"Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real."

Cormac McCarthy

Last updated 4 October  2019  © Julia Edwards

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When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the British government recognised that sooner or later there might be a problem feeding Britain. A lot of our food was imported, even at that time, and the government was afraid that people would begin to go hungry if the supply lines were blocked. They were right to worry - it started happening the following year, when the German U-boats began to attack ships bringing food from America.

British publicity poster © Imperial War Museum

So in December 1939, they asked two scientists from Cambridge University to do an experiment on themselves and other volunteers, measuring the effect on their health of a restricted diet. For three months, these people allowed themselves unlimited potatoes, vegetable and wholemeal bread, but only ate one egg, 450g meat, 110g fish and 110g margarine per week,  and drank one quarter of a pint of milk a day. The amounts were based on data from 1938, showing how much food Britain was actually producing.

 

Fortunately, the experiment found that the scientists' health and energy were not really affected. The only problems were that it took longer to eat enough bread and potatoes to get the necessary calories, and everyone found they farted a great deal more and produced 2.5 times as much poo as previously!  Although these side-effects weren't brilliant, at least the government now knew that Britain wouldn't starve when rationing was brought in!

In January 1940, rationing was introduced. Each person had their own ration book, which they had to take to the shops with them in order to buy their ration of certain kinds of food. In The Ring from the Ruins, Joe misunderstands, as I once did, and thinks Lucy will get the food in exchange for the coupons. Lucy explains that she still has to pay - the ration books simply stop her buying more than the family's fair share.

Rationing began with bacon, butter and sugar, with meat added soon after. If you'd like to know exactly what was rationed when, there's a useful timeline here. I referred to this several times while I was writing the book.

Ingredients (serves 8)

For the pie filling:

  • 1lb (450g) cauliflower

  • 1lb (450g) parsnips

  • 1lb (450g) carrots

  • 1lb (450g) potatoes

  • Bunch of spring onions, chopped

  • 2 teaspoons of Marmite or yeast extract

  • 1 tablespoon of rolled oats

  • Salt and pepper to taste

  • Parsley (fresh or dried)

 

For the pastry:

  • 8oz (220g) wholemeal flour

  • 4oz (110g) mashed potato

  • 3oz (80g) margarine or lard

  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder

  • a couple of large pinches of salt

  • a dash of water if needed

Method

1. Chop up the vegetables into pieces with those that take longest to cook (carrots!) cut into smaller pieces. Put in a saucepan with enough water to reach 3/4 of the way up the veg, bring to the boil, and then turn down the heat and simmer.

2. Add the Marmite and oats, season with salt and pepper, and cook until most of the water has been absorbed and the mixture is tender.

3. Put the mixture in a deep pie dish and sprinkle with fresh parsley (or mix dry  parsley into the mixture).

 

4. Make the pastry by mixing the flour with the baking powder and salt and then rubbing in the margarine.

 

5. Mix in the mashed potato to form a dough and knead (add a little water to the mixture if it's too dry). Roll out as a pie crust, and put on top of the mixture in the pie dish.

 

6. Cook in the oven at 200c for 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.

The government tried to help people to make the most of their food rations, including providing recipes and tips for ways of saving food. Lord Woolton pie was one suggestion, named after the Minister for Food in 1940. It fits perfectly with rationing: heavy on the vegetables, but with no meat or butter in it (the pastry is made with margarine but also mashed potato). The website where I found this recipe claims it's delicious, though I'm not racing to cook it for my family!

Here's a sponge cake recipe that sounds like it might work, although it would use up some of your sugar ration. People were encouraged to try using sweet vegetables such as carrots to save on sugar. Margarine was rationed from July 1940, but you did get twice as much of it as butter, and dried fruit was added to the ration list in January 1942. At least this recipe doesn't have eggs - which is unusual for a cake recipe - because with only one egg per person per week from June 1941, eggs were precious. Given that you'd have so little meat, fish or bacon to eat, you'd probably want to save your egg for one of the meat-free days.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pint of leftover tea (without milk or tea leaves)

  • 3 oz (80g) margarine

  • 3 oz (80g) sugar (or try grated carrots)

  • 3 oz (80g) sultanas

  • 10 oz wholewheat flour

  • 3-4 teaspoons of baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice

  • extra cinnamon if required

Method

 

1. Put the tea, butter, sugar and sultanas in a saucepan and heat gently until butter is melted, leave to cool.

2. Mix all the dry ingredients together, and fold into the cooled liquid. Beat until the mixture is smooth.

 

3. Put the mixture into a greased and floured 7 inch cake tin.

4. Cook in the oven at 180c for 45 minutes, or until cooked through (you can tell it's done if you slip a knife into the centre and the blade comes out clean).

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 14743)

Remember, however your recipes turn out when you cook them you ought to eat the food rather than waste it. If it really is too revolting though, you could add it to the vegetable peelings and put it in the pig bins on every street.