I don’t have to tell you that we’re in the thick of the holiday party season. Fun, frolic, and for some, a fitness wrecker (Not that I’m complaining, but suffice it to say, I’m stepping up my workouts just in case.). Imagine, though, if you couldn’t get as much food as you wanted when you wanted it, if you could get it at all? And what do you do with what you can find, especially if it’s something you would ordinarily pass on? Those who lived through World War Two know the answers to these questions very well, and during that time they got plenty of tips for coping with unusual conditions. One such guru was British home economist Marguerite Patten, who compiled her wartime and postwar recipes in Victory Cookbook: Nostalgic Food and Facts From 1940-1954.
I first became acquainted with Marguerite Patten when I saw the PBS series, The 1940s House. If you haven’t seen it (and you can find a copy), I highly recommend it. A house outside of London was retrofitted as it would have been in the Second World War, and the Hymers family was chosen to live there for nine weeks, complete with rationing, mock air raids, and volunteer work. Mrs. Patten met the Hymers at the house when they arrived there and got them started on what they would have to do, providing some much-needed perspective on the differences between the actual war and the project. About a month into it, she showed up for tea bearing honey and tomatoes.
The Hymers women were rather nervous about her coming for tea, and with good reason–Marguerite Patten was a pretty famous lady. While she liked to refer to herself as a home economist, cooking was her primary focus, and she hosted a BBC show called Kitchen Front during the war, giving out ideas and recipes to maximize what foods were available. Mrs. Patten also published 172 cookbooks during her lifetime and contributed to magazines and newspapers. Once the war was over, she did in-store demonstrations and was the face of one of the first television cooking programs in Britain. Additionally, Mrs. Patten did product pitches, such as this one for a new pressure cooker. As far as culinary philosophies go, I hesitate to compare her to anyone because Mrs. Patten was a pioneer in her own right. Julia Child would probably be the closest one, though, except that Mrs. Patten preceded her by thirty years. Among other similarities, both women encouraged people to make substitutions for ingredients when necessary and to bring a good attitude into their cooking.
Every country had some form of rationing during the war, but of the non-occupied nations, Britain’s shortages were the most severe. This was mainly due to the fact that a large percentage of their foods, such as onions, sugar, and tea were imported. Rations weren’t generous, either. For instance, one week’s allotment for an adult could include a half-cup of bacon and ham, sixpence-worth of meat, a quarter-cup each of cheese, tea, and butter, around a quart of milk, one cup of sugar, and one shell egg a week. Kids, the elderly, and pregnant women were given slightly more, plus a juice ration. Not every food was limited, however, and Victory Gardens eased the deficiency some, but British women still had to get creative. Dried eggs stood in for fresh, Spam was a familiar sight, and saccharine tablets replaced or bulked up the sugar content in desserts.
This is where Mrs. Patten came in, and her advice couldn’t have been more timely. Victory Cookbook is three volumes in one: We’ll Eat Again, The Victory Cookbook, and Post-war Kitchen. We’ll Eat Again is full of recipes that were used during the war. They featured the new staples–oats and potatoes–and these ingredients go where oats and potatoes ordinarily don’t. Mrs. Patten had recipes for oatmeal stuffing and oatmeal sausage. There was oatmeal soup, oatmeal mince, oatmeal flour, and oatmeal pastry. Oats could be used in breading, too. Potatoes could be found in pastry, not to mention in the usual casseroles and potato cakes, along with a potato-carrot pancake. Speaking of carrots, Mrs. Patten developed carrot cookies and carrot marmalade, as citrus fruit was practically non-existent in wartime Britain. There’s a big emphasis on using up everything as much as possible–more than a few recipes call for stale bread or other ingredients that would usually be thrown out.
Frequently seen in We’ll Eat Again is the word, “mock.” Among them are mock cream (made with margarine and corn powder), mock crab (made with eggs and cheese), mock duck (made with sausage and apple), mock goose (made with potatoes), and mock oyster stew (made with leeks and fish trimmings). There are also several sneaky food hacks, such as Mrs. Patten’s recipe for honey made with boiled parsley. I’ve never tried making it, but I’ve heard parsley honey is very convincingly like the real thing. Other than that, the book is full of old British standbys, like toad-in-the-hole and corned beef hash, albeit with less meat and more vegetables.
