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The kitchen front: how rationing changed the British diet forever

The kitchen front: how rationing changed the British diet forever

by Hugh Thomas 19 June 2018

Hugh Thomas takes a look at some of the UK’s most iconic foods and how the introduction of rationing helped shape their trajectory.

When a country is at war, people’s lives are shaken up in ways we can, in these modern times, only imagine. Not just in terms of loss, but their whole day-to-day. Adapting to these circumstances has consequences for future generations, incredibly nuanced as they may seem. But can those consequences be embraced? Can what’s experienced during wartime have a positive effect on the future? The future of what we do, the way we live, the things we identify with? When food is the medium, then maybe.

During the mid-twentieth century, British food culture changed forever. German submarines patrolling The Channel, North Sea, and Atlantic torpedoed ships supplying the UK – cheese, seventy percent of which in Britain imported, almost vanished from shop shelves. Wheat, which to a large extent came from the Americas, was made scarce. Supplying anything by sea became impossible.

When food rationing kicked in during January 1940, access to sugar, butter, eggs, jam, sausages and bacon – to name a few – dwindled. A home cook who wanted to live as close to normality as possible had to think resourcefully. You can’t have tea without cake, and you can’t have cake without eggs and sugar, so what do you do? Your toast’s a bit dry, your weekly allowance of 57g of butter has long gone, and shop-bought jam is, if you’re lucky, a novelty. What are your options?

You see why eating for pleasure was a struggle. Those living at the time, especially in the cities, grinned and bared it. They made do, then got used to what they had. It’s largely why Britain is where Britain is, with a food culture that (reputedly or by fact) still reflects how mundane food used to be. Take a look in your fridge or pantry now and, from that cheese to this family-favourite pudding, the after-effects of a rationed country, long after the fact, are right there.

Cheddar

To the point of almost not existing, British cheese culture suffered during and quite long after World War Two. The government, which virtually jumped into the driver’s seat of British food production, decreed that only cheddar would be bought and sold to the public, as it kept well and was easy to transport. Not only that – for the sake of national pride, parliament thought it essential the variety had British origins (not French and, definitely, not German or Austrian). Britain thus became a nation of one cheese, and if you were a cheese producer not making ‘Government Cheddar’ (as it was known), you’d simply go bust. Although it’s something the UK’s been steadily breaking free of in the past decade or so, the ubiquity of cheddar and the belief it is the ‘go-to’ cheese has stuck with many Brits ever since.

Fruit crumble

Fat, flour, sugar ­– the constituents of a good sweet pastry were comparatively hard to come by in rationed Britain. But what is Britain without pie, or at least an approximation of it? And so, along came the crumble, now a legend of the British home kitchen, but then little more than an economical way of using British indigenous fruit (the apple being the most popular choice) with the small amounts of sugar, flour, and butter you could get your hands on.

Jam

The art of preserving is ancient, but war placed a new reliance on it. According to propaganda, you could ‘help win the war’ by not being wasteful. Meanwhile, supplies of fresh fruit were restricted. Later in the war jam was rationed too – people would forage for fruit in hedgerows, or save what they had by cooking it down with sugar before storing in a jar. Maybe that’s why preserves are synonymous with the generation ­of the time (those memories of savouring mum’s stovetop marmalade don’t simply disappear) and maybe that’s why their popularity is dwindling, despite the renaissance pickling and fermenting is currently enjoying.

Tinned food

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Originally, tinned food was designed to conveniently sustain large armies. Now it’s in every kitchen cupboard in the UK. It’s telling that, during the Napoleonic wars, a captain of the French fleet noted how the English kept vast supplies of tinned food in their navy depots, while the French treated them as luxurious novelties only to be bought in the large French sea ports.

After the tin was introduced, it took a while – about a hundred years ­– for it to be accepted into the domestic kitchen. Eventually, big manufacturers saw it as an ideal way to get their produce, whatever its origin or quality, to any part of the world. Still, housewives were nervous that a tin’s contents, blocky and gelatinous as they were, didn’t resemble anything they’d proudly put on the dinner table. It wasn’t until the mobilisation of the masses – in other words, worldwide conflict – which put tinned food in the hands of anyone and everyone, regardless of whether they asked for it. Now, it’s the preferred vessel for Britain’s imported tuna, baked beans and peaches.

Carrot cake

No one’s certain when carrot cake first came about, though Britain has used carrot as an alternative sweetener for centuries. The recipe came back to the fore when almost all sugar dropped out of the supply chain during World War Two. Clearly, it stayed in the home baker’s repertoire, becoming a national favourite. ‘Carrot biscuits’ were also made during wartime, though Brits quickly forgot about them as rationing finished. Probably a good thing too.

In 1954, food rationing ended for good – but its effects are seemingly infinite. A part of Britain’s food identity is defined by what Britons cooked and ate (or didn’t cook and didn’t eat) as a result of rationing. At best, limited access to food made us think more creatively in the kitchen, though it also stimulated a new penchant for quick and easy pre-packaged meals. Can austerity be delicious? Feel free to cut me a slice of that carrot cake, but you can keep the beans in their tin.

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