OK, if you’re thinking we’ve been here before, you’d sort of be right. It’s World War Two-themed and it centers around food and family. Heck, I even did a review of a Marguerite Patten cookbook three years ago that had this exact title, sans the “Reading Rarity” part. Still, there are a few differences here, the main one being instead of Marguerite Patten and her cheery, robust cooking style, we have Lord Woolton with his more utilitarian approach. During the fourteen-year rationing period, the Ministry of Food issued booklets to help Brits make the most of the shortages, and these were compiled into Eating For Victory: Healthy Home Front Cooking On War Rations.
So who was Woolton and why was he giving advice to British housewives? Lord Woolton, whose real name was Frederick James Marquis, was originally an executive in a department store, was knighted in 1935 and made a Baron in 1939. When he acquired his title, he took the name of Woolton after a town he had lived in. According to the Royal Statistics Society, a woman two doors down from Marquis had died of starvation during his time there, and he was appalled that it could happen in a modern nation like Britain.
To the nation he was known as “Uncle Fred,” and his appointment was a sound move on then-Prime Minister Chamberlain’s part. Marquis already had a good rapport with the public and he was used to making deals. As Minister, he didn’t just coach Britain on stretching the rations; he made sure the rations were there and everyone had access to adequate nutrition. Marquis would also take to the radio now and then to gently encourage the public to be resourceful and not to waste food.
There’s only one slight catch to this idea of “war rations” in Eating For Victory: A lot of these booklets were reissues from immediately after the war or later, so “wartime” is often a courtesy descriptor. However, the pamphlets being reprints of reprints is also a no-brainer, because rationing in Britain lasted fourteen years. It’s only natural that the Ministry would have to repeat the information it was giving to the public.
Anyway, during the rationing period, the public had to be sold on using alternative goods for products they were accustomed to having in abundance; namely powdered milk and dried eggs. Powdered milk is a strange substance. Ever had it? It looks like milk, it tastes like milk…sorta, but even the fullest of full-fat powdered milk is not nearly as creamy as its fresh counterpart. Still, it’s palatable.
Powdered eggs, not so much. Many families raised chickens, but this wouldn’t have been an option for everyone, so powdered eggs were the standby. It took two tablespoons of powder to one tablespoon of water to rehydrate the equivalent of one egg, and then they were to be beaten as usual. In one of their pamphlets, the Ministry tried passing them off as being just as good as fresh, but families found scrambled or fried powdered eggs to be tasteless and rubbery. For baked goods, however, they were fine. They were just mixed in with the dry ingredients with the necessary amount of water added to the wet ones.
Of course, recipes made up the majority of the subject matter in the Ministry pamphlets, and they cover every possible type of meal and every type of menu. Some of the foods are quick-cooking, and others are the classic low-and-slow types. It’s all very British–the vegetables are simple, such as turnips, carrots, mushrooms, and potatoes. The spices are very straightforward as well, usually salt and small amounts of pepper, plus many of the recipes call for pinches of nonspecified herbs. Oftentimes, and maybe any Brits reading this can tell me if this is still the case in traditional English cookery, flavor came from the vegetables themselves.
Where the biggest changes had to be made was in the amounts of meat people could eat on a regular basis. Brits were used to having their steak and kidney pies, their hearty Scotch broth, and their Toad-in-the-Hole. During the war, meatless versions were devised for these and many other dishes, and sometimes, the meat was just left out. Woolton pie, for instance, seemed to be a chicken pie without the chicken. Cheese was also used frequently as a protein source, which means Welsh rabbit would have been a thing, and a tasty one at that.
When meat could be had, cooks did whatever they could to stretch the ration. A lamb hot pot, for instance, might contain only four lamb chops, and anyone who’s had lamb knows that’s not much meat. Some housewives would use leftover bread or add pearl barley as a filler in stews. Not every meat was rationed, though–chicken and fish didn’t require any coupons, and none of the booklets mention it, but there was always the old reliable Spam (Margaret Thatcher used to enjoy hers on fresh salad greens, in case anyone was wondering.).
It wasn’t only the limited quantities of meat, but the types, and cheap cuts were the most common. As such, the leaflets contain numerous recipes using moist heat. Stewing and braising were huge in wartime Britain.
Just as in America, the Brits grew their own vegetables in Victory Gardens. Naturally this meant they would have more than they could use in a reasonable amount of time, so the Ministry released pamphlets on canning. Tomatoes were such a precious commodity that they got their own leaflet. They could be brined, stored in their own juice, or pulped, and the Ministry advised eating them straight from the jar to get the most vitamins.
More change to the British diet came with the addition of fresh green vegetables and salads to meals, so salads and veg got their own pamphlets as well. Unfortunately, vegetables, especially green ones in that time, were cooked way too long–the Ministry advised boiling them for ten to fifteen minutes, which would have turned them pretty mushy. This is OK for cabbage and raddichio, but leafy greens sure don’t need to be cooked that long.
Another major category is dessert, because what’s better for wartime morale than a sweet or two? Especially considering how tiny the sugar ration could be? The Ministry leaflets feature tons of pudding recipes, not only for steamed puddings but also cakes and pies, most containing minimal amounts of sweetener, and some not calling for any eggs.
Fat was another commodity. Just as in America, cooking fats were strained, cleaned, and reused, and even fats from savory dishes could be repurposed for desserts or even as a sandwich spread. Other tips the Ministry gave were how to stretch one’s margarine ration; among other measures, margarine could be mixed with a slight amount of potato to make it go farther, Not even the papers the butter and cheese came in were wasted, because they could be used to grease pans for casseroles or desserts.
What effect did all this economy and innovation have on the British people? They loved it. Rationing was really popular among the Brits because it meant everyone was eating better and there was enough to go around.
Once rationing was over, though, not all the newfound habits stuck. Woolton pie, for one, went the way of the dodo, as did green salad, although the latter seems to be making a comeback. Kinda. My youngest niece recently took a trip to London, and she said salad just wasn’t a thing, so maybe it’s catching on faster in some places than in others.
Food is, of course, a great morale booster. In wartime Britain, it was considered a weapon, and making the most of rations helped those on the home front feel as if they were doing something concrete to help win the war. Eating For Victory is a fascinating snapshot of how rationing was handled by the government and what everyday cooking in spite of shortages would have been like. It’s all delectable and the advice still holds up today.
My entry for Crystal’s Lauren Bacall Blogathon is on its way. Thanks for reading, everyone, and hope to see you tomorrow…
Norman, Jill. Eating For Victory: Healthy Home Front Cooking On War Rations. London: Michael O’Mara Books, Limited. 2007.