Limited food rations in Britain during World War II meant a lot of creativity in the kitchen. If you didn’t have eggs, which are essential in baking, you had to learn to use dehydrated powdered egg in your recipes. If you didn’t have milk, you have to make do with powdered milk – called household milk then.
Fortunately flour wasn’t rationed during the war, but being wasteful just wasn’t an option, so you were careful with the amounts you did have.
By the book
Victory Cookbook: Nostalgic Food and Facts From 1940-1954, by Marguerite Patten, is a compilation of three separate books about the Kitchen Front in WWII Britain. Each contains menus, cooking tips, and recipes from those years as provided by the British government to help cooks be more inventive with their meager rations.
I find these kind of historic resources fascinating because they provide a trip back in time, but also because they are still immediately applicable. Most all of the recipes in Marguerite Patten’s book are doable today. They may not be to our modern day taste, a taste, however, that is often sullied by overindulgence.
Having great material resources is good, but it can lead to wastefulness. Economics being what they are means that we are in for some particularly nasty inflation in the US, so looking back at a time when people carefully eked out meals with what they had on hand is as relevant as can be!
What did they eat?
Tooling through the recipes I find great emphasis on vegetables. They were mostly home grown, thus cheap, and un-rationed, thus available. The government didn’t ration these foods because of their immense nutritional value and so they encouraged people to eat them daily, in large portions.
Expectant mothers and children were given special supplies of oranges for Vitamin-C and cod-live-oil for Vitamin-D and essential oils. However, everyone else had to scrounge for vitamins via their vegetables.
Green, leafy vegetables were encouraged daily as well as a serving of raw vegetables. Sound familiar? This same type of advice is encouraged by current nutritional experts. More so because those raw vegetables contain enzymes that are essential for proper digestion.
Potatoes play a prominent role in the cook book. As the government material of the time said, they could be grown in England, preferably at home, and thus needed no transportation or importation – freeing up ships to transport supplies to the military forces overseas. They provided glucose and rounded out meals of small portions of meat (which was heavily rationed) and servings of vegetables.
Even pastry for desserts came to be made partially of potato mash. There was no job too big for the humble potato to complete!
For vegetables, so highly encouraged, cooks were instructed to prepare them by steam boiling. Not with the fancy steamer contraptions we have today, but with a small amount of water in the base of the kettle, just enough to boil into steam when the lid was added and thus cook the veggies.
This technique had the effect of keeping the cooked vegetables appetizing, avoiding the heavily boiled mush that was common. Also it required less cooking time and conserved fuels such as coal that were in short supply. Stoves at that time were wood, coal or oil powered, not electric or gas fed like we have today. Infrastructure wasn’t yet that advanced.
Steam boiling also kept some of the vitamin content intact. Certain vitamins are sensitive to heat and are diluted by water, thus over-cooking leads to depleted nutrient value. Minimal cooking preserved the water-soluble vitamins. Likewise, cooks were encouraged to save the cooking water for soups and other dishes – thereby consuming the rest of the precious vitamins and minerals.
This, by the way, is a fantastic tip for our lives today. Saving vegetable water doesn’t take much time and provides better nutrition. Likewise, pasta water can be used as a soup base because it contains starch and acts as a thickener.
So, go ahead, cook a little history today and standby for more on this topic soon…
– Amanda Stiver
That’s a good mix of food and history–two subjects I am interested in. Thanks for the insightful and relevant book review.
So interesting! My favorite kind of history is what I suppose is called “social history” — maybe you could tell me? — I like history as it relates to how people lived day-to-day and how what was happening culturally, politically, etc. affected that daily existence.
This book seems like it would be something I would really enjoy. Thanks for sharing your review! 🙂
Thank you for your comments! I also enjoy this type of history, I call it “quotidienne history” or “daily life history” because it is all the little things that make up how people lived (and live) their lives.
My interest in it stemmed from a youthful interest in historical costume and trips to living history museums as an elementary school student. It was easy to relate to the kitchen and the mending and the gardening because people still have to do those things!