Sunday, 22 August 2010

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

One of the things that makes rationing easier (or even easy) for me is that I only eat one meal a day.

Yes, I know this is probably a huge dietary nightmare, but I've never eaten breakfast - I can't stand the thought of food first thing in the morning - and I gave up lunch, without missing it, when my thyroid died. One of the side effects of having no thyroid is the body's ability to turn any food eaten straight into fat deposits. If I ate two meals a day, I'd be gargantuan - and I was until I gave up on lunch.

This of course means that my main meals can be a bit more generous with rationed items, as they don't need to be spread over 3 meals in a day. But I'm having to reassess this policy when it comes to CJBS. His doctor is worried about Type II diabetes, and although the diet sheet he filled out for them was so good that they didn't believe it was true, they've spotted a change that must be made. He must always have breakfast and lunch.

The breakfast is easy. Porridge oats with semi-skim milk and cinnamon doesn't impact on rations. But providing a fat free, carbohydrate rich lunch is very difficult, especially when his shift work sees him rising at 4am one week, 8am the next and noon on the third. To cap that, it needs to fit in with rationing.

He came back from the unholy GP-dietician-nurse trinity clutching a big pile of leaflets, booklets and novellas given to him to help him plan a new diet. And here's where I fall out with the NHS that I otherwise love to bits.

What I need is a simple guide to what food need to go into him when. The NHS, however, has taken a more Big Brother approach. They don't supply that information. Instead, they've merged the diabetic advice with their "Healthy Eating Agenda". That would be fine, but this bit of meddlesomeness, which has included television, radio and press advertising along with leaflets through the door in an orgy of spending over the last 5 years, treats the recipient of the advice like a lard-arsed idiot.

I search in vain for a simple guide. Instead, the advice attempts to browbeat me into ceasing to be a pig. Stop eating so much chips! Eat less pies! Put down that cheeseburger, fatty! Where do you think you're going with that cake, lardo? Can you still fit through the door of Greggs, chubbs? The problem here is that CJBS, and me for that matter, would kill for chips, pies, burgers and cake. We almost never have them. The advice sheets, however, are designed to get you to reduce having them. So if I actually followed them, CJBS would be getting chips two or three times a week - a great reduction from the 7-days-a-week the leaflet assumes that diabetic Northerners are cramming down them, but a 1200% increase on what he currently gets. The same with the pies and the burgers. And as for cake, well, CJBS loves cake but I prefer to use the egg rations on something I can make that won't be be both burnt and undercooked at the same time and might possibly rise without spilling over the edges of the tin, if at all. The leaflets are throwing cake at him compared to the current level of "never".

I've therefore effectively got to guess what I should be feeding him and when. With official advice recommending that he eats vastly more fat and sugar to cut down on fat and sugar and with their idea of stopping the snacking he doesn't do by feeding his face with biscuits - biscuits! - at every opportunity, the NHS's help has been no help at all.

One thing I can do is go by instinct and by what Nella Last was making for her boorish husband during the second war. If you've never read Nella Last's War (now usually sold under the name of the TV drama it became, "Housewife, 49") then buy a copy now. Nella was a fascinating lady who took to World War II as something of a release from her dull, depression-ravaged existence until then. Tucked away in its pages are examples of how she eked out the rations to make wonderful lunches and dinners, all the time hiding from her husband that she was scraping by (like many men of the time, he both had no clue whatsoever of how shopping and cooking under rations worked and also sought to direct her shopping and cooking because he was A Man).

From her, and her kitchen garden, I see that she did a lot with roast vegetables, served hot, warm and cold. Small amounts of meat and fish could be made to go further by mixing them into the roast tomatoes and celery and other such things. The husband never noticed that he was basically eating lots of veg and pasta and very little meat. She was also very good at making stuff in a batch at the start of the week and creating smaller lunches from it over the next few days.

If she could do that, then, with my fridge and deep freeze, both things she never owned, I could do a lot more. So I've been making cold pasta salad and a version of potato bravas, locking them in tupperware and decanting a bowlful, complete with the fabrication of choice, whenever CJBS declares that it's lunchtime in his body clock zone. The pasta salad is easy: roast mixed seasonal vegetables in a medium oven for under an hour with a sprinkling of herbs, garlic and Maggi. Boil some wholewheat pasta, drain, stir the veg through the pasta and refrigerate. Make it something new with diced spam or tinned fish to keep it fresh-feeling. It keeps for about a week in the fridge.

The potato bravas is nothing like the real version. Boil new potatoes in stock. Chop an onion and some pepper. Fry those off in a tiny bit of butter or oil. Add passata, chopped tomatoes or tinned tomatoes depending on availability and points (passata is best), bring to the boil and then simmer until reduced by about 10%. Add the potatoes to the tomato mixture (or, if you've got the fat, fry off the cooked potatoes in a little butter, allow to cool and then add them) and store in the fridge. Again, it keeps about a week.

