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What were we eating during World War II (and after)?

Now, this is an interesting topic, particularly when you compare what most of Europe was eating, with the diet of those in the United States. A lot was to do with provenance but also the availability of meat, which had been a very popular foodstuff in the UK and the United States.

Any war always brings about food shortages and depending on which country you lived in scarcity can be of very different levels. People were resorting to things they may never even have thought of as nourishment, purely because they had no choice. The adaptability of the UK was incredible and the saying ‘keep calm and carry on’ certainly emanated during this period.

Food Rationally During World War II

Rationing of course came into existence, and as a youngster, I was constantly reminded of this if I said ‘do I have to eat it, I don’t like it’ for any meal that I left on my plate. I certainly learned very quickly that ‘waste not, want not’ is a very good mantra, even when food appeared more regularly. We have to remember that in the UK,  shortages occurred right into the early 1950s.

Meat was scarce in the UK, and it was only the advent of ‘land girls’ that saved the day. When men went to war, there were virtually no farm labourers and an aging population left behind – consequently, UK young women dispersed throughout the country to keep our farms going. During this time, beef was at an all-time low and when you did manage to get meat, it was often of poor quality or literally, the bi-products that once resembled a cow. Alternatively, horse meat would sometimes be on offer, despite people’s dislike for it. That goes for ‘bully beef’ as well (corned beef) supplied in tins and still available today, as well as the ubiquitous spam.

We stuck with what we were used to in its poorest fashion – cheap and hard-to-cook cuts of meat for protein. The problem here was the lack of refrigeration and my own grandmother told me that they would even eat meat that you could potentially smell a mile away. Was this an exaggeration? I don’t think so – she was a forthright lady and always meant what she said. I wouldn’t recommend it though.

I can recall, even in my early years (no, I wasn’t alive during World War II!), the constant smell of a stew in a huge pot, simmering away on the stove for hours and hours, then topped up with whatever appeared the following day…and the next and next day. I can remember the smell to this day – it wasn’t awful, it just clung to your nostrils until you couldn’t smell anything else! Years afterwards that ‘aroma’ remained, highlighted by the taint of boiled cabbage – how I hated school dinners…Nowadays, cheap cuts of meat have even made their way into top restaurants at extortionate prices, who would have thought that? Saying that, some of it can develop into an excellent flavour.

Another factor was the inability to obtain the large amount of imports that the UK had available to them, prior to 1939. The danger of using our seas far outweighed our desire for meat, around 70% of it coming from overseas. In fact, through the whole range of foodstuffs, we actually produced very little ourselves and replied on transport to bring it in.

Many cattle farmers resorted to producing more vegetables, as and when they could. Potatoes and cabbages were cheap to grow, so this was used in as many ways as possible. In the US, most meals appeared to be accompanied by some form of potato, cornmeal or oats and dishes such as ‘grits’ still remain popular, particularly in the Southern States.

Dairy products were scarce in the UK, particularly butter which people queued for with their ration coupons. It would be used as a treat here, not sure about the US to be honest. Bacon? I know that’s not dairy, but the queuing was the same, and all for one rasher, one person for one month! The smell of bacon cooking was voted No.1 aroma in the UK in a survey, closely followed by curry! We are weird.

The ’well-off’ or rich did not fare overly well. However, there was a lot of ‘back door’ trading. Merchants would capitalize in food that they knew the richer population would jump at to buy and pop by the backstairs of the kitchen to trade with the cook. To be honest, they could get their hands on more or less anything, depending on their financial status. They still had the habit of lavish entertaining when possible and if in the richer echelon. Having said that, they still opened their homes as troops quarters or even hospitals and frequently included their food necessities in their purchases.

If I appear to be making light of this topic, that’s purely for the purposes of entertaining you (hopefully). It was a serious matter. Let’s take a look at the main dietary items consumed by the UK.

An English Breakfast during WWII

Breakfast tended to be porridge with milk if available but some families would use melted lard! OMG. A special treat was toast or bread and jam (we always had jam apparently – my grandmother would make it, but so little sugar, she relied on the fruit. We had a whole area of elderberries which were prolific, but elderberry jam had no sweetness at all without sugar!

Lunch would normally be the infamous stew with potatoes and cabbage. Sometimes we would have peas, as again, there were lots of fresh peas from my neighbour. Otherwise, it would be the occasional can of processed peas. My dad had contacts with a butcher, so we would very much trade one for one on food. This was a spirit carried through most of our communities.

Dinner or supper would be the stew again, maybe with dumplings or an added parsnip or turnip, if you could spot them. A real treat was Yorkshire pudding, which we would also have for dessert, topped with treacle, which for some reason was quite cheap and lasted a long time.

Snacks – butter and sugar sandwich – oh wow! How our lips smacked over that one. If we were really lucky, we had the bread dipped in very watery milk or even some canned evaporated milk. I am talking about the 1950s here, so scarcity and affordability were still paramount in our lives.

Our tradition of Sunday lunch as we know it went by the wayside until around the 1960s. If we had one, it was chicken or sometimes cheap pork. I don’t think beef or lamb is ever featured on our menu. We were still living as they did during the war, as my father had been in the RAF as a navigator and spent 3 years in a prison camp. He then couldn’t get a job, so we remained relatively poor.

This is not meant to be a sob story, it’s a fact, but most importantly I remember my childhood full of exciting times, days when you played safely in the woods and had such fun making things out of old bits of wood or building a camp. Perhaps this insight into post-war shows how some families had it really hard, and that some are going through similar experiences now with the current war in Ukraine. Trying not to take things for granted is moral, but understandably we all find it hard. Crises such as these always bring people together as a community, growing and sharing whatever they can.

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Bev Perkins

An experienced chef, recipe developer, food writer and qualified nutritionist, Bev’s career has encompassed over 40 years. Educated in London and Paris, and with an unquenchable thirst for travelling, Bev’s passion for cooking evolved with a deep desire to learn about every cuisine in the globe, so whilst resident in Paris she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu (formerly L’Ecole Culinaire de Paris) and spent two years learning her art. She furthered her experience working in restaurants in all corners of the world from bistros to Michelin-Starred establishments and finally with her own catering company providing food to both corporate and individual clients. An experienced writer and editor, Bev is never happier than with a pen in one hand and cookery book in the other!

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