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Wartime wisdom in spades

Wartime wisdom in spades

The Ministry of Food

Imperial War Museum, London

Until January 3, 2011

Somehow we have lost sight of where our food comes from. For many people - and not just children - the relationship between a packet of sausages and those pigs snuffling around in the mud is nominal. Our estrangement from the reality of food production is such that a headteacher can be hounded from her post for trying to teach her children about the food cycle by sending a lamb to slaughter.

Self-deception on this scale was not an option for the wartime generation. They had no choice but to know where their food came from. As the U-boats were busy sinking Atlantic convoys, and 30,000 seamen lost their lives bringing food and other supplies to Blighty, reducing our reliance on these precarious supplies really was a matter of life and death.

This was a war on two fronts: rationing and increasing the amount of home-grown food. While the former was grudgingly accepted, the latter was wildly successful. By the end of the war, more than one million households kept their own chickens; 100,000 people were members of pig clubs, rearing their own porkers, and six million families grew their own vegetables.

This two-pronged approach is the subject of a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London. The Ministry of Food marks 70 years since the introduction of food rationing, charting efforts to keep the nation fed during the war.

The importance of maintaining morale, and the danger that a starving nation would capitulate, is clear in the amount of propaganda devoted to this particular cause. The "Dig for Victory" slogan is familiar, but numerous posters welcomed the "Victory Harvest", and extolled the benefits of "Potato Pete" and "Dr Carrot".

No doubt also inspired by hunger pains, the populace took the message to heart. The number of people working on the land increased during the war by 22 per cent, although not all of them were volunteers. Some 37,000 prisoners of war were handed trowels and pointed towards the potato patch.

It was also a battle of the airwaves. Radio broadcasts produced tips on gardening and nutrition, and the ministry itself produced more than 200 films to be shown in cinemas, many featuring the Minister of Food Lord Woolton, and each seen by about 20 million people.

While some asked if it was necessary to have bread as well as potatoes for tea, or provided tips on how to keep milk chilled, others showed mountains of vegetables to convince people there were no shortages.

These films also give a clue to Lord Woolton's popularity, despite being a messenger of gloom. His jaunty - and somewhat avuncular - approach made tea without tea leaves easier to swallow. Woolton Pie, with its mounds of vegetables, became a Savoy Hotel classic dish. No exhibition on wartime food supplies is complete without the obligatory reference to powdered egg, and cans of it are on display in the 1940s grocer's shop reconstructed in the exhibition. Also featured are a wartime greenhouse and a kitchen, where housewives faced another shortage: cooking utensils.

Metal was in just as short supply as food, and pots and pans were requisitioned for the war effort, a process memorably captured in a wartime poem (a Dornier, for the non-war buff, was a German plane):

My saucepans have all been surrendered,

The teapot has gone from the hob,

The colander's leaving the cabbage

For a very much different job.

So when I hear on the wireless

Of Hurricanes showing their mettle,

I see in a vision before me

A Dornier chased by my kettle.

It was not until nine years after the fighting had stopped that rationing was finally abolished. But while the attitudes inspired by wartime shortages have now well and truly worn off, the war did have one lasting effect on eating habits that is still being felt today.

The need to feed bombed-out families, factory workers and school children led to an era of communal eating. From being largely confined to the well-heeled, the habit of eating out quickly took root and by 1944 more than half the population had eaten in a restaurant.

Perhaps the most revealing of the exhibition's many facts is contained in a study by Magnus Pyke, who later popularised science on television, but was then an adviser to the Ministry of Food. He found that after six years of austerity and shortages, rationing and powdered egg, by the end of the war the indicators of nutritional well-being had actually improved. Food for thought.


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