By alternating between the two and supplying bread on the side, I'm keeping up his carbs, keeping down his fat intake and not particularly bumping up my workload. He'll be sick of both after a month, I'd imagine, but until then I've think I've beaten the system. And beaten the NHS at its own game.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The shocking truth about rationing

So, what happened in the interregnum? Well, as I said in the last post, the project continues, and there's not much I can add to that. The rhythm of rationing is something you start to feel as well as think after a few months, so coming up with recipes gets ever easier. In fact, I don't think I've opened a Marguerite Patten in months - I've become very adept at just making food on the fly with what's available, and even planning the future of the leftovers in advance.

What I have done is taken Tanya's excellent advice (not on Yorkshire puddings yet, though) and headed off to the Imperial War Museum to see their exhibition on rationing in World War II.

I've always liked the IWM, both in London and the newer one in Salford in the north of England. The Salford one is the more educational-feeling of the two, sort of like being in a university lecture but with objects to look at.

The original one in London, operating from the old infamous Bedlam lunatic asylum in Lambeth, is much more for the kids - here's a spitfire, there's a V1, here's a tank, there's a cruise missile and so forth. This is in the "free" part of the museum. All state museums in the UK are free (although for how long with the current shower in charge, who knows) with special exhibitions being the only place they can charge for entry. The rationing exhibition was a chargeable thing, but that didn't stop me.

Of course, first I had to find it. Now, the worse museum in the entire world for finding things is the Victoria and Albert in Kensington. When we went there to see a Modernism exhibition, we managed to get hopelessly lost within 10 yards of the front door. The person in charge of the signage was either drunk or a psychopath (or both). We followed the signs, where provided, for the Modernism part for three quarters of an hour. At the end of that time, the signs had taken us back to the front of the museum without actually passing the exhibition at all. Later, we went to the famous V&A cafe. Or we tried to. Following the signs again, we got completely stumped at one that said:

<---  CAFE   --->

Still, it was good to have options. Eventually, we followed enough arrows to get us to the cafe. Well, to the exit to the cafe, so we had to push backwards down the tight queue of people, most of whom weren't buying food but were actually just wanting to ask the lady on the till where the promised toilets and exit were (answer: follow the signs for the cafe but don't actually go to the cafe. Helpful!)

At the IWM, some text on a beam in the roof said "Rationing exhibition - BUY YOUR TICKETS HERE". Underneath was a tank. It did not contain tickets. Upstairs was a clearly marked doorway that said "Rationing exhibition - TICKETS MUST BE SHOWN BEFORE ENTRY". Finally, there was a cafe, with a sign saying "Rationing exhibition - TICKETS HERE". Into the cafe we barrelled. Up to the till. Attempt made to buy tickets. Not sold here. Okay, but where? Follow the signs. Uh huh - that's why we're here.

Now, if they're so precious about their tickets, the easiest way to be told where they can be bought from would be to march in without them - a security guard can be relied upon to guide you smartly to the right place. So in we went, and a security guard guided us smartly to the gift shop at the exit to the exhibition.

Right. So we have two signs telling you to buy tickets here which actually mean buy them anywhere else but here; we have a sign saying that you cannot pass the sign without tickets which you must walk past to get the tickets; and we have tickets actually on sale at the exit to the exhibition you haven't yet seen. Is this just me, or is someone at the IWM just trying to play with my mind? And succeeding!

Aw, but it was worth it. An excellent, informative exhibition, well curated to be in a logical order, with everything well-spaced and given room to express itself. Nobody in costume to engage you in stilted conversation; quiet but appropriate music and the multimedia not surround by hundreds of ill-bred and unwashed children with their sticky fingers pressing every button in an attempt to get away from the sheer boredom of it all. Perfect.

Did I learn anything? Well, thanks to the research for this project, not really. I know how the system worked and I know the ways round it and the ways to eke out meagre supplies (shopping at Morrisons, you have to know this anyway, rationing or no rationing). It made me miss the possibility of growing my own vegetables, but with no garden and my inability to even keep a spider plant alive for longer than a month, I'm not missing out really.

I came away with two important bits of information. First: why do no wartime recipes contain mushrooms? Answer: because they weren't farmed at the time. People had to forage for mushrooms, and with so many being deadly, you didn't want to encourage people not in the know from picking up any old fungi. So mushrooms were left for those that already collected and cooked with mushrooms before the war.

The second thing I got from it was actually a recipe for making sticking to rations harder. The British palate has only really developed within my lifetime. Before the 1970s, people had a fixed idea of what "real" food was. And it was basically something boiled and green, something boiled but another colour and something burnt that once had been meat. And quite a lot of the burnt meat, if possible. For a change, they liked burnt fish instead, again with the boiled stuff. A salad ("cold collation") was inadequate as food, and it would still be inadequate as food, since a salad was, literally, a lettuce leaf, a beef tomato, some processed cheese and a dollop of watery mayonnaise.