The second book, The Victory Cookbook, is simply a compendium of party recipes for shindigs of all styles. After six years of war, Brits were more than ready to celebrate VE Day, and it didn’t matter if you were a child, working in a factory, in the Armed Forces, or just a plain old person on the street–Mrs. Patten had the perfect menu for your V-Day celebration.
These parties must have been truly memorable, not only because of the war ending in Europe, but because Mrs. Patten’s food looks festive and rich in this section. Even though rationing was as tight as ever, people pooled their coupons so they could celebrate with a great big feast.
And feast they did. Mrs. Patten gave them recipes for such delicacies as beetroot fricassee, fillets of lamb, deviled pilchards, a Christmas chocolate log, and Patriotic Pudding. There are tons of recipes from just about every nation in the world, too, like Shrimp with Lime and Coconut from Singapore, pavlova from Russia, and a Czechoslovakian potato soup called kulajda. It’s all mouth-watering, it really is. The only recipe I made a face at was the chicken Maryland in the American section. I’ve made this dish many times, and I have never seen a recipe for it that had bananas but no gravy. Sorry, but ick. Maybe it seemed more exotic that way to the Brits, who knows.
Post-war Kitchen reflects the changes in Britain’s eating habits as shortages continued into the early nineteen-fifties and then went away completely. In the post-war period, rationing became a bit more stringent in that some foods that were never rationed during wartime, like bread, became metered out. Food also got weirder, as snoek (!) and whale (!!!) suddenly were on the menu. Mrs. Patten was always very matter-of-fact about culinary limitations, but she was no fan of whale meat because it smelled very strongly of fish and stale oil. She did include a couple of recipes using it, though–hamburgers and Hungarian goulash. Heh. All the paprika in the world can’t hide that taste.
Much less loathsome was pigeon. Immediately following the war there was a worldwide grain shortage, which was made worse in Britain due to pigeons noshing on it. The Brits got their revenge by eating the little thieves, and Mrs. Patten was asked by farmers to come up with pigeon recipes. The one featured in Victory looks delectable: butterfly and debone the pigeon, spread sausage meat on the cut side, coat with breadcrumbs and egg, and fry. Hmmm, I wonder if this method would work using game hens.
Not everything was weird and unusual after the war, though. Some of it was just unfamiliar. Mrs. Patten was delighted to introduce new-to-the-UK foods such as bell peppers and eggplant, which were (and are) unusual in traditional English cuisine, and new cooking methods (read: a lot less boiling and roasting). Fish sticks were big during this time, as more households began to use refrigeration. Menus also took on a much more international flair. I found quenelles, steak au poivre, apricot and lemon flan, and chicken terrapin. Yum, yum. As rationing was finally phased out in 1954, food became even more fancy: Mrs. Patten published recipes for puff pastry and lobster cutlets, both of which would still be rather decadent today. People frequently asked her for chocolate icing recipes, as sugar came off restriction, and the ones she includes in Post-war Kitchen look simple but fantastic.
Of course, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in June of 1953 was a colossal event, and rationing was temporarily relaxed so that the nation could party in style. Many Brits had buffets at lunchtime on that day, and more than a few of them probably served Mrs. Patten’s salmon dip and Coronation Chicken. Britain was hopeful and happy about their new queen, and they looked forward to the “new Elizabethan age.”
Marguerite Patten did a major service to the public with her cheerful, practical advice and innovative, nourishing recipes. Both the home front and the fighting forces were helped immensely by her efforts during the war and afterwards, and Victory Cookbook is a fine chronicle of the early years of her career. I liked that in addition to the recipes, all three sections of Victory Cookbook had lots of sidebars with facts about the war, advertisements, and cooking and nutrition advice. The entire volume is not only thoroughly enjoyable, but it’s got me wanting to try some of the recipes once the holiday hubbub has died down.
And with that, it’s time for vacay. Gonna read, play The Sims and my digital piano, watch movies, and do all that fun holiday stuff. Come January 16th, I’ll be back with a review of My Man Godfrey for Crystal and Laura’s Carole Lombard Blogathon, and as anyone who’s familiar with Lombard can guess, this will be a fun one. If you would like to participate, head on over to In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Until then, have a merry Christmas (Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc.), and a happy New Year, friends. See you in January…