Bacon and Ham: 4 oz (100g)
Meat: (In 1940: 1 shilling) in today’s monetary system, around £4
Butter: 2 oz (50g)
Cheese: 2 oz (50g)
Margarine: 4 oz (100g)
Cooking Fat (lard): 4 oz (100g)
Milk: 3 pints
Sugar: 8 oz (200g)
Preserves: 2 oz (50g)
Tea: 2 oz (50g)
Sweets: 3 oz (75g)
Note: The conversions are approximate estimates.
No, this isn’t an incredibly finicky and frugal shopping list. This is an average week’s worth of rationed food for one British person during the Second World War. Bread, vegetables, fish, and fruits weren’t rationed, however, you had to rely upon availability. You couldn’t just buy a bag of oranges and a couple of onions whenever you wanted them. Food from abroad was not easily imported, and, since two-thirds of the nation’s food consumption relied on imports, it was ‘goodbye’ to bananas, and ‘so long’ to nectarines.
What you couldn’t grow yourself you relied upon your greengrocer’s for, which, unfortunately, was never in a constant steady supply. A tough 14 years was ahead for the British Nation. From between 1940 and 1954 various food items were limited. Yes, rationing went on until well after the war had ended, and even thereafter certain food items weren’t always available. Pictures often speak louder than words, and since the pitiful amount of food can only be comprehended visually, the title picture pretty much sums up what an average person had for one week:
At this point you may be asking yourself ‘why would you want to try this out?’ Well, in late May this year, I travelled to Belgium on a tour of the battlefields from Ypres to Picardy, otherwise known as the Western Front during the First World War. The trip was an all-inclusive holiday, meaning food and drink were all paid for, and that is universally understood as British people gorging themselves on food they wouldn’t usually eat in a quantity they shouldn’t really be consuming.
One evening I found myself clearing a plate of grilled steak in peppercorn sauce with various vegetables, and suddenly realising I had eaten the whole thing without appreciating the fact that a. an animal had died, and I was eating a piece of it, and I thought nothing of it, and b. whilst I was eating what I wanted, and when I wanted it, in other words, living an easy life, we were touring a place where men were on the front line being shot at and killed.
The juxtaposition was mortifying. Historic battlefields for all-inclusive tourist destinations, with people such as myself – someone who likes to think of herself as considerate – indulging in it all. I made the decision then to start to appreciate things more, starting with the food I eat. I know it’s a different war, however, whilst there was rationing in the First World War, it wasn’t regulated and planned as well as during the Second World War, often with citizens going without food whilst others continued consuming the same amounts as ever.
As soon as I got home I did some research, figured out what and how much I could buy, and made my way to the supermarket. I bought around two weeks’ worth of food, and, other than buying more bread, vegetables and fruit, during the upcoming two weeks, I spent around £20 for that one shop, less than what I would usually spend on food for just a weekly shop. I measured it all out precisely for the first week, fitting my meagre two thin rashers of bacon into a tiny Tupperware container. In addition to the rations, one person had 16 points a month to spend on other rare items, such as biscuits and tinned food. I bought a tin of spam, and was horrified to learn I had used up all of my points for the whole two weeks on that one item. I received mixed reactions from friends, flatmates, and family; some people called me mad, or raised an eyebrow in judgemental astonishment. Even when I explained the various reasons for doing this they still didn’t understand.
So, looking at my rather pathetic portions of food I asked myself what to cook for dinner tonight. To make my rations go further I decided not to eat lunch, so I could use more food to add to the evening meal. I made a lamb casserole with one of the lamb cutlets I had bought as part of the meat ration, with potatoes mushrooms, and carrots. I had to be frugal with seasoning, however salt wasn’t rationed, and I realised I couldn’t add gravy granules, so I made a stock with the bone of the cutlet and vegetable peelings. It wasn’t the best meal – it was watery and lacked flavour – but it was palatable.
For the first few days I was miserable. Without the caffeine from my fizzy drinks and the usual three to five cups of coffee per day, I had a two-day headache and felt incredibly run-down. I was constantly tired, and performed poorly on my runs, having to stop more frequently from exhaustion. Something was wrong; I was going about it the wrong way it seemed. But then, after one more day, I began feeling fine. More than fine. I seemed to have more energy than ever before, I woke up earlier, slept sounder, and, in general, felt happier.
I found myself getting less stressed, less cross, and, as a result, day-to-day life was easier. To add to this, I never felt hungry. I craved, of course (what woman doesn’t?), and felt the usual hunger pangs when it came to dinnertime, but, unlike before, where I could easily eat a whole box of chocolates by myself, the idea no longer appealed to me in the way it used to. My body had been used to high sugar levels and large amounts of caffeine, it had been given a shock from going cold turkey, and then had become used to a normal, healthy diet. I did some research, and spoke to my grandma, who was a Land Girl during the Second World War, and learnt that post-rationing the British were healthier than before the war broke out, healthier than ever before, in fact.
Within one week my skin, which beforehand was susceptible to breakouts, had cleared entirely. People began commenting on how I now had a glow, and, in the centre of Liverpool a woman I’d never met wanted to know how I looked after my skin. I told her: ‘my diet!’ We spend so much money on miracle creams that promise to give us a youthful glow, or help diminish spots and imperfections, when really, all you need to do is cut down on the high sugar and fat diet, and eat sensibly. There isn’t a miraculous cream for having great skin, if there was there’d only be one, and we’d all be using it. The answer is nutrition, and it starts with what you consume.
