I remember World War 2 very vividly although I was only a child at the time and writing about it in The Girl on the Beach, meant doing some research, particularly about food rationing and that set my memory off. The conversations in the queues were often about the progress of the war, the blitz and the damage caused, the casualties, whose son had been posted missing or who had been found safe as a prisoner of war, and the miseries of travel, but more often than not it was about food and how to make the rations go round.
Much of Britain’s food before the war was imported, but what with the ships being needed for conveying troops and armaments and the menace of u-boats, this had to be severely curtailed. We had to rely more on food produced at home. Farmers were dogged by regulations about what they grew and how they grew it, and everyone was encouraged to grow vegetables. ‘Dig for Victory’ was the slogan. Flower beds were dug up, even in municipal parks, in order to grow vegetables. And pig clubs sprang up everywhere and swill buckets were left in schools and restaurants to feed them
The war was less than a month old when ration books were issued to everyone, each with the name of its owner on the front and the books had to be registered with a grocer, whose stocks were governed by the number of people registered with him. . Rationing began in January 1940, with sugar at 12ozs per week, butter 4ozs and bacon and ham 4ozs. (16ozs to the pound, a pound is not quite 500 grams, so 4ozs is roughly 125 grams) Two months later meat was rationed by price at one shilling and tenpence worth a week. (A shilling converted to 5p in 1972 but that is meaningless now) Because it was rationed by price, the cheaper cuts gave you more for your money and there were many recipes published and broadcast on the BBC to make the best use of them. Meat was followed by cheese and then preserves, margarine (2ozs a week) and cooking fat (also 2ozs). Eggs and milk were allocated rather than rationed and their supply varied. Bread was never rationed during the war, (although it was afterwards) but we ate the National Loaf which was a grey colour and was supposed to be more nutritious. As the war progressed the amounts were changed according to available supplies. Food that was not rationed was often in short supply and long queues formed the minute word went round that stocks had arrived in the shops and once the supplies of tinned fruit and vegetables were used up there were no more. Onions, most of which had previously been imported from the Channel Islands, were like gold dust and exchanged hands for exorbitant sums. Oranges, lemons and bananas were unheard of.
I remember the mother of one of my friends gave us some bread and butter (‘Scrape it on and scrape it off again.’ my mother used to say) on which she had spread something she called mock banana. It was mashed potato flavoured with banana essence and it was pretty awful. Children of five who were given bananas at the end of the war didn’t know what to do with them and often tried to eat them skin and all!
I was staying in the country with my aunt who had befriended some American airmen from the nearby base. They told her they had loads of oranges, many of them over-ripe. My aunt suggested they would make good wine if only they had the sugar. To her surprise two sacks of oranges and a sack of sugar was delivered by jeep for her to make the wine. She didn’t have a vessel large enough and so used the copper which stood in the corner of the kitchen. For weeks we had to endure the smell as it fermented. The resulting wine was bottled and the Americans came and picked them up, leaving a few for my aunt’s own use. We were going to my grandmother’s for Christmas and took a couple of bottles on the train with us, putting them with our luggage on the rack above our heads. A little while into the journey there was a loud explosion and everyone dived for cover, thinking they were being bombed. It was only when the sticky orange mess dripped down from the rack did we realise the wine had blown its cork and fear changed to merriment. It took ages to clean ourselves up when we arrived at our destination.
On another occasion while staying with my grandmother in the country, her cat brought in a rabbit she had caught. Grandma shut all the doors and endeavoured to relieve the cat of her catch. Puss was understandably loath to let it go and there resulted a chase round furniture, under the table, round chairs, behind cupboards worthy of a comedy film. The poor cat, hampered by her burden which was almost as big as she was, eventually had to drop it and we had rabbit stew for dinner. I think the cat had her share.
Rabbits were also caught at harvest time. Everyone stood round shoulder to shoulder with clubs in their hands as the reaper felled the last few rows of standing corn and the rabbit ran out. I was too squeamish and let a rabbit run out between my legs, much to my grandfather’s fury. My brother bagged one, but it was taken off him by one of the grown-ups. Again we had rabbit for dinner. We had pigeon pie in those days too, anything to stretch the meat ration. My mother, like many another housewife, became adept at making a few ounces of mince go round the family with lots of vegetables and good gravy.
I remember on one occasion my mother and her sister went to a dance at the American base and came back with a huge joint of beef. My grandfather was furious and called them Jezebels, a favourite word of his. He would have made them take it back, but Grandma was more of a realist and we had a feast the following day. I remember on one occasion when Mother was putting me to bed, I complained of being hungry. Her answer was ‘Go to sleep and forget about it.’ We were never really hungry, never starving as other people in the world were, and my complaint was really only that I felt a bit peckish.
It seems unbelievable now, when we think nothing of spreading what would have been half a week’s butter ration on a single slice of toast, or cracking two eggs into a pan for our breakfast, when in those far-off days we were lucky if we had one a week. Everything was bulked out with vegetables and we ate more than the five-a-day we are exhorted to eat nowadays. But according to the statistics we, as a nation, were far healthier. Obesity was not a problem. But I don’t think I’d want to go back to those times for all that.
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