that this would be realised, once again. Aside from writing cookery books, Heath could be heard on the wartime radio program “The Kitchen Front” every morning. He gave advice, mainly to housewives, on how to cook with limited ingredients. Through his parts on the radio and in his writing, one thing that’s certain is that he thought highly of nettles and dandelions.
Here’s an excerpt from Kitchen Front Recipes and Hints (1941): "A poached egg on a bed of dandelion or nettle purée covered with cheese sauce is an almost perfect meal, containing every one of the foods we are being told to eat, body-building, protective and energising."
Not only is it good for you but it will also bring a bit of inspiration to your kitchen table!
Sadly, foraging isn’t the only thing from the past that is being revisited again. War in Europe has become commonplace in our news headlines, it feels as though we celebrate victories and the end of wars, but for what reason if we continue to learn nothing from our past? The doom and gloom of day-to-day life can weigh heavily on our minds but there’s nothing stopping you (aside from the unpredictability of British weather) from going on a walk and foraging some ingredients for yourself. Wars are out of our hands and the only thing we can control is how we look at the world, so take from the past only what you wish to see tomorrow.
Did you know?
The humble carrot helped massively towards our success during the war. From curried carrots to a homemade drink called Carrolade, carrots were incredibly versatile and have a high nutritional value. To encourage the use of carrots, the Ministry of Food created Doctor Carrot who was prominently featured on the pages of recipe books, advertising campaigns in the press, cinema and on the radio.
“Isn't an hour in the garden better than an hour in the queue?"
- Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, 1941