All this I knew. But I got more of a shock than you can imagine. Try this: fish remained plentiful for the entire war. There was more of it than could be sold. Yet people queued for hours for the sporadic supplies. Why? Because the fish that was available was tuna. For the Great British Public, that was not fish. Fish was white and flaky and best served deep fried. They would not eat the pink and red stuff (well, salmon in tins, with vinegar, as a small treat). Something I've long thought seems now proved: snoek, the tinned fish introduced at the end of the war but rejected by the public, was not nasty and foul as is remembered. It's just like any other tinned fish. But it wasn't tinned salmon with vinegar, so it wasn't really tinned fish.

Likewise, the shops remained well stocked with ersatz food, like soya and tofu, that people would not eat. There was plenty of soft cheese and blue cheese available, usually not even on points - but people didn't touch soft cheese or blue cheese (clearly off and poisonous, respectively). There was yoghurt plentifully available, but nobody ate it, whilst craving something to put on their dessert... like yoghurt.

In typing this now, I've realised something else. In my research, I noted that the posh restaurants and the gentleman's clubs of London stayed open and well stocked throughout rationing. I wondered how this could be, and thought dark Socialistic thoughts about how rich people can get their hands on anything they want. The government came to believe this as well, putting a price cap on restaurant meals to try to make them look fairer.

But there actually wasn't unfairness. What there was was culture: the fine eateries of the big cities were cooking things that only the rich would eat. They were making things like mussels for starters with tuna steak and salad (real salad, not cold collation) and a dessert of fresh fruit in yoghurt followed by a cheese board with brie and gorgonzola - a standard(ish) meal now, but not what the vast majority would consider having for dinner.

The wartime propaganda had to start from a low base. For many, especially in the north, the prewar diet was entirely inadequate (and rickets and scurvy stalked even the lower-middle class neighbourhoods of Leeds and Manchester) and close to starvation levels. Many people actually did starve. When the war came, the previously inadequately fed were suddenly hundreds of times better fed, with all the right vitamins and minerals and price caps on the most nutritious food. But the Ministry of Food had to start from there, teaching those people how to cook such previously unheard of items like carrots and fresh peas. That job, linked to the one of getting the middle classes to replace the meat they'd always had access to with something else, had to come first. Attempting at the same time to get people to eat tuna, tofu, yoghurt and brie might have been too hard a job and was barely (whalemeat and snoek, both replacements for other foods rather than actual new ones) even tried.

And that's a shame, for British cuisine as much as anything else. It's also a shame to discover that, if you cut back on meat, eggs, cheese and fat, virtually everything else that you can still buy was available back then. That doesn't help when it comes to trying to live like it's 1943.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Highs and... meh

Ah, the joys of having a thyroid gland that doesn't work. You get free prescriptions for the levothyroxine to make a pretend thyroid and for the statins and blood-pressure reducing pills you need to for the side effects of the levothyroxine. And then there's the big red pills that I don't know quite what they are, but they undo the side effects of the blood pressure pills. But they're free too, and I'm, er, careful enough with my money to grab anything that's free with both hands.

On the downside, the thyroxine pills are not as good as having a working thyroid. With a working thyroid, your body has a nice chain of squirts of different chemicals that stimulate other squirts of chemicals that stimulate other squirts of chemicals that stimulate your thyroid. With the pills, you get a blast of thyroxine. It's not quite the same thing.

For a start, it means you have to have highs and lows. Both are terrible. The highs are like periods of mania, as if I was bipolar and on an up-swing. I can't STFU for love nor money, nor can I stop doing anything else - working and cleaning up like I'm possessed, unable to sit still, just always on the go. For the lows... well, meh. The first clue that a thyroid low is happening is my eyebrows falling out (it's such a good look, having a tiny smudge of eyebrow near the nose - and no, the bit that drops out isn't the bit between the eyebrows, that I still have to shave or pluck, lest I have one ordinary-size eyebrow in the middle of my face like a moustache that got lost in the dark).

From then on, for a week, or, like here, two bloody months, meh. I wake up tired, I plod through the day hoping that no one ever under any circumstances will ask me a question (how am I supposed to answer? I neither know the answers nor care what they should be), I go to bed early, sleep through and wake up tired. And all food tastes like nothing, so eating becomes a refuelling exercise. Yes, eating! Eating becomes dull! Cruelty, it is. Just cruelty. And I gave up editing Wikipedia, reading blogs, watching the news and doing anything else that would require me to think in anyway, because thinking... meh.

So the silence here is explained. The project continues (for me anyway; CJBS has become very relaxed in his interpretation of the rules and I've not had the oomph to protest; that will change) but the blank screen simply hasn't been able to get any words from me on it. What was I supposed to write? Do I care enough to write it? Meh.

Yesterday, I woke up and noticed for the first time the state I'd let the house get into. I thought "tomorrow's Saturday, I could buy some bleach, get my bucket and some boiling water and make the bathroom sparkle! Yes I'll do that!". At that moment, I realised something down the chain was back giving its feeble little squirt of chemicals somewhere. This morning, I'm raring to go: bleach, an array of cloths, various pungent disinfectants and scary-looking scouring pads have been purchased and this house will sparkle by tea time. This feels so very good, and I'm looking forward to getting on with it.

Please don't let this be the start of a thyroid high.