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.


Kecske said...

A previous post here prompted me to ask my Great Aunt (who was in her late teens during WW2) about mushrooms.

She said that as far as she was concerned mushrooms were for *breakfast* - particularly field mushrooms.

Michelle said...

Very interesting post - and a reminder of how stubborn we can be!