I had, by this stage, diversified the meals I cooked. I had learnt to experiment with what I had, making pastry out of potatoes, and cake mix out of bread, butter, and cocoa powder. I even learnt to make crisps by utilising every scrap of food I had (throwing away food during the Second World War was illegal) I baked vegetable peelings in the oven, with some salt and cooking fat, until crisp. This simple idea astonished me, because usually, otherwise, like many people I would just throw away carrot or potato peel. I had also discovered a website run by a woman who had done a similar thing. She had wanted to lose 100lb, and decided to do so on a wartime diet. She wrote one recipe for every pound she lost. There are over 100 recipes on her website and counting, and from her pictures she looks fantastic. I was inspired by many of her recipes, and all were well thought out and tasty.
Not only had I changed physically, but so had my mindset. Things that I had once viewed as common ordinary-day items were suddenly luxuries. My sweet ration had permitted me one boiled sweet per day, which I had in the evenings and savoured. I had been saving my cheese and meat rations for the final day with the intention of having a mini celebratory feast. I made three mini meat pies, pastry made from the potato recipe I had discovered, with leftover croquettes, and for dessert – a rare treat – I had made rock cakes. There were six rock cakes in total, but I managed only two of them, partly because I was full, and partly because my brain was telling me I didn’t need anymore, and would feel guilty eating more than necessary. Instead, I took them to the library the next day with the intention of sharing them with friends. The idea of sharing, or, in wartime terms, ‘rallying together’, was more of an appealing idea than eating them all myself.
I can honestly say, solid as it was, I never felt so well. You can look at the supposedly pitiful portions of food rationed in Britain from the war, and think, ‘how on earth can anyone exist on that!?’ Well, after rationing ended, Britain was healthier than it had ever been. Rates in diabetes, heart disease, and obesity dropped to levels dramatically lower than today. There were less deaths in childbirth, children were taller than ever, and the general public had higher energy levels than before the war.
I had watched an episode from the TV show ‘Supersizers Go: Wartime’, where the presenters Giles Coren and Sue Perkins lived on rations for one week. Having been medically tested before and after the experiment, Giles’ physical fitness had improved twofold, and Sue’s energy levels had increased dramatically. Giles Coren stated: ‘I feel basically very positive about this diet because people look back on the forties and fifties as rationing went on as this time of austerity and depressing food, I think if they (the people in the forties and fifties) looked at us now and saw how fat we’ve become from this illusion of choice; the crisps; and the chocolate; and the rubbish we eat all the time, I think we’re probably more miserable, more run down, and less healthy than they were’.
Giles, and latterly Sue Perkins, summed it up brilliantly when they said that we have an ‘illusion of choice’. We believe that a happy diet is one with diversity, and while this is true to an extent (with regards to proteins, fats, vitamins, and carbohydrates) the illusion of choice Giles and Sue were referring to in modern Britain is the choice of brand culture and the inclusion of junk food: things that we really don’t need.
I have never finished a meal and felt hungry whilst on rations. Like I said, I craved, but I never wanted for necessities. I prepared food I never would have imagined, and yes, most dishes sound repulsive, I know, but done well, with some imagination and thought, they become really tasty meals.
We’ve lost the experimentation flair in the food we prepare today, and because of that we have become wasteful, and because food is readily available all the time, at any time of day, and in any quantity, we no longer appreciate what we have. Aside from the educational benefits, several people noticed changes in me. People said I’ve become more cheery and had more energy. My skin was spotless, literally. What’s more, my weekly food shop used to be around £25, when on rations it cost less than that for two weeks’ food. The cleaner for my flat commented positively on my general appearance. In fact, she was so impressed that she decided to go on rations, so I wrote out the weekly rations for her, and she tried it out, a few weeks before her daughter’s wedding. I do not know whether I have lost weight, I didn’t weigh myself before the experiment so it’s hard to tell, but several people have said I look as though I have, so it is even a diet worth considering if you wanted to lose weight.
It just goes to show how humankind can alter by what it decides to fuel itself with. My experience is but a drop in the ocean of what the people of wartime, and post-war Britain went through from 1940-1953. I have every respect for the people of wartime Britain, they are, to quote wartime author H.E. Bates, ‘the greatest people in the world’. They went through horrors we cannot begin to comprehend, and they still made time to make interesting and palatable food. Hitler tried to starve Britain into submission and defeat, but fat chance the people of Britain would ever keel over, it only made them stronger.
I won’t be sticking wholly to rations, the two weeks is up, and I have learnt a lot, but everything I set out to do I have achieved. I do appreciate food a lot more, and I don’t consume the same quantities of meats, fatty and sugary foods, coffee, alcohol, or sugary drinks. I have maintained being anti-wasteful, and I don’t eat outside my means. Some people may still think I was mad, and perhaps still believe I am now, but I would infinitely prefer a life on a sensible diet, and being happy and healthy because of it, than gorging myself on whatever I wanted, under the false ideology that I have a variety of food types at my fingertips, with an illusion of choice, whilst becoming unhealthy and run-down as a consequence.
The madness to me isn’t eating the quantity we really ought to be eating, the madness here is how, as a society we have become accustomed to large, unnecessary and wasteful portions of everything we want, as an acceptable, and even, preferential normality.
By Elizabeth Ford