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SOCIAL HISTORY, nostalgia and curiosity are all wrapped in my recommending a cookbook with a particularly narrow focus: recipes for today taken from the context of World War II Britain.
Marguerite Patten’s collection resonates, though only a few of us can recall rationing of food and other commodities. (SiriusXM’s Radio Classics occasionally make reference to wartime coupon books, taking kitchen fat to butchers in exchange for 4¢/lb. and other war-effort practices.)
Britain was especially challenged in that Hitler had plans of starving the people into submission. Britain’s rationing of food and fuel began in 1939.
By contrast, it wasn’t until May 4, 1942, that the U.S. Office of Price Administration distributed War Ration Book Number One.
As an aside, automobile enthusiasts today can empathize with restrictions of speed (35 mph throughout the U.S.) and of tires (any more than five per driver were confiscated). The critical thing in the U.S. was rubber, not gasoline. Its first level of priority rationing (an A-card) got a U.S. driver permission to buy 3 to 4 gallons of gasoline per week.
Car ownership was much less common in Britain than in the U.S., but drivers there had petrol rationing beginning in September 1939. From 1942 until June 1 1945, the private allotment was zero, petrol available only to emergency services, bus companies and farmers.
In addition, there was a points system allowing monthly expenditure on a single can of meat or fish, 2 lb. of dried fruit or 8 lb. of split peas. Welfare Clinics also gave priorities in milk, concentrated orange juice and cod liver oil to expectant and nursing mothers, children and invalids.
The Ministry of Food offered information for what came to be known as the Kitchen Front. BBC had daily Kitchen Front broadcasts and, in fact, stores like Harrods had Advice Bureaus with daily demonstrations. Author Marguerite Patten took part in this, and We’ll Eat Again contains many of her recipes from the era.
Bangers, Brit for sausages, had their origin in an earlier food shortage. During World War I, butchers supplemented their sausages with water and grain, principally oatmeal. The pop and hiss during cooking gave the sausages their name.
Patten cites three reasons for eating plenty of oatmeal. First, for fitness. Second, because it was home-produced. And, third, because it could be added “to almost every kind of dish to make it go further and increase its food value.”
Even today, sausages preferred by the British public can run afoul of European Union regulations that limit “filler.”
Of other staples, Patten asks, “Why is a potato like a lump of sugar?” Answer: Because the digestive system turns both “into exactly the same thing—glucose—fuel which your body burns to give you energy and warmth.”
I had heard of Bubble and Squeak (potatoes, cabbage and any leftover veggies). Like Bangers, it gets its name from the sound of its cooking.
Patten introduced me to Champ, an Irish dish along similar themes. An accompanying Song of Potato Pete justifies this tuber’s popularity, if, indeed, any was required.
Other chapters of We’ll Eat Again offer recipes, history and folklore of Soups, Puddings, Snacks & Supper Dishes, Cakes & Baking and Preserving. Chapters on Making Do and After the War remind us that cessation of hostilities didn’t solve Britain’s nutritional challenges.
Good, honest fare has always been its forte, even under the most trying of conditions. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014