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Whale meat, carrot jam and Woolton Pie disgusted the entire nation

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, World War 2 on Wednesday, 30 May 2012

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This edited article about the British diet during the Second World War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 714 published on 20 September 1975.

The banana after WW2, picture, image, illustration

Many people nowadays can still remember the surprise and shock of seeing their first banana after the Second World War when they were children, by Pat Nicolle

Of course, it was not as bad as being bombed. And it was being perpetrated on the public by its own side, or, more exactly, by the Ministry of Food, usually the housewife’s friend. The back-room boys there had even come up with a jolly jingle to soften everyone up:

When fisher-folk are brave enough
To face mines and the foe for you,
You surely can be bold enough
To try fish of a kind that’s new.

So the people of Britain tried it, “it” being whale meat, which was alleged to be as tasty as steak. Not that many people could remember that particular taste by the middle of the Second World War.

Alas, the results were terrible. At a time when Britons would eat nearly anything that was put on their plates, slabs of this stuff were actually refused in countless homes, and in hotels were sent back to the cook, often accompanied by messages reflecting on his personal integrity.

Shuddering cries of “Frightful!”, “Revolting!” and “Tastes like a lump of cod liver oil!” rent the air, along with much ruder expressions. Even dogs and cats are alleged to have turned their noses up at the stuff, though we do not believe that for a moment. Not until just after the war, when food was in even shorter supply for a time, did anyone try and convert the British palate to the whale again, with the same unhappy result.

Not that the Ministry did too badly as a rule. Unlike the First World War, when the rationing system was often chaotic and unfair, in the Second it was so well organised that, despite desperate shortages and the disappearance of nearly all luxuries, many ate better than they did in the Depression days of the “hungry ’30s.”

Rationing did not start at once when war broke out in 1939, but early in 1940, when the first ration books were issued. And not for another six months did shortages begin to bite, as a terrifying amount of shipping was being sunk by German U-Boats, and the best food – rightly – went to the Armed Forces.

At the end of 1941, the Ministry of Food started the points system, first only on tinned items, then on many other things not covered by the ordinary ration book. It meant that everyone got a fair share for their 20 points, and some items varied in points value depending on shortages or the season. For instance, if the ever-popular baked beans started running short, their points value was raised until supplies were back to normal. And many things returned to the shops that had vanished.

Two classic foods on points, remembered vividly by everyone over 40, came from America. One was tinned sausage meat, with plenty of fat on top as a bonus for cooking; the other was tinned ham with a certain spicy taste to it, the immortal Spam.

Ordinary sausages are recalled equally vividly, for they were in reality anything but ordinary because they had so much bread in them, especially at each end. They were not rationed. Bananas did not have to be because they vanished so completely that if a child was given one by an overseas visitor, he was liable to start tucking in to the skin. Lemons, too, were things of the past. Vegetables were not rationed, but some almost disappeared. Getting an onion was the equivalent of a win on the football pools. Oranges were sometimes issued to children and expectant mothers, and, again, some children are alleged to have eaten the peel.

Some basic items: cheese only an ounce a week, then two ounces; four ounces (later-five) of margarine; two ounces of butter; sugar, sometimes as little as eight ounces a month, though there were bonuses at Christmas and in the jam-making season. Tea was a mere two ounces a week and meat was severely rationed, though the amount varied, fish remaining unrationed, but often difficult to get.

Dried eggs helped the near disappearance of eggs caused by the slaughter of hens to save their food. A packet of dried eggs worked out at 12 eggs a month, but soon many people, even in the most respectable suburban back gardens, were keeping their own hens.

Less liked was the dried milk which almost destroyed the taste of tea and was only really popular for cooking. Subsidised “British Restaurants” opened, providing cheap, wholesome and boring meals, while “posh” restaurants were only allowed to serve five shilling-(25p) meals, making their profit by charging the earth for drinks and the honour of sitting at the tables.

The marvellous thing was that the state of the nation’s health improved because prices were not high and everyone had a reasonably balanced, if simple, diet. Children’s teeth benefited from the low sweet ration, only eight ounces a month for much of the war. Though you will not get many of today’s grown-ups to admit it, many who were children then ate their entire ration on the first day of each rationing period. Playgrounds on such gala days were market places where the few children who did not like sweets and chocolates made small fortunes by selling their rations.

Bread was grey in colour and made from wholemeal flour; it had even the popular Minster of Food, Lord Woolton, admitting later that it was “nasty, dark, coarse” and indigestible. The famous Woolton Pie was named after him, which consisted of potatoes, turnips, parsnips and carrots, the whole covered with a white sauce and pastry. It was not loved, but was made bearable if, and it was a big IF, some sort of sauce could be got to make it more palatable.

Many people grew their own vegetables in back gardens or allotments. You did not see many flower gardens in the war, when “The Kitchen Front” was so important. Of course, as viewers of Dad’s Army will know, there was a considerable Black Market, which included food, for those who were willing to pay more, and many shopkeepers kept nice things “under the counter” for regular customers. But, in fact, the Black Market was to reach its height after the war, when rationing continued until the early 1950s and everyone was far more fed up with it than during the war. Even bread was rationed after the war because of a world wheat shortage, and a strange fish called “snoek” was introduced on points to make up for the shortage of sardines.

Apparently the snoek, a word loved by radio comics, was a barracuda type fish which lived off the coast of Africa. The British public rebelled at the nasty taste of it and down and down went the price of a tin until suddenly it vanished altogether. In 1951, strange tins of cat food appeared in Britain with no brand name. Snoek had returned.

But back to the war and Lord Woolton’s finest hour. He had no trouble getting everyone to eat potatoes, though a character called Potato Pete was invented to help things along. But carrots were not going too well, no one really believing that they contained some sugar. Carrot flan did not catch on, and as for carrot marmalade, it was even worse than most of the vegetable jams recommended to the public. Apart from cabbages and brussel sprouts, nearly every vegetable was turned into “jam” at one time or another.

With diabolical cunning, the Ministry came up with the answer to the carrot problem, craftily spreading the rumour that carrots, taken in good quantities, enabled the lucky consumer to see better in the dark. Apart from the intrinsic value of such a bonus, as there was a strict black-out through the war, this was clearly a good thing. But the clever Ministry fellows put it about that “Cat’s eyes” Cunningham and other top night-fighter pilots owed their astonishing success to their daily intake of carrots. Actually, bravery apart, it was because their planes carried radar